Open communication, trust, and dedication to a shared vision are classic components of any discussion on healthy teams, but it takes a special group to truly live out these values. The founders of Madison-based startup NRU (Nutrient Recovery and Upcycling), LLC have just gone to show that putting the fundamentals to practice can make all the difference in the world. Their dedicated team dynamic has helped them create an entirely new process for wastewater treatment and achieve their first large-scale funding success: This June, NRU received a $450,000 federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to commercialize their intellectual property - an innovative water treatment technology - developed at UW-Madison.
NRU has created a unique process based on the idea of "upcycling," converting low-grade materials into valuable commodities. In the wastewater treatment process, dissolved phosphorus forms a nuisance mineral. In excess, it can damage water treatment facilities, resulting in expensive chemical treatments, maintenance, and repairs. However, phosphorus is also essential to life and incredibly valuable as a crop fertilizer. It can be mined from phosphate rock, but the process is expensive and supplies are finite. Recovering this valuable resource from wastewater is a novel idea, and NRU has worked to elegantly refine this complex process.
Even with a superior system, finding financiers willing to fund the reworking of an old industrial process is a challenge. That doesn't always add up to a whole lot of job security, but NRU President and Co-Founder Menachem Tabanpour credits his team for keeping him committed nonetheless. He states, "I work with a group of people I have great relationships with. We've known each other a long time, and we trust each other. Our communication is straightforward and honest. When you find out you don't get a grant, it can be disorderly and chaotic, yet somehow we work through that in a really healthy way. We get on the same page, reevaluate, and think about what we'll do with what we have. We do this compassionately and we work hard, and that's why I've stuck with this: It's very rewarding."
Tabanpour and his team truly believe in what they are doing and are in this venture for the long haul. To accomplish their goals, they needed financing to carry the business through some of its growing years. An SBIR grant offered the perfect source of transitional funding, and the Center for Technology Commercialization (CTC) and Consultant Dave Linz provided NRU assistance throughout the competitive application process. NRU also received a CTC micro-grant to help them develop their winning commercialization plan.
Regarding the CTC’s support, Tabanpour commented, "I was just out of college and needed a lot of guidance, but the CTC kept up with me, and their expertise has helped me get in touch with important people. Dave was also my partner in the VentureLab course, and that was one of the best things that's happened to me. He was able to offer a different perspective, reviewing my grants and bringing up things I needed to pay attention to. Going back and forth, we developed a strong narrative that helped make our grant application successful."
Now that NRU has received its award, the company has room to grow. According to Tabanpour: "The SBIR grants have given us space to build our company the way we'd like and gain experience along the way." Based on their history, odds are good that the NRU team will continue to make the most of their excellent dynamics to achieve their shared vision.