By D.K. Row
One of the many lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy was the importance of water during natural disasters -- clean water, specifically.
Water was everywhere after the hurricane. But most of it was unsafe to drink and use. These are problems Mark Owen has thought about for some time as an inventor and entrepreneur. His startup, Puralytics, sells water purification products based on sunlight and LED-activated nanotechnology. In its fifth year, Puralytics has spent most of the past two years refining its product technology and building the company's infrastructure.
Now it's ready to pursue consumers in different sectors, including companies in need of water for industrial processing, non-government organizations working in developing countries, and individuals needing it for recreational use and emergency preparedness kits that could be useful during natural disasters.
"2013 will be about scaling up our sales," says Owen, a Beaverton resident and Oregon native. "We will or should hire more staff and expect to increase sales ten times over what it is right now."
Puralytics produces four products. Each uses sunlight or LED light to break down and destroy contaminants in water for human consumption or use in laboratories in the life sciences, pharmaceutical or semiconductor industries. The SolarBag model, for example, uses sunlight to detoxify drinking water and make it safe to drink, while the Shield 500 does the same thing using LED light technology. Another Shield model, the Shield UPW, also uses LED technology but purifies water for industrial and research processes. Water purity at this level is technically purer than drinking water but also not recommended for human consumption.
Both Shield models can purify as much as 500 gallons of water a day, while the two SolarBag models take a few hours to purify three liters at a time. Cost varies, too: The bigger Shield models start at $9,000 and top out at $12,000, depending on the application. The SolarBag is priced at $80 on Amazon.com. The SolarBag 3L is used mainly by aid organizations which purchase it in volume.
Owen says laboratories and chipmakers internationally have purchased Shield UPW models while the two SolarBag models have customers in 43 countries. SolarBag is carried by Amazon and Sportsman's Guide, among others. He's hoping to grow sales by finding more retail outlets and distributors next year, as well as expand the international presence of the SolarBag 3L. The 53-year-old is not only Puralytics' founder and chief executive, he's also its main inventor with more than 30 issued or pending patents to his name. A graduate of Oregon State University's mechanical engineering program, Owen has worked in business development, marketing and engineering management roles at Agilent Technologies, Tektronix and Electro Scientific Industries, among other companies.
In 2002, he founded Phoseon Technology, which provides ultraviolet LED photo-curing systems to the coatings and adhesives industry. Owen's still a director at the multimillion-dollar company but left as its CEO at the end of 2006 to start Puralytics. Puralytics began as a problem-solving exercise between Owen and two other inventors. The problem: How to find a business opportunity in the air or water purification space that would "have a high impact on the world."
Eventually, Owen's brainstorming partners chose to go in another direction and Owen pursued his idea on his own, spurred by an "aha" moment in Tokyo when he saw a building with a self-cleaning coating on it. Owen spent the next three years conducting research, securing investors and grants -- including those from the U.S. Army, Onami, and the National Science Foundation -- and building prototypes before unveiling the first Puralytics product, Shield 500, in 2010.
Owen won't disclose sales figures but says 2012 has improved upon 2011, and that numbers have been impressive overall for a startup that's spent most of its time building technology and staff. Currently, the Beaverton-based company employs seven full-time and six part-time staffers. Puralytics has also been acknowledged by the cleantech industry. It was recently named a Global Cleantech Top 100 company, while Inc. Magazine named it a top water investment for 2012.
In early November, Puralytics got another financial boost, receiving most of the money awarded to Oregon companies in a recent funding cycle from Keiretsu Forum Northwest, the Northwest chapter of an extensive angel investor network that has chapters worldwide. Keiretsu leads the investing for the startup's Series A funding drive worth $4.5 million. If things go as planned, Owen expects the company to become a buyout target. In such cases, founders usually exit, but Owen would like to stay on.
"Once you take on investors, you are implying there is an exit," Owen says. "But I'm planning to stay with this until the end, whatever that is. That's a ways away, anyhow."