Bacteria as a new weapon in wastewater treatment

Mar 25, 2024

In early November, San Diego based startup Aquacycl officially opened its first European office and test center at the Water Campus in Leeuwarden. The Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency (NFIA) and the Investment and Development Agency for the Northern Netherlands (NOM) assisted the company in the process of setting up their business in the Netherlands.

'We are looking forward tremendously to the impact we can make in Europe, and the help of NOM and NFIA has been truly indispensable in taking these first steps,' said Jill Litschewski, COO of Aquacycl. Around 80% of wastewater generated around the world is directly discharged into the environment. Sometimes with minimal treatment, sometimes without any treatment at all. And one of the biggest obstacles in solving this huge problem, is that wastewater treatment is a very expensive and extremely energy-intensive process.

So ironically, wastewater treatment also contributes significantly to planet-warming emissions. But with Aquacycl’s ingenious solution, this dilemma is soon to be a thing of the past. The Californian startup uses microbial technology to make treating industrial wastewater more cost-effective and accessible, more efficient and less polluting. Some of the biggest consumer packaged goods companies in the world are already using Aquacycl wastewater management systems. And just this year, the startup also became an Earthshot Prize finalist, which is a prestigious environmental award launched by none other than Prince William and Sir David Attenborough.

How it works

Aquacycl was founded 7 years ago and uses a patented Bio-electrochemical Treatment Technology (BETT) system to clean wastewater. ‘It’s the only technology in the world that can treat undiluted wastewater’, Litschewski says. ‘Simply put, the technology uses naturally occurring bacteria to clean the water. It’s a modular system of reactors about the size of a car battery, which are stacked together like Legos in a standard shipping container.

As water passes through these BETT reactors, locally-sourced microbes consume the organics in the wastewater, and in the process naturally produce electrons, which are used to generate DC power and speed up the treatment process.’

The European market

‘We knew that Europe was going to be one of the most important growth areas for us’, Litschewski explains. ‘That’s because Europe is ahead of the rest of the world in terms of environmental regulations and actions. Companies need to disclose, mitigate, and pay for emissions, for example. And solutions like ours can really provide a win-win for both these companies and the environment.’

‘We were already working with an investor in the Netherlands and we heard good things about the ease of doing business here’, Litschewski continues. ‘So, we were exploring our options and getting a sense of the business landscape when Reinder and Faiza contacted us. And that really changed everything for us. They were our right hand and their assistance has been absolutely immeasurable.’

Orange Carpet Service

‘Reinder and Faiza really helped speed up what would normally be a very lengthy administrative process. They connected us with an orange carpet service for example, which wrote a support letter on our behalf to the bank, stating we are a real and trustworthy company. The process would have probably been three times as long, were it not for that letter. And we also didn’t know anything about the Dutch labor laws, so they also helped us with the hiring process. I just can’t say enough good things about them. Any company or organization interested in doing business in the Netherlands should absolutely make the NFIA and the NOM their first stop.’


Project manager Foreign Direct Investment & Water technology Reinder de Jong thinks Aquacycl will be a great addition to the region. ‘Their technology has great potential, so aside from helping them get a foothold in the Netherlands, it’s also important to be a part of an ecosystem that can help strengthen that potential. The Water Campus is a great place for Aquacycl, because it’s a well-developed ecosystem of research, facilities and companies that can provide them with new opportunities for innovation and collaboration.’

‘Reinder and Faiza really made an effort to understand what we are about and what we need’, Litschewski says. ‘They were very proactive, constructive and always available. We would never know where to find those government subsidies and how to apply for them. It’s wonderful working with people who really pay attention to whatever might help us.’

Busy years ahead

Office aside, Aquacycl also has a testing center up and running at the Water Campus in Leeuwarden. ‘It’s a great thing to have a lab in the Netherlands, because we have a lot of potential customers in Europe and it’s very difficult to ship the wastewater samples over to the US’, Litschewski says. ‘It’s basically a kind of a proof of concept. Our customers send their water samples in, we test them in our reactors. We determine how fast, and to what quality, the water can be treated and propose the size and scope of commercial application to solve a customer challenge.’

‘We’re really excited about expanding into the European market’, Litschewski continues. ‘We want to make a big impact and Europe is leading when it comes to environmental regulations, consumer perceptions and corporate action on climate and water.

This aligns very closely with Aquacycl’s mission, and we’re really excited to be part of that solution. In the coming years we want to establish ourselves as a resource in Europe and specifically the Netherlands. It’s going to be a busy couple of years!’

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