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Hoping to Clean Up

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Developers of way to remove heavy metals from water need investors to stay in area

Provided by Akron Beacon Journal
Written by Paula Schleis

It's not easy being green. Nearly 10 years ago, Claude Kennard took up the challenge of developing a new process for removing dangerous heavy metals from industrial waste streams and drinking water.

But as he and his partners get closer to solving one problem (how to mass-produce a consistent grade of their unique filtering medium), another issue rises in importance.

Kennard's company, MAR Systems, is on the hunt for investors. He said he hopes they will be local investors to assure that MAR grows and thrives in Northeast Ohio.

MAR's potential for fast growth and significant economic impact was validated in 2006 when Northeast Ohio's nonprofit venture group JumpStart invested $350,000 in it.

That's no small thing. JumpStart's rigid due diligence process — it has invested in only 29 of some 1,300 applicants — often attracts other venture capitalists.

Sure enough, last year MAR landed $500,000 from Lazy River Investments in Charleston, W.Va., as well as another $187,000 from JumpStart.

MAR, headquartered in Mayfield Village, is opening a laboratory at the Akron Global Business Accelerator, where Kennard and his chief operating officer, Tony Kuhel, said they were quickly embraced by the kind of support they need to take their company to the next level.

''You're looking for people who will really work with you, and have relationships where you can learn together and grow together, and that's what we found here at the accelerator,'' Kennard said.'' . . . We got the reception of a lifetime.''

But Kennard and Kuhel — the company's only two employees — said they need another $300,000 to pay for an experienced chief executive and the technical staff to ready
their process for the market.

It's not as easy selling investors on a process-based business as, say, information technology, they said.

''I don't mind a fight, but I guess I didn't think it would take fighting this hard to get a million dollars,'' Kennard said.

EPA interest

MAR's roots go back to 1999, when the Cleveland company Metaloy (where Kennard is employed) was approached by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to collaborate on new technology for cleaning water and gases.

The EPA researchers complained that existing carbon technology wasn't doing enough to remove mercury and other metals.

Metaloy suggested looking at ''aluminas,'' a particularly absorbent byproduct of the petroleum industry that could be superior to carbon filters, if only someone could take the time to deconstruct the mystery of how they worked.

Metaloy spun off MAR to do just that.

The aluminas work like tiny sponges that absorb and hold onto arsenic and mercury that are in water because of natural or industrial processes.

''They unintentionally move metal out of the water very, very quickly,'' Kuhel said. ''We didn't expect that.''

A bonus to the MAR process is that not only does it use recycled material, but also its own byproduct is recyclable. When the filtering medium is saturated, it can be used in cement and other industrial raw materials that use alumina as a feed stock.

''It's a total industrial ecology viewpoint,'' Kennard said. ''Nothing goes to the landfill.''

Kuhel said recent tests show that MAR's process removes 100 percent of arsenic from water in five minutes or less. Three competitors tested removed 70 percent in that time.

More tests are under way at industrial sites, with results expected by the end of this month.

MAR also expects its process to cost much less than modern filtering methods. And in addition to its use at the community level, eventually the method could be geared to individual households, possibly as a system that would fit beneath a sink.

Arsenic is one of the company's main targets, and Kuhel said MAR's process meets the more stringent U.S. drinking water standards and deals with emerging international water-quality problems defined by the World Health Organization.

Exposure to high levels of arsenic is linked to cancer, anemia, blindness, gastrointestinal problems, nerve damage and circulatory-related concerns.

The biggest technical challenge MAR has right now is understanding alumina well enough to re-engineer it.

Not all of the material coming out of the hydrocarbon industry is a consistent grade, Kuhel said. ''Because it's a byproduct,'' he said, ''there is variation in the quality of the material.

''We've found some remarkable behavior in this material. We know it is capable of doing great things, so the question is why is it working so well and how do we make more of it perform to that level.''

As Kennard and Kuhel work on the technology challenges, the search for money continues.

Being ''hometown boys,'' they hope the money will not come from a source that demands they move their operation to another state.

''We really want (MAR) to be part of the economic development of this community,'' Kennard said. ''We just need investors in this area to step up.''