Dissecting a Winning Entrepreneurial Pitch: ROFix (Reverse Osmosis Fouling Index) Analysis

In this article, I will continue my series on How KAUST’s Latest Seed Fund Winners Are Shaping the Future of Saudi Arabia by analyzing the third winning pitch I had the pleasure of hearing at the December 2013 Seed Fund Gala.

The first entrepreneurial team’s pitch covered a new 3D scanning and modeling system, while the second team covered an innovative method for producing quantum dots. The last two teams, however, focused on solutions for the same major problem: how to desalinate water more efficiently.

ROFix, the first team to cover the topic of desalination, has created a new type of device that can predict both when and why membrane fouling will occur within a reverse osmosis water desalination plant.

Image courtesy of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology

Image courtesy of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology

The Problem

About 50% of the seawater that Saudi desalination plants take in is converted into drinking water using a process called reverse osmosis.

Yeah, I didn’t really know what that meant either, so I looked it up. Here is a simple explanation:

Reverse osmosis is a way to remove little particles from water by forcing it through a filter called a membrane. The membrane lets the water pass through, but leaves the particles on the other side. So, at a desalination plant, sea salt particles get trapped on one side of the membrane, leaving (mostly) salt-free water on the other side.

Unfortunately, particles and other types of matter often get stuck to the membrane, which makes it less effective. This problem, called membrane fouling, causes desalination plants to perform poorly and suffer from frequent shutdowns.

Saudi Arabia is currently spending a billion dollars per year addressing the issue of membrane fouling in water desalination plants.

The Solution

ROFix has created a device that can predict when membrane fouling will occur and what type of fouling will occur, allowing desalination plant personnel to take action before the problem begins.

How the Product Works

ROFix’s device comes into play before seawater is pre-treated, identifying the water’s fouling index. The fouling index measures the quality of the water that will be passed through the membrane. If the water is of poor quality, and therefore, more likely to cause fouling, the device issues a warning to plant personnel.

The Technology
ROFix’s technology is unique in that it uses cross-flow filtration to move the water through the membrane. Cross-flow filtration lets water move tangentially over the surface of the membrane, allowing for accurate and timely prediction of when fouling will occur.

The team is currently developing software to accompany their existing hardware.

Where It Fits into the Market
Since ROFix’s technology adds an extra step to the desalination process prior to pre-treatment, it can simply be installed at desalination plants without significantly altering their process.

Patent Status
Unknown.

Benefits to Saudi Economy
ROFix’s technology could help improve the availability of high-quality drinking water in Saudi Arabia by saving desalination plants time and money.

Usages
ROFix’s technology is intended to identify the fouling index of seawater taken into a reverse osmosis desalination plant before it reaches the pre-treatment step, allowing fouling to be predicted early.

Features

  • Fully automated
  • Portable
  • Easy to operate

Benefits

  • Saves time at desalination plants
  • Saves money at desalination plants
  • Saves desalination plant professionals the headache of frequent shut-downs

Market

Since water desalination plants are either owned by businesses or the government, the ROFix team will be operating in the business-to-business and business-to-government markets.

Competitive Landscape

Competing technologies for predicting membrane fouling all employ dead-end filtration, which makes the water flow perpendicular to the membrane. Thus, by using a cross-flow filtration method, ROFix will be providing an alternative option not yet seen in the market.

Team

Names and Profiles of Team Members

Credentials
Dr. Ghaffour has earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Energy from INSA Lyon, along with both a Master of Science in Process Engineering and a Ph.D. in Membrane Separation Technology from the University of Montpellier. He is currently a Principal Research Scientist at KAUST. Dr. Ghaffour has over 20 years of experience in R&D and aquatic management.

Rachman holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from the Bandung Institute of Technology and a Master of Science in Chemical and Biological Engineering from KAUST. He is now a Ph.D. Candidate​ at KAUST.

Al Ghamdi has earned a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from King Saud University and a Master of Science in Environmental Science and Engineering from KAUST. He is also a Ph.D. Candidate at KAUST.

Timeline

The ROFix team has already achieved reliable results in a lab setting using a proof of concept. They were able to predict precisely when fouling would occur, along with the type of fouling that would take place.

The team expects their project to be finished in two years. In the first year, they will work on further developing their prototype. Next, they will test this prototype at KAUST’s Sea Water Reverse Osmosis Potable Water Treatment Plant. If successful, they will test in different desalination plants in Jeddah and beyond.

Big-Picture Impact on the Saudi Economy       

The most obvious benefit is providing potable water to Saudi residents cheaper and faster than is currently possible. However, the team also emphasizes that their technology will pour funds into the economy through research and development expenditures and will create jobs within the field of desalination.

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