Company Transforms Beer Wastewater to Clean Water and Renewable Energy

Cambrian Innovation, a Cleantech Open success story -- ten years later

Freshwater is scarce, and the beer industry needs a lot of it!

About 10 years ago, Matt Silver was studying for his PhD in Engineering Systems at MIT. He sought to leverage his technical skills to address a significant environmental need and make a difference at the same time.

When Matt and his team were thinking about where to find the greatest need for their wastewater treatment technology, they determined that the beer industry was an ideal place to start. In breweries, they found the intersection of a pressing challenge and an enthusiasm for sustainable solutions. Not only were there economical and operational drivers, but, by and large, brewers want to be good environmental stewards—it’s baked into their culture.

Matt  stated, “Only 1% of the world’s water is fresh, and of that, 75% is polluted. And it’s getting worse.” He learned that brewing is extremely water-intensive,  anywhere from 7-10 gallons of water to make one gallon of beer. He saw an opportunity. He had the technical skills, but he needed the business skills to turn this into a successful venture.

A business opportunity

Matt and his co-founder Justin Buck participated in the Cleantech Open accelerator and business plan competition in 2009 in order to develop their business model  and launch Cambrian Innovation. As Matt says, “Cleantech Open was absolutely one of the things that kept us going. Cleantech Open really gave our team the belief that we could start a business, and their contribution to Cambrian in the form of seed capital was also crucial for us to launch in earnest.”

Turning wastewater into reusable clean water, reducing water usage, , and generating heat and electricity on site

Cambrian Innovation’s award-winning EcoVolt® product suite enables industrial facilities to reduce water usage and generate heat and electricity through an enhanced anaerobic digestion process. The first market for Cambrian’s solution was the beer industry. One customer, Seismic Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, CA is now reusing 75-80% of its wastewater and saving $10,000-$15,000 per year in trucking costs.

Developing the business

The combination of the Cleantech Open curriculum, the team of expert mentors, access to the broader network, and subsequent investments in the venture enabled Cambrian to develop more quickly than they would have otherwise. Subsequently,  the company received grants between 2010 and 2014 and has raised about $60 million in a combination of equity, grants and project finance, including investment from USDA, EPA and NSF. The company is now solidly in the commercialization phase. According to Matt, “In addition to providing that monetary support in seed capital, Cleantech Open connected us with a network of people who have been instrumental in helping us grow.”

Recognized as a winner and a disruptor, in a good way

Cambrian has expanded from beer into a broader range of industries, including food & beverage, wine, spirits, dairy, textiles, pharmaceuticals, hotels, resorts, and independent communities. The Massachusetts-based company is now well on its way to addressing two of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: (a) Clean Water and Sanitation, and (b) Affordable and Clean Energy. Cambrian has received numerous awards and was most recently recognized as a 2019 Circular Economy Tech Disruptor by the World Economic Forum.

A note about the circular economy

This award was a result of a collaboration between the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation states, the “circular economy” is “a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design” and is meant to:

  • “Design out waste and pollution”
  • “Keep products and materials in use”
  • “Regenerate natural systems”

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Beth Zonis

Beth is the Northeast Regional Director of Cleantech Open.