April 24, 2018
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Bion and Dorain Foster Entrepreneurship AwardOrono firm develops nano-filtration membrane

Courtesy | BDN
Courtesy | BDN
Cerahelix co-founders Karl Bishop (standing, left) and Susan McKay watch as Project Scientist Tyler Kirkmann makes the Cerahelix-patented DNA ceramic coating. Kirkmann is using a temperature- and humidity-controlled environmental chamber.
By Dale McGarrigle, Special to the BDN

ORONO – A microscopic product soon could have a major impact on filtration systems.

Cerahelix of Orono is home to the helix NFM, short for nano-filtration membrane, which is based on a patented process that uses DNA to make a nano-ceramic coating to provide faster filtration at high purity.

“Our filter saves manufacturers money by reducing the energy usage and conserving freshwater resources,” explained Susan MacKay, Cerahelix’s CEO.

For such innovative thinking, Cerahelix has been named the recipient of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce’s Bion and Dorain Foster Entrepreneurship Award.

MacKay was pleasantly surprised by the award. “While I have spoken at a few Chamber breakfast meetings over the years, in general I have had a relatively low profile in the Bangor region, as most of my networking and business development activities have been out of state,” she said. “Only recently have I really begun to develop a more local support system, especially with the newly formed Bangor Angel group. It’s great to have these new ties to the region and I really appreciate the support and recognition.”

Curiosity played a key role in the development of the helix NFM, MacKay said. The idea for the process came from MacKay’s partner, biophysicist Karl Bishop, after he attended a 2006 materials research meeting in Boston.

Bishop’s outside-of-the box idea was to use DNA to create a nano-filter.

“Once we figured out how to control this process, we were able to apply this coating to the inner surface of commercial ceramic filter tubes, the result is we have a filter with holes 100,000 times smaller than a human hair that can process water, food and fuels to a higher degree of purity than any other ceramic filter,” MacKay has said. “This is a perfect example of a small change having a large impact.”

Cerahelix test results have determined that if a manufacturer replaces a commercial evaporator with its helix NFM, in a process designed to remove 6,000 gallons of water per day, that company would save energy and offset carbon emissions by 1,200 tons a year. That’s the same amount that is removed by 400 acres of forest.

Cerahelix was co-founded in 2011 by MacKay, her husband Donald MacKay and Bishop. The company spun out of Zeomatrix LLC, a materials company that developed an odor control paper product.

The company’s first challenge was putting together a materials research laboratory on very little money: “Our first lab was pretty much outfitted off of eBay and surplus from the University of Maine,” MacKay has recalled.

But things have picked up steam from Cerahelix from the humble start.

The company has moved from product concept to prototype stage, and have recently completed its first customer pilot study. Cerahelix has recently awarded a $1 million Phase II Small Business Innovative Research grant from the Department of Energy that will be used to support its ongoing R&D efforts, and to fund additional pilot studies in order to get to market by 2015. The company is currently working to close the final raise of its Series Seed financing in order to expand its management team and accelerate business development activities.

MacKay credits Cerahelix’s success to “Having a great team. No matter how great an idea you start with or how much money you raise to fund your business, you can’t succeed without great people and a lot of hard work.”

What’s up next for Cerahelix?: “It seems like it will be hard to top this past year, but our goal is to ramp up our customer demos and get as many pilot studies in our pipeline as possible,” MacKay has said. “This is the time to really test our product and focus on the engineering since we have the DOE funding.”


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