P | P | P feat. Puraffinity

We caught up with Henrik Hagemann, CEO and Co-Founder of Puraffinity. Puraffinity is a green technology company incorporated in 2015, focusing on designing smart materials for environmental applications.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with great potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real-talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Zoe @ADLIB: Hi Dave, great to meet you! Please can you kick us off with an introduction to yourself and Puraffinity.

Henrik: Puraffinity is a venture-backed tech company that has been going since 2015. We are focused on sustainability and mitigating some of the climate challenges we are facing around water, by engineering materials to capture chemicals in water. I studied at Imperial College London as a Bioengineer, where I specialised in Biomaterials and synthetic biology. Following this, I took part in a student-run competition called iGEM where we developed the initial concepts of the company and then spun out the company from that research group.

Over the past five years, we have been figuring out what contaminants of water have the highest impact and were astounded by a group called PFAS chemicals, which are found in people’s blood, and are linked to the most severe cases of COVID and are found in high-performance chemicals. We set out to remove the chemicals at the source, by developing a granular medium that targets the chemicals in water treatment and can be rolled out on an industrial scale. A speciality of Puraffinity is that we focus on persistent chemicals that are difficult to capture.

Zoe @ADLIB: Can you share the story behind the origin of Puraffinity?

Henrik: We started off with the idea in 2014, that targeted approaches have benefited medicine a lot, but there is a massive leap from blunt instruments to targeted instruments in environmental tech. We thought that this was something we wanted to develop further. At first, we focused on heavy metals and have gone through a long journey of speaking to a lot of customers to understand what problems they face with removing chemicals. We took part in a big competition called iGEM in 2014 at MIT, where out of 250 teams we came second as the Imperial College London team. We came back and got the idea that this may be a commercial venture, not just a research project, which then led to the company spinning out in 2015. We are trying to make a mission-based company where it is about the problems rather than the specific technology that you start out with.

Zoe @ADLIB: Can you share some challenges you have faced when looking for people to join?

Henrik: Looking at the water sector, the diversity is very poor, it doesn’t have proportionate representation of the population. We try to have a more representative mix within the company, so we are trying to figure out how to attract more diverse candidates. We have made a lot of progress and are 50% split between male and female and have 10 people from different nationalities.

Zoe @ADLIB: What has been your approach to understanding and implementing product market fit?

Henrik: We basically were having customer interviews as part of the SynbiCITE lean launchpad program and part of the challenge was finding people in our sector who use water and that have specific industry challenges. We talked to a massive textile manufacturer who said that you can remove the heavy metals, but asked if we could remove the fluoropolymer’s that they use in our waterproofing clothes. We then got the same question from an airport who had found its water during a fire drill to contain something called a perfluorinated compound (PFC) and also at an oil and gas company who mentioned when they have these refineries, they need to make sure it doesn’t set on fire, so use flame retardant which contain PFOS and PFOA.

I then went home and went through my meeting notes and realised that the PFC, PFOS and PFOA’s were all part of the same group of chemicals, which are organic fluorinated compounds called PFAS.

PFAS are found in all different industries and all struggle to remove them as they are non-stick and nonlinear. These have been dramatized in a film called Dark Waters, where the PFAS contaminants polluted a water source and endangered the lives of a lot of people.

We now have a line that focuses on PFAS. We are developing a broad sweep of PFAS capture, because the EU wants to regulate all >4700 species within the group, so it’s a good scientific challenge and there are a lot of compounds to capture.

Zoe @ADLIB: What challenges have you had to overcome to create Puraffinity?

Henrik: There has been a lot of enthusiasm for trying to capture emerging contaminants in water, but there are some variants to this. One of them is to actually detect what we are trying to remove at a low enough level, which is both a turn around and cost challenge. There are challenges with how to overcome the market attraction, we had to move away from heavy metals and into these non-linear high-performance molecules in order to develop the product for a big market need.

Zoe @ADLIB: Investment can often be a challenge for start-ups & scale-ups. Do you have any piece of wisdom you could share around best approach?

Henrik: Right now, we are seeing a boost in sustainable ventures. It is making sure you push away the wrong investors as they may not appreciate the timescales and what you are doing, which may cause problems in the future.

Thank you so much for your time.

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Principal Recruiter

Materials, Polymers & Coatings

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Zoe Davies