Blogs News


Show All Tags

CustoMem is February's Featured Business of the Month

Thu, 15 February 2018

Henrik Hagemann won a Shell LiveWIRE Smarter Future Award in February 2017 for his business, CustoMem.
UK regulations means that 99% of pollutants are filtered out of industrial wastewater but for Shell LiveWIRE alumnus CustoMem, this isn’t enough. CustoMem tackles water stress by removing challenging pollutants using cost effective bio-based solutions.
CustoMem’s products are next-generation water purification materials in the shape of granular products that remove persistent pollutants in industrial wastewater at a competitive cost. The business has tailored their granular products to address an unmet need for water treatment and removal of synthetic organics that cannot be readily oxidised or biologically degraded. CustoMem’s first application is for removal of PFAS (poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances) in the industrial wastewater sector.
Henrik Hagemann started CustoMem while completing his MEng at Imperial College London. Growing from a team of two, sharing a tiny workspace, to a 7-person force working in a professionally equipped lab, the business has gone from strength to strength.
Now focusing on scaled-up trials, CustoMem are looking to the future. Shell LiveWIRE sat down with Henrik to catch up with him and to see what's next for his award-winning business, CustoMem.
What was the inspiration behind CustoMem?
We were inspired by two things. Firstly, nature has an incredible ability to produce biomaterials with excellent properties and fascinatingly targeted action. The production itself is sustainable from a carbon emissions and resource intensity perspective.
Secondly, we see a lot of nature being adversely affected by the consequences of discharging hard-to-capture man-made chemicals in wastewater produced at industrial sites. From a first principles approach, it was clear that many of the man-made chemicals could be used again at the sites of industrial activity. This would benefit both industry and nature, and with the right technology it could present a strong business case. It turned out this problem had received widespread recognition, as it was an influencing factor in more than 6 of the UN’s ambitious Sustainable Development Goals.
At CustoMem, we integrate these concepts into our vision. We responsibly harness nature’s ability to make biomaterials to tackle water stress and sustainability in alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals.
How did you get into entrepreneurship? Did you always want to go into business for yourself?
I got into entrepreneurship after taking part in the world’s biggest (and most fun!) synthetic biology competition, iGEM, with the Imperial 2014 team. The team won five awards and came 2nd overall out of 245 teams. When we returned to London, I was set to finish my Master’s degree and had strong intentions of doing a PhD in synthetic biology at Imperial College.
At the iGEM competition, we received enquiries from other teams and judges asking us about starting a commercial venture out of the project, I was enticed. In London, SynbiCITE took a chance on us, offering us a spot on their four-day MBA programme in December 2014. We had to pitch on the final day, and after my pitch, we were thrilled to get constructive comments and some encouraging feedback. My prospective PhD supervisor heard the feedback and proposed the radical idea of me taking a year out before my PhD to see if we could set up a start-up from the project. I thought it was crazy and strongly considered turning down the idea. I left it hanging.
The four-day MBA sparked our entrepreneurship journey, which continued with the Imperial Venture Catalyst Challenge (VCC) in 2015, where Dom Falcao and Mark Hammond really catalysed our progress and my personal interest.
Before I graduated, we ended up securing a grant from the UK IP Office and Proof of Concept funding from SynbiCITE. SynbiCITE’s funding came on the informal premise that I would work full time on the project. This meant I ended up following my prospective PhD supervisor’s suggestion.
Before the agreed one year was over, I had won a prestigious Enterprise Fellowship from the Royal Academy of Engineering 1851 Royal Commission, which was to last an additional year and formally required me to work full time on the business. 
It’s now been two and a half years and things are not exactly slowing down. My proposed PhD supervisor is still an advisor to CustoMem, and I’d definitely consider him a crucial part of why I got into entrepreneurship.
As for the rest of the team, three of CustoMem’s current team are still from the original Imperial iGEM 2014 team, with most of the others doing PhDs in labs from Imperial College, Stanford, Cambridge and Harvard University.

What challenges did you face when setting up your business?
Some challenges were admin-based: understanding the legal requirements, when to file for what tax and employee contracts. Others were more existential, like finding a customer and product/market fit. Fortunately, London offers a fantastic ecosystem of fellow entrepreneurs and supporting organisations like SynbiCITE, RAEng, Climate KIC and Imperial Enterprise lab who have been very generous in their support.

What is your proudest achievement with the business?
CustoMem’s proudest achievement has been proving higher efficiency capture of one of the most non-stick compounds in the world, Teflon-derived PFOA (PFAS), in a real-world water treatment setting compared to existing solutions.
I’m very proud of the CustoMem team’s ability to overcome some of the hardest scientific challenges, while listening carefully to end users and tailoring the development to what their needs are. This means we can now offer solutions that use 3x less footprint in a plant or offers more than 3 times faster flowrates in the same industrial processing tanks treating water.
Beyond being proud of their ability to make these breakthroughs, I must admit I’m most proud of their ability to face very hard scientific challenges and overcome the obstacles on the way.

You won a Shell LiveWIRE Award in 2017, how have things changed for you since then?
CustoMem has grown from a team of four with a 1m2 lab bench in a shared lab to a team of 7 full time employees with a 20m2 lab, with write-up space, where we conduct lab feasibility trials with commercial companies.
We’re now scaling up production and have brought in a seasoned engineer, water experts and engineering scale-up experts to further strengthen the team.

What’s next for CustoMem?
CustoMem is in a well-funded position to start scaled-up field trials of our PFAS (PFCs, PFOA) water treatment solution, having recently secured €1.4m from Horizon 2020 SME Instrument Phase 2. PFAS has received significant press, having been featured in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival (The Devil We Know) and undergone significant regulatory changes in Germany and selected states in the US in 2017. CustoMem’s next step is proving a strong business case for capture of PFAS.
We’ve been working with two European commercial airports and are hoping to start with a UK-based trial while looking at EU-based sites. Dr Steve Gluck, former technology Fellow at Dow Water and Process Solutions has just spent eight months working with CustoMem, he said. “I am hugely impressed with the strength and the commitment which exists within this young company. CustoMem is now crystalizing its strategy and media performance for scale-up deployments.”

What role do you think entrepreneurs will play in the transition to a low carbon society?
Entrepreneurs are faced with an existential threat of global climate change, which represents a global opportunity to act and create new markets of vast potential. With a collaborative approach combining the broader ecosystem of corporates, governments, non-governmental organisations etc., I am hopeful that entrepreneurs will live up to their potential of driving the low-carbon transition responsibly. 

What’s your approach to risk as an entrepreneur?
Risks are my target for many interactions. I proactively dig out where the risks are highest, prioritise them and then design concrete next steps that we can take to mitigate the risk. The act of prioritising risks informs which ones represent an opportunity to do worthwhile things like achieving the Sustainable Development Goals with a sustainable business.

What’s the most important personality trait to have as an entrepreneur and why?
Resilience, emotional intelligence and the ability to face reality.
The effectiveness of science entrepreneurship is determined by the ability to gain market and tech learnings (face reality) and utilise the insights to develop products for the market at the right time. Developing products takes time and requires overcoming obstacles, which is where resilience is key. None of these things can be done alone, so emotional intelligence is required to balance wants, needs and expectations within and outside of the team.

If you could return to this time last year would you do anything differently?
I would worry less about what’s to come and focus on the customer needs.

What advice would you give to aspiring young entrepreneurs?
  • Listen harder, there are always more insights to be gained from customers, the market, partners etc.
  • The problem is not to find the answer, it is to face the answer.
  • Don’t let glitter, dollars or free food trick you into a boring tough job.


Got a Smart Idea for a Business? 
Do you have a smart business idea that will provide a solution to the world’s future transport, food, energy, or natural resource challenges, or make our urban environments cleaner and more sustainable places to work and live in? If so you can apply online now for funding!

Related Links & Downloads

Related Posts