Snowstorms are rare in Antarctica, but one blew in on the biggest day of Peter Christou’s life. He was working at the Concordia Research Station, a French-Italian facility on the Antarctic Plateau, one of the coldest places on earth. Christou had been to Antarctica before, but this time was different: He was testing his own invention, a water filtration system, which, if it worked, could solve the station’s sewage and wastewater problems. From there, Christou figured the sky was the limit for his little company and its new technology.
Christou’s invention was supposed to solve the problem of aerating wastewater at high altitude. Aeration is a normal part of wastewater processing, but at 3,200 metres above sea level, the problem gets tricky. Christou says Concordia’s aeration process was like “farting in the bathtub.” His method, by better filtering contaminants from water, could transform wastewater into something not quite safe enough to drink, but clean enough for washing clothes and dishes. But that wasn’t why he found himself, in the early hours of the morning, in the station’s main tower control room, surrounded by rows of computers and, in his words, “pleading for his life.” Christou had given up everything to work on his invention. He’d lost his girlfriend, he was broke and borrowing money from his family, he’d almost lost his home and he had no employment prospects waiting for him back in Edmonton. But on that day in Antarctica, he sat in the control room trying to talk via satellite phone with representatives of General Electric. He wanted to sell them his patent. After a long, trying period, he was finally able to secure a line and was about to pitch them his technology. “I honestly can’t express how stressful of a time it was in my life,” he says. “I didn’t know where my next paycheque was going to come from. I was ready to give everything just for a job at that point.” This call, he thought, could save his life. But the Internet connection was shoddy and the sound quality was bad. GE couldn’t access a presentation Christou had sent them. And, off in the distance, Christou could see that Antarctic storm coming in. He knew it could sever the connection. He pressed his hand to the triple-layered glass windows and frost formed around his fingers. The phone cut out and he lost the call for good. There’s nothing sexy about wastewater treatment – we’re talking about sewage here. And Christou’s invention doesn’t have the cutting-edge design of an iPhone or the functional simplicity of Uber. But wastewater is vital to every community. It’s one of the most critical and underappreciated forms of infrastructure – the kind of technology so ubiquitous it’s simultaneously something people give little thought to and something they can’t live without. With today’s technology, almost any water can be purified – the issue is the energy it takes to do so, which affects the cost. It’s an industry with a captive market, but one with a gap between what businesses and communities would like to do and what they can afford. In short, it’s ripe for disruption. Christou’s road to Antarctica began in high school, when his wrestling coach suggested he consider joining the military. Soon, he was registered, thinking he had signed up to be a helicopter pilot. “Instead, I ended up being a water boy,” he says. He’d always been a good problem-solver and communicator, but never an outstanding student. That changed when he joined the military. “It’s what I needed to get the drive and get my schooling in order,” he says. “I don’t think I had a decent conversation with a girl for two or three years.” He learned the tools of the water treatment trade, working mostly with reverse osmosis technology, but dipping his toes, so to speak, into wastewater as well. After his military years, Christou walked into a market where jobs were scarce but wastewater treatment was rapidly evolving. He landed a job with a company called Sanitherm specializing in membrane technology – the most important part of water filtration – and learned valuable skills in an emerging field. (With this company he travelled to Antarctica for the first time.) Christou bounced around a bit – forming his own company for a time, working as a consultant – and gradually built his wastewater expertise. “When I signed on the dotted line for the military, I definitely wasn’t thinking, ‘I can’t wait to grow up and treat poo,’” he says. But that’s exactly what he was doing. In his time as a consultant, Christou became convinced he could find an elegant solution to some of the membrane technology’s limitations. He started tinkering in his garage in the summer of 2014. His initial goal was to devise a way to keep contaminants off the membrane, a problem he compares to the residue left behind by spaghetti in Tupperware. He created a company, Swirltex, to commercialize his invention, but hadn’t quite landed on the technology he was hoping for. “I always thought there had to be a better way to do this,” he says. “I bought some membranes and tried it in my garage, and for the longest time nothing happened – I just made a bloody mess.” He simulated excrement with Rice Krispies and cat food. Odd smells emanated. Spills would trickle down his driveway. His girlfriend hated the whole process, but soon he started working on the membrane technology full-time. His focus had shifted from keeping contaminants off the membrane to buoyancy-based filtration: By using a specific flow pattern inside the membrane, the buoyancy of the materials can be manipulated, and they can be pushed to the centre. Clean water can flow through. Christou compares it to a Gravitron, the nausea-inducing amusement park ride that spins its occupants in circles, keeping them pressed against the outer walls. He thought this could revolutionize not just wastewater treatment but water reuse and fracking water, too. It could change how municipalities and the oil and gas sector deal with wastewater. Though he didn’t know it at the time, it could even have medical applications, like separating red blood cells from plasma. He couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done before. When the technique first worked for him, he was drinking Crown Royal in the garage; the next day, he tested it again to make sure it wasn’t a drunken apparition. It worked again, but he remained wracked with doubt. He’d often watched Dragons’ Den with his girlfriend as hapless entrepreneurs, convinced of their brilliance, would be laughed out of the room. “Look,” she once told him, “it’s you.” Not long after, they split up. He thought he was onto something, but at what cost? “When you have to keep telling yourself you’re doing the right thing, it starts to wear on you,” he says. People looked at him differently, like they were asking, Why are you playing with poop in your garage? He was on the verge of bankruptcy. “I quit my six-figure job for this,” he says. “Did I screw it all up?” At the time, you could have bought 50 per cent of Swirltex for $100,000, he says. Yet he was getting attention – he was interviewed by CBC, Global News, the Edmonton Journal, even Yahoo!. Soon, however, his fortunes seemed about to reverse. He secured funding from Alberta Innovates, the government agency, and conducted a market assessment. Then he got a call from the French government, inviting him to apply to go to Concordia, where he could test his technology at high altitude. After the failed pitch to GE, he was able to prove that it worked, and word got around. He was soon fielding phone calls from people across the world, and garnering interest from the European Space Agency, which was fascinated by his technology’s potential application in zero gravity. One investor, an old friend, bought a stake in the company for considerably more than $100,000. He started raking in profits from municipalities, like Parkland County, that were using Swirltex’s technology to purify then sell back their wastewater to oil and gas companies for fracking. When Alberta Venture last spoke to him, he had received more funding from other government agencies and was ready to buy out his partners. “I knew it was really significant, but it never set in until I had somebody else evaluate the technology,” he says, describing how he reached out to academics and other industry professionals for validation. “They were blown away, too, and were talking about applications I never dreamed about.” We often think of entrepreneurial success like it’s something you find all at once. And Christou is prone to flights of fancy: he talks about his “Cinderella story” as though he’s not at its centre but outside it. But it’ll be a longer road than he anticipates. While there’s interest across the world, he has yet to translate that into sales. Swirltex is still just him and some contract workers, and though he’s found a unique market, he’d need access to a vast pool of capital to scale at the rate he’d like. Christou will soon head to Antarctica again for further testing. Whatever the eventual payoff, his invention has taken him somewhere he never expected to be, and it’s clear that losing that call with GE – and keeping his patent – was the best thing that could have happened.