Micronic Technologies, a company that began in 2008, is a developing innovative technology to provide clean water from any source.
Name: Micronic Technologies
Location: 5493 Windswept Blvd, Wise, VA 24293
Product / Service Offering: MicroDesalTM Water Cleaning Technology
This article is part of a series featuring women entrepreneurs, female founders and their companies. We at FundingSage hope these founders’ stories about startup funding will inspire and motivate you as you undertake your own funding journey.
Tell us a little about yourself with a focus on what motivates you?
My name is Karen Sorber and I am the CEO of Micronic Technologies. Kelly Rock, the inventor and my husband, and I started the company in 2008 to develop an innovative technology to clean water from any source. Our original desire was based on a trip I had taken to Peru. We later studied African countries’ difficulty in gaining access to clean water for sanitation and drinking. To this day, providing water access to developing countries remains our heartfelt desire. As Micronic Technologies has grown significantly and is now executing several million dollars in grants, that focus and desire remains a foundational motivation to us as we bring this water treatment technology to market.
What need or needs does your company seek to fill for its customers?
Of the hundreds of billions of gallons of water used industrially each day, over 90 trillion gallons are wasted each year. MicroDesalTM can remove myriad contaminants, e.g., suspended solids, total dissolved solids (salts), metals, nutrients, and bacteria from wastewater in one pass. Increased pollution regulations are causing companies to seek new and different solutions to treating industrial wastewater. Water treatment costs for our customers is increasing and MicroDesalTM is cheaper than existing systems. At 1/10th the cost of distillation, it becomes viable to implement where not possible before. We recover 95% of the source water as clean water, producing a low volume highly concentrated waste stream that results in reduced disposal costs and valuable resource recovery potential.
What is the one thing that sets your company apart from its competitors?
MicroDesalTM, our three times patented technology, is a one- pass solution without the use of chemicals, filters, or membranes and cleans water to drinking water standards from any source and is cheaper and more effective than the competition. Other solutions require multiple systems to treat the myriad constituents that we treat in one pass. These systems therefore become obsolete and the customer’s capital and operating costs are significantly reduced and operations greatly simplified.
What was the biggest challenge you faced while getting your company up and running, and how did you overcome it?
Funding, funding, funding! With the great recession of 2008, our timing was terrible. VCs shrunk in the market and became more conservative and angel investor groups that once filled ‘valley of death’ funding also tightened the reins and reduced their risk profile. Adding to these conditions, our technology is a highly disruptive industrial technology and viewed more skeptically than that typically in IT or web based space.
Because I had a long career in the government arena, federal grants were always on our radar. As we suffered from the economic conditions, we re-doubled our efforts on the federal government side and were awarded grants in 2013 and 2014 that we are now executing. They positioned us well for the most significant infusion of funding that came from the $2M Virginia Tobacco Commission grant funding R&D in partnership with UVa-Wise. We are on a roll now!
What steps have you taken to secure funding for your company and what, if anything, would you do differently if you had to start over?
As described above, we shifted to seeking funding from government sources, which has worked out extremely well. Hindsight being 20/20, after securing initial friends and family funding as we did, we would have focused more on federal grants for funding. That said, I would certainly have pursued the pitch competitions, accelerators, and exhibitions where we successively have gained regional and national recognition and credibility that to this day serves us well. It’s all about meeting people, networking, and ‘pressing the flesh.’ This is an extravert’s sweet spot so if you don’t have one – get one! (My husband and inventor is an extreme introvert).
Have there been any questions you have had as an entrepreneur of a fledgling startup that you had a particularly hard time finding the answers to?
Early on, the most difficult area for us was truly understanding and accessing financing. You hear about Angels, Angel groups, crowdfunding, VCs, private equity, strategics, investment bankers, etc. After years of pitching, some might say we still lack an understanding of how to access financing, as Friends and Family and R&D grants have funded us exclusively. This is very very complicated and nuanced with characteristics only highly-experienced advisors can understand – So I’d encourage an entrepreneur to find a champion who truly understands business financing and get ‘em on your team.
All said, a recent Harvard study validates a profound bias against women lead companies. We are a women-owned business with a female CEO, and while we often got to the table in over 100 pitches over the years, no investments occurred. Thankfully, our focus to obtain federal and state R&D grants has provided us the foundation to finalize the engineering development of the technology to get to market. I would advise women to accept this reality as one obstacle, but it is certainly not insurmountable. Our move to Southwest Virginia (SWVA) from Northern Virginia provided excellent economic development incentives and support, as well as access to the Tobacco Commission R&D funding, adding to our USDA and Navy grants.
What challenges, if any, are you grappling with?
Water is everywhere, and everywhere there is water, wastewater exists. Because we can clean any wastewater, focusing on one or two markets for market entry is particularly challenging. At first we focused on desalination of seawater but learned we are able to clean water much more contaminated than seawater. Next we shifted to fracking because of the obvious wastewater issues, but they are resisting aligning themselves with us until we have at least a field pilot or are in the market with customers.
Now, our grants are in agriculture, small units for military, and industrial use in acid mine drainage and coal wastewater. Our challenge now is to study exactly how and where to enter the markets and secure strategic partners in those markets. Another challenge is that we continue to seek funding for overhead functions and planning for manufacturing. We have a convertible note for such investing until such time an institutional investor bites.
What is the most helpful tip or “hack” you’ve ever learned, stumbled across, or been given?
“It always takes twice as long and three times as much money to do anything you plan.”
Be careful with Advisors… often very experienced advisors conflict with each other on their sage advice. I suggest getting really smart, absorb their advice, and keep your own counsel!
Be sure to secure an effective Board of Directors, who should be investors and connected to your market to make introductions.
Recommend using Marissa Levin’s book Built to Scale for establishing and managing a Board of Advisors that can also be extremely helpful to growing your business.
Is there anything else you would like to share about your company?
We are very grateful to SWVA, The University of Virginia’s College at Wise, Wise County, the Tobacco Commission, and VA Coalfield Economic Development Authority for their support of Micronic Technologies. Our move to SWVA provided us a strong industrial and vital funding base from which to launch into the market.