Innovating for a Green Economy

By April Richards

Growing plant with economic growth chartAs an EPA engineer, I like to think that my to do list runs something like this: Help save the environment. (Check.) Protect human health. (Check.) Create jobs. (Check.)

While you might be surprised by that third item on the list, it’s true! EPA has been funding small businesses for over 20 years through its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to develop innovative environmental technologies that are “commercializable.”

Successful SBIR companies are able to take the small seed funding provided by EPA and leverage that investment to bring in other sources of funding such as venture capital.  Companies are then able to grow by hiring new scientists, engineers and other employees needed to develop and sometimes manufacture their technology.

EPA’s SBIR program works hard to find companies that are innovating in ways that maximize environmental benefits. 

One cool example of this is a young, up and coming company that is working on converting waste to energy.  Cambrian Innovation has developed a bio-electrochemical system to treat wastewater from ethanol distillation (as well as other fermentation-based industries) while also generating electricity.

These efforts led to the concept of self-powered wastewater treatment plants earning the company the Ignite Clean Energy Prize in 2009. Due in part to the success of the bio-electrochemical  system developed with support of EPA’s SBIR Program, Cambrian recently received venture capital funding and has increased their workforce from four to 12 employees.

When one liter of ethanol is produced up to 14 liters of waste are created, meaning more than 100 billion liters of wastewater are generated per year!  Using novel microbes to generate electricity directly during the treatment process, Cambrian is able to convert some of this waste to clean energy. Cambrian’s system has the potential to make the biofuels infrastructure more sustainable.

Such innovation, of course is not just good for the environment, but good for the economy.

“The EPA SBIR program has been instrumental in helping Cambrian Innovation achieve our goal of becoming a world-leader in the field of environmental bio-technology and bio-electrochemical systems,” said CEO, Dr. Matthew Silver, adding that “EPA funding helped us move our technology from the bleeding edge to a viable and highly-disruptive industrial product. Working directly with the EPA has also given us tremendous insight into the environmental regulations that will shape water innovation and protect our environment in the coming decade.”

For more information on the government-wide SBIR Program see www.sbir.gov.

About the Author: April Richards joined EPA in 2001 and is Program Manager for the Agency’s SBIR Program.  She appreciates the practicality and commercial edge that small businesses bring to environmental protection.