Innovator Profile: Margaret Lumley and Dohwan Nam

Lack of access to clean, fresh water is one of the most critical problems facing the planet today. This is the pervasive issue that Dr. Margaret Lumley, Dr. Dohwan Nam, and Prof. Kyoung-Shin Choi are working to solve. Before they started ChloBis Water, Dr. Lumley was a graduate student working as a postdoc, while Dr. Nam was an Assistant Scientist at UW–Madison. Together, they worked in Prof. Kyoung-Shin Choi’s research group on campus, studying electrochemistry. In the lab, they initially discovered the desalination capability of the chemical bismuth when combined with a sodium-storage electrode. This is the foundation from which the idea for their new electrochemical device, a “desalination battery,” was created.

ChloBis addresses the worldwide clean water shortage by removing salt from water while simultaneously using salt ions to store/release energy. The technology is uniquely positioned to address challenges in both water and energy. Their desalination battery processes the water and converts it into valuable chemicals to create a sustainable resource recovery cycle. It can be used in desalination plants, wastewater treatment plants, and food processing facilities. Compared to its competitors, ChloBis Water uses ten times less energy than traditional desalination methods and does not produce any waste.

We asked Margaret and Dohwan to share their insights on their roles as innovators in the UW–Madison community and the future of clean energy and water:

Where did the idea for your company come from initially?

Margaret: The idea for our company came from a research project in Prof. Kyoung-Shin Choi’s group at UW-Madison. As an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara, I joined an electrochemistry research group and was fascinated by the field. I decided to pursue a PhD in Chemistry and was inspired by Kyoung-Shin’s passion for using electrochemistry to solve one of the most pressing challenges of our time—securing an adequate clean water supply. Dohwan, Kyoung-Shin, and I collaborated on campus to develop a new affordable, energy-efficient water desalination technology.

Dohwan: In 2017, we discovered for the first time that bismuth can store and release chloride ions through the reversible electrochemical conversion reaction between bismuth and bismuth oxychloride. By combining bismuth as a chloride-storage electrode with a sodium-storage electrode, we finally constructed a new type of desalination battery that can not only achieve desalination but also store and release energy during the charging and discharging processes, which enables membrane-free and energy-efficient desalination. Our company name of ChloBis, comes from this discovery, ‘Chlo’ride storage by ‘Bis’muth.

How has D2P helped you, and what have you learned along the way?

Margaret: I started interacting with D2P in 2019 when my team was considering applying for a grant called NSF Partnerships for Innovation (PFI). As a scientist, I didn’t know where to start on the entrepreneurial training section. I worked with D2P to develop an entrepreneurial training plan, including participation in Innovation to Market, NSF I-Corps, and regular D2P mentor meetings. Thanks to support from D2P mentors, we got the PFI grant! When I participated in the Innovation to Market program in the Spring of 2021 I got my first experience with customer discovery. I learned how important it is to talk to potential users of your technology to understand the problems that they are facing. Aimee Arnoldussen was my mentor and she provided invaluable guidance about how to craft emails that would get a response, ask insightful questions, and communicate what I learned from my interviews. We participated in the NSF I-Corps a few months later and Aimee agreed to serve as our industry mentor. Other D2P mentors all generously volunteered their time to meet with me and connect me within their networks. I don’t know where we would have been without Aimee; she is an absolute rockstar. She went above and beyond during I-Corps, sending me articles about wastewater, researching potential interviewees on LinkedIn, and ensuring I stayed on track to hit my interview target. She continues to be a sounding board, and I can always count on her and D2P for support.

Dohwan Nam, Kyoung-Shin Choi, Aimee Aroldussen and Margaret Lumley discussing test results

In addition to mentorship, D2P has supported us in advancing our research through the Draper TIF and SEED grants. Results from the TIF and SEED projects have directly impacted our technology development goals and commercialization plan at ChloBis Water. The transition period from academic research project to prototype to pilot project is a long and arduous road, and it can be difficult to find grants that support this type of development. We are so grateful that D2P offers funding for research focused on technology commercialization to help make this road easier.

Dohwan: My co-founders, Dr. Margaret Lumley and Prof. Kyoung-Shin Choi, have worked with D2P to perform customer discovery interviews in various water treatment sectors and identify potential opportunities for our technology. They have shared their knowledge with me, which has helped me to efficiently design and prioritize experiments to evaluate how our technology works for different applications (e.g., seawater vs. municipal wastewater vs. industrial wastewater).

What other entrepreneurial resources/programs have provided guidance to you?

Margaret: Our team participated in the WARF Accelerator program from 2017 – 2019, which really got us thinking about starting our own company. WARF invited me to give a pitch at WARF Innovation Day in 2019, and they provided hands-on coaching to help me develop my first pitch. I still rely on those lessons when I pitch today. I also attended the Morgridge Entrepreneurial Bootcamp in the summer of 2019 and received guidance from other startup founders in the Madison ecosystem. We participated in the National NSF I-Corps Program in the summer of 2021 and the SBIR Advance program in the summer of 2022. Aimee was our industry mentor for both programs. We worked with the Law & Entrepreneurship clinic on-campus to develop necessary incorporation documents. I have also attended various industry conferences and trade shows and participated in local pitch and business plan competitions. The Center for Technology Commercialization (CTC) was instrumental in helping us prepare our Phase I STTR application and continues to provide support. I am currently supported by a two-year fellowship for startup founders called Activate. Activate supports and mentors early-stage founders to launch startups addressing climate change and other global challenges.

What’s your current focus with the company? Did the pandemic affect your operations?

Margaret: As the CEO of ChloBis Water, I am responsible for defining our product vision, developing our strategic plan, creating our funding strategy, and managing our team. A big part of my role at this early stage is relationship building, which includes customer discovery and managing relationships with potential investors and partners. Before you can hire a team, startup CEOs have to do it all.

Dohwan: I am developing and optimizing the fabrication procedure to build a prototype desalination battery. Over the past two years, the pandemic affected research activities in the lab and delayed our initial plans. Still, thanks to our teamwork and effective time management, we achieved many of our key milestones.

What are your hopes for the company moving forward?

Margaret: Water desalination plays a central role in addressing water scarcity and quality issues. However, desalination is failing to live up to its full potential; the high energy requirements and the production of a concentrated waste product (brine) make desalination impractical for many applications.

By combining the functions of salt removal, energy generation and storage, and commodity chemical production, ChloBis Water is making desalination a more attractive water production solution. The desalination battery will also harness underutilized minerals in saline water to produce the commodity chemicals chlorine and sodium hydroxide—required for industrial applications ranging from water disinfection to soap and paper production. Finally, the desalination battery is ideal for integrating renewables as an alternative energy storage system to achieve water security and resiliency.

Dohwan: I want ChloBis Water to be a versatile and problem-solving company that can provide creative solutions to customers based on our innovative electrode fabrication technology.

What drives you/why is this project important to you personally?

Margaret: As a California native, water has always been on my mind. We were always in a drought. I was so frustrated thinking about the fact that we were surrounded by water but still never had enough. We’ve known how to turn ocean water into drinking water for decades using desalination, but traditional desalination plants consume huge amounts of energy. I believe that we have a technology that can transform the way that we approach desalination and water treatment. I was drawn to the idea of working at the intersection of science and business and bridging the gap between academic research and commercial product development.

Dohwan: I have always hoped to make an innovative contribution to better the world with my electrochemistry expertise. Working in the field of water treatment was a great opportunity for me and working hard to develop the desalination battery has helped that dream of making an impact become a reality. I envision that electrochemical treatment of water with our desalination batteries will create unique market opportunities and will have a significant impact on a new sustainable water cycle and improving global access to affordable freshwater.

What advice would you give to other campus innovators that are just starting out with exploring the potential for their ideas?

Margaret: My best advice is to use all the on-campus resources. Talking to D2P and WARF and participating in the Morgridge Entrepreneurial Bootcamp helped me to learn about technology entrepreneurship. It’s essential to understand what you are signing up for when you start your own company and to spend time reflecting on what you want your role to be in your company.

Dohwan: Figure out what problems your ideas can solve. Even if some technical problems can’t be solved initially, that’s okay. Just think about the maximum possibility of your vision; dream big. The journey from a university lab to an actual product is quite challenging, but if you understand your idea well, you can find a way.

Is there an experience during the development of your project that surprised you or had a particularly strong impact on your direction? What did you learn from it, or how did it change your thinking?

Dohwan: At the beginning of the research project, finding a new chloride-storage electrode was nearly impossible because any material used in the desalination battery must satisfy strict requirements. If we became frightened by jumping to conclusions and gave up extensive research, we would never have found a new chloride storage material that could change the world.

Campus is full of bright minds and amazing ideas, but many people do not self-identify with the term “entrepreneur.” Do you connect with that term, and why or why not? Is there another term you’d use to describe what you’re doing with your project?

Margaret: Even now, as a startup CEO with full-time employees and our own funding and lab equipment, I don’t always identify with the term entrepreneur. What motivated me was starting this business with this team to tackle a global challenge that is deeply important to me. My best advice is not to be intimated by the word entrepreneur. Surround yourself with a team and mentors that will help you transition from academic research to startup CEO.

ChloBis co-founders: Kyoung-Shin Choi, Margaret Lumley and Dohwan Nam

Read more about Kyoung-Shin: https://innovate.wisc.edu/kyoung-shin-choi-elected-to-american-academy-of-arts-sciences/

Read more innovator profiles from D2P