blue and white abstract painting

Nano Affix: Water safety innovators

By Anna Lardinois, Startup Storyteller

A great place on a Great Lake is more than just a slogan when it comes to freshwater research and stewardship in Milwaukee.

The city has become an international destination for the study and development of freshwater innovations. Leading the development of this increasingly influential ecosystem are the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences and The Water Council.

While Milwaukee has an enviable supply of freshwater, it is not free from water woes. The city’s aging infrastructure is still rife with lead pipes, exposing a notable portion of the city’s population to contaminated water.

It has been known for decades that lead is poisonous and exposure to the element has significant physical and cognitive effects. The use of lead has been banned in paint, gasoline, and other manufactured products, but lead water pipes remain in many urban areas throughout the United States. According to a White House report released in 2021, it is estimated that “up to 10 million American households and 400,000 schools and childcare centers are served by a lead service line or pipes and other fixtures.”

Most people do not realize they are being exposed to contaminated water. Dr. Junhong Chen, Ph.D. is determined to change that.

Consumers cannot mitigate the dangers of contaminated water without first determining whether the water is contaminated. Testing water for the presence of lead is now a costly and time-consuming process that requires lab work. In home lead tests exist, but are notoriously inaccurate, rendering them ineffective.

Dr. Chen, a former UW-Milwaukee (UWM) professor and internationally recognized expert in nanotechnology, envisioned a solution to this pressing problem. Through his work at UWM, he made scientific discoveries that promised to advance water testing technology.

With the assistance and support of the UWM Research Foundation, Chen was able to patent, license, and develop his discoveries into a commercially viable product, a portable device for real-time detection of lead in tap water. To introduce this discovery to the marketplace, Chen launched NanoAffix Science, LLC in 2009.

Designed as a platform technology, Dr. Chen anticipates that soon NanoAffix detectors will detect more than just lead in water. “The technology can be engineered into different products. The only difference between the products is the functional chemical group or molecular group put into the sensor device that binds with the contaminants,” he said. Chen sees opportunities for the company to detect other key water contaminants, like Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS), microplastics, or pharmaceuticals.

The pre-revenue generating company is still in pre-venture status. Largely backed by grants, including grants from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as support from the National Science Foundation, the United States Department of Agriculture and Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the company received its first angel investment in third quarter of 2022. The company has also received equity investments from A. O. Smith Corporation, Badger Meter, and Baker Manufacturing.

With a minimum viable product (MVP) already in the field, NanoAffix is currently working on enhancements to the product. Chen anticipates the product will be ready for a commercial launch sometime in mid-2023.

To learn more about this groundbreaking company, connect with NanoAffix here.

Leave a Reply