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This startup is using rice hulls to solve water scarcity

Rice hulls

Glanris turns rice hulls into a high-performance hybrid water filtration media. Image via Shutterstock/Alive1986

This article was originally published in The Green Techpreneur newsletter and is adapted with permission.

It may be unusual for a serial entrepreneur to take inspiration from a copywriter, but Bryan Eagle does just that. 

As a young man in New York, his first boss, Carl Alley, ran a legendary advertising agency: "They did the really funny FedEx stuff, they were a classic, great creative firm. 

"If there was ever a Hemingway-esque model in the advertising world — that’s Carl. Carl was a mentor for me; he was a very gruff, rough and tumble kind of guy, but a brilliant copywriter," Eagle said.

"The first sentence of the book he wrote, said; ‘on 9:15, on my first day on the job, I learned it was better to manage than to be managed.’ And that always struck me. That’s the entrepreneur’s credo."

"Carl was a great role model for me to see how that path could work. By taking that path, you eliminate a lot of other paths, because once you run your own ship, you really almost become unemployable."

And Bryan stuck to that path. He’s now busy at work on his 12th startup — Glanris. It’s a circular economy solution that turns rice hulls into a high-performance hybrid water filtration media. It’s faster, more efficient and significantly cheaper than traditional water filtration methods.

"This is the thing that ultimately got me most excited about it." Eagle said. "Today, most rice hulls worldwide are burned, so if we can stop burning hulls and turn it into a water filtration media, not only do you stop billions of pounds of greenhouse gases from being produced every year, but you're sequestering carbon for the next 10,000 years."

We're up to 20% more effective at filtration, in 1/3 of the time, and at 1/10th of the cost.

Glanris has a potential market size that spans every faucet of the globe; it's already infiltrating the U.S. industrial sector. Next up are consumer brands such as Brita, and municipalities — it's already had interest from utilities in India, the U.K., France and the Netherlands.

"Twenty-one of the world’s top 37 aquifers are running dry. A way to address water scarcity is to get better at reusing the water we're already using, and we're going to have to be desalinating more seawater. In order to do both of those, you need low-cost, sustainable, green filtration products.

"It's a global problem, and we've got a global solution. Our plan is absolutely to be producing this globally. Everywhere they grow rice. We want to take the largest agricultural waste product in the world — 218 billion pounds of rice hulls — and convert it from a product that’s burnt to a product with a circular economy application, solving our water security and scarcity problems."

And with demand for water forecast to exceed sustainable supplies by 40 percent within the next nine years, threatening water resources for 3 billion people, lives and livelihoods may well depend on how fast Glanris sells its solutions. Here are more highlights from our interview:

Marianne Lehnis: You’re a serial entrepreneur with a background in building telecoms and IoT businesses. What inspired you to get involved in water filtration?

Bryan Eagle: The rice hull filtration method was developed by a professor from a local university in Memphis. The mayor introduced me to some people who wanted to launch it as a business.

I had created a nonprofit venture fund. This was me trying to promote economic development through entrepreneurship in the city. And so these guys were looking to get money from that fund. But they really didn't have a team. And so they said, "Will you come help us with this?" And I said, "I'm a telecoms guy. All my background has been in satellite terrestrial wireless communications…"

When I started reading books about where we are right now, the first book I read was one by Seth Siegel, called "Let There Be Water." As I read through that book, it just hit me: "Wow, this industry, absolutely has to change."

Lehnis: How much faster and cheaper is Glanris compared to traditional water filters?

Eagle: We're up to 20 percent more effective at filtration, in 1/3 of the time, and at 1/10th of the cost. So, better, faster, cheaper. We’re a hybrid; our methods do several things in one filter, so you only have to use one tank, compared to traditional filtration methods which use four tanks to get inferior results. 

And if instead of using just one tank of our media, we run the water through two filtration tanks — traditional filters use four tanks right now — we could purify to near drinking water standards at about 1/5 the cost. 

Lehnis: Who are your current clients and how do you plan to expand in the future?

Eagle: We’re focusing on industrial and residential clients for now, because getting approval for use in municipalities can take years. Every big company today is using water somewhere in their process and they need to treat it before they can discharge it. A lot of these big companies have chief sustainability officers who are saying, "Why are we discharging this water? Why aren’t we just reusing this water?" They're really interested in green sustainable solutions and getting away from microplastics in filters.

This is something where they can absolutely start to promote the fact that they're not pumping water out of the ground every day, they pump it out once and they reuse it many, many times and they're cleaning it with a green sustainable filter. So their CSO is very happy, as is their plant manager because it’s an easier, simpler process; their CFO is happy because they're saving money.

Once people use our product, they keep buying or refreshing their filters, so it's a recurring revenue model.

Lehnis: You’ve raised $2 million and opened your first production facility in Mississippi. What was the fundraising process like?

Eagle: We had to do it the old-fashioned way, which is local funding. We're in Memphis, Tennessee, look at funding for startups in the U.S. These are real numbers: 80 percent of all venture dollars go to deals in the San Francisco Bay area. We’ve got 20 percent left that’s spread out over Boston, New York, Washington D.C., Washington state and Seattle. So 1-2 percent of those dollars are left for people in the middle of the country, so it's hard, but we were very lucky that we had an agtech fund here in town. They got excited about us and invested in us, and then we had a couple of very high net worth individuals here in town that also got excited about the fact that we were doing cleantech in Memphis. ...

We took a pause on raising money locally to see if we could get some of these other guys out there. I talked to 147 venture funds and got just one of those to invest. It's the Goldilocks principle. You're either too small, too big, too early, too late. But some of those funds are going to be great fits for when we raise the next round, which will be for international expansion.

So that's another lesson; you never stop raising money. I'd say a good third of the people we already talked to are going to be in the first calls I make. They already know the deal, they've had a chance to see us go from nothing to something, they've seen us get our first customers, they’ve seen us get our patents, the production capability, they've seen us be successful and accomplishing. And then we’ll go back and say, "We’re ready to go international." Never write those guys off. You just never know where these things are going to, where these trails are going to lead you.

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