Clean-tech platform PumpFree Energy has a novel solution to ‘fatbergs’
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Before speaking with PumpFree Energy chief operating officer Mark Runnalls, the Private-i team at Stockhead hadn’t heard of a “fatberg”.
As it turns out, the term refers the buildup of solidified waste matter in sewer systems, caused by the discharge from grease and cooking oils that are flushed below ground.
Here’s an example of one from London (warning — it’s pretty gross):
Runnalls and the team at PumpFree are looking to address problems such as fatbergs in major cities, as well as improve waste-management processes at restaurants, with their patented grease trap solution.
The technology works by being fitted internally to existing grease traps at food outlets and restaurants.
PumpFree then applies a sorbent, which absorbs the fats and oils separately rather than merging them with the existing water source — meaning less polluted water is flushed into the sewer system during the cleaning process.
During product development, the team ran a trial across Western Sydney, overseen by Sydney Water, which reduced overall sewer pollution by more than 50 per cent, Runnalls said.
Having got the tick of approval from water authorities, PumpFree then set about establishing a client base in what is quite a competitive space. Grease trap cleaning and waste removal is an essential service with a number of incumbent players.
Not long after, the company landed a contract with a major fast food chain, and heading into 2020 it’s focused on continuing to establish a track record as it looks to scale up.
The clean-tech company runs a mobile platform, with a fleet of trucks that attend on-site. Grease trap hygiene regulations are set by the water authorities, and for greasier outlets such as fast food restaurants the time frame is around six weeks between visits.
“Our truck pulls up, and we can service it in around 20 minutes depending where the trap is located,” Runnalls said. “It’s a simpler process because we’re not taking away the entire contents, we’re only removing the waste.”
He added that existing technologies often miss material on the side of the grease trap, leaving an odorous residue. “A number of the grease traps we’ve attended have actually been quite damaged,” Runnalls said.
Along with its waste-management service, the company has access to a separate revenue stream; separating the food particles from grease and oil waste which can then be converted to bio-fuel. And it’s also building a unique propriety data set.
“Using the load cells on our truck we can calculate the type of material extracted from each site. What we soon discovered is that by testing the oil we collect from containers, we can see how often clients are turning over their oil,” Runnalls said.
“It allows us to improve processes using data, and give a compelling story to water utilities about the kind of material we’re taking away from grease traps.”
Having undergone a capital restructure in 2017, the company relaunched with $1.5m in funding from a private network of sophisticated angel investors.
It’s targeting profit breakeven by July 2020, and is looking to capitalise on its market footprint by adding more large fast-food chains to its customer base.
Looking ahead, Runnalls says the business has the capacity to reach a key inflection point which will rapidly accelerate its scale-up aspirations.
“We’re planning to gain market share across all the major Australian cities, and we think we can get there within three years,” he said.
Beyond that, the company has plans to scale internationally, at which point a trade sale or partnership could be more value-accretive.
“It’s a unique tech platform,” Runnalls said. “We know the big players have got their eye on us, but they won’t move until they see us get to scale. That’s the time a big waste player would say, ‘OK, we get the story now — we understand the risk profile’.”
For now though, Runnalls said it is a good time to be bringing a clean-tech solution to market.
“I can’t see anything in the current environment that suggests environmental regulation around new technology is going to go backwards,” he said.
“Once we get to critical mass I think it’s going to be a question of why aren’t you using the cleaner solution, instead of why should you.”