Engineer wins U.S. Bank Foundation Cleantech award for clean water technology 

July 26, 2023
Pictured: Dr. Bianca Bailey, founder and CEO of Agriwater. Picture credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy.

Tennessee-based entrepreneur is the fourth annual recipient of the Cleantech Inclusion Award, which includes a $25,000 grant and year-long mentorship 

The amount of animal waste produced in the U.S. every year is more than 1,000 times the weight of the Empire State Building, and the greenhouse gases from that waste can significantly impact the planet. But what if there was a way to treat the wastewater to help reduce carbon emissions? That’s what Bianca Bailey, Ph.D., the founder and CEO of Agriwater, aims to accomplish.

Agriwater, which Bailey started in 2021 while finishing her doctorate in agricultural engineering at the University of Illinois, is developing electrolysis-based technology to treat wastewater, which often is stored in hazardous lagoons that can pollute nearby natural water sources and create strong fumes throughout nearby towns and farming communities. 

“It becomes a social justice issue when it relates to people who live around these areas who can’t have clean air,” said Bailey, who also points out that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also can fine farmers who don’t manage animal waste properly.

Instead, her innovative technology removes contaminants from wastewater, decreasing the likelihood of pollution in rural areas, reducing greenhouse gases and even creating clean water for reuse and recycling.

The promise of such technology has led Bailey to participate in various business accelerator programs. In 2022, Agriwater secured a spot in the Innovations Crossroads Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lab-Embedded Entrepreneurship Program (LEEP). This two-year program will allow Agriwater to work toward commercializing its technology in collaboration with lab space and mentorship from Oak Ridge Laboratory in Tennessee. 

“We’ve proven out the technology on a small scale, and now we’re looking to scale the technology from inside the lab to on-site at a farm,” Bailey said.

Bailey is the winner of the 2023 U.S. Bank Foundation Cleantech Inclusion Award, which supports female and minority entrepreneurs who are building innovative companies that benefit the environment, create jobs and drive economic development. The U.S. Bank Foundation works with Evergreen Climate Innovations to present the award, which includes a $25,000 grant and a year of mentorship. The funding will help Agriwater facilitate its first industrial-size pilot with farms.

“Entrepreneurs like Bailey, who tackle big challenges with such drive and passion, are working to build a more sustainable future for all of us,” said Reba Dominski, chief social responsibility officer at U.S. Bank and president of the U.S. Bank Foundation. “We are proud to support Agriwater as it continues to refine its technology and expand the scale of its business.”  

“We’re excited to continue our work with U.S. Bank Foundation to support early-stage startups working on solutions for environmental and social impact,” said Erik Birkerts, chief executive officer at Evergreen Climate Innovations. “We look forward to working with Agriwater and supporting their vision of creating a closed-loop water system for livestock farmers that yields an array of environmental, social and economic benefits.” 

Agriwater is Bailey’s first commercial venture, but her interest in water treatment began years ago as an undergraduate studying chemical engineering at Howard University. As part of her work leading the campus Engineers Without Borders chapter, she facilitated a student-led water-filtration project in a small village in Kenya. This work, along with her involvement in the nonprofit Girls Inc. as a student and mentor, led to recognition from the White House Champions of Change program in 2011 for helping to recruit and retain girls and women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Her goal is to create a more sustainable environment for the children of the future as they will be, in her words, “stewards of the Earth.”  

Now, as an engineer and business owner, Bailey welcomes the guidance she’ll receive through the Cleantech Inclusion Award program and encourages others building businesses in similar fields to broaden their knowledge beyond science and technology.

“Being a smart entrepreneur when it comes to technology is also knowing that you can’t just focus on the technology, but you also need to focus on the intellectual property and business implementation of the technology,” said Bailey. “You can have great technology, but if the business model and everything else doesn’t work out, then it’s simply just a good idea.”

This is the fourth year of the U.S. Bank Foundation Cleantech Inclusion Award. Information on how to apply for the 2024 award will be available later this year.

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