Water purification startup wins inaugural U.S. Bank Cleantech Inclusion Award

June 30, 2020

The program supports female and minority entrepreneurs driving innovation in environmental sustainability.

Katie Kollhoff remembers sitting down with the chemical engineering department chair during a college tour when she was in high school, at the time leaning toward majoring in environmental science.  

“The chair’s response was, ‘Well, you know, you could solve environmental problems once in place – or, you could become a chemical engineer and prevent them in the first place,’” she recalled.  

Although both paths can be effective, the advice stuck with Kollhoff (pictured below) that day and has throughout her career journey from engineer to chief executive. She carries it with her as a co-founder of NUMiX Materials, a Chicago-based startup that has developed a potentially game-changing water purification technology.  

NUMiX is the inaugural recipient of the U.S. Bank Cleantech Inclusion Award which, presented in partnership with nonprofit Clean Energy Trust, supports female and minority entrepreneurs who are building innovative companies that benefit the environment, create jobs and drive economic development. 

“We are thrilled to recognize Katie and the NUMiX team as the inaugural recipient of this award,” said U.S. Bank Chief Social Responsibility Officer Reba Dominski. “Through this award and our work with Clean Energy Trust, we are able to help accelerate innovative technology and support a startup with a founding team that includes three dynamic female entrepreneurs.” 

As a recipient, NUMiX has received a non-recourse grant of $25,000 and 12 months of business mentorship and programming from U.S. Bank and Clean Energy Trust. The grant funds will go toward completing product trials to recover critical metals from contaminated water.  

Erik Birkerts, CEO of Clean Energy Trust, which manages the selection process for the award, explained three factors that made NUMiX attractive as the inaugural recipient – the passion, the product and the people. 

“We’ve been in this market for a decade and over that time it’s become so clear that water, despite touching virtually every aspect of our lives, is taken for granted and there’s not a great deal of stewardship of this scarce resource.” 

He continued, “We’re excited about the elegance and simplicity of NUMiX technology, which builds on intellectual property from a top university and includes input from some of the most preeminent scientists in the world at Argonne National Laboratory.” 

The core NUMiX technology is an economical method for removing toxic heavy metals from contaminated water by using a small amount of an adsorbent – rather than the large volumes of chemical materials typically used today. Its target clients include electroplating shops, mining companies, and communities impacted by contaminated water. 

Finally, Birkerts added, “The dynamic quality of the NUMiX team was really attractive to us as well. We hope that by putting a spotlight on them, they can be role models and inspire more people to work on these endeavors.” 

NUMiX was founded in 2018 by Kollhoff and three other students while all pursuing advanced degrees at Northwestern University. From engineering to law, the team of five spans academic, as well as professional and personal, backgrounds – diversity that gives the team strength.  

“We want to work with smart, passionate people who recognize the scope of challenges and bring their whole selves to the table to solve them,” Kollhoff said.  

She added that the team was intentional about balancing their collective passion for environmental sustainability with the realities of working together as business partners.  

“One of the first things we did as a team was lock ourselves into a room ask ourselves how we wanted to communicate and how we wanted to handle tough decisions,” Kollhoff said. “We know there are going to be times when enthusiasm is not enough.” 

Still, that enthusiasm will certainly remain a driving force. Although its lab has been temporarily shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kollhoff said that the global challenge has reinforced their underlying desire to create value for the community, the environment and toward human progress.  

As Kollhoff thinks back to the conversation on her college tour, she is steadfast in the path she chose while also recognizing that she has grown from an engineer to an entrepreneur and now an executive as well.  

“I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur,” she said. “But once I realized that entrepreneurship is something a person can do to address problems they see, I haven’t looked back. There hasn’t been a single day that I’ve wished I was doing something else.” 

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