Florence water technology startup AquiSense gets international attention

When NKY Thrives reached out to request an interview with Oliver Lawal, president and CEO of AquiSense Technologies, his response was a fervent, “Yes! I love talking about water and UV-LEDs!”
While that level of enthusiasm for such a complex area of environmental science might seem strange to the average person, Lawal is surrounded by a team of specialists whose passion for chemical-free water treatment runs deep.
The Florence-based startup has received international praise for its primary offering, PearlAqua, a water disinfecting system recognized as the first in the world to employ chemical-free UV technology. PearlAqua earned the International UV Association’s Product Innovation Award in 2013 and the Aquatech Innovation Award last November.
Lawal discusses AquiSense’s important relationship with Confluence – the Ohio River Valley’s water technology innovation cluster – and the company’s plans for continued innovation on a regional and global scale.
Explain the work that AquiSense does and how it factors into the current global state of water.
Over the last 30 years, the use of chemicals in water and wastewater treatment has decreased due to environmental, safety and pathogen-resistance concerns. The replacement technology of choice has been a natural process called ultraviolet (UV) disinfection. Centralized municipal treatment plants in Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky and all over the world use powerful lamps to generate UV light that treats water for use in residential households, commercial, industrial and aquatics applications. 

AquiSense is taking that same process but replacing the mercury-based UV lamps with UV-LED lamps. We currently export around 50 percent of our sales and expect this trend to continue.   
What prompted your interest in water treatment methods and technology?
My father always used to say, “If we run out of oil, we’ll switch to electric cars. But if we run out of water, we’re dead!” Shortly after studying electrical and mechanical engineering in Manchester, England, I started working with UV technology in water applications. Since then, my career has taken me to France, New Zealand, Germany and, in 2005, to the United States. 

I’ve seen serious water needs around the world, and although reducing chemicals in water treatment has been rewarding, I knew there had to be a better technology than the conventional mercury-UV lamps. For the past 15 years, people have been saying, “UV-LEDs will be ready in five years.” Well, now they’re ready. 
What factors have been critical to AquiSense achieving success thus far?
AquiSense was founded to deliver systems to deploy UV-C LED technology. Critical to our success have been the assets we’ve acquired from two separate companies — Dot Metrics Technologies and Aquionics, who have spent almost 10 years researching the technology — as well as the business confidence we’ve gotten from Confluence. And, of course, our private investors, half of whom are from Northern Kentucky, have been key enablers of our success.
What are the company’s main areas of focus currently? What industries will you target going forward?
Our focus is to provide disinfection products for water, air and surface applications. We have three devices that are optimized for each respective area and that take into account the needs for each task. We’re currently working to expand the PearlAqua product line to several units for different flow rates. Those will be released in late January. We have supplied units that can be used in medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturing, beverage treatment, boats and off-grid residential dwellings and more.

We had a great kick-off meeting in Brussels recently for a three-year contract we just started to supply a unit for the International Space Station. The group leading the consortium qualified AquiSense as the leading UV-C LED water system developer globally and as the only group likely to hit the specification and timeline. It was great validation.
In your website bio, you say you often ponder how UV-LEDs will take over the world.” Explain what that means.
LEDs are the technology of the future. TVs used to be big and bulky, but they’re now flat and light. With the help of LED technology, water treatment will become the same. Billions of people globally lack access to clean, safe drinking water at an affordable price. By offering a smaller footprint, lower costs and reliable performance, how could UV-LEDs not take over the world?
Describe the mutually beneficial aspects of AquiSense's relationship with Confluence. How are such groups working together to further the region's water-technology cluster?
Both AquiSense and Confluence have drive and passion for clean water. By working together, we both benefit from shared ideas, information and opportunities. One example of that collaboration is a recent Confluence meeting where I met with an Asian-based group that may prove to be a very important account for us.

AquiSense is growing quickly as a company. What is your strategy for strategic, sustainable growth?
We started with three employees in 2015 and shortly after acquired a company of five employees from North Carolina. We will transition those jobs to Kentucky over the next two years. We also hired someone from the United Kingdom as well as three more people from Northern Kentucky, one of whom was previously a mid-level Toyota engineer. We’re very interested in taking on skilled former employees who don’t plan to join Toyota in the company’s move to Texas.
We expect to employ around 50 people in five years and grow to a workforce of 200 within 10 years to accommodate expanding into larger-volume markets. We need strong engineers with design and manufacturing experience as well as those with water-treatment experience.

Aside from our proximity to the Ohio River, what aspects of NKY make it a good place for AquiSense to do business? What are your plans for making connections within the community?
A company like ours needs strong talent to grow, and the universities just within a two-hour radius of this area are producing world-class talent. That’s just one of the aspects of this area that makes it a really great place to live and work.
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