Flush with Success

Clean TeQ

A year ago, Clean TeQ came to the attention of someone rather special, a very high profile investor named Robert Friedland (a billionaire, once a mentor to Apple founder Steve Jobs), who invested some $1.8 million into the company as a demonstration of his confidence in the system. He “has shown an amazing propensity over his career to identify early-stage technology opportunities and has been prepared to fund their growth,” according to Peter Voight, Clean TeQ’s founder and Executive Director.

His idea, continuous ionic filtration systems, comprises a series of stages, each designed for a specific function: ionic filtration, resin washing, and resin regeneration. Each stage contains a moving packed bed of resin, where resin and solution has intimate contact, ensuring high performance of the resin. Resins are transported between columns using an airlift pump. Continuous movement of resin and solution in countercurrent operation means the process is able to operate on dirty water feed streams and has a higher removal efficiency than conventional systems. The system can go where no other ion exchange system has gone before. It can be used on its own or combined with a range of other technologies (eg reverse osmosis, filtration, evaporation) to provide a range of water treatment solutions for industrial water, mining, oil and gas, and other industries.

Clean TeQ started with air purification in 1990. Not until 2000, when the company got its ion exchange technology, did this latter sector assume any great significance, but five years ago the company was ASX-listed on the back of this development after it negotiated a licence for BHP Billiton to extract nickel from water using the technology.

Cory Williams, Chief Executive Officer, says the air technology is quite mature and efforts will, for the mid-term future, be concentrated on more developments in water treatment and resource recovery. The Friedland factor generated a buzz like no other in the industry. “People were wondering what his attraction to us was. They are fascinated to now what he has in mind,” says Mr Williams. “Under normal circumstances he just does not make investments this small.”

But the move was a super one for the company, with some “Hollywood-style” attention focused on this small and hitherto almost exclusively technology-driven operation based in Notting Hill in Melbourne’s southeast. It has opened doors to some huge corporations – Friedland is well known but the team would have had an uphill battle to get a foot in, and the move enabled them to convince top engineers that the system really does save money. What’s in it for Mr Friedland? The obvious (and seemingly proximate) return on his investment, of course. But also, one of his operations involves a tailings dam in central Africa containing in the region of $1.5 billion of zinc and copper. “We are hoping to move forward with a profit sharing arrangement for that venture,” shares Mr Williams.

Indeed, this is expected to become the paradigm for Clean TeQ’s business, becoming a partner in a clean-up and recovery operation and sharing the proceeds. Rather than simply selling and installing treatment systems – precious metals will be recovered on the basis that “we know how to do it, so let’s go halves.”

Using his contacts, Mr Williams is working on bringing in more international investment to make this an Australian based global company (retaining the IP in Australia). He is open to almost any partnership arrangements though, in order to grow the business far and fast. “The problem is that we are too small. Mr Friedland has said that we don’t need to be any smarter, just bigger. There are a lot of jobs where we cannot get in because our balance sheet will not justify our participation.”

The company considers that its development phase is now complete and it is moving on to commercialisation of its system. A new R&D centre was opened recently by federal environment minister Greg Hunt, but this is intended mainly to be used to analyse specific water treatment challenges for individual clients.

The convention in water treatment is reverse osmosis, offered by some very large corporations indeed. But this technology, the default, “is a bit like a sledgehammer. Everyone knows it works but actually it doesn’t work very well with many types of water.” The membranes in RO systems are also prone to fouling easily. “We don’t deal with all water, but for certain types of water our technology involves 30 per cent less capital expenditure and 30 per cent lower operating expenditure, and that is ridiculously attractive in larger projects.”

Mr Williams himself is not a technician but a finance expert with more than 20 years senior management and entrepreneurial experience in various industries and geographies. He came back to Australia after an extended international ‘working holiday’ abroad; his industry experience spans biotechnology, retail, financial services, and IT, with both listed and private companies. Among other things, he is also a Director / Regional Partner of Mercatus Capital, a leading Singaporean business incubator and Venture Capital provider. He says the task that has faced Clean TeQ has been to become a “proven technology” so that when companies have big-budget projects in water treatment – the $20-50 million type budgets – they will turn to Clean TeQ’s system as a new kind of default.

The company has carried out a formal pilot project in the coal seam gas sector and is in the final stages of negotiation for a “very large water treatment plant somewhere in Asia, a $30 million project” due to be announced any day now. Is it significant that early demand is from outside Australia? Not especially, says Mr Williams, because the biggest industrial sector that would be interested in the technology is mining, with its epicentre of demand around South America at present, while another major potential customer for water treatment is China.

Indeed, “You have to look globally,” Mr Williams asserts – not least because the standards for water quality in Australia are already quite high compared to many countries. With some key domestic projects also underway, the future certainly looks bright for this dynamic company.

For more information about Clean TeQ, please visit http://www.cleanteq.com.

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January 18, 2019, 3:36 AM AEDT