Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal
Michelle Bellanca spent more than two decades at 3M Co. before she took the helm of a startup set on the complete destruction of PFAS.
It was a transition from a company that gave rise to the so-called forever chemicals into a startup that destroys them. But her work was in venture capital, so the starkest aspect of the shift was departing from a powerhouse corporation with a well-established infrastructure to a startup with a clean slate.
“All your skin’s in the game” at a startup like Claros Technologies Inc., Bellanca said. The Minneapolis-based firm’s motto is that it solves problems without creating new ones, and its focus lies with complete PFAS destruction. She helped spin Claros out of the University of Minnesota in 2017, and now it’s on the road to commercialization.
For Bellanca, leaving 3M meant fewer resources to pull from, but joining Claros meant a quicker and leaner process unencumbered by the bureaucracy of a large public company. Claros is still also pulling in new employees with a vast breadth of experience.
“Some of our strongest contributors within Claros right now have come from 3M,” Bellanca said.
Besides PFAS destruction, Claros removes and recovers high-value metals; creates textiles that are antiviral, antifungal, UV-resistant and odor-resistant; and tests and consults on PFAS.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of synthetic chemicals that break down very slowly over time, hence the phrase “forever chemicals.” They’ve been found in the blood of people and animals across the globe. 3M started producing them in the 1950s and has been blamed for contaminating drinking water, sparking a flurry of ongoing litigation.
Claros’ technology breaks the carbon fluorine bonds of PFAS using a photochemical process, which returns the chemicals into their natural basic elements and harmless byproducts.
Claros is well past the research-and-development stage of PFAS destruction, and the company is moving toward pilot scale with PFAS manufacturers in Asia and the U.S. Many of its customers are companies named in the lawsuits alongside 3M.
Claros is deploying field systems and competing for 3M’s money through the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The startup is also amid a $20 million Series B financing round, building on $8.2 million raised from fundraising, grants and funds from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The company has more than doubled in size since last year, with about 26 employees on staff now. Claros expects to hit 50 employees by next year as it ramps up.
“It’s a very invigorating environment because people are passionate,” Bellanca said. A recent employee survey found that all workers stand behind the mission. “It’s not a job; they 100% are behind it,” and that’s why many have come from top-notch coastal colleges to join the team.
With some destruction technology, PFAS is broken down into smaller, potentially more dangerous, substances. That’s not how Claros tackles it.
“If we’re going to take on a problem and an application like PFAS and eliminate PFAS, then that means it’s a closed loop. It doesn’t kick the can down the road to future generations to fix that problem,” Bellanca said. “We fix it permanently, not temporarily.”