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Proteus Waters seeks to disrupt Canadian wastewater treatment

Proteus Waters wants to shake up the Canadian water infrastructure landscape away from lagoons and into membrane-filtered solutions it argues reduces water waste. (Courtesy Proteus Waters)

Proteus Waters is offering a compact, advanced wastewater treatment solution for small- to medium-sized communities it says will generate clean water at an affordable cost compared to outmoded, centralized infrastructure.

The Saskatoon-headquartered Proteus Waters was founded in 2014 by CEO Jason Tratch, a 2014 Clean50 honouree. The firm created a membrane-based wastewater treatment system with the intent to sell in Canada, but it did not get much traction, so it pivoted sales to Europe.

After five to six years of focusing across the Atlantic where it made sales and was listed on the 2022 Foresight 50, Tratch was enticed back to his homeland to address dated Canadian water infrastructure.

“I want to change the world, and water and sewer, and reuse. I want to stop pollution. Canada needs help, our water needs help.”

Proteus Waters’ sewage treatment solution

Proteus Waters concentrates on a solution Tratch describes as a “standardized, manufactured, sewage treatment package.”

First, pre-treatment extracts prohibited or illegal pollutants from the sewage water. Next, a bioreactor uses “good bacteria" to further filter out the “bad bacteria."

The treated water flows to an ultra-fine bundle of hollow polymer fibre membranes that removes pollutants, bacteria and viruses at a microscopic level – 0.03 microns. Tratch said the filtration ensures the effluent is bacteria-free with no suspended solids.

The output is 99.5 per cent clean water free of pathogens, environmental pollutants and hazardous chemicals, while the remaining biosolids are convertible to fertilizer or biodiesel.

It comes in four sizes, with the smallest model capable of treating up to 60 cubic metres of water per day, serving 250 people. The largest model can filter a maximum of 760 cubic metres of water per day for 3,500 people.

The systems are designed to occupy a small footprint. The smallest size has an estimated footprint of two to four sea containers while the largest will require space equivalent to 10 to 15 sea containers.

By standardizing the offering, Tratch said it lowers costs, increases reliability, makes them easier to buy and operate, and simplifies training and optimization for customers.

In comparison, he said buying a sewage plant will almost surely require a custom design drawn up by consultant engineers who don’t openly share designs to their customers. The training, operation, learning and optimization is made difficult, so mechanical breakdowns are frequent.

For a plant that produces 360 cubic metres of water per day, Tratch estimated it would cost between $3.5 million to $4 million, covering initial planning, permitting, installation, assembly, commissioning, warranties and performance guarantees. He said compared to custom solutions of the same quality and size, Proteus Waters cuts costs anywhere from 30 per cent to 50 per cent.

Due to Canadian water standards, Proteus Waters has so far received approval only for golf courses and agricultural uses like alfalfa irrigation.

Tratch lamented the regulatory environment in Canada, saying it took a “long, long time” just to show Canadian regulators its treated water is sufficient for golf courses. While some plants in Ontario, B.C. and Saskatchewan use membrane-based technology for water filtration, it is a small number.

Meanwhile, the same technology Proteus Waters employs was approved in New York State for apartments and office towers 15 years ago and has raised no complaints or quality issues, he said.

Decentralizing water treatment

Tratch said Proteus Waters’ solution is best-suited for small towns, lake resorts, mining camps or military bases that often lack the money or interest to be connected to a major sewage plant.

He hopes to provide solutions to pressing urban design growing pains and serve as a replacement for water treatment infrastructure such as lagoons.

“Private developers lately are loving us because there’s a housing shortage,” Tratch said.

He recounted conversations during which municipal governments told him sewage infrastructure would cost $10 million, on top of another $10 million to upgrade sewage plants. The problem was the centralized treatment, he told them, while Proteus Waters could offer a small, decentralized plant as a superior alternative.

He noted Europe and the U.S. are veering their city planning to a decentralized approach as a more economical and resilient method. The biggest advantage to decentralization is keeping clean water local to minimize water waste.

“A lot of these guys ship all of the water to the central plant and then they got a problem: ‘What do we do with all of this clean water?’ They don’t use it. They dump it in a lake or dump it in a river, whereas we say, ‘ . . . Why wouldn’t we use treated effluent from the sewage plants because it’s bacteria-free, it’s odour-free and it’s approved by the government?’ ”

He also suggests it offers a better method over commonly used measures like lagoons. Proteus Waters argues lagoons cost more, take up 10 times the space of Proteus Waters’ solution, are unreliable and contribute unacceptable amounts of pollution.

It also cuts back on greenhouse gas pollution by reducing the number of trucks required to transport waste as cities keep expanding.

What is next for Proteus Waters

The COVID-19 pandemic did not spare Tratch’s company. The pandemic hit its operators hard, and as Saskatoon's offices emptied out by half, so did Proteus Waters' revenue.

A client refused to accept biosolid donations due to the presence of the virus, forcing the company to divert the waste to landfills where it would decompose and emit methane.

But Tratch said it is recovering.

The pandemic led the company to pivot and focus on other models and revenue streams. It finished a capital cost sale to diversify into mining sites, private developers and a First Nations reserve. It is also servicing sewage trucks in Saskatoon and charging a tipping fee per litre of waste dropped off.

It opened a second plant in Regina in 2021 to accompany its first plant in Saskatoon inaugurated four years ago. The Saskatoon plant is 1,800 square feet while the Regina plant is 3,000 square feet.

Proteus Waters is seeking investors and is raising capital through streams such as national accelerator programs.

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