Blue Foot membranes make the reuse of industrial and domestic wastewater possible.

In 2017, VITO joined forces with a consortium of investors to establish Blue Foot Membranes NV (Blue Foot) to bring a new type of membrane to the market.

VITO's business unit 'separation technology' conducted research into new types of membranes for many years. VITO developed a new technology, patented it, developed prototypes, and started the company Blue Foot Membranes.

Blue Foot delivers the critical membrane component and the integration expertise to reuse water in water treatment plants for industrial and domestic wastewater. With a new financial injection from its existing shareholders QBIC II, LRM, Innovation Fund and VITO, the company is entering the next phase. From VITO spin-off to scale-up and now ready to conquer the market! We spoke with CEO Stephan van Hoof.

Water is becoming an increasingly scarce product. What influence does that have on your market?

"Companies are generally more and more aware of the impact of their activities on the environment. We are really seeing a turnaround in that respect. More and more companies are now taking real action because the motives for doing so are increasing. 
Water is necessary for most industrial activities; it is, as it were, a 'licence to operate'. However, groundwater levels are falling and in many places, the limit of groundwater extraction has been reached. The rules on groundwater abstraction are also becoming stricter. If a company wants to expand, they often have to look at how they can reuse water. That is not only better for the environment, it is also better for the organisation. By reusing water, they can save a lot of costs in the long run. And citizens, too, are becoming increasingly critical. The social call to deal thoughtfully with our very scarce natural resources is therefore increasingly being heard by politicians and the business community.

How do Blue Foot's membranes contribute to this?

"Wastewater often has to pass through a biological water treatment plant. The membrane bioreactor technology in itself is not new, but it is rather sensitive to disruptions and labour-intensive and risky. Blue Foot membranes change that, we make the filtration process demonstrably more robust and reliable. And that's where we make the difference. 
Water - like electricity - is 'only' a utility. But if you can't process it because of technical problems, you risk bringing your entire production to a halt. So the reliability of the installation and therefore of the membrane is extremely important to the industry. 
In addition, our membranes make a difference because their Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) is lower. We achieve this because they are rewindable and therefore have a much higher purification capacity. More water passes through the membrane per hour per square metre. This makes our solution much more compact. What's more, they require half the amount of aeration, which means they use much less energy."

Do you only supply the membranes?

"The membrane is the enabler of the technology. We produce the membrane sheets in Lommel. But in order to market them, they have to be placed into modules. A few years ago we took over a supplier in Germany who can produce such modules. So we supply complete membrane modules to the market. 
We are very deliberately not a system builder. That is what our customers do. We focus on installation builders with expertise in wastewater treatment who want to make their total solutions more attractive to the end customer. We work closely with them and in addition to the membrane modules itself, we also provide the integration know-how. On the other hand, we also inform industrial end-users and local authorities about our products in order to show them what is possible. This new push-pull strategy is now starting to bear fruit." 

How have you grown since starting up in 2017?

"It has not always been easy. At the end of last year our shareholders - VITO, QBIC II, LRM and Innovation Fund - invested another 2 million euros in Blue Foot as a result of our new business plan. This capital increase has made a relaunch possible.
Bringing a new technology to the market takes time and trust from the market players. By adjusting our sales strategy, we are now making rapid progress. In 2017 we started with two and now Blue Foot has seventeen employees. 
Now we are focusing on scaling up our technology, getting smarter and optimising our operations. This is happening in several areas: our products are modular and therefore scalable for large and small applications, our work and production processes are being automated and expanded, we are investing in marketing and of course in new colleagues because we are growing in all areas."

Do you mainly focus on the Belgian market?

"No, we operate internationally. Blue Foot's technology has already been installed in fifteen water purification plants in Belgium, at brewery Martens, syrup company Meurens in Li├Ęge and Rendac in Denderleeuw. These installations were carried out by our partner from the very beginning: Pantarein Water from Mechelen. But our membranes have also been used, with other partners, at a few palm oil factories in Indonesia, for example.
At the moment, we mainly focus on the industrial market, including breweries. On average, a brewery uses 4 litres of water to make one litre of beer. One litre for the beer itself, and the rest for cleaning the pipes and installations and for rinsing the bottles before they are filled. Danish beer producer Carlsberg has set itself the target of halving its water consumption by 2030. We provide a crucial component in making that happen. Early this year, Pantarein Water installed a water treatment plant with our membranes at Carlsberg's flagship brewery in Fredericia, where they are testing innovative production techniques. When successful, these will be applied to their other breweries around the world. 
A similar story at Rendac, a company that processes animal residues. To convert your wastewater treatment from linear - the water is treated and discharged - to circular - the water is treated and reused - does not require a completely new installation. Because our units are so compact, Rendac was able to convert its existing purification relatively easily. That success resulted in a new project starting in July for the same group that Rendac belongs to - Darling Ingredients - in Germany. This is of course the best compliment you can get for your technology, an existing customer who is so satisfied that he comes back for more. 

Such success stories are extremely important for bringing new technology to the market. And we are ready to conquer that market!"

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