Editor’s Note: Paige Peters is a winner of The Story Exchange’s first annual Women In Science Incentive Prize.
As someone who can speak eloquently (and enthusiastically) about sewage, sanitation and unwieldy topics like “catalytic oxidation,” Paige Peters is seldom at a loss for words.
But she recalls being speechless a few years back, when an adviser at Marquette University suggested that she take her Master’s project — developing new technology that can treat wastewater in less than 30 minutes, handy when there’s an intense storm — and turn it into a company. In terms of entrepreneurship, “I had absolutely no background in it,” Peters says, and didn’t want to “take on risk or derail my academics.” But she also thought: “Maybe I can do this.”
That was 2016. Today, Peters is the founder of Rapid Radicals Technology LLC, a startup that aims to combat sewer overflows and basement backups by speeding up the process by which wastewater can be treated during wet-weather events. Storms “are becoming more intense, more frequent and less predictable due to climate change,” she says, and those sudden surges of water put an incredible burden on aging infrastructure. A solution, she says, is her patent-pending system — currently being tested at pilot-scale in a 40-foot shipping container off of Lake Michigan — which treats wastewater 16 times faster than the 8-to-14 hours for conventional methods.
Peters hopes her system might someday be licensed by equipment manufacturers and then used by utilities across the U.S., although she is initially focusing on Milwaukee, Detroit and the Great Lakes region. Some 800 cities have combined sewer systems, which means stormwater and sanitary wastewater are conveyed in the same pipe. When storms hit, the water simply can’t be treated fast enough, causing the overflows or backups, and posing environmental, public and economic health risks.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the problem is worse in low-income areas. “The reality is that our more impoverished communities are more impacted in these wet-weather events,” she says. “You’re getting sewage in your backyard. It’s those families that don’t bounce back as quickly.”
For an early-stage startup, Rapid Radicals has secured a good chunk of capital, all in the form of grants. Shortly after launching, Peters won $50,000 via Marquette’s Enterprise Seed Fund, a joint program with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. She has gone on to raise about $1.4 million, thanks in large part to a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research program.
Peters, who is now a PhD student in environmental engineering, jokes that her lack of business experience almost led her to choose the wrong name for her startup. Initially, she contemplated calling it Radical Waters — a play on hydroxyl radicals, which her system uses to break down organic material in wet-weather flows and clarify water. Then she realized, “it sounds like a water park — no one is going to take me seriously.”
More frustratingly, Peters has faced skepticism and a certain dismissiveness that she attributes to being a female scientist in a male-dominated industry (at one event, she was even mistaken for a restaurant worker). A woman “must prove to others that she deserves her seat at the table,” she says. “Any male walks into a meeting and it is assumed he’s worthy of occupying that space.”
In the years ahead, there will also be the continuing challenge of getting a risk-averse legacy industry like water to accept new technology. “We cannot apply 1950s infrastructure solutions to the rapidly changing and more urban 2020s,” Peters says. “The impacts of climate change, especially what we cannot predict, requires us to solve problems differently than before.”
SOT: We gotta go that way, though. There’s a massive current.
TEXT: July 2010, Milwaukee
SOT: It’s massive!
Paige: The storm of July 2010 was a historic storm event. We haven't had one of quite that magnitude since then. We will absolutely have it again.
SOT: I’m not swimming this!
Paige: We got upwards of nine inches of rain in about 12 hours. All that water has to go somewhere. No city system could ever be designed to manage that.
TEXT: Paige Peters – CEO, Rapid Radicals – 2021 Women in Science Incentive Award Winner
Paige SOT: I was working for the Sewerage District. We had the job of trying to figure out the extent of damage. That day, afterwards I was driving around in neighborhoods that had basements flooded. You could feel this frustration, this need to talk to the district and figure out, “What are my resources for dealing with this basement backup? My basement flooded with sewage, how do I deal with it?”
TEXT: Dan Zitmer – Chair, Department of Civil Construction and Environmental Engineering – Marquette University
Dan: I live about a mile away. And my basement flooded, and that led me to think we need to have a technology that can handle a lot of water very quickly and treat it very rapidly.
Paige: After that storm, Dan started musing on this idea: there has got to be some technology that is capable of treating water in less than 30 minutes, compared to the eight to 14 hours it typically takes. So he started fleshing out this technology.
TEXT: In 2015, Paige began her Masters degree in Environmental Engineering at Marquette University.
TEXT: Dan was her adviser.
TEXT: He invited her to work with him to develop the technology.
Paige: When we look at this aging infrastructure, increasing climate change and increasing urbanization, it has to be with a futuristic approach.
Paige SOT: There’s a few of us today!
TEXT: After 18 months, Dan and Paige presented their proof of concept to Milwaukee’s sewage district.
TEXT: The response was so positive, Dan suggested Paige start a company to build and market the technology.
Paige SOT: The conventional wastewater treatment just takes too long; whereas a system like this, you could clean the water as the storm is going, meeting the flow of that storm event.
Paige: We use something called advanced oxidation. Advanced oxidation is characterized by the formation of something called the hydroxyl radical. The hydroxyl radical is the strongest oxidant known to science. The more you produce, the faster you produce them, the better your treatment, the faster your treatment.
Paige SOT: We're using hydroxyl radicals to attack different compounds and essentially clean the water.
Paige: So we rapidly produce radicals. That's where Rapid Radicals came from. We're a big fan of alliteration at the Rapid Radicals team. I get that a lot. Page Peters, Rapid Radicals. That's cool.
TEXT: Paige has raised $500,000 to bring Rapid Radicals to market.
Paige SOT: When we get to this third one, the water's pretty clean and it's kind of a polishing step. The water then gets discharged directly into a lake or river.
Paige: Explaining how water treatment works can be really challenging because it's an immediate non-starter.
Paige SOT: But this is our…poop water.
Paige: People immediately shut their brains down. We're trying to find a better way to describe what we do. We're all connected by water. I genuinely feel like water is incredibly relatable.
Paige: We designed these sewer systems in the 1920s. We know how to solve the sewer issues of the last 100 years. We cannot design the same way to solve the sewer issues of the next 100 years. What's in our wastewater now is completely different than what was in our wastewater in the 1920s. Now we're worried about antibiotics, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, microplastics. We continue living in a society that is all about convenience and flushing whatever annoys us or inconveniences us down the toilet.
TEXT: In the next two years, Rapid Radicals technology will be installed in two sites in Milwaukee and one in in Detroit.
Paige SOT: There's 170 outfalls built into the infrastructure here in Milwaukee alone. And each one of those is an opportunity where a system like this, you could clean the water as the storm is going.
Paige SOT: Nice. That's where we want to be.
Paige: I want this technology to be implemented in cities across the country, and the world.
Paige: Society can be really difficult to young women who are trying to change things. It felt like everybody that I talked to was trying to tell me what I was doing didn't work, wasn't going to work, because it's never been done before. If you see a young person trying to solve a problem, do whatever you can to help them and believe in them.
Paige SOT: And our goal is to make it as clear as bottled water, as clear as lake water.
Paige: Do not shut them down. Do not make them feel small. Just because things haven't been done before doesn't mean they're bad ideas. It just means that no one has ever been brave enough to try.