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.”