Photo above: The Micronic Technologies team
The second in a series of articles by the United Way of Southwest Virginia
Necessity is the mother of invention, and fewer needs are greater than the need for clean water. That need inspired Karen Sorber and her husband Kelly Rock to start Micronic Technologies in 2008.
Sorber said, “In 2007, a year prior to marrying my husband, I was in Peru on a humanitarian visit. I saw these young children that lived without water, and the impact of that on their lives and their health. I came away committed that one day I would be able to do something to help people in Peru and Africa get water. Then, Kelly and I reconnected through a mutual friend. I mentioned my idea about providing water to them, and he said he had an idea about how to clean water.”
A year later, they were married and began a start-up company, Micronic Technologies, both determined to make a lasting impact on the world by creating a technology that could clean water from any source.
Though Micronic is a start-up, Sorber and Rock are all but inexperienced. Sorber, the CEO, has more than 35 years of experience in building and leading private and federal organizations. She has delivered studies and assessments in policy, management, and the technical aspects of federal acquisition.
Rock who serves as chief technology officer invented Micronic’s innovative technology, MicroEVAP. Rock previously invented 21 patented automotive, medical, and water technologies, and now holds five patents, which he has assigned to Micronic.
Together, with their growing team, they’ve built a company. “Did I think it was going to take eight years and almost $5 million to even get to where we are?” Sorber said. “No, I didn’t.” She also didn’t think they’d end up in Southwest Virginia.
In the late 2000s, Sorber was in an entrepreneurial development program with the Northern Virginia Technology Council. Through multiple connections, she was introduced to the support available for innovative start-ups in Southwest Virginia. She met with county leaders and economic development officials and was introduced to UVa-Wise, a college willing to share its research and development resources. She applied for multiple grant opportunities, and in 2013 and 2014, because of new grant funding amounting to over $3 million from UVa-Wise, the Virginia Tobacco Commission, the US Department of the Navy, and the US Department of Agriculture, Micronic Technologies relocated to Wise.
MicroEVAP, Rock explains, is basically a tornado that separates water from contaminants via evaporation, compression, and condensation – cleaning it from any source at less cost, more efficiently, and more effectively than any other technology on the market.
“It is really about trying to bring water to people, ultimately,” said Sorber. What she could never have predicted was that Micronic’s innovative technology would bring the people of Southwest Virginia more than clean water.
It would bring hope.
The coal industry’s decline has displaced many workers. After moving to Southwest Virginia, Sorber realized her husband’s invention could have even more impact. “We could put coal miners back to work,” she said. “They’re not just older guys, you know. Some are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, and they have skills that would transfer to another industry. The miners are used to being outside, they’re used to working with heavy equipment. They could cultivate the rare earth elements from the acid mine drainage brine using our technology. We can license our technology and they could make a living on it, and they could solve a problem – solve a lot of problems.”
Since moving to Southwest Virginia, Micronic Technologies has hired almost a dozen people to help during the R&D process, creating jobs for employees who may have had to find employment outside of the region otherwise.
Now, Sorber is bringing hope to the region’s future workforce. Micronic’s partnership with UVa-Wise allows faculty and students to be involved in almost every step along the way, including conducting water quality testing, creating simulations, and collecting data – giving students hands-on experience. As of now, she has hired five employees who started as interns at Micronic, including Brianna Stallard, a graduate of UVa-Wise who Sorber says now plays a huge role in the company’s day-to-day operations.
Stallard, now operations coordinator for Micronics, said, “I wanted to stay in Southwest Virginia after graduating college. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to find a job here in my field. Now, almost three years later, here I am dealing with just about every aspect of the company – I mean every little thing – and I love it.”
It’s not an easy task to develop technology that could put an entire industry back to work or give the entire world access to clean water. It takes time to research and develop. It takes investments from companies who believe in their mission. It takes dedicated employees who are okay with not getting bonuses or raises until the product makes revenue. Micronic incentivizes and rewards the staff as a team with stock options based on company goals.
It takes innovation and strategy to bring the product to scale. And it takes the support of a community to allow the development of an innovative technology with the potential to change Southwest Virginia and the world.
Sorber said, “I am starting to get stronger leads into some significant players in the water field, but it is hard. Once it’s fully developed, we will either license the technology to a number of companies, or we ultimately plan to exit with an acquisition of the company. When that happens, we will likely continue to manufacture here. We just won a new tobacco commission grant that would ready us for manufacturing and sales next year, but we are looking for investors to match that, which is really important. “That’s my next big goal, because once we have investors to match that grant, we will make it into the marketplace to sell, and will become much more financially stable, shifting out of the R&D environment. Once you get to market, and you are post revenue, and you are making sales, then it is not hard to get investment to grow. It is very hard to secure money right now – very, very hard – blood, sweat, and tears. We want to get to production with this new grant and investor match in the next year or two, and then we want to scale it to a larger level, because bigger is better in water purification, and we have people wanting to buy it now.”
Micronic is planning several pilot projects this year: one in Lee County and one in Wise County to address mine drainage, and two more pilots in Wise County and at the Virginia Tech agricultural dairy farm to address agricultural runoff.
Next steps for Micronic Technologies include securing match money from investors; developing licensing agreements with large strategic partners to commercialize MicroEVAP; and establishing relationships with non-governmental organizations to deploy the technology in developing countries.
The company’s future for preserving water resources is very promising, and so is the company’s future for preserving another valuable resource – Southwest Virginia’s people.