Interview with Refrackt

Posted on 4/4/2013. Interview by Howie Rhee

Tell us about yourself

Judy: I am a PhD graduate student in the environmental engineering department at Duke. I work on developing cost-effective water reuse and desalination technologies. Before I came to Duke, I worked at GE Mobile Water and United Technologies Corporation. My responsibilities were to reduce waste, water, and energy usage at industrial and manufacturing sites and help sites manage environmental regulatory compliance.


Dan: I graduated from Middlebury in 2009 with a BA in Geology and Environmental Studies. After that I went to work at an environmental consulting firm called Creative Environment Solutions in NYC. While there, I saw the impacts that industry can have on the environment first-hand. My goal is to provide an alternative to the idea that you have to choose between industry and the environment. To do that, you need to engage all of the stakeholders and provide both policy and technical solutions to the environmental impacts that occur. Refrackt offers the latter.


Mark: I am a first-year Master of Environmental Management student in the Nicholas School. I am studying water resources management. I focus on water-energy nexus, stormwater management, stream restoration, and water finance issues.


Victor: I am a first year MEM student in the Nicholas School of the Environment. My interests lie in energy and policy, specifically in energy security and energy policy.


Tell us about your time at Duke, what were you involved in?

Judy : I am the head of the Duke PhD Plus Program. We are developing a certificate program that helps engineering PhD students make effective career decisions and that provides professional development opportunities. As part of our program, students do an internship and attend seminars and workshops given by accomplished professionals.

Dan: I have been involved in a wide range of extracurriculars while at Duke. Aside from the Duke Start-up Challenge, I have also been heavily involved with the Business and Environment Club (BEC) and the Energy Club at the Nicholas School. In the BEC, I co-organized a trip to Chicago to hear about what the private sector is doing to address their environmental impacts. As a first year officer in the Energy Club, I helped organize and run events and trips that looked at a wide range of energy issues.

Mark: I am the founder and president of the Duke Water Network, the treasurer of FOREM, which is a social professional group in the Nicholas School, and I am a member of the Business and Environment Club, the Nicholas School Plus Ones, and the Drilling, Environment, and Economics Network. 

Victor: I am an active member in the Nicholas School of the Environment's Energy Club. I am also vice president of the NSOE's student association, FOREM.


What's your major/program and when will you be graduating?  Tell us something about your educational experience at Duke.

Judy: I am a PhD graduate student in the environmental engineering department, hopefully graduating in 2016. 

I am extremely grateful to my advisor, Mark Wiesner, who accepted me into his group even though I was not trained as an engineer. It’s because of his guidance that I have learned about membrane distillation technology and how to design water treatment systems.


Dan: I am in the Energy and Environment track at the Nicholas School of the Environment. Since arriving, I have been incredibly pleased with the amount of engagement in the energy sphere that I see throughout Duke. The Energy Initiative is doing a great job of incorporating all of the different schools' energy related activities and spreading the word about opportunities.

Mark: I am a Master of Environmental Management student studying water resources management. I will be graduating in 2014.

Victor: I'm in the Energy and Environment MEM track at Nicholas School of the Environment.


Tell us about your idea.

Refrackt provides an innovative method of regenerating wastewater from hydraulic fracturing sites. Hydraulic fracturing uses high volumes of water to fracture geological formations and stimulate oil and gas production. Up to 80% of this water returns to the surface and must be treated as wastewater. This process is inefficient and can cause environmental problems during water transportation and treatment.

Refrackt solves this problem by regenerating the hydraulic fracturing flowback and produced water onsite. Refrackt’s portable vacuum membrane distillation system uses the energy inherent in the fracturing wastewater to drive the water purification process and thus is less expensive to operate than other water treatment systems. The treated water can be reused in the hydraulic fracturing process which reduces the amount of water needed and saves companies money.


How did you come up with your idea?  When did you come up with it?

Judy has been researching membrane distillation technology and its applications for hydraulic fracturing and industrial sites as part of her PhD research and Victor, Dan, and Mark were looking for solutions for environmental problems to develop as part of their entrepreneurial interests. We realized we were all interested in reducing the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing and the idea for Refrackt was born.


How did you meet your team members?

Victor, Dan, and Mark are Nicholas School students and Victor knew Judy from playing in the same ultimate frisbee league.


How has the Duke Start-Up Challenge been helpful to you?

The DSC gave us the incentive to turn an idea into an actionable business plan. It also set deadlines that kept us on track throughout the year. Without the DSC, the other academic requirements might easily have distracted us from working on Refrackt.


The Duke Start-Up Challenge provides a lot of feedback from over 100 judges.  Can you talk about that experience of reviewing the feedback?

The feedback has been incredibly helpful. We took the comments from each round and used them to improve our business plan, and we believe it has been a major factor in our success. It has keyed us into what entrepreneurs and investors are actually asking themselves when reviewing a proposal.


Did you connect with any judges for advice, and if so, who were they and was it helpful? 

We connected with Jason Ethier '10 because of his expertise and critical feedback. We hope to keep in touch with him going forward. We have a number of other judges that we will be reaching out to shortly.


What advice do you have for Duke students that are thinking of starting a company?

We definitely encourage other students to enter the DSC. Developing a business plan for the DSC and getting feedback on it was a great way to learn about making a startup.




Want more? Watch the videos and read the other interviews for all of the Round 3 teams in the Duke Start-Up Challenge

And join us for the Grand Finale with David Cummings ’02 for the 14th Annual Duke Start-Up Challenge on Thursday, April 11th, 2013 at 7:30pm ET at Fuqua’s Geneen Auditorium. RSVP on Facebook

Not able to attend in person?  Watch the livestream on Duke’s YouTube channel


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