“Innovative materials always have value,” says Dr. Susan MacKay, 52, CEO of materials-based startup Cerahelix. “If you discover something with unique properties, it’s likely there’s an application for it.”
Fourteen years ago, she moved from the Boston area to Veazie—“which is like a speed trap between Bangor and Orono”—because of her husband Donald’s work as a forest economist. “We always joked that we should start a company, because he’s a business person and I’m a scientist,” she says.
With a doctorate. in chemistry, Susan began teaching and doing ceramics research at the University of Maine. There she met biophysicist Karl Bishop, with whom she has started two companies, the second of which is Cerahelix.
“People are doing interesting things with DNA,” a molecule that carries all of the genetic information of a living thing, says Susan. While many of us think of courtroom dramas (a suspect’s DNA was found at the scene!) or genetic testing for disease, there are diverse applications for DNA that many of us aren’t even aware of. One fun example, Susan notes, is DNA origami.
And new technologies can be born out of sheer curiosity, which is part of Cerahelix’s story: “Karl, just for fun, mixed (synthetic) DNA) with ceramic to see what would happen.”
It was far more complicated than that, requiring quite a bit of chemistry. But in 2009, the Cerahelix team successfully mixed the two unlikely materials.
“We said, ‘This is really cool. Where would it be best used?’”
And the answer was filtration.
“We put the DNA in, and then we burn it out, leaving holes behind,” Susan says, explaining that the holes are too small to be seen even with the strongest of microscopes.
The practical applications for such a fine filter are extraordinary. For example, a downside of fracking is the huge amounts of water used—and the huge amounts of water contaminated. But the Cerahelix filter, the Picohelix, can filter out both salt and oil, enabling that water to be reused for irrigation.
What began with scientific curiosity is now a company with nine employees and a product going to market around the world.
“We live in a world where there is water scarcity,” Susan says. “And our filter opens up new ways to do manufacturing that are sustainable.”
Amy Paradysz is a writer, editor and photographer who lives in Scarborough.