Georgetown McDonough Alumnus Launches Innovative Startup to Upcycle Aluminum Recycling Byproducts
Georgetown McDonough alumnus Julian Davis (B’20) has always been passionate about entrepreneurship, starting with creating his own clothing company in the eighth grade.
Since then, his focus has shifted from fashion to sustainability, though his startup mentality continues to drive him. Today, he is the CEO and co-founder of Hydrova, a startup promoting upcycling in the aluminum industry. The company has raised $1 million in seed funding as of December 23, 2022, and received a $100,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency in November as part of the agency’s Small Business Innovation Research program.
The road to establishing Hydrova started during his junior year at McDonough when he decided to focus on promoting sustainability, reducing climate change, eliminating single-use plastic, and solving long-standing environmental issues. The result was StrawZero, a company that manufactured wheat straws to help mitigate large amounts of single-use plastic going into landfills.
“I feel like I really honed my skills as an entrepreneur from the practice I got at pitch competitions while I was a student at Georgetown, including Bark Tank and the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Challenge. These experiences really gave me the confidence to walk into investor pitches with different venture capital firms and confidently tell them our story and what Hydrova is all about,” Davis said.
StrawZero participated in Bark Tank in 2019, Georgetown Entrepreneurship’s annual pitch competition, and won $10,000 along with the People’s Choice Award. “Pitching at Bark Tank was an awesome experience. This is where the journey leading up to Hydrova started. I have always been very passionate about the environment and sustainability,” Davis said.
However, when COVID-19 struck in 2020, plans for StrawZero were put on hold as restaurants suffered from the loss of customers and the company’s sales were steeply declining. Despite facing unexpected business challenges, especially during the lockdowns, Davis said the idea for Hydrova was born.
He and his co-founder, Rostam Reifschneider, began contemplating their future and brainstorming ideas about clean energy and circular economy technologies. While carrying out an experiment for an aluminum-water reaction, the duo had an epiphany: they could help reduce waste in aluminum production through upcycling byproducts such as dross and salt cake.
“When you throw a soda can in the recycling bin, that’s a great thing to do because recycling aluminum saves 95% of the energy otherwise needed to produce new aluminum,” Davis said. “But the aluminum recycling process is imperfect and creates a slag-like waste material called ‘dross.’ From the sheer volume of aluminum that we recycle every year, dross ends up becoming a huge problem.”
Millions of tons of this waste, Davis said, get sent to landfills every year. Hydrova instead repurposes the waste into valuable products. Dross contains a mixture of aluminum, aluminum oxide, and salts, which isn’t very useful when mixed together. What Davis has helped innovate is a process to separate these materials so that they can be effectively recycled while simultaneously producing a source of clean energy.
Each material has a use in Hydrova’s recycling process. First, the aluminum recovered as byproduct from the separation process is used to produce new aluminum products like sheets and cans. Then, the recovered salt is used in the furnaces to aid that same recycling process. The aluminum oxide also provides an important raw ingredient for cement. Finally, aluminum that cannot be recycled is put through the aluminum-water reaction to produce hydrogen, which is a source of renewable fuel.
“We can actually use the hydrogen we make to help partially decarbonize the furnaces that are melting down the aluminum and replace some of the natural gas that it would otherwise consume. Hydrogen can be used in a lot of different ways, including running it through a fuel cell, which creates electricity.”
In June 2022, Hydrova announced a partnership with California’s largest aluminum producer TST Inc. and cement manufacturer CTS Cement to upcycle aluminum dross produced by TST Inc. into useful products, including those that CTS Cement is using to produce its Rapid Set® cement products. The startup is actively recycling TST’s dross in its Santa Ana, California, facility and is beginning additional projects with some of the largest aluminum producers worldwide.
The management lessons Davis learned at McDonough have helped him function effectively as the CEO of Hydrova. “I am able to use all of the skills I learned from my classes at Georgetown and the lessons learned as a student in my work at Hydrova — whether it’s helping the company raise funding, managing employees, doing our accounting, or negotiating contracts.”
Davis further honed the know-how he gained in the classroom by applying his knowledge to initiatives offered through Georgetown Entrepreneurship, such as pitch competitions and events like Bark Tank and in-depth programs like the Georgetown Startup Accelerator.
Additionally, Davis also credited Georgetown’s physics program for his successes today. He said the classes he took as an undergraduate helped him develop further scientific understanding, which has been necessary for his work with Hydrova.
His advice to Hoyas who are passionate about entrepreneurship and want to get started with their own business venture: it’s important to try different things, even if those ideas might be stepping stones to a larger goal or longer term entrepreneurial venture.
“If you have an idea, just go for it. See where it takes you. Whether you end up working on it for the next five months or five years, the lessons you learn from it will teach you so much,” Davis said.