From a student team at the 2014 iGEM competition, to a business with office and lab space at one of London’s leading science-focused incubators, Puraffinity’s journey highlights the breadth and interaction of knowledge exchange and entrepreneurial support structures at Imperial College London.

Imagine you’re a student (or think back to when you were one). You exist in a flurry of academic commitments. You try new things and learn about yourself. Your future is a mesh of different possibilities – job offers, options for further study and, perhaps, entrepreneurship. This was the situation faced by the founding team of CustoMem – since rebranded as Puraffinity – an Imperial student start-up which has developed bio-based materials which selectively capture micropollutants from water sources.

In 2014, a team of students from Imperial entered iGEM 2014, the world’s largest synthetic biology competition. This is where the ideas that shaped CustoMem came together for the first time. After finishing second in iGEM, some of the team members took the idea forward to a four-day MBA programme organised by SynbiCITE, the Innovation and Knowledge centre for Synthetic Biology, based at Imperial College London.

Henrik Hagemann, now CEO of Puraffinity, picks up the story: “At that point, I still wasn’t fully convinced to take the idea forward. We had some traction and the idea was developed to a good stage, but obviously there was still a lot of uncertainty!”

When the organisers of Imperial College London’s flagship entrepreneurial accelerator programme, the Venture Catalyst Challenge, called Henrik on the deadline day for entries in 2015, demanding to know where his application was, he acted quickly.

“I was in a lecture at the time. They called me and told me they expected my entry because they’d heard of the idea and the progress we’d made to that point. I finished the lecture, made some calls to other team members, and by the end of the day we had entered the programme. VCC was great for us. We went through the intense accelerator programme, and though we didn’t win at the final pitch event, it made the opportunity more concrete.”

On seeing the pitch made at the VCC final, Henrik’s proposed PhD supervisor suggested he should take a year to explore the opportunity. CustoMem was incorporated in 2015 with proof of concept funding support from SynbiCITE, and the company took up residence in a shared lab at the Imperial BioIncubator in South Kensington.

“That flexibility was incredible for us. It continued, when later Imperial’s new Incubator at White City opened, we became the first company in the second shared lab there. That’s where we did the research work that let us generate data to help us win our first major grant from Horizon 2020. And we’ve grown from there to a full office and dedicated lab space at the Incubator.”

In July 2019 CustoMem rebranded to Puraffinity and secured £2.8 million investment in an oversubscribed seed round from leading sustainability investors.