This is one of the key battles of the Ministry of Ecological Transition: fighting against the invisible pollution of water. In an awareness video about the challenges of this type of pollution, we learn that it is manifested by the presence of micropollutants in the water, in minuscule quantities (on the order of one microgram per liter). These micropollutants can be of mineral or organic types, taking the form of metals, radioactive elements, or pesticides. The main culprits? The industrial, agricultural, transportation, and construction sectors. Aware of this challenge and driven by the desire to undertake, Clément Nanteuil embarked on the Klearia adventure in 2010 to put technology at the service of environmental issues.
From PowerPoint presentations to the first clients, let's look back with the man holding a doctorate in fundamental physics on the origins and contours of Klearia.
While many entrepreneurs often start a project after personally encountering a problem they want to solve, this was not the case for Clément Nanteuil. On the contrary, he left an academic career that did not necessarily please him and discovered his entrepreneurial calling during a seminar on research valorization through business creation within the Entrepreneurs program at CentraleSupélec. "An entrepreneur who had just been ousted from the company he himself founded came to testify about the intensity and richness of his experience," recalls Clément Nanteuil. "As surprising as it may sound, I saw stars in the eyes of this exceptional entrepreneur, and I thought I wanted to experience that too.
Klearia, a "techno-push" project addressing strong ecological challenges
Immediately, the young man set out to find scientific patents that had not yet found takers. He approached the CNRS, incubators, and, more broadly, all public and semi-public structures within the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Ultimately, it was a patent of which he was an inventor, filed by the CNRS and the University of Paris-Saclay during his thesis, that became the origin of the project. "At the time, we didn't yet talk about deep tech," Clément Nanteuil reveals. The "lab on a chip" or "miniaturizable" laboratory is a system that allows anyone to perform chemical analyses anytime and anywhere. In this sense, the lab on a chip democratizes analysis. We find this principle in the glucometer, a device that allows diabetics to analyze their blood sugar multiple times a day using a portable device and strips on which they place a drop of their blood, a technique described in more detail in this article. It's also the principle of the pregnancy test!
The patent used by Clément Nanteuil pertains more specifically to a new glass-based monitoring technique; the chemically resistant material allows for analyses without changing or discarding consumables. From there, the entrepreneur wondered: in which sector is recurrent analysis needed without having to change the device? He quickly turned to industrial monitoring and, out of environmental sensitivity, selected two areas: water quality control on the one hand and air quality on the other. Klearia later developed its proprietary technology to embed electronic components in glass. As Clément Nanteuil points out, the project thus began with a desire to undertake without a specific problem in mind, before crystallizing around cutting-edge technology that had not yet found all its uses, and finally understanding how it could be put to good use. In this sense, Klearia is a "techno-push" project, as opposed to projects initiated based on market needs.
Chemical analysis of water in the laboratory: a tedious process
When the company was founded in 2012, there were already proof-of-concept lab-on-a-chip technologies. The rest had to be invented: the product, the user procedure, and the interface. The initial goal of the technology was to make analytical chemistry accessible to everyone. To detect micropollutants in the water they treat, industrial companies need to be able to detect a milligram in a ton. Typically, industries and treatment sectors rely on laboratories, which result in significant costs and delays.
To better understand the dilemma of industrial companies, Clément Nanteuil provides the example of a bottled water production plant. Water is bottled continuously, and tests are conducted regularly. The testing process is time-consuming: a sample is sent to the laboratory, and then one has to wait for the results, request counter-analysis, etc. "The problem is that in the event of pollution, one to two weeks of production are destroyed," emphasizes Klearia's CEO, "which is not without causing economic and environmental losses." One thinks of the health scandal experienced by Danone in the 1990s. The cause was traces of pollutants found in Perrier bottles, which had to be recalled from multiple countries. In total, 280 million bottles had to be withdrawn from the market, at a cost of around one billion francs at the time. It doesn't matter that only thirteen bottles were affected by impurities: Danone went from being a leader to the third-largest global bottled water company, behind Nestlé. The origin of the error was human, as a filter was not changed on time at a production site. This highlights the significant challenges that on-site monitoring and water treatment optimization represent for industrial companies.
A sensitive, fast, and accessible technology
Naturally, Klearia caters to three groups of stakeholders: bottled water producers, water utilities, and, more recently, international companies in fine chemicals that the startup assists with environmental protection issues. With the promises of Industry 4.0, industrial companies eagerly await smart sensors capable of meeting the sensitivity levels required to detect micropollutants. However, even if such sensors existed, they wouldn't last over time, according to Clément Nanteuil. "The technological prerequisites for our solutions are extremely advanced: it requires technology that is both sensitive, as what is being analyzed is highly dilute, fast compared to laboratory methods, and accessible to anyone to avoid indirect human costs."
Furthermore, the solution offered by Klearia is sustainable, requiring minimal reagents on a small scale, few consumables, and thus generating minimal waste. Clément Nanteuil explains, "We try to recycle the active elements in the consumables as much as possible: the customer returns the cartridge to us, we replace what needs to be replaced, and then we return the product." The most promising customer segments are tanneries, semiconductor manufacturers, bottled water companies, and environmental discharge sectors. The company benefits from the fact that water is involved in virtually all industries. Currently, Klearia is working closely with three major international accounts, with pilot programs underway for validation. The pace is expected to accelerate; from monthly measurements, it will transition to weekly or even hourly measurements. Ultimately, the idea is to establish commercial partnerships with water treatment companies to offer a comprehensive water monitoring and treatment solution.
"We've never made as much progress as we have since we got our hands dirty."
What is particularly interesting in the case of Klearia is that the obsession with technology eventually took precedence over the product vision, as Clément Nanteuil now confesses. Between the moment the first contracts were signed in 2015 and the launch of the commercial offering in early 2021, more than five years had passed. "With its assistance, subsidies, and innovation contests, France provides an extremely favorable ecosystem for entrepreneurship," begins the CEO of Klearia, before highlighting the flip side. By focusing too much on research and development, Klearia lost sight of the commercial aspect. "When we signed our first contract, we wanted to ensure certain product specifications even though it wasn't the customer's priority, as they didn't care," acknowledges Clément Nanteuil.
This research-oriented approach at the expense of business is reflected in the team's composition, with over 50% of the team being researchers. Therefore, the priority in 2021 was to strengthen Klearia's commercial DNA and better integrate product feedback into the team. "We are currently working on building a product that is 'idiot-proof,' meaning there is no possibility of error for the end user," explains the CEO. B2C? Not on the horizon, as the solution remains too costly for individual consumers. "The initial devices cost around 10,000 euros, with a cost of about thirty euros per analysis," reveals Clément Nanteuil, which is not much compared to the hundreds of thousands of euros that a laboratory analyzer costs.
Investors, wary, fear the cold water
Regarding funding, the startup based in Nice has received over three million euros in public grants since its inception. Nevertheless, the CEO faced difficulties in raising funds from venture capital investors. Frightened by the failures in the monitoring sector, they are waiting, according to Clément Nanteuil, to see which startup can validate its traction with a technology proven by the market. In this race for funding, Neftys appears to the entrepreneur as an accessible solution to finance his R&D, allowing him to "gain precious months." A fundraising round is underway to finance the solution's market entry. "Once we can prove traction, we will return to the investors to accelerate," hopes the CEO of Klearia - whose name is a combination of his first name and his wife's. A strong traction is what we wish for them at Neftys!