Pamela Chavez

Pamela Chavez

Aguamarina

SEEN UNDER A MICROSCOPE, AN INSIGNIFICANT DROP OF SEAWATER REVEALS A SURPRISING INTERIOR, A THRONG OF MINUTE CREATURES BUSY WITH URGENT, UNENDING TASKS.

Almost all land-inhabiting bacteria are recognized, but scientists have identified only 1% of marine bacteria. The word Aguamarina (Spanish for “seawater”) evokes the frontier of the unknown, and the promise of what is to be discovered. It is also the name of a surprising startup launched by an entrepreneur who broke all the stereotypes.

Pamela Chávez has brought seawater far from the ocean to Chile’s mining district, the “hills of the desolate north,” in the words of poet Pablo Neruda. Although mining may not be a theme that lends itself to poetry, Chávez sees her company, Aguamarina, as a metaphor. In that inhospitable and arid place, a single drop of seawater is loaded with untold wealth: bacteria that could change the way the world mines.

Based in Antofagasta, an economic center of northern Chile dedicated mainly to copper extraction, Aguamarina focuses on improving industrial processes using biological elements. “We arrived just at the right time,” Chávez says, because mining cannot continue to grow without becoming more efficient. “And the only way it can grow is via innovation.”

For example, her company has found a way to decrease the enormous amounts of water that mining has traditionally used. The process reduces the dust that mining sites typically cut with water.

It is easy to ignore the invisible world of bacteria – especially in mining, where the basic unit of measurement is the ton. “Bacteria can change everything,” Chávez insists. As proof, she cites the origin of the planet: Earth’s oxygen is derived from the minute, monotonous, untiring work of bacteria. “We are here on this planet because bacteria made it habitable.”

Chávez shows a video that demonstrates Aguamarina’s work. Mining creates huge clouds of dust that affect the environment, the maintenance of the machinery, and the health of workers, not to mention the inhabitants of nearby communi­ties. The video showcases two products that, ap­plied to the ground, cre­ate a crust as hard as con­crete from which dust does not rise. The miracle is performed by a bacteria and microalgae derived from seawater.

Agua­marina is pursuing two additional lines of development: The company is using natural biological agents to control bio-corrosion, the wear­ing-out of machinery. And it is using bacteria “in a more green and friendly way” than achieved with acid, the traditional method used in the process to clean minerals, a technique known as bio-lixiviation.

Although her company is still small, Chávez says, Aguamarina is operating on an international level. “It is not easy for a US firm to connect with one in Chile, and this makes me think that we have very little competition,” she says.

Chávez is a Chilean biol­ogist who began her career in academia. After completing her postgraduate studies abroad, she returned to the Uni­versity of Antofagasta. Chávez was still young and had more academic honors than most of her scientist colleagues. The av­erage age was 54. She was 30, and “committed all the sins,” she says. A woman in a man’s world, she was deter­mined from the outset to carry out practical, applied re­search, which made it easier for her to obtain public fi­nancing. “Money gives you the power to move, to make decisions and to invest in infrastructure,” she says.

With $3 million secured through public financing, Chávez equipped a biotechnolo­gy labora­tory “in a place where there was nothing.” She launched the university’s biotechnology course of study and founded three postgraduate programs at the school, which had previously had none. “I like to train people, but I found it very dif­ficult to advance.”

The practicality of her research helped Chávez iden­tify opportunities. In particular, she realized, the mining industry had a grave need for research and development. Working with corporations re­quired a much faster, more direct and efficient process than work­ing from a university, though.

Shortly after arriving at the university, Chávez received an invite from a group of investors to form a com­pany that would provide research services at a much more agile pace. In 2005 she launched her first company, but held onto her position at the university. “I bought a house and convert­ed the garage into a laboratory and office,” she recalls. As the company grew rapidly, an associ­ate suggested moving the firm to Santiago. But, preferring to stay in Antofagasta, Chávez opt­ed to sell a year and a half after the launch.

Within months, another investor was knocking on Chávez's door. “I had set­ up the first company from scratch, and felt I had the confidence to start a second,” she explains. So in 2007 she founded Aguamarina.

Chávez immediately faced a polarizing dilemma. If she left the university, she would lose its laboratory. “Creating a laboratory is very expensive, and takes a lot of effort.” But in founding her own company where she could follow her own research imperatives, “I in­vested in my freedom,” she says. “And that is what has motivated me. I didn’t go to Aguamarina to make money, I went there to gain my freedom.”

Chávez also realized she had to structure the company with a business mentality. “I knew what it was like to start a project, but not how to grow it,” she admits. So she went back to school.

First Chávez took a coaching course with Pro-Chile (the governmental agency that promotes Chilean exports), then took a certificate program in innovation, technology and business. She then be­came an Endeavor entrepreneur in 2010 and, through that high-impact program and mentorship, acquired the vision with which to grow globally. “We entrepreneurs have a dream, but how to manage it, make it real and give it order is the most difficult thing,” she says.

In 2012 Chávez entered the Entrepreneurship and Competitiveness in Latin America program at Columbia Universi­ty, which allowed her to see the experience of her classmates and of other enterprises similar to her own. She recalls, for example, vis­iting an Israeli firm with 200 doc­tors. “That had a great impact on me because it connected techno­logical innovation with an enter­prise, and that’s what I needed to do.”

The program also put her in contact with top-ranking advisors. “I continue to receive mes­sages from my advisors via Skype. They know that Aguamarina is not just me, it’s a team that can have an enormous impact on the region’s economy.”

The program allowed her to convert her laboratory into a corporate pro­cessing entity. Chávez got a handle on how to manage the company and position it for growth.

Aguamarina recent­ly signed a trade agree­ment with Harsco, a US firm offering industrial services and engineering products with 134 operations in 34 countries. In this case, the product involves non-traditional lixiviation, which is in a pilot phase.

“The universe is enormous. The ques­tion is how to carry out the pilot project today and how to create a good business model so that it grows easily,” says Chávez.

 She insists she is concentrating on today rather than where Aguamari­na will be in the five years. “Aguamarina has the pos­sibility of growing globally, of going to Brazil, to Mexico,” Chávez says. First, though, “I have to get through today so that we have an opportunity to grow.”