Julie Bliss Mullen has always been curious about the world around her. While growing up in Central Massachusetts, she spent much of her childhood exploring the great outdoors, and credits her parents with fostering her love of innovation by letting her discover science through experiments at home. During high school, she was a member of her school’s environmental science club and completed a senior project where she analyzed water samples from local rivers. Wanting to channel her interest in natural science towards helping others, Julie initially dreamed of becoming a medical doctor.
“Throughout my life, I have always wanted to help people. As a child, when I thought about what I wanted to do when I grew up, I knew it would have to be something that combined science with helping others.”
After high school, Julie enrolled at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), where she planned to major in environmental policy while simultaneously pursuing pre-medical coursework requirements. The summer before her junior year, she traveled to Guatemala with Engineers Without Borders (EWB), where her team immersed themselves in a community that was experiencing health issues due to contaminated drinking water supply. She and her team developed a plan with the community to harvest rainwater by retrofitting roofs to accumulate a clean water supply for the whole year for each community household. Inspired by her experience in Guatemala, Julie decided to declare an additional major in engineering after returning to school in the fall.
“I was determined to find viable ways to provide people with clean water, and I knew that a water policy background combined with technical skills would lay the foundation to make a serious difference.”
Though it was uncommon for students at her school to begin engineering during their junior year, Julie graduated on time with dual bachelor’s degrees in Environmental & Sustainability Studies and Environmental Engineering with a focus in water treatment.
After graduation, Julie spent two years in the Drinking Water Unit at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Boston while also conducting graduate-level research at WPI. Seeking to delve deeper into the science behind water treatment, Julie began working towards a Ph.D. in Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As she learned more about the field, she realized that many water treatment solutions existed, but few offered the cost-effective and comprehensive water quality solution that many users urgently needed.
“Many water treatment systems are effective at trapping contaminants but reintroduce them back into the environment when the filters are disposed of or when brine is discharged. Existing destructive technologies are effective at breaking down some chemicals or killing microorganisms, but are expensive, energy intensive, and difficult to use.”
For the world to make progress towards solving the clean water crisis, Julie realized this gap in the market would need to be filled.
As part of her PhD research, Julie discovered an electrochemical technology that could treat water by passing a small electric current through it to destroy contaminants. The lack of resulting waste products and versatility of contaminant removal stood in stark contrast to existing products on the market, such as carbon filters that traded improved water quality for landfill and pollution, and the simplicity of the technology minimized costs or required maintenance. Seeing an opportunity to impact humanity through her discovery, Julie co-founded Aclarity, LLC in 2017 to commercialize and distribute her product to consumers.
As Co-Founder and CEO, one of Julie’s main jobs is to fundraise for Aclarity, which recently closed a pre-seed venture round. As a new mother, Julie recalls how nervous she was to hold investor meetings while pregnant with her first child.
“There’s definitely a gender gap when it comes to which companies receive venture funding. In my case, I just persevered and was honest with investors about myself and my goals, that way I was able to find the ones who respected my vision. When I told my investors I was going to have children they didn’t back away, and that was really nice.”
For her success in building and promoting Aclarity, Julie was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for Science in 2019. Aclarity’s current customers include engineering firms and technology providers that have been hired to clean polluted water with contaminants such as PFAS, VOCs, oil solvents, ammonia, and pesticides. These firms work with Aclarity to implement the company’s modular electrochemical water treatment devices at the polluted sites. Aclarity’s customers provide the service and day-to-day operational support to the contracting factories or agencies, whereas Aclarity provides the water treatment systems and hardware.
Looking towards the future, Aclarity is working with multiple companies and global nonprofits to distribute more of its products internationally for both drinking water and wastewater applications. The company is developing new devices for microbial disinfection, and has several ongoing pilots in progress for both small community drinking water systems and for commercial use. To maximize the reach of its efforts, Aclarity is working with an organization that builds community drinking water treatment kiosks in developing countries. Through this collaboration, Aclarity’s electrochemical device is currently used to treat water for a community in the Republic of Mali through one centralized system. The treated water is also bottled and distributed to shops in the area for purchase. For this community, Aclarity’s technology is already their primary method of water treatment. This successful implementation is one of the small, albeit important steps the company has taken towards Julie’s vision of providing affordable clean water solutions to communities around the world.
Outside of her demanding day job, Julie makes sure to pay it forward by serving as a role model and mentor for other women in STEM. She volunteers with the UMass Summer Entrepreneurship Institute for high school students, and frequently serves as a panelist for events and conferences that encourage young people to pursue careers in STEM and entrepreneurship. Julie was awarded the 2019 “Eat It” Lemelson-MIT Prize for her inventions and recently served on the selection committee for the prize’s 2020 undergraduate and graduate awardees.
As a relative latecomer to engineering, Julie encourages others not to limit themselves based on their early choices in life.
“It’s never too late to realize what you really want to do in life. There’s no right or wrong path as long as you are working towards something that you enjoy. Do what makes you happy.”