Great to chat with Greg Johnson CEO of AquiPor Technologies, AquiPor is revolutionizing hard surface building materials, improving the way urban stormwater systems work and interact with the natural environment! We discussed stormwater flood control, urban water contaminants, concrete CO2 emissions, crowdfunding and more!
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The unedited podcast transcript is below
James McWalter: And so once the so let’s say we have like a large storm and we have a lot of kind of stormwater gathering sort of the flood. You know our lovely City streets. Um, you know and and so say you know Aquipor has been distributed and now it’s actually has the opportunity to soak through and and disseminate. Where does it go? um, is it soaking into soil is it so you know because we’re talking about generally Urban neighborhoods.
Greg Johnson: Yep, Um, well ideally yes, it does it soaks back into the ground to Recharge Groundwater Now our material needs to be used or utilized with corresponding really competent engineering. So. You can design these systems to have full attenuation or you know partial infiltration where some of the water gets piped um to another area where you can recycle the water. There’s a lot of different things you can do and all of this is going to depend on the capacity of the underlying soil to take On. Um, ah a good amount of rainfall. You know there are some soils that are pretty Impermeable. Um, just naturally and so you’re gonna have to design for those type of parameters. But the ideal is yes, let’s get rainwater or stormwater back into the ground naturally to kind of Recharge groundwater and. Replenish the natural cycle.
James McWalter: And you also mentioned that yeah 1 of the other reasons that people are concerned with stormwater ther is because of the potential contamination of fresh bodies of water from you know from the stormwater. What are those contaminants and what are the kind of big concerns there. So.
Greg Johnson: Well, you know at 1 time it was really about combined sewer overflows happening where you would get you know sewage actual raw sewage into water bodies fertilizers. Things things of that nature that would cause you know Algae blooms and things like that. But now I think the big concern is microplastics and pfas and some of these things that or even a big issue. We’re having in Washington State like in the puget sound area. Co-host Salmon populations are being like decimated and what they found was it’s particulates from tires um like vehicle tires and so these really toxic particulates I think are the bigger concern now.
James McWalter: So that’s fascinating and and the idea is basically if they’re permit going into the ground the ground you know and has a pretty good track record of filtering water especially through a bedrock.
Greg Johnson: Yep, the ground is our best filter and you know that’s not a perfect scenario either if you have you know soluble toxins that are getting into soils. Um, So there’s something that needs to be and part of our so you know. I Think the magic Well, that’s not a good word but what we’ve tried to develop with this material is to have such small porosity that the vast majority of total suspended solids are filtered onto the surface and what we know is that dissolved metals some of these other dissolved toxins Attach. To total suspended solids and so if we can just filter the the solids where they can now be swept up by a vacuum sweep or street cleaning equipment then you know we’re we’re solving some of that issue.
James McWalter: Um, and as different materials are moving through. You know aquapore is there a potential that the permeability goes down over time.
Greg Johnson: Yep yep, it certainly can all filters clog and so we we think that our materials akin to a hardscape filter and the reality is all filters do clog eventually what we do believe though is the material will last years if it’s maintained properly and.
James McWalter: Just ah.
Greg Johnson: We’re also developing it with large service factors so that if it’s not maintained properly. It still retains you know enough permeability to Handle. You know a large rain event and then over time it will eventually clog and at that point it’s precast material. Can be ripped up replaced and the beauty I Think with our technology is it can be recycled and then go back into new products. So We’re really trying to develop the technology and our whole business model as sort of this, you know cradle- to cradle model and that needs to be proven out. That’s kind of what we’re working on now. But that’s very important to us from everything that we do in terms of development to installation and you know the full the full business model.
James McWalter: Ah, on that recycling piece is that ah is the a model potentially that it always goes back to you are there other essential use cases for recycling of the product of of the material.
Greg Johnson: Well I think it it could go back to us or it could go back to any real precaster concrete precaster. You know you you go ahead and recycle the material and you would want to you know have a process. Ah, chemical process where you get out the gunk if you will that has collected and accumulated over time and then you would have clean agGreg Johnson:ate you know, clean materials that could go back into whether it’s permeable or impermeable concrete.
James McWalter: Understood and you know when I was looking into. You know the issues around stormwater and the issues around having very impermeable urban landscapes you know some of the city planning approaches are to you know increase the amount of parks and Green greenways and all this kind of thing. How do you think about how your product kind of intersects with some of those other kind of urban planning approaches.
Greg Johnson: I love those approaches I think they’re very important I think the more and for more reasons than just you know, stormwater and dealing with water I think the more green spaces we have in cities the better I think for us what we want to do is is say hey what if we could make. And this is a design that we’re working on what if we could make all the sidewalks permeable and have it be a situation where you have urban you know space that you’re going to need concrete. You’re going to need hard surfaces to transport people in goods and and services. Well why not. Use our material for those surfaces and solve the stormwater issue at the same time and so that’s really our approach I think we could do a lot with our material in terms of you know, giving usable space back to cities and developers which I think is important. If you’re a commercial developer. You know you don’t necessarily want to put a 1 acre then this is like a master a master plan community developer. We talked to in the Dallas area said you know they’ll they’ll do a community and they’ll have a retention pawn that takes up an acre. And you know that’s a couple lots potentially so if we can give them back that usable space and solve the stormwater issue at the same time I think you know it’s ah a win-win.
James McWalter: And and how do you think about I guess Monetization you know when I’ve talked to other companies who are trying to bring new. You know eco-friendly or sustainable or carbon. Friendly materials particularly like advanced materials to bear often. They’re kind of competing with commodity products that are already out there. Um. And what’s interesting I guess about yours is you also have this kind of key differentiation which is the Permeability piece. Um, so how do you think about? you know like is this a we’re trying to get to price pardity and just you know, blow blow existing commodity out of the water or more is this more kind of a value play where you kind of speak to them. The permeability versus impermeability kind of differentiation.
Greg Johnson: I think it’s a value play. We want this to be a premium solution but at the same time we’re also very cognizant of we don’t want to compete with. We’d be foolish to want to compete with the cement or the concrete industry what we want to do is partner with the industry. And what we know is we have a technology that they don’t currently have and so what’s been really painstaking. But I think very worthwhile in our pilot manufacturing and the current stage we’re at is getting the process and the technology to the point where it can just be a turnkey solution. Existing manufacturers so instead of saying and there’ve been some you know some stories of companies that have come out 1 was ah a company that had a fly-ash cement type solution for brick and they wanted to take on the brick industry and they raised 60 or seventy million dollars and you know tried to. Build a bunch of plants and and take the industry head on and of course they you know they were bankrupt like 2 years later and you know we saw that as a cautionary tale. We also don’t think that’s how you get this out at scale either. You know we want to see this everywhere and so what we’d rather do is team up with the industry. Um. Industry right now they’re trying to decarbonize concrete industry as I don’t think they have great solutions. Um I’d like to think that we do you know and we have to prove that but the idea is you know let’s let’s team up. Let’s partner up. Let’s make this a situation where it’s a high-margin product but everyone. Um, you know can can take part in it. Basically.
James McWalter: Ah, and so would that be kind of a licensing model or near day like ah but you said plug and play you like a factory in a box like how how do you think about it.
Greg Johnson: Yep yep, we think about it 2 ways. So a licensing model for sure on the concrete side so to produce the material. But then we also want to be a project company and so as an epcm engineering procurement construction management company. We would come out and we would work with civil engineers. In a given area. We would stamp whatever design they had for the project. We would be responsible for procuring all the materials we would procure that from our licensed manufacturers and then we would oversee the construction of these projects but we wouldn’t do the construction we would work with a given contractor in that area. And and then I just think it becomes it becomes a nice I think potentially high margin business business model for us. But then everyone has access now to play with this technology and and you know, kind of bring this to bear.
James McWalter: And I believe you’ve um, kind of engaged in some crowdfunding. What has that experience been like.
Greg Johnson: Crowdfunding has been It’s been quite valuable for us. Um, there are times where it is a lot of work. That’s 1 thing I’ll tell you and I think raising money is always hard work but crowdfunding is it’s a full time job because. You’re out there. You take inbound questions. It seems all day every day from potential investors. But for us, it’s been extremely valuable and I think it’s it’s coming of age crowdfunding is for us. We turn to it because this is. In the early stages of Development. We need real patient capital. We’ve purposely stayed away from traditional venture capital and nothing against vc I think venture capital has a great role to play obviously in the incubation of technology and the development of companies. Like ours. But what we’re doing. You’re dealing with heavy civil construction again. Infrastructure. Um, you know these are and it’s a hard technical challenge to solve it just requires a little more patient capital at this stage and we’ve gotten that from the crowd and and it’s been great and then I’d say the most valuable piece of that is. You would be amazed. Ah, you’ll get a water engineer from say georgia that puts in 1000 dollars just because they’re interested in the technology and now they’re on your cap table and you can talk to this person who’s an industry expert. Um I don’t know it’s just been with the contacts and the network that we’ve.
James McWalter: And right.
Greg Johnson: Kind of gained from this has been incredible.
James McWalter: And yeah, it’s interesting kind of dynamic between the the traditional quote unquote bootstrap versus funded company and you know bootstrap you may as well. So the saying goes like you may as well bootstrack because your customers are paying you to to build your company.
Greg Johnson: Right.
James McWalter: Um, versus venture where your investors are paying you to build a company and if you could do you know 1 like it’s better to have your customers because ah, you’re they’re media getting value versus like investors who are looking for these kind of multi-year Very very outsized exits I think crowdfunding from the way you’ve kind of described. It is kind of falls in the middle right. Like they are also looking for a return of sorts. But also um, near by definition. The kind of people who would be engaged in a crowdfunding campaign like yours um might have some deep experience might have some deep interest might even be future customers.
Greg Johnson: Absolutely absolutely and and I think that it’s the other thing is not to get off too too much on this but the ability now of Everyday investors to have the chance to invest in startups which wasn’t possible before I think could be a real game changer I mean. You know and they’re not putting in a ah thousand box here or 500 bucks. There’s not a ah you know significant chunk of capital but maybe for that person it is and then suddenly if they can say you know you get in on a a startup that all of a sudden becomes you know a billion dollar market cap someday that goes public. Um. You know that turns into some some wealth for people that didn’t have that opportunity before and so I think it really is coming of age. It’s going to be really interesting I think the next five to 10 years to see where it goes but we’ve certainly yeah, we’ve gotten value out of it.
James McWalter: And I guess how how did you get those first initial you know the first hundred people right? It’s hit to because those are the key people.
Greg Johnson: They definitely are the key people. They were mostly local type investors who knew kind of what we were doing and once they saw that we went live. You know we had sort of that I guess that built-in crowd. Um.
James McWalter: M.
Greg Johnson: And then I think there was an appetite you know, especially the first crowdfund there was just an appetite for something new. Um in stormwater and in the space and so we were very fortunate our first crowdfund and now we’re we’re into our second one and it’s going. Well. Too. But I just think there’s an appetite for the retail investor right now they are cognizant of climate change. They’re cognizant of the environment and I think we’ve gotten you know some of those factors in our favor.
James McWalter: And I guess what you know if you think out over the next kind of year or 2 What are the problems you’re trying to solve to kind of get to that next level those next milestones.
Greg Johnson: Well, we certainly want to get our manufacturing process to the point where it’s highly scalable and it can go into any precast plant throughout the country or throughout the world. Um, so that’s definitely a goal in the next you know six months to be able to do that. And then we’re building a neighborhood scale mockup right now which will actually be our permeable sidewalk design and there’ll be some other Multi -utility technologies that we introduce on these mockup or on this mockup project and. So once we get those 2 things done I think you know we’ll be able to build an economic feasibility study based on that and it’ll almost be like we have a spec that we can now hand to ha presidents or private developers. The engineers that represent those people. As well as cities.
James McWalter: So that’s fascinating and I guess you know if like if I’m trying to I want to walk on this pavement in the next or the east sidewalks in the future. You know what? what would like the best potential timeline for that. Be.
Greg Johnson: Ah I hope that we have the goal is really to have our first major project in the ground by next year and even by the the first first half of next year um and then we have I have.
James McWalter: I visit.
Greg Johnson: Ah, list going right now of like it. It gets back to crowdfunding ah but 23 potential projects that vary in size and scope. But they’re all from you know crowdfund investors that say hey I’m a developer I have a small commercial lot in say like Dayton ohio um. We have a hotel in texas and right right outside the fort worth area. Some small residential type projects that people want to do so I think once we get to that point you know we’re going to have I don’t think demand will be much of an issue. But. Yeah I mean that’s the plan we have to prove it out. We want to do it first with you know, a larger scale mockup.
James McWalter: And how do you think about? Well I guess I’m trying to think through like the incentives right? So like for society at large for things like you know so storm water flooding and and all that kind of thing so in theory you know we have a big storm like Hurcan ida as you mentioned. Yeah, we hear hear these numbers about hundreds of billions of dollars in damage but things like your kind of product to be to be implemented right? like that would help prevent some of the worst damages. Um.
Greg Johnson: Um, rob.
James McWalter: Like I guess like how do you think about the pressure points that need to be brought to bear to have that your a product like yours kind of rolled out at as City level. Um, especially when it’s like the insurer I Guess the insurers are the ones who care the most um, do they have the power I guess to kind of push that back onto municipalities like like how does that does intended flow.
Greg Johnson: No.
Greg Johnson: That’s a really good question. Um I think that that’s an interesting angle I think cities right now have some pressure on them coming from like the epa for example and I know even. Like our our city spokane when they were under a consent decree where they basically had to stop or limit combined sewer overflows into the spokane river to like 2 per year um and otherwise they’re getting fined and they’re sizable Fines. And so I think you’re getting pressure from the epa and some of them were you know federal agencies that and you have watchdog groups right? So here in Spokane we have like the Spokane riverkeeper and there are ngos that are putting pressure on cities to kind of clean up their act and so I think you’re seeing some of that. Um. And spokane you know to their credit and they invested heavily in like a gray infrastructure solution which I think is a pricey way to do it and it has a role to play. But anyway my point is you know they they got in front of the problem they solved it and so. Think you’re gonna see more of that from cities just because of that pressure. Um the insurance aspect is interesting and I’m actually seeing some of that in coastal cities like Miami. Um. Where real estate prices continue to go through the roof and and people are still moving there in droves which is interesting. Um I seriously seriously I’m with you man. Ah so.
James McWalter: if I if I could short the Miami real estate market easily I would do so yeah.
Greg Johnson: So yeah I don’t know I think you know cities are are feeling some sense of pressure more from federal agencies.
James McWalter: Fascinating and you know if I think look at more of a kind of a broad view about what is needed over the next you know, couple of decades to mitigate a lot of the problems we’re seeing um what are areas that you’d like to see more innovation in smart people you know saying Okay, there’s a real problem here. We need some sort of solution and Then. Ah, what those solutions potentially could be.
Greg Johnson: That’s a great question. Um I think there’s a lot of smart people working on various aspects that are dealing with a climate crisis that gives me a lot of hope I would like to see more innovation in we talk about industry steel cement. Think people don’t understand like the sement industry right now is responsible for eight percent of global c o 2 every year and right now the solution for them is to basically capture c o 2 and reinject it into concrete. Um, which is that’s a fine solution. But. My whole thing is let’s not calcine. You know limestone in these chemicals at 2500 degrees fahrenheit and blow off all this c o 2 in the atmosphere to to begin with and so that’s really what our focus has been with this new cement is. Can we just do away with that process completely and that’s our north star is to see if we can get this to the point where it can be implemented everywhere and to say that we actually are impacting a major reduction in c o 2 that’s coming from the concrete industry. Um, so the short answer is I’d like to see more innovation and more hands on deck when it comes to cement and making cement green.
James McWalter: And I guess for your product in Particular. So if you can I guess cast the concrete at a lower temperature. You don’t have to use dirty factories that are using natural gas. Whatever it may be to kind of get to those high temperatures to cast concrete today and so I guess is what is the? ah. Yeah, 1 of the different of the concrete right? have different structural integrityities for different types of building and so is is that the kind of problem you’re kind of navigating right now.
Greg Johnson: Yes, yeah, it is and so strength durability. You know those those issues are being worked out right now. But I think 1 of the problems I see with the current. I think solution or 1 of the solutions of injecting c o 2 into concrete they claim it makes it Stronger. We have reason to believe and we actually know that that’s not necessarily the truth. Especially if you’re trying to get super high strength structural concrete. Um, and so that’s something I think we could. Potentially effect down the road to the cement company that’s doing development on this cement for us I think is actually onto that and that’ll be interesting I think the next 2 years much will be publicized about some of that work. That’s the hope.
James McWalter: Yeah, absolutely I guess I knew personally you know when did your fascination or passion for the environment start.
Greg Johnson: I’ve always kind of had a passion for the environment. Um, we spent you know as a kid growing up. We spent a lot of time at the lake you know we’re blessed in in this region to have so many lakes and mountains and there’s great outdoor life here in the spokane area. Went to school in Montana um, where nature is obviously beautiful as well and and I just always you know I was always keen on this is our environment. We have to be custodians of it. Um, and I don’t know if there was ever a. Ah moment where I was like you know this is what I want to do with my life. It was just always kind of having a connection to to nature and as far back as I can remember you know when we’re going to the lake and you know my mom would always when there’s litter somewhere around. She’s always like hey pick that up. It’s like well it’s not our litter. Doesn’t matter just pick it up. You know and that’s something I try to instill in my kids too as we go on a walk with the dog or whatever and there’s litter bring a bag and just pick up. Keep keep our neighborhood clean. Keep the environment clean I don’t know it’s just kind of always been parted.
James McWalter: Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. It actually reminds me of a story I was probably about 10 or 11 years old and we were driving in the car in ireland and it was my father and we were at some sports match that we were playing as kids whatever it is. We had a couple of neighbors in the back of the car and we’d just gone to a shop to get some chocolates or whatever it was.
Greg Johnson: Part of me I guess I don’t know.
James McWalter: And 1 of the lads in our in the backse who we didn’t know that well. But anyways he ate his shock bar and he just put it out the window of the car and my father noticed this in the rear mirror slammed the brakes and made him go out and pick it up and yeah and and and bringing it in and he was like the kid was like so shocked like it was unbelievable and that was just and we were just like of course like it’s.
Greg Johnson: Um, good. Um, yeah yeah.
James McWalter: Wild You could never throw like a wrapper out of you know a car window. Absolutely um and I guess then you know you’ve obviously had a lot of kind of a long kind of journey to get get to this point you know some pivots along the way. Um.
Greg Johnson: Um, right, It’s a no brainer. Yeah, that’s funny.
James McWalter: You know what’s what’s the kind of biggest learning you’ve had about you know trying to lead a team through those kind of changes.
Greg Johnson: Well, it’s just really been and I’ve so kind of said it before is the obstacle I know this is like kind of cliche the very stoic you know Cliche is the obstacle is the way but I truly believe that. So. Um, we’ve had a ton of constraints throughout this whole venture that I think have actually sharpened us. It’s made us better and so I think the key takeaway. Um, and we’re to the point now where you know nothing really phases us. It’s like something doesn’t work out. You know 3 years ago I would have been freaking out now I’m just like okay you know it is what it is. What did we learn from it and I think just really embracing challenges you you hate to say embrace you know like mistakes and failures. But. You kind of have to as long as you have you know the perspective of we need to learn from this and so that’s been a key takeaway and the other thing is just patience. Um, we have our goals are audacious I mean they’re they’re big and so you have to have patience with. Those type of goals and it’s hard because you do have some investors that you know they want to see a return on investment right away and you have people that are going to be in your ear about you know, speeding up and which is totally understandable, but just having patience and. Developing the business the right way.
James McWalter: Yeah I guess im at the latterer point I think a lot of startups and and people in the space often confuse the the speed component and how linked it is to Market readiness in general right? And so ah, you know all the kind of legendary.
Greg Johnson: And.
James McWalter: Companies that went from zero to a billion in like a handful of years mostly software companies in general anyway, but a lot of them were because like all of a sudden. Ah, you know we we had ubiquitous you know Handheld supercomputers that allow and enable a ton of things that just weren’t possible before right? Like if you had a certain type of company 2 years before the advent was the smartphone. You just would never have been a big company but because you were a right place right? time and then also of course smart people executing well right? like you still obviously I have to yeah, be good at what you do Um, like those are the the ways to kind of speed up things and so you know at some point the concrete industry will shift right? and.
Greg Johnson: Um.
James McWalter: You know, hopefully that’s tomorrow but it might be 3 years from now but being kind of well well readied and well structured to kind of capitalize on a market shift. That’s where I think real kind of extraordinary growth can come from.
Greg Johnson: I totally agree and it and you nailed it I mean it’s nice to think like so Mark zuckerberg’s like yeah you know thematically like move fast and break things which is great I love it. But in construction if you do that like people are gonna die and buildings are gonna crumble and and so it is. It’s a different this is a different animal but you’re right I think you get to a point where if you get the development work done and then you get to market and then suddenly this starts to be adopted then I think the growth trajectory could be pretty substantial and that’s what we’re. Were shooting for.
James McWalter: Yeah Greg Johnson: does absolutely agree and this has been absolutely great. Um, you know I’ve really enjoyed the conversation before we finish up is there anything I should have asked you about but did not.
Greg Johnson: I think you covered the gambit. 1 thing I will mention we talked about crowdfunding we actually have a crowdfund open right Now. Startengine Dot Com forward slash aquapore and it’s going. Well I think we have just. Under 600000 Rays We’re trying to raise 3 million nine hundred and 30000 so we’re getting there and that was the only other thing I was going to plug.
James McWalter: Yeah, no, that’s that’s fantastic and we’ll include that link in in the show notes and and even just you know to hear like you’ve raised 600 thousand dollars from you know so many people and you’ve done even more in the past I think it’s incredibly impressive and I’ve no doubt that you’ll you’ll hit that 3 point nine.
Greg Johnson: We are very very hopeful and it’s just been. It’s been a good journey and like I said it’s amazing to get these people on our cap table that you know it’s a construction.
James McWalter: And our targets.
Greg Johnson: Management expert. You know in Michigan or you have the water engineer in Georgia we even have angel investors. You’ll like this which is funny. It’s like they will put in their thousand bucks or 1500 bucks just so that they can be on the update list and kind of have deal flow so that as things progress and grow. Maybe they tap into their.
James McWalter: No.
Greg Johnson: Ah, more institutional investment type networks and it’s just interesting. The whole thing has been quite eye-opening to me but it’s been valuable.
James McWalter: I think if you can get angel investors to pay you to be on the update list I think that that’s a great model and then startups take advantage of that you know great this 1 great! Thank you so much.
Greg Johnson: Right? Ah, absolutely thank you James This was fun.