Walt Brown, CEO of RF Wastewater, sat down with Water Online Radio for this live interview from the show floor at WEFTEC 2011 in Los Angeles. Brown provides background on the company and how its lignocellulosic, or plant-based, technology benefits wastewater treatment operations. Listen or read on to learn more.
Todd Schnick: We are back, broadcasting live from the Los Angeles Convention Center and the tradeshow floor of WEFTEC. I am Todd Schnick, joined my colleague, Todd Youngblood. Todd, we‘re kicking off hour five. It has been a lot of fun so far.
Todd Youngblood: Hour five and I think we’ve got the exact right guest to kick off hour five.
Todd Schnick: This is the perfect guest to wrap our morning segment and go onto the lunch hour. Boy, we are excited to welcome the president and CEO of RF Wastewater, Walt Brown. Welcome to Water Online Radio.
Walt: Thanks, Todd and Todd.
Todd Schnick: It is good to have you. Before we get into our conversation, Walt, why don’t you take a few minutes and just walk us through a little about you, your background and the work that you are doing with RF Wastewater?
Walt: My name is Walt. It's a four-letter word. I started out as an accounting nerd and a statistics nerd and ended up in the wastewater business about two and half years ago.
Todd Youngblood: I am not sure that makes a whole lot of sense, career-path wise.
Walt: Well, it doesn't a little bit. My background, coming out of school, was as an accountant, and I ended starting my own business in 1986.
In 2006, I sold them and became part of an angel startup group. When the founder of this business couldn’t quite see it to the finish line, they brought in a mean old CEO, and that is who I am.
Todd Youngblood: The accounting background and mean old, now that makes sense. But seriously, in this environment, you said you are two years old now?
Walt: The company is two years old. The patent was issued in 2009.
Todd Youngblood: That’s a heck of a time to be starting a new business and about the worst economic environment that I recall in my career.
Walt: Yeah it is. Us young baby boomers are really lucky, aren’t we?
Todd Youngblood: Aren’t you? Yes we are.
Todd Schnick: Yes we are?
Todd Youngblood: I wasn’t speaking to you, Todd. I was speaking to Walt on that. What challenges have you faced in doing a startup, given this economy?
Walt: Typically startups, you can have a great technology, but you have to have somebody who focuses. Our technology was pretty well suited to this economy in that we come out of their operating income statement – from a municipality – we're usually saving them a $1.25 or $1.50 for every dollar they spend. And we can also help them avoid having to put any rebar, concrete, and to upgrade their plant. So our timing is actually pretty good when municipalities are strapped for cash.
Todd Schnick: Walt lets step back for a second and let’s make sure that the Water Online audience fully understands the products and services RF Wastewater is putting into the market. What are you actually delivering to your customers?
Walt: We are an agricultural-based company so we're in ag-tech, biotech. We grow a crop whose scientific name is hibiscus cannabis.
Todd Youngblood: That sounds familiar, vaguely. I don’t know why.
Walt: I like that. That's right. But it's hibiscus, it's not really cannabis. We grow acres upon acres of crops that look like marijuana, 14 feet tall with five leaves, but it happens to be the most porous natural material on earth.
We take that and we grind it up into really fine powder and that reveals the porosity inside of the core of the plant and then we add that into activated sludge systems to create a surface area for the key microbes to attach to and grow.
Todd Youngblood: Lignocellulosic. Did I say that correctly?
Todd Schnick: You said that correctly.
Todd Youngblood: Tell me what it is that I said.
Walt: Well, lignocellulosic is anything that is plant-based. So you have lignin and you have cellulose. The name of the crop is called kenaf and the scientific name is hibiscus cannabis. Kenaf has 30% more cellulose than most lignocellulosic plants do, and that's one of the special characteristics of it.
Todd Schnick: We have talked an awful lot about technology with all our guests at this show over the last day and half, but I think this is the first one that really got into the plant side of the bio. Is that different just here? Is it different just to the folks that we have talked to, or are you really a pioneer here?
Walt: We're an oddball. We're a pioneer for sure. What we are doing is we're replacing a plastic media – is what they call it – for like integrated fixed film activated sludge systems.
We've even had bioreactors where they come and they put in these pieces of plastic in, and they create surface area. But we just happen to have a natural material that has a lot more surface area than the plastic that could be made.
Todd Youngblood: With all the regulation, because of the ag basis of what you are doing, is that worse for you or better for you?
Todd Youngblood: No real impact?
Walt: No impact. The cool thing, though, is we don’t usually use the word sustainability, even though it is clear, since we are growing a crop, it is a pretty sustainable thing. But the long-term business model is that you have farmers in the state who are growing the material and processing the material, and then we are selling it to the municipalities.
One of the cool things about it is with activated sludge, they create sludge and very often they haul and land-apply that sludge, and you can actually grow this crop on the exact same land.
Todd Schnick: Now that is cool.
Todd Youngblood: I am just going to let that sink in for a second.
Todd Schnick: Help the thousands of professionals and the Water Online communities truly understand what value you are delivering to your customers by sharing a recent big win or victory you achieved on behalf of one of your customers.
Walt: The easy thing we do is help settling. The second thing we do is to promote nitrification and denitrification. You start on the settling side. Roanoke, VA, we are in there. They have 16 trains. We’re in four of the 16, and we are in there to help them find a solution to their wet weather events.
They'll usually run 30 million gallons a day to the plant, with a 60 million gallon a day design. During Hurricane Irene, they had 156 million [gallons] peg out their meter, come through in a day.
Out of the four trains that we were in, they didn't lose any of their solids and other trains, comparatively, lost solids.
Todd Youngblood: Is your marketplace global, or you are just in the U.S. now, or what are your plans and thoughts in that regard?
Walt: You eat the elephant one bite at a time. So we are pretty well southeast.
Todd Schnick: It strikes me that the crop part, the ag part of is pretty portable. Are you restricted by climates in different parts of the world?
Walt: If the sun shines, it's great. We're growing a weed, that’s always great for grade B or grade C land. It rains, it grows. It stops raining, it stops growing.
A hurricane hits it and knocks it over. The hurricane goes away and it keeps growing. So it is growing stock. We are not growing seed or anything.
Todd Schnick: You mentioned earlier that you're an oddball. Of course, we understand that, but do you really have any competition?
Walt: No, it's disruptive.
Todd Schnick: This could have a significant impact on the industry.
Todd Schnick: Disruptive is great, but a lot of times, you get a very conservative decision-maker and a municipality who sees this new thing and is saying, ‘Well, by golly, I am going to let somebody else figure it out first and take all the risk.” Are you running into that and how do you deal with it?
Walt: Well, you’re marketing it to a tribe, and you don’t just run into the middle of the tribe and sit down at the main camp fire. You have to hang out in the woods and hopefully be invited in by some guys.
We are looking for what we call the medicine men, the operators who are very into the science. We go and we give them good tools via microscopy and we give them good tools for DNA analysis of knowing exactly what microbes are growing.
So we set baselines before we come in, and establish upfront contracts with them and then move forward and test and show them what they got going on.
Todd Schnick: Are you finding some of these oddball medicine men here at the WEFTEC show?
Walt: Not a whole lot of medicine men. But if you go by our tradeshow booth and there are cannabis pictures on the wall and it stops a few of the medicine men.
Todd Schnick: I’ll be there this afternoon then. Talk a little bit about it.
Walt: It is not a joke. I am serious
Todd Youngblood: I know it is serious. That is why I feel bad about it.
Walt: You only got a finite number of days in this world.
Todd Schnick: It is interesting. As I talk to a lot of different companies, their tradeshow budgets have just plummeted and obviously you are here, so what objectives and goals did you have in coming to this show?
Walt: You have to be here. You are obvious in your absence and we chose a booth downstairs in the Kentia Hall because I was feeling that's probably where people were going to look for new stuff.
Last year, I was on the main floor and got good response, a lot of reps. But downstairs we are seeing a bunch of interested people looking for new stuff.
Todd Schnick: Well, Walt, I hate to say it but we are out of time. Before we let you go, share with the audience how they can contact RF Wastewater and all the good work that you are doing.
Walt: We are downstairs in 8315. Look for the marijuana leaves.
Todd Schnick: Outstanding.
Walt: Then just www.rfwastewater.com. Type in kenaf and it will come up.
Todd Schnick: Outstanding. Walt Brown, thank you for joining us. It was a pleasure having you.
Walt: Thank you, Todd squared.
Todd Schnick: That wraps our segment. On behalf of Todd Youngblood, I am Todd Schnick. Water Online Radio will be right back.