Eric Hoek: “Don’t start a business to commercialise a technology just because it seems great in the lab.”
UCLA professor Eric Hoek holds a vial of nanoparticles and a piece of the revolutionary desalination membrane he helped develop. Photo: Don Liebig/UCLA
About 9 years ago, on 20 April 2010, the BP DeepWater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the worst oil spill in U.S. history. At that time, Eric Hoek, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering from the UCLA School of Engineering and Applied Science and his team had been working for almost a year on refining a cutting-edge technology designed to separate crude oil from water. The technology in question – a centrifugal oil-water separator – was part of a decade-old quest from actor Kevin Costner who had been personally investing in an engineering product that would be effective in cleaning up oil spills. Costner asked Hoek to evaluate the technology, and one week before the massive oil spill, Hoek and his team at UCLA were able to improve the performance of the device to remove enough oil to achieve a water purity level of up to 99.99 percent. With all eyes centered on the dramatic spread of the oil to beaches and other coastal ecosystems in the Gulf region, Eric Hoek had the opportunity to demonstrate the technology which snowballed from there. One could say that it takes a tragedy to bring notice of new developments and technologies, but what else does it take to bring water-technology innovation to the market? I spoke with Eric Hoek, Founder of Water Planet, and recognised by WaterWorld Magazine as one of “Top 25 Leaders in Water”, to find out whether water technology development, on one hand, and its commercialisation and industry uptake, on the other, are also like oil and water…
Clean water is your passion. You’ve dedicated your life’s work to research, educate and innovate about it. How has the engineer in you grown into a successful start-up founder?
Well, I have been successful in creating several water technology startups. Other than NanoH2O, most of them still need to mature and scale a bit before I would claim them a commercial success. But they are all progressing in that direction.
My first entrepreneurial experience was with NanoH2O, where I was the technology inventor and co-founder of the business. I served as a technical advisor to the business rather than being part of the management team directly. I was fortunate to have as a co-founder and CEO Jeff Green who is a highly talented and experienced startup technology business leader. I learned a lot from Jeff over the years and he remains one of my business mentors and a friend.
When I left UCLA to run Water Planet, the first thing I did was enroll in UCLA Anderson’s School of Management’s executive MBA program. I had to learn about management and leadership “soft skills” and become conversant in things like “GAAP” (generally accepting accounting principles), finance and marketing. These are not topics you learn about in a typical engineering PhD course; I certainly did not. This proved very helpful in making the transition from academia to business.
What would be your 3 top tips for engineers or technologists aspiring to become entrepreneurs?
1.Don’t start a business to commercialise a technology just because it seems great in the lab based on some esoteric performance tests. Pick a problem for which there is a big market of potential customers suffering a lot of “pain.” Pain meaning wasted money or lost opportunity to make money. Then, develop a solution specifically for that problem.
2. Go big, fast, and get customer/industry validation early – have customers test your minimum viable product (MVP) early; don’t be afraid of failing. Don’t be afraid to raise too much capital: you will need to convince the world that you have a scalable business to support the product/technology underlying it. Dilution will happen, get over it, and just focus on winning.
3. Sometimes the original technology, upon which a business was created, was just a good excuse to get started. Ideas evolve and are improved when other professionals get involved, so let the business go where it needs to go.
Water Planet is now an 8 year fully-fledged company to develop and commercialise breakthrough water technology solutions. Can you tell us how Water Planet came about?
Water Planet was originally founded and operated for about four years as a water technology consultancy. We worked for startups, municipalities and large multi-nationals on early-stage product development, application testing, O&M support, and custom-engineered water treatment solutions. During that time, we developed IntelliFlux Controls as a means to make membrane filtration systems operate more efficiently. After the early years, we decided to transition into a product based business; this was facilitated by a major venture investment rationalised by the UCLA patent portfolio and market opportunity around PolyCera Membrane technology. IntelliFlux was considered a side project related to systems at that time, but it is now proving itself to be a viable standalone business.
What are the most exciting ideas and technologies that you are helping to spin-off?
I really do believe the world needs PolyCera – it offers unparalleled price-to-performance and we know it beats the competition in a range of applications; 2018 was a breakout year and the company is on a rapid growth trajectory, now selling multiple differentiated microfiltration, ultrafiltration and nanofiltration membrane products. Beyond that, I think software innovation is gaining traction – beyond CRM and leak detection software – into real plant level optimization that cannot be achieved via conventional SCADA and remote monitoring approaches. Watch out for IntelliFlux in 2019, this will be IntelliFlux’s breakout year.
Looking into the future, what are in your view the key technologies that will revolutionise the water industry in the next years?
I’ve gotten to see a lot of really interesting technologies and businesses in the past few years. There are so many smart, passionate water technology entrepreneurs out there. I’m not convinced any single technology will revolutionise the water industry, but I’m seeing a lot of process innovations lately, particularly related to desalination. There are a few different commercial versions of semi-batch RO (“closed circuit,” “pulsed-flow”, etc.) emerging to enable higher recoveries of brackish water with less pre-treatment. I think there is still room for improvement, but what’s already out there is showing promise.
Software is moving into water in a big way – remote monitoring, big data AI/machine learning, and novel process optimization technologies. I still hold out hope for better, cheaper real-time monitoring technologies, sensors. Last, I think there will be a major transformation in the coming decades moving wastewater treatment plants from undervalued, energy-intense cost centers to net energy positive, resource extracting profit centers.
There are indeed some interesting new developments in the field of water reuse and recovery. Can you share some insights from pilot works?
I’ve seen mobile wastewater treatment systems using conventional biological processes coupled to PolyCera membranes working in applications that were (to me) unthinkable a decade ago. If you haven’t heard of WaterFleet you should check them out. I’m increasingly interested in resource recovery opportunities like extracting nutrients and biogas from wastewater or concentrating and extracting valuable metals from mining wastes. We need to really embrace such waste streams as potentially valuable feed stocks for harvesting useful water, materials and energy.
You’ll be speaking at the IWA Leading Edge Technology Conference 2019, renowned for being a premiere platform to discuss new water technologies and enabling factors for their rapid practical application. Why do you think this is such an important conference?
IWA LET has been a great forum for exchange of the latest cutting edge ideas. I think the focus needs to remain on the science and technology rather than on the business aspects; you get the latter at other meetings and there are already too many of those. I’m happy to share my entrepreneurial experiences with the audience – I hope they are entertained. But, I’m much more looking forward to hearing about the great things being studied and developed by the other attendees. This is a gathering of the world’s best and brightest water science, technology and engineering minds.
Join Eric Hoek and other water technology leaders at the IWA Leading Edge Technology Conference on Water and Wastewater Technologies, 10-14 June 2019, Edinburgh, United Kingdom.
About Eric Hoek
Dr. Eric Hoek has over 20 years of experience in water treatment research, education, philanthropic, consulting and entrepreneurial activities.
Dr. Hoek has been an engineering professor since 2002 with 140+ peer-reviewed scientific publications and 70+ patents filed globally. Dr. Hoek has also co-founded numerous successful water technology businesses including NanoH2O, Water Planet, PolyCera Membranes, IntelliFlux Controls and MembranePRO Services. Dr. Hoek is co-Editor-in-Chief of the John Wiley & Sons Encyclopedia of Membrane Science and the Editor-in-Chief of the npj Clean Water – a Nature publishing group online, open access scientific journal.
Dr. Hoek has a Ph.D. in Engineering from Yale University and completed UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, Executive MBA Program.
About Water Planet
Water Planet’s mission is to advance next-generation water purification, reuse and desalination solutions needed to achieve global water sustainability in our lifetime. We focus on helping inventors, early stage businesses and established companies accelerate the development, commercialization and market adoption of innovative water technologies. To learn more, visit http://www.waterplanet.com/