Putting Water Front and Center with Epic Cleantec Co-Founder + CEO

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Episode Description

On this episode, we'll be speaking with Tartakovsky about the convergence of technology, regulations, and innovative business models aimed at tackling water-related climate issues. We also discuss how to market plumbing, like marketing recycled water for beer!

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Christoph Lohr: Aaron Tartakovsky, co-founder and CEO of Epic Cleantec, highlighted the newfound prominence of water during the renowned World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos this year. On today’s podcast, we speak with Tartakovsky about the convergence of technology, regulations, and innovative business models aimed at tackling water-related climate issues.

We’ll also discuss how to market plumbing, like marketing recycled water for beer. Let’s get to it.

Welcome to the show, Aaron.

Aaron Tartakovsky: Glad to be here. Always happy to chat all things plumbing and mechanical, so this is great.

Christoph Lohr: We’re super excited to have you. On this episode, we’re going to highlight the newfound prominence of water during the renowned World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos this year.

We’re also going to delve into the convergence of technology, regulations and innovative business models aimed at tackling water-related climate issues. And then finally, we’re going to talk about how to market plumbing, like marketing recycled water beer. Aaron, we’re super excited to have you on here, and as mentioned in sort of our goals for the podcast here, first, let’s start with the World Economic Forum. And you wrote on your blog at the World Economic Forum this year, you experienced a first that water was actually at the forefront of this major international conference. Why do you think that is?

Aaron Tartakovsky: Look, water is an interesting thing. It’s omnipresent in our lives; it literally touches everything that we do. But we as a society, I like to say we live in a bit of a “flush and forget society.” We don’t think about what happens after we flush the toilet and we turn on the tap – water just comes out.

And frankly, that’s a consequence of our engineers and people who have designed these systems so well that they kind of do exist out of sight, out of mind. But the problem is that decades of that out-of-sight, out-of-mind reality means that there isn’t enough focus on water and on wastewater, and I think, certainly when you compare us to energy, we receive a fraction of the attention, the investment that the energy world receives. I think the World Economic Forum, again, a very prominent global gathering happens every year in Davos, Switzerland, as you mentioned, some of the largest companies in the world coming there, and they made water a focus this year.

We were there as part of the Global Freshwater Innovation Challenge, which was sort of a collaboration between Salesforce, Deloitte, and then HCL Enterprise, one of the largest publicly traded companies in India. And their goal was to accelerate some of the leading water solutions in the world to help create and take advantage of our freshwater supplies in a more strategic and sustainable way, and so that’s why we were there. And I think what was really amazing is that water was really a prominent feature of the conference. There was a lot of discussion about water with some of the largest companies in the world.

Christoph Lohr: I would agree with you, Aaron. I think that it’s amazing. I’ve read a couple books, The Power of Moments and then The Three Ages of Water. Two really interesting books. In both of them, there’s these wonderful quotes that talk about plumbing and delivery of drinkable water and sanitation systems, and how plumbing systems have had one of the biggest positive impacts in terms of public health and safety.

The British Medical Journal voted it in 2006 the top public health breakthrough. And then many others, such as in the book Three Ages of Water there’s a wonderful quote in there that says how when you look at all the sciences, plumbing has had the most positive impact on people, and water, like you said, Aaron, that’s a key part of all plumbing systems. I’m really glad to hear that water is top of mind. And as you engage with representative top brands, such as Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and Salesforce, it’s good to hear that these are top of mind, but what was on the minds of these global brands when it comes to water?

Aaron Tartakovsky: I think part of the reason why there was such a strong focus on water is that I think water challenges, water scarcity issues, wastewater capacity issues are starting to have a real impact on the bottom line of these large companies. If you are a Coca-Cola, water is the single biggest ingredient for your products.

And I think in a lot of these areas where Coca-Cola operates, where they have their bottling facilities, you have water scarcity issues. You have to grapple with the fact that, how do we create a product where we’re literally bottling water from one community and then sending it around the world when that community is already struggling?

With the large tech companies, they need to build data centers. They cannot build data centers fast enough. The average data center uses the same amount of water as a 50,000-person city for their cooling. We’re starting to hear about new developments – just recently in Arizona, new real estate developments outside of Phoenix that can’t be built because they don’t have enough water supplies.

When you start tracking just how much of this we’re seeing around the world, you start to see a lot of these corporations are taking it a lot more seriously. Because when you couple urban population growth with 70 percent of the world’s population expected to live in cities by 2050, and you add onto that aging water and wastewater infrastructure; in this country, we have a lot of pipes and facilities built 100 years ago, and then on top of that, a changing climate where our weather patterns are a lot more unpredictable.

We’re seeing kind of this perfect storm of water challenges, which is why this whole topic is gaining more prominence and excitingly more investment too. Again, we can’t keep up with our energy friends, but we are getting a lot more attention, both on water and the built environment. I think the intersection of those two is really interesting.

Christoph Lohr: That’s a great point about the intersection of water and energy, and you also mentioned sort of that intersection of safety and sustainability as well. This is something actually, IAPMO, that we’re working very closely on with a lot of organizations. One of them worth mentioning is the Emerging Water Technology Symposium, which is coming up in May of 2024.

The whole theme for that is the safety and sustainability nexus. This topic of these common points, it’s important for policymakers, I think, to understand this. In your opinion, how can policymakers strike a balance between promoting sustainable economic growth and addressing environmental concerns in the context of emerging water technologies, because that always seems to come up because people, like you mentioned, water systems are overlooked. People don’t necessarily think about it. So how can we help policymakers strike that balance?

Aaron Tartakovsky: I’m glad you brought up policy. My background is actually in federal politics, and I am very aware of the fact that elected officials on any given day are being approached on a million different topics.

Oftentimes you have to be successful in getting their attention to be able to advance any certain issue. I think when it comes to water and wastewater, we’ve had decades of elected officials who, frankly, have prioritized other issues. If you're trying to get elected to office, it’s a lot sexier to say, “I’m going to rebuild our parks, schools, and playgrounds than “I’m going to dig up our water and wastewater infrastructure and mess up your morning commute.”

I’d say at least one of the reasons why we’re in the situation that we are today. But I think a lot of our elected officials and our regulators are practical and I’ll use San Francisco as an example. San Francisco, over the last 10 years, has developed a very pioneering water reuse program where every new large construction project over 100,000 square feet now has to have an onsite water reuse system, meaning we are collecting wastewater from the building – whether that’s gray water or black water or storm water – treating it and then reusing it in the building for non-potable applications like toilet flushing, urinals, cooling towers, irrigation, laundry. It’s a really simple idea and it came up during the drought. It’s why are we using fresh water – fresh, pristine potable water from our national parks – to flush the toilets of Twitter’s tech employees in downtown San Francisco? Why are we not using recycled water sources for these applications that don’t require drinking water? It was a matter of bringing together the public health folks, the building inspection folks, the water/wastewater utility. And that’s just one example, but it’s how we can actually create these really interesting regulatory frameworks that will allow these new technologies to emerge and to basically accelerate their deployment.

Christoph Lohr: I think that’s a great point you bring up, Aaron, also in terms of the flushing and finding ways to reuse it. That’s actually a topic that, especially from my background as a plumbing engineer that designed a lot of health care and hospitality, this whole concern of waterborne pathogens and flushing out potable water to keep the system safe.

We’re going to be recording another podcast episode on this, and I think that’s a topic that we haven't explored enough in terms of how water reuse can actually help promote safety. And I’m glad you brought that up.

Aaron Tartakovsky: I’ll say one thing that I always say to people. One of my co-founders is also my father. My father is an MEP engineer, so we are a big IAPMO family, and he was actually trained in the Soviet Union. So he was trained in the Soviet-era aerospace program, literally working on rockets. And as he often says, “What do you think the astronauts are drinking when they’re in space?”

We’ve had these technologies for a very long time. They’re robust, they work very well. It’s just about coming up with the right frameworks to deploy them that are protecting public health. But as I said, the technology is there. It’s just about finding the smart and safe ways to actually get them out in the field.

Christoph Lohr: You talk about getting them out into the field, and so there’s that whole aspect of the workforce that’s needed to install these things. I think that’s another item that policymakers need to be thinking about is in terms of training a workforce. And what should policymakers be thinking about in terms of training a workforce for these types of emerging technologies?

What are your thoughts there?

Aaron Tartakovsky: I think there is a huge workforce development opportunity. Whether it’s with water, I think broadly with this whole climate tech world of really good-paying stable jobs. I think one of the beauties of water is that it’s never going away. And certainly with wastewater too.

It’s a very reliable job, and I think one of the things we, specifically what we’re grappling with is that so much of the innovation around water and wastewater has been really focused at the centralized level. Which is to say large treatment plants connected by long, underground networks of water and sewer pipes.

And that’s basically how we’ve designed our cities for 250 years. Most of the folks, most of the innovation are focused on working along that paradigm. When we start talking about what we do, which is deploying these onsite water reuse systems in the buildings, we need those same operators to come and operate our systems.

Obviously there’s a lot of people who can do it, but by regulation, we need certified water/wastewater operators. One of the challenges, and I’ll give you just one example, is that if you want to get your certifications as a certified water/wastewater operator, you need to work at a municipal plant, which means if you want to come and work with us, then you’re going to have to potentially forfeit your ability to continue getting those certifications. That’s changing. There are new certification programs being developed for these onsite water reuse programs. But I think that’s just one example of how we can create these really interesting pathways to create essentially new workforces.

Every community that we’re going into, we’re deploying these systems, being the first to do it in several new cities and states. That workforce component is a big one, and it’s one that gets people pretty excited.

Christoph Lohr: That’s really exciting. I’ll be honest, it makes me excited too, Aaron.

I think there’s a lot of opportunity out there, and I think a large part of that can be filled with experts in the plumbing industry that can help jump in and provides a lot of opportunity. I loved your ad campaign about beer made with recycled water. It was a totally brilliant awareness campaign in a building across the street sort of thing.

What advice would you give to the plumbing industry on how to market plumbing careers today? You mentioned that some of this stuff isn’t sexy. It’s not something that people necessarily want to talk about. But now that water is finally having its moment on the world stage, what is the advice you'd be giving to the plumbing industry on how to market plumbing careers today?

Aaron Tartakovsky: I think we as a company have kind of leaned in to the “yuck factor” side of things. I think there is a general perception that water and wastewater, as you said, is not sexy. And on the flip side, what we’ve found is that everyone kind of turns into their inner middle-schooler when you start talking about these topics, when you start talking about all things toilets and waste and everything else, and so we’ve kind of leaned into that a little bit. As you noted, we took this highly purified water from one of our buildings, so this is gray water from showers and laundry. We purified it and we turned it into beer. This is not a commercial product; this was meant to be a demonstration of sort of the untapped potential of water reuse, but what we found is it really resonated with folks. There was a little bit of the zany factor of it, of taking purified shower water and making a beer. But in terms of the success of the campaign, obviously it was picked up by a lot of big publications. To date, we are just over 1 billion media impressions on that beer campaign, and it’s helped to start the conversation.

And I think when you show people these technologies are capable of producing water that can produce an incredible beer, all of a sudden those technologies start to, they start to trust them a lot more. That’s why we did it. I think that’s just one example of just finding new interesting ways to make water approachable to people.

Because if we only talk about the really technical aspects of it, we’re going to lose huge swaths of the population for whom a lot of the technical stuff that our engineers do, our contractors do, is just foreign to people. If you make it approachable, I think that’s a key.

Christoph Lohr: It sounds almost like also it’s showing people what the possibilities are and letting them imagine a little bit. That’s a good point, that’s one I'm going to take to heart here. All right. We’re kind of wrapping up here. What do you think we will be talking about the next time we have you on the podcast, because I would absolutely love to have you come back.

What do you think in terms of water reuse we’re going to be talking about maybe in the next six months to a year timeframe?

Aaron Tartakovsky: When it comes to buildings, buildings globally use 14 percent of all potable water. Almost no buildings reuse that water, and that’s what we’re focused on changing as a company.

I would say what we’re going to start seeing is that water is going to have its solar moment. Which is to say what solar did for the energy world of moving from a sole reliance on centralized infrastructure to smaller distributed infrastructure; going from just big coal plants to smaller rooftop solar.

We are not doing that for water, and I think we’re 15 years behind the energy folks. But we’re going to start seeing a lot more of that, and so I think in six months we’re going to start seeing more cities, more states, more countries starting to kind of pick up the playbook that we’re developing out here in the West Coast.

Christoph Lohr: I love it. I love it. Well, on behalf of The Authority Podcast: Plumbing and Mechanical, I just want to say thanks for your time, Aaron. I know you’re super busy. Obviously you’ve been engaged with a lot of things, but appreciate you sharing your expertise, your insights and your time with us here this morning.

Aaron Tartakovsky: Happy to join, and as I said, big fans of IAPMO and look forward to doing more work together.