I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicole Waguespack. Nicole is the President of Martin Ecosystems, an environmental technology company that manufactures products for wastewater treatment and erosion control. A graduate of Louisiana State University, Nicole’s education and professional background has provided the expertise for the development of Martin Ecosystems products, as well as what it takes to bring them to market. Under her leadership, Martin Ecosystems has introduced an innovative environmental product line, which has been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, and have also received the endorsement of The Water Institute of the Gulf.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up in Lafourche Parish, which is located in South Louisiana about 50 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico. Lafourche Parish has a very rich Cajun culture and has some of the world’s best fishing. My family had a fishing and hunting camp in the middle of the marsh in Leeville, Louisiana. We had to take a boat to get to it. The wetlands surrounding our camp earned the nickname “the aquarium” because it had an abundance of redfish, trout, shrimp and crabs. Today, it is still a great place for fishing, but the marsh has disappeared at a rapid pace. I’ve had a love for the marsh since I was young and to see us lose so much of it is heartbreaking. My family started Martin Ecosystems to help play a role in protecting our South Louisiana marshes.
What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?
The mission of Martin Ecosystems is to manufacture and provide innovative environmental solutions that reduce erosion, improve water quality, and restore habitats. Louisiana alone continues to lose wetlands at a rate of approximately 28 square kilometers per year (Couvillion et al. 2017). This high rate of land loss threatens coastal communities, industries, infrastructure, along with economic, ecological and cultural assets. Yet, this is not only a Louisiana problem. This is a global problem. The last report I read, said that approximately 500 million people live along the world’s major river deltas. These are places where coastal erosion effects are major issues, especially when you add sea level rise and high-energy events such as hurricanes and typhoons.
Can you tell us about the initiatives that your company is taking to tackle climate change? Can you give an example for each?
Our primary initiative is to help protect the wetlands and shorelines of South Louisiana and coastal communities throughout the U.S. and overseas. Sea levels continue to rise at a rate higher than anticipated, which puts coastal communities at risk, especially when storm events occur. Our products help reduce wave energies, protect shorelines and restore wetland wildlife habitats — and many of our products use a material called “The Matrix,” which is derived from thousands of recycled plastic bottles.
· Our latest invention, EcoBale is a lightweight breakwater structure that reduces wave energy for the use of shoreline protection, sediment retention and pipeline demarcation. This product is created using up to 2,430 plastic water bottles. The incredible strength of this material can withstand a Category 3 hurricane. This summer, we completed the first installation of EcoBale.
· EcoShield ™ is a patented living shoreline solution for protecting eroding shorelines and stabilizing banks.
· BioHaven® Floating Breakwater is a patented floating structure with hydroponically grown vegetation designed to establish new wetland vegetation, reduce erosive wind chop and restore wildlife habitats.
Our products prove that one man’s trash is our newest coast-saving treasure.
What was the most difficult thing you faced when you first started your company/organization? Can you share how you overcame that. This might give insight to founders who face a similar situation.
The most difficult thing is convincing the industry to consider new products and new ways of thinking, as opposed to doing things the way that they have always done. Now understandably, this takes research and product development on our part to prove that our products will do what we say they will. I don’t know if I can say that we have overcome this yet. In a company like ours, research and development is an ongoing thing. We create new products and are continuously researching them to make sure that they perform as they should in the application or situation intended.
Many people want to start a company to tackle environmental issues, but they face challenges when it comes to raising enough money to actually make it happen. Can you share how were you able to raise the funding necessary to start your organization? Do you have any advice?
We self-funded the company to date, which has been challenging at certain times in our ten-year existence. As we grow, however, we are aware that we will need to raise outside money. In preparation, I’ve taken part in programs such as the Growth Accelerator at Propeller in New Orleans, which is a three-month long program designed help you scale, raise external investment, and increase your revenue. I’ve also received assistance from the Louisiana Technology Park and Louisiana State University (LSU) Business & Technology Center — both based in Baton Rouge. In the Baton Rouge region, there are many outlets that are eager and willing to help entrepreneurs raise capital. I would recommend seeking out a few of them for advice and most importantly, allow yourself enough time financially to go through the process of raising capital. It’s important to locate in the right region that will support your growth — Martin Ecosystems is proudly based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which is the perfect hub for a sustainability-focused startup like ours. Baton Rouge has been a magnet for scientists and researchers studying coastal issues for decades — in fact, as of 2015, water management represented the largest industry driver in southeast Louisiana with nearly 32,000 jobs. The innovation in water management is happening here first and our ideas are being exported to the world.
Do you think entrepreneurs/businesses can do a better job than governments to solve the climate change and global warming issues? Please explain why or why not.
Public private partnerships are beginning to be discussed as a way to get more coastal restoration projects on the ground. I believe that it’s going to take a combination of private industry and government working together. Governmental agencies as well as universities have a wealth of knowledge based on years of research and experience, yet they struggle with not having the financial resources to get the projects done. Industry appears to have more financial options and are able to take greater risks than governments who are using tax payer dollars. Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan has a price tag of $50 billion. I believe it is going to take all hands on deck working together creatively and innovatively to get the job done.
What are some practical things that both people and governments can do help you address the climate change and global warming problem?
I think that the most practical thing everyone can do is to educate, educate, educate.
Educate people about what sea level rise means for their community. If sea levels continue to rise, will your community be under water? How will it alter your community? Educate people about what sea level rise means for the country as a whole. Sea level rise should not be a concern for only those living on the coast. If our coastal communities are inundated with water, how does that effect the rest of the country economically? Do we still receive fuel from the Gulf of Mexico? Do we still receive produce from California? I think that as more people are educated about how sea level rise may affect them in the future, the more engagement we will have on this issue. Engagement leads to solutions. You never know where the solution will come from or who it will come from.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am grateful to my parents. They have been the cornerstone of three things that I believe have allowed me to get where I am professionally. They’ve provided me with the opportunity of a good education and also taught me the value of one. They supported my interests outside of school, including athletics, which is where I learned about teamwork and competitiveness. Finally, they instilled in me a love of Louisiana by taking me fishing and shrimping in the marsh, by taking me to cultural events like Mardi Gras that make Louisiana unique, and by encouraging me to go other places so that I would appreciate Louisiana when I was away from it. Without these I may not be working at Martin Ecosystems today.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.
1. I wish that someone had reinforced the value of market analysis. Market analysis is time consuming to say the least. When you are starting a new company market analysis seems to get lost under the many hats that you are trying to fill, but it is so important to know who your ideal target customer and market is. This can prevent you from wasting time and resources in markets that will not help your business grow or reach your goals.
2. I wish that I had known about books like Traction and Business Execution for Results before I started. Traction was recommended to me during a Louisiana Economic Development CEO Roundtable group that I participated in. I read the book and had our management team read it as well. It has helped us to create structure and accountability that is often overlooked when you are getting started. There are so many books for entrepreneurs to read today. I wish that I had read a few before getting started.
3. I wish that I knew the amount of time and money that would be required to research and develop new products. It is challenging to make a person change their habits or change the way that they have always done something, especially when they’ve worked well in the past. In some cases, they may consider it to be risky, so you have to make sure that your products do the same job better. This takes time and money. Understanding research timelines and expenses are very important for things like cash flow.
4. My previous work experiences were in larger corporations where there was structure and resources and people to help. I wish that someone had emphasized to me the challenges of being an entrepreneur — you will have to make decisions alone and without advice, you will have cash flow struggles and have to plan for them, and finally, you will have failures, but you will learn invaluable lessons from them.
5. I wish that someone had told me to make sure to take time for myself on a regular basis. Being an entrepreneur means that you are always on the clock, answering emails, staying late at the office and definitely working more than 9 to 5. In the last year, I have taken a half day once a month for myself. As a working mom, this has helped me to step away from the office, clear my head, relax and rejuvenate.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to the world, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I hope that I could inspire more people to take an active interest in protecting and restoring our wetlands from the local level all the way up the chain globally. We may start to see more of a difference if more people were actively involved.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
People can follow me and Martin Ecosystems on:
Facebook (Martin Ecosystems)
YouTube (Martin Ecosystems) — see our innovations in action!
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!