Greg Johnson of AquiPor Technologies: “Don’t share big goals with small minds”

Don’t share big goals with small minds: It is hard enough to build a startup, but once you start listening to critics-and there will be many if your idea is big enough-, it will start to drag you down and take your focus away from where it needs to be. Advice is good, but one […]

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Don’t share big goals with small minds: It is hard enough to build a startup, but once you start listening to critics-and there will be many if your idea is big enough-, it will start to drag you down and take your focus away from where it needs to be. Advice is good, but one thing I learned along the way is to be very judicious about what advice we should pay attention to. Typically, people with real skin in the game (a vested interest in my startup’s success) or people who have already been where we are trying to go have been good sources of advice.

In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Johnson.

Greg Johnson is cofounder and CEO of AquiPor Technologies, Inc. where he is committed to helping solve issues surrounding clean water and climate change. An experienced founder, he has started and run early-stage companies in the stormwater and construction materials space and has been involved in early-stage product, technology, and market development efforts. When he’s not working, he’s usually busy trying to keep up with his three young daughters.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?

I grew up pretty typically as the middle child in a tight-knit family from Spokane, WA. I loved sports and got into a fair bit of mischief growing up. My biological dad passed away a few months before I was born, so initially it was just my mom, my older sister, and I. I’d like to think I inherited my grit from my mom. She provided us with everything we ever needed and never complained. She remarried when I was 7 years old and that sort of changed the trajectory of our lives. She married an amazing man that to this day is my dad and my hero. He introduced me to my first love — basketball — but more importantly he introduced me to the value of hard work, the importance of family and the sacredness of keeping one’s word. Plus, he and my mom gave us our little brother whom I have a very close relationship with to this day.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

In our first startup we were actually importing a building product from China. We didn’t have our own proprietary technology yet and we didn’t manufacture our own products like we do today. So in the beginning, we were trying to build trust with a product manufacturer that was supposedly the “only” manufacturer of a permeable paver material in this particular province in Eastern China. After visiting, I was shocked to find out that there were numerous other manufacturers within a 20 mile radius making the exact same product! We ended up in a distribution agreement with a completely different manufacturer. We look back and laugh at our naive ambition, but that was definitely the start of this wild journey.

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’d say my late grandfather. He was a very influential person in my life. The son of immigrants he came up in a pretty hardscrabble way in Tacoma, WA. At one point he was an orphan with basically nothing, but he made a way for himself and ended up making a wonderful life for his family through hard work and determination. When I was a kid, he and my grandmother owned some acreage in the Spokane Valley and they would plant corn every year that the grandkids would harvest and sell in the Summer. Times were maybe a little different then, but there I was, 12 years old on the corner of Trent Ave. selling 10 ears of corn for 1 dollar. My grandpa would come check on us from time to time, but for the most part we were responsible for running the whole operation. That’s how we made our back-to-school shoe money so to speak. That’s also where I think I got my entrepreneurial itch.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Marcus Aurelius said “the impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” I think this applies to everything in life, but it’s been especially relevant to our entrepreneurial endeavor where there are seemingly endless challenges and obstacles. What you realize is that each obstacle becomes a valuable learning tool or an opportunity to grow. In the context of our particular startup, I think the financial constraints we had early on led to greater innovation and ingenuity. We’ve had to do more with less.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Grit, empathy, and a love of learning. I try to cultivate grit because I think it’s the most important thing an entrepreneur can possess. There have been countless times where giving up would have been easy and when it seemed like the entire world was telling us our idea wouldn’t work, but grit keeps you in the game. Empathy has helped me because I feel as though I can relate to most people in some small way and being able to connect with people has led to all kinds of new friendships and business relationships. And finally, I love to learn new things and stretch my capacity to do so. I am actually a very non-technical person but I’ve had the chance to shadow our inventor and Chief Technologist closely and it’s been one of the most interesting experiences of my professional life.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on the planet and the environment. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?

We are trying to solve some very prescient problems around stormwater runoff pollution, urban flooding, and climate change.

How do you think your technology can address this?

The “tip of the spear” in our technology toolkit is our unique permeable surface technology that allows water to flow through it, while filtering out solids and sediment. It’s a strong and durable material that can take the place of traditional concrete and asphalt surfaces to manage stormwater right where it falls. In conjunction with good site engineering, we feel that this technology can help cities solve some of their most pressing stormwater runoff and urban flooding issues. Moreover, this concrete-like product is made from reclaimed materials and doesn’t use pollutive cements in the process, giving it an extremely low carbon footprint.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I’ve long felt that clean water is the most precious resource on Earth. Being from Spokane, the Spokane River plays a big role in the shared history of our region and in our city’s culture. But it’s also heavily polluted from things like PCB’s and other toxins that commonly enter the river through stormwater runoff. This happens to be a large issue in lakes, rivers, and ocean bays throughout the U.S. Early in my career I had a short stint in real estate and kept seeing the challenges that developers had with stormwater management. Most solutions seemed expensive or ineffective and I just always felt there had to be a better way. Around this same time, my cofounder Kevin was in college and caught wind of a permeable paver-like product being developed overseas. We started studying the stormwater market and came to the same conclusion. There was a big need for a better kind of permeable pavement that could be used to manage stormwater right where it falls. We started our first company and began importing a permeable paving tile from overseas. The particular product and our initial business had some glaring limitations, but this early experience was invaluable. We learned a ton about the market and developed some insights that guide our strategy even today.

How do you think this might change the world?

Most people probably don’t think about the amount of impervious surface area that encompasses our cities because it is so ubiquitous. In some cities, 40% of the surface area is impervious. So every time it rains, that precipitation becomes runoff that must be handled or treated. Add to that the fact that many cities are relying on water infrastructure networks that are decades or in some cases, a century old. These networks now have to contend with extreme weather. This combination of factors has created the perfect storm for the deterioration of our clean water systems. In nature, rainfall simply returns to the ground and replenishes groundwater supplies and aquifers. Our solution aims to mimic nature right in the built environment with a hard surface material that doesn’t sacrifice the usefulness of sidewalks, streets, or parking lots. We feel that this solution, deployed at scale, can not only mitigate stormwater pollution and urban flooding, but it can also replenish critically depleted aquifers.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

This is a great question and I think it’s one we should ask about any new promising technology that’s being developed. For us, there are energy inputs in our process that we would like to make completely renewable. Ultimately, we are striving for a true cradle-to-cradle technology that has no negative effect on the natural environment and can be used in continuous cycles as a recycled product or as the same product without sacrificing quality. Currently, our products are made of reclaimed aggregate material that is underutilized at regional quarries. We’re literally pulling it from aggregate piles that have weeds growing out of them. That’s step one. We’re utilizing a material that’s already been drilled for, crushed, and screened out with all of the energy inputs already in there. However, we still need to look at the manufacturing process and continually innovate toward a completely closed-loop process. We use electric drying ovens and our goal is to run all of them off of solar power and to do so at scale. You need a certain solar array to do this, which our technology group is designing. In the future, we’re also looking to utilize repurposed tailings at mine sites to go into our permeable precast material. This is a literal waste product sitting in tailings impoundments that we actually have a great use for.

Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”?

  1. Don’t share big goals with small minds: It is hard enough to build a startup, but once you start listening to critics-and there will be many if your idea is big enough-, it will start to drag you down and take your focus away from where it needs to be. Advice is good, but one thing I learned along the way is to be very judicious about what advice we should pay attention to. Typically, people with real skin in the game (a vested interest in my startup’s success) or people who have already been where we are trying to go have been good sources of advice.
  2. Rapidly iterate: Rapid iteration is critical in product development. With our material technology development we were constantly running experiments and then using that data to make real-time decisions regarding which material mix design to pursue. Our technology group has run literally thousands of experiments over several years to get to this point and I expect this to continue with the new products we develop. I want it to continue. The quicker you can learn and execute what you’ve learned, the quicker you’ll be able to get to market with new game-changing products.
  3. Aim for order of magnitude improvement (10x): From the very beginning we’ve strived to create something that is at least a tenfold improvement over what’s currently on the market. Be ambitious, because chances are that if you miss the mark, you will still be better than what’s out there.
  4. If you want to make a difference, you have to take intelligent risks: Most people are inclined to pursue convention, so the bigger risk you take, the bigger your competitive advantage will be. But take these risks intelligently and strategically. We are constantly making small bets in our technology or market development which are inherently risky, but we do so with a time and monetary budget. The ones that pay off should provide outsized returns and the ones that don’t won’t cost us much, but they should still provide us with insights and learnings.
  5. Start small but be ambitious: This kind of wraps the previous answers together, but start with your big, audacious goal and work with whatever resources you have to take small steps that compound in both your product and market development. Conduct early, low-cost tests to make sure you’re on the right track and always keep the big picture in mind.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

There is a Greek Proverb that says something to the effect of “a society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.” I feel like it’s our responsibility to be great custodians of our natural environment for future generations. Everything in nature is interconnected in ways most of us never consider and even though climate change can feel like this untenable and existential threat, just having a certain consciousness about being stewards of our natural and built environments can have an impact. Ultimately, I’m saying that even the smallest actions can make a difference. Whether that means conserving water, using less single-use plastics, voting with your wallet to purchase eco-friendly products or investing in companies working on green technology solutions, it can all make a difference.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Hard question! Right off the top of my head, I’d say Chamath Palihapitiya. His track record as an investor speaks for itself, especially with what he’s been able to do in taking certain companies public through SPACs. I’d like to hear more about how he plans to address the climate crisis as an investor. On the surface, I really like how he thinks about the interconnectedness and consequences of certain climate solutions on supply chains and on other parts of the environment. And if not Chamath, then I’d love to have lunch with the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. When he was mayor of South Bend, IN he did some tremendous things to bring economic and environmental vibrancy to the urban core there and I think he needs to be aware of a new infrastructure technology toolkit that can make this possible in communities throughout the United States. Secretary Pete, come see us in Spokane!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

We’re on Instagram @aquiportech, Twitter @AquiPorTech, LinkedIn, and FB @AquiPor

I’m not very active personally online, but I’m at g_g_johnson on Instagram and Twitter and I’m on LinkedIn as well.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.

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