Imagine building a company that has already saved 1.1 billion gallons of water. Or a system that significantly lowers the cost and increases the yield of fish farms — and fertilizes the organic crops around it.
If the massive hospitality industry used only eco-friendly products, imagine what a dent it would make in carbon emissions. And what about a company focused on getting Miami’s homes and businesses — as well as those in other cities — truly ready for climate change?
Miami, considered by experts to be ground zero for climate change, presents big opportunities for social entrepreneurs here to find solutions that can work in South Florida and be scaled to other cities, said Robert Hacker, an entrepreneurship professor and author. He sees social entrepreneurship as a global movement fueled by millennials and destined to grow.
Hacker, who also directs StartUP FIU, advises social entrepreneurs to choose the for-profit status, plan from the very beginning how to achieve scale, partner with the private sector, solve one problem well and think big.
Let’s look at a few of the entrepreneurial startups developing in South Florida that are geared toward protecting the environment.
John Zevgolis, a self-described corporate guy, said when he looked at aquaculture farming, he saw a market where technology could really make a difference.
So he built a business model for a grid of small aquaculture farms to grow fish and produce — fresh, local, sustainable organic food.
“I was looking for something that was scalable, that creates employment, that helps people. … I believe we have lost touch with food as a society and a lot of bad things happen to food we have no control over.”
His company, Aquaharvest, builds farms that use only 5 percent of the land and 5 percent of the water of conventional farms — yet they yield 100 times the amount of fish in half the time and half the carbon footprint of traditional methods, said Zevgolis, CEO of the 3-year-old venture.
The company is raising funds to build a module system in Palm Beach County’s Loxahatchee that can be replicated in other states, including Maine, New York and Texas, where Aquaharvest is sourcing land and building teams for future farms.
A series of tanks of different sizes would grow 150 tons of fish next to produce farms. “We grow the farm, then we grow the number of farms. It’s the same design and basic footprint for each operation,” Zevgolis said. “The fish fertilize the organic crops, which help purify the water we use for the fish.”
Aquaharvest has been almost three years in development and is led by a team with deep industry and engineering expertise.
“It married a lot of things I have done: corporate responsibility, leadership positions, community development projects,” Zevgolis said. In the past, he developed national recreation centers in Malaysia, instituted education programs for Australian Aborigines and was once an adventure guide. “And it’s about technology and operations and a lot about scaling. We reduced the capital expenditure from half to 1/10th what others are building aquaculture farms for. It brought everything together for me and I am really enjoying it.”
The venture addresses two issues. The single greatest contributor to global warming and greenhouse gasses is agriculture, responsible for 20 percent, he said. At the same time, the oceans are nearly 90 percent classified as fully exploited, over-exploited or collapsed — leading to deterioration in the quality and size of both individual fish and the overall catch.
“I believe that it is business that can drive change. … If a company is able to succeed and do it for less and if it is environmentally friendly, that lifts the bar for everyone else.”
Brothers Richard and Lawrence Lamondin come from a real estate family. They are environmentalists at heart, but they like to make capitalism work for the common good.
“How that works is we are glorified plumbers — and we love toilets,” said Richard.
Maybe we better explain.
Their company, EcoSystems, focuses on water conservation solutions for the real estate industry. “Our mission is to prove that conservation is a smart business decision. This has resulted in over 1.1 billion gallons and millions of dollars in savings. Earlier this year, we completed the largest water conservation retrofit — 2,500 bathrooms — in Colorado history,” Richard said.
The urgent need for conservation is underscored by predictions of acute water shortages and higher costs. In Florida, for instance, over the next 20 years more than half the state is expected to have critical water supply problems, and South Florida water managers say 90 percent of the region will be in trouble. According to a Michigan State University study, one in three U.S. households will find water and sewer bills unaffordable within the next five years.
Local and state incentive programs across the country are helping EcoSystems’ business, and Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae offer green loan incentives for apartment communities. One client received a $376,000 rebate to replace the toilets, Richard said.
At issue is leakage. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 20 percent of all toilets leak 200 gallons of water each day. EcoSystems significantly reduces leakage by retrofitting bathrooms — sinks, showers, toilets — for entire apartment buildings or hotels. Since founding the company in 2013 with the help of University of Miami’s Launch Pad program, the brothers have retrofitted more than 20,000 bathrooms across the country and business has accelerated this year. EcoSystems’ largest customer manages 70,000 apartments nationwide.
Clients have saved about 35 percent to as high as 68 percent off their bills, Richard said. This month the company also won a contract to install free water saving fixtures for low-income residents and nonprofits in Denver. “We are hoping to use what we learn to encourage a similar program back home,” Richard said.
EcoSystems started out as an environmental consulting company for condos but as time went on the brothers discovered many had high water bills, but owners had no way to remedy the situation. “We became the water guys and we have gone with what the market has told us ever since.”
The Lamondins estimate they have saved 1.1 billion gallons of water and expect that number to accelerate as they scale their services across the country. Everyone on the company’s team of 12 “has to be willing to learn to change a toilet.” Richard and his brother have done their share of hauling out old toilets: “It ain’t pretty.”
Richard added, “Our clients care more about the financial benefits, but as long as we are saving billions of gallons we don’t really care what their motivation is. That’s the sweet spot of capitalism in our view — when you can get people to work in their best interest but also the public good.”
Anastasia Mikhalochkina sees hospitality as one of the most wasteful industries, with less than 5 percent of its waste being properly recycled or composted. “Truth is that almost all single-use catering supplies we had ever used still exist somewhere. Items like plastic packaging, disposable cups, straws, plates and containers end up in trash sites as well as our rivers and oceans,” she said.
That’s why she founded Lean Orb. It delivers zero-waste alternatives to products currently used in the industry, such as catering supplies and disposable dinnerware. “We work with agricultural waste such as plant roots, grass fibers and highly sustainable wood to design products that can be successfully converted in composting facilities.”
The startup is currently working on additional prototypes and has piloted its products with consumers. Mikhalochkina is taking part in the Babson WIN Lab, an accelerator program for women entrepreneurs. Lean Orb is looking to scale by securing its first big client in the hospitality industry, she said.
It’s a big opportunity. Restaurants make up an $800 billion market with 43 percent in takeout food and food delivery, she said. And now, Styrofoam bans are sweeping across nations. Countries are banning nonbiodegradable disposables, while private companies are pouring money into the research of packaging alternatives.
Yet, improving one community should not come at a cost for others, Mikhalochkina said.
“Knowing who manufactures our product is as important as how. Therefore, our factory provides primary level education and training in micro-enterprise for women who work with us. We strongly believe that we can only empower our communities through dignified work and education.”
Alec Bogdanoff, co-founder of Brizaga, is working to commercialize residential and business solutions for sea level rise.
Born and raised in South Florida, Bogdanoff has a doctorate in oceanography at MIT (he’s also a meteorologist) and worked as a Sea Grant Fellow on Capitol Hill, where he learned about a number of projects dealing with sea level rise. “When I asked what are folks doing to help businesses and individuals, there wasn’t an answer. I wanted to help the business community. If you have the business community on board, it will make the government’s job a lot easier to get things done.”
Bogdanoff and his business partner, Michael Antinelli, friends from high school, started Brizaga to help individuals, businesses and local governments understand and deal with the risks of rising seas.
In August, Brizaga unveiled a sea level rise program to identify risks at the building level and suggest actionable solutions. Now the company is launching a program working with and training local governments and helping them communicate the risks to their constituents.
“A business owner recently said to me, ‘I’ve been to multiple panels on sea level rise. I know it is happening. I have seen the king-tide floodings. What can I do?’ We are the resource for people who say I don’t even know where to begin,” said Bogdanoff.
“We’ll talk to them about the risks, we’ll talk to them about what the best science tells us about projections and we’ll take them on what we call ‘an adaptation journey.’ We’ll help them figure out what they can do to make their building, their business or in the case of a local government, their community more resilient.”
Brizaga approaches the challenge holistically.
“Right now, local governments at the forefront of sea level rise are our biggest prospects,” Bogdanoff said. “Our hope is if you have enough communities working on sea level rise, that will bring actionable ideas to the door of businesses.”
▪ This is the second part of two articles. “Doing well by doing good: Social entrepreneurship on the rise in South Florida” ran in Business Monday on Nov. 13 and is available here.
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