Folia Water founder Jonathan Levine on dignity, empowerment and clean water

On Thursday, September 14th, 2017, the San Francisco chapter of the Columbia Venture Community will host CVC’s biggest West Coast event of the year: Columbia Startup Demo Night! We always look forward to this opportunity to meet, mingle and shine the spotlight on innovative startups from the Bay Area. This time, six startups, all with at least one founder who graduated from Columbia, will take the stage to demo their startup and compete for a cash prize in front of a panel of experienced judges.

As we gear up for the event, we’re speaking with all our Demo Night founding teams so that we can share their diverse, inspiring stories with the CVC community.

Jonathan Levine, Co-Founder and CEO, Folia Water

Jonathan Levine, co-founder and CEO of Folia Water, has a lot on his mind. I spoke to him recently about his global quest to provide safe drinking water for millions of people, growing a company, relocating to the Bay Area and more.

Jonathan attended Columbia for his B.A. in History and Mathematics, his MS and Ph.D. in Earth and Environmental Engineering. After a stint as a Chemical Engineering researcher at the Colorado School of Mines Center for Hydrate Research (the premier laboratory for clathrate hydrate research) and the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, he turned his attention to private enterprise and how to provide safe drinking water for more people. He’ll be presenting his pioneering Folia water filter at CVC Demo Night on September 14.

IM: In one sentence, what is Folia Water?

JL: We’ve invented the world’s first water filter that costs pennies, not dollars.

We’re not your typical Silicon Valley company. We sell to distributors into developing countries. We’ve just launched. We’re a team of 2 scientists. We’ve got an MBA intern from Columbia — we’re 2/3 Columbia at the moment and delighted to be chosen for demo night.

We’re very happy to have you participating! I see you’re in 500 startups. How’s your experience been with them?

It’s been awesome. They were coming through Pittsburgh. They very much pull from places that are outside of the Bay Area. They reached out to me and I went over to meet them because I was flattered, but I said, Hey, I think you got the wrong company — we don’t do SaaS, we don’t do computers, digital stuff! And they said, No, actually we are in 100 countries, they have a dozen funds, they have a Geeks on a Plane initiative that had flown to Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, 500 TukTuks going into Southeast Asia, they’re in Korea, Japan… I was surprised, like, OK, so you guys really know about international business!

The vast majority of batch companies are from other countries. We’re one of the only companies in this batch with just a couple of Americans. Super diverse, super awesome. It’s the antithesis of a “brogrammer” crowd. It’s even been described as the Columbia or Brown of the accelerators.

Do you think that’s accurate? Do you feel any commonality with your Columbia experience?

Oh yes. Everyone is very diverse and open to stuff. Just like in grad school, you learn more from the other people. So, the other CEOs and CTOs have all had really hard experiences, they know how to run their businesses, they’re all super smart, hardworking. Sometimes I can’t even believe I’m in the room with these people. 3,000 companies apply, 30 got accepted.

Thinking more about you personally, as a founder and entrepreneur, if you could describe your guiding purpose or mission, what would that be?

As an undergrad I was doing math and history and reading the New York Times international section every day. I realized, I’m not going to be a theoretical math person. I asked, What are the big problems of our generation?

I saw global poverty and global climate change as the two big issues. So I did my Master’s work on global poverty, my Ph.D. work was on global climate change. I’ve always kept adding new tools and new skills. At Columbia I worked on grid scale thermal energy storage, mechanical engineering, environmental sciences, marine geosciences, chemical engineering, petroleum engineering and applied math. Now I’m in startup land learning things like marketing, go to market strategy… It’s about expanding the toolkit and learning new sections of the world.

Our goal is to get our papers everywhere they are sustainably viable. Sustainable has to mean in terms of financial and time-based resources. We have a [filter] that costs pennies, not dollars. We’re pretty sure that means we should be viable in a hundred different developing countries. People ought to be able to afford the dignity of safe water for themselves and have agency and control of their own destiny in terms of germs in their water.

Our goal is to put a huge dent in the 1.8 billion people who drink germ- and fecal-contaminated water, and also to reduce the number of people who overpay for their water. The poor pay on an absolute and a relative basis more than the wealthy for water. Your typical poor person in urban Ghana might be paying more than either of us for water on a day to day basis.

That seems insane.

Yes it is. Tap water [in America] is super cheap.

And bottled water and soda have a habit of being similar in price across countries. If you’re talking about a liter of water or soda, it’s a dollar or $1.50 for a bottle in rural Honduras, and they’re not making that much, but they’re all drinking soda. We’re already seeing diabetes go up across the world as people replace water with soda. At least it’s germ-free, with a bit of diabetes thrown in.

So do you see your purpose then, at least a little bit, as contributing to the reduction of this massive public health crisis, when it comes to the sugar intake?

The longer we do this, the more we do see that there is a part of that, as well. We really didn’t see that coming, but in the last 6 months we keep seeing a lot of information on this. There’s a lot of “safe beverage” spend in developing countries that ends up being soda spend instead.

Not a lot of other people have seemed to put this together, but when we talk to people they say, Hmm, that sounds about right in my country.

We’ve touched on many important things that you hope to do with your career and life. How about the days when you feel overwhelmed — what’s the number one thing that gets you out of bed on those days?

I don’t have any desire to have a “regular job.” I used to work at the government trying to do research. There is a lack of agency in regular jobs. In the case of working at a national lab, you’re sort of stuck with whatever the government decides to fund. Academic engineering research has a weird tension where you’re trying to researching doing things.

I want to just go and do the thing. Being an entrepreneur means getting to have a lot of agency, where you can just decide to go and do it.

Where do you see Folia in the near future? What about in the next several years?

Right now, we’ve just launched our product. We need to get regular recurring sales, we need to expand sales with the distributors we have. Once that’s set up, we’ll expand the number of distributors and find our market fit.

The goal is to have our paper sold in every single retail store in the world in developing countries. The path to getting there likely may involve becoming part of a larger organization. When you talk about selling consumer goods in 100 countries, you start talking about having operations and being a multinational corporation. There could be sense in joining a vastly larger organization that is already selling into a hundred countries.

If we are successful, a whole lot of resource constrained people get savings in the form of cheaper, safe water. At the same time, everyone along the way gets a job as well.

As some have put it, “Trade not aid.” If you just give things away, you don’t create jobs. There’s dignity in work. The world won’t get better in a sustainable sense through donating things. Sometimes donating helps, but people want control of their own destiny.

You’re very interested in dignity and agency. Where does interest that come from? Did you find this interest was encouraged at Columbia?

I think about this meta-question sometimes. I think it’s the underlying piece behind a lot of modern thinking around social enterprise and better NGOs and better corporations. Best practices in any organization have to do with empowered stakeholders with agency to control and contribute.

As for my connection to Columbia, empowerment is certainly in the zeitgeist, both at Columbia and in New York. At Columbia you really have to know how to think about a problem. Once you know how to think about a problem, then you can get to a solution that’s way more robust and real. At Columbia, the faculty across the board were not going to give any leeway on that. Everybody has to know how to think.

What have you observed about the Bay Area since moving here from the East coast?

We’ve just recently relocated to the Bay Area and we’ve been really genuinely amazed. There’s a professionalism here around how to create and grow a company with a business model that has never been done before. The specialization here in the Bay Area seems to be taking unusual things and turning them into companies and growing them out.

There’s a sense of can-do attitude and professionalism, that’s the Bay Area way, and that’s been really impressive.

Thanks for a great conversation, Jonathan, we look forward to your presentation at CVC Demo Night on September 14!

If you want to learn more about Folia in the meantime, you can check them out at foliawater.com.

— Irene Malatesta is a writer, marketer and CVC West board member. You can find her @irenekaoru.