Here’s my favorite quote, I carried it around since my teens. « Il n’est qu’un luxe véritable, et c’est celui des relations humaines. » (The only true pleasure is that of human relations.) Antoine de St-Exupéry (Terre des Hommes). Human relations — there is nothing else.
I had the pleasure to interview Riggs Eckelberry the CEO of OriginClear. Riggs Eckelberry brings his veteran technology management skills to the Blue Technology sector and most recently has launched WaterChain, OriginClear’s prospective Initial Coin Offering (ICO). As President and COO of CyberDefender Corporation from 2005 to 2006, he was instrumental in building the company and its innovative product line, helping to achieve initial funding and a public company filing. From 2001 to mid-2005, he helped launch and turn around technology companies as founder and President of TechTransform, a technology consulting firm. In 2004, he was a key member of the team that commercialized YellowPages.com, resulting in its sale for $100 million to SBC/BellSouth. In 2003, he helped make Panda Software a key player in the US market as the General Manager of its US unit. During the high-tech boom of the 1990s, he was responsible for the global brand success of the software product, CleanSweep. Riggs also served as Chief Operating Officer of MicroHouse Technologies, where he helped to achieve a successful sale of the company to Earthweb; and he was a key member of the team that completed the sale of venture-backed TriVida to what is now a division of ValueClick (VCLK). The Business Rockstars network interviewed Riggs in 2017 to discuss his professional journey from an entrepreneur in New York in the early 80s to the founding of OriginClear. Riggs Eckelberry’s formation was in the non-profit sector and as a mariner; he holds an oceangoing master’s license
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 consider that my training as a product manager on the classic Intel model at a company named Quarterdeck really gave me important skills to be a great CEO. Because the product manager is really the “CEO of his product”, while at the same time having no real authority. At the time, I created a world brand Windows utility named CleanSweep and learned the art of using any resource available to serve a 360-degree set of stakeholders. Also, the product manager must be fast and willing to do whatever it takes. Finally, I learned that it was not one thing that would create success, but a great number of initiatives, most of which would notsucceed. But the critical mass of all these initiatives ensured success. I have applied that continuously at OriginClear.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
We actually launched the company into the algae industry. We developed a way to harvest algae for biofuels using electro-coagulation. As late as April 2012, I was debating the value of algae as a biofuel with Jim Rogers on Bloomberg News (clip). But by then, algae had already been overwhelmed by the tidal wave caused by fracking and horizontal drilling. Overnight, algae became a science experiment. Other companies in algae, including the prestigious NASDAQ company Solazyme, closed. We managed to pivot in to using our harvesting technology to clean very dirty, very oily water. We actually went into cleaning up frack flowback water! Ironic since this was the industry that had destroyed algae… And then even more ironically, oil prices crashed in 2014, too! So once again, we adapted. This time we expanded out into industrial water treatment. Of course, now oil and gas is returning now. My head of technology is in a Middle East country right this second, working on a deal with the national oil company. We were there in 2014, and that has ensured our return, because we have outlasted the four year depression in oil industry infrastructure spending.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We thought we were going to do EVERYTHING in algae. My amazing inventor brother Nicholas came up with a dozen ways to improve all areas of algae production and processing for fuel. One day in late 2008, I walked into the lab and found my brother with a tank of algae and two electrodes. He was basically electroshocking the algae. I asked him what he was doing, and he said — I have no idea, but look… the oil in the algae is separating out! And that was the beginning of our patented Electro Water Separation that is at the core of our technology.
What I learned from this was that you never know where your success is going to come from, so just be willing to see it. Amazingly, a series of CTOs who came and went, refused to even look at Nicholas’ invention. I feel it is because their academic background meant they didn’t have the freedom to look. My brother being self-taught, has the ability to go outside the box — and we have a unique technology as a result, that can clear up water that is difficult to clear up otherwise. This is a vital thing in the world, in which 70% of all industrial waste water, and 80% of all sewage, is never treated at all.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our investors are the most loyal in the world. We have gone through a multi-year biotech-style development path (the water industry can take 12–14 years to accept a new technology), and they have stuck with us through thick and thin. They know that when I send an update to 10,000+ people, any reply goes straight to my inbox. I try to be there for every single investor and update them continuously. It’s why, after all these years, they are supporting us as we finally crank up our revenues. Back in 2013, I was coming down from a climb in the French Alps with one of our key investors who was an old friend as well. As we walked and slid down the steep mountain path, he told me that if I screwed him over, he would never forgive me. Last week we had lunch, and I reminded him of what he said. He still invests!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We have so many great projects. But the one that has me really excited is Modular Water. Literally this is a water-system-in-a-box. The water industry makes water treatment systems by hand, much the way you build a house. This is more like a mobile home. The rigid containers mean that no foundation is needed, and the whole thing can be built in the factory and trucked onsite. Customers typically see a 5% to 25% costs savings when compared to existing conventional infrastructure solutions using concrete, fiberglass, and steel — with a lifespan that is up to four times greater (1100 years!). The whole water industry is going to “self-service” water treatment by industrial, commercial and agricultural users, and Modular Water is perfect for this.
Let‘s look at how this will help people. Imagine you are building a real estate development, 200–300 homes, in South Florida. Connecting up to the city system is a problem, because these systems are overwhelmed. But more importantly, if you send your black and grey water to them, you will have to keep buying new water for your golf course. With your own self-contained treatment module, you can treat the water onsite and reuse it to water the golf course. That is a huge water savings and it can make for a 2–3 year ROI on your little prefab unit. And you are being very green! (because otherwise, recycling rates in the USA are just 1 percent versus almost 90% for Israel). Finally, the Modular Water units are very easy to run so you don’t need special staff to run it. That’s because Dan Early has supplied Forward Operating Bases in Afghanistan with containerized waste water treatment units that an 18-year old soldier can operate! All in all I’m super excited to have Dan Early on board and we are piling in behind him as fast as we can.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Don’t inspect before the fact of an employee making a mistake. Give them maximum freedom of operation. That doesn’t mean let them destroy your work. You keep an eye out and monitor their output and you then train and manage them through it. I have high loyalty for my people and that does cost me sometimes. But I’m repaid with extraordinary loyalty too.
What advice would you give to other CEOs about the best way to manage a large team?
Spend time only on the most willing and let the rest go. Willingness is everything, don’t let someone who has skills stick around if they are not 100% in the game. I have lots of time for people who are willing.
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?
My late wife Avis was Bob Hope’s niece. And she had his amazing regard for people and a style that permeated everything she did. At the time I met her, I had been recovering from a spectacular business failure, and she helped me find my center and start my path toward the C-suite. What I loved about her was her ability to pull together company events with style and attention to detail that we have never seen since. She even kept doing that while she was sick, and her determination shines through in my life to this day.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My wife and I give deeply to action-oriented nonprofit causes like anti-drug education and more. But I still think my work in water is a public good. It’s amazing how most people in the world think water is a major problem. But the problem is so huge they do not know what to do about it. They sense we have a mission and that everything we do is to help with the problem, whether with a cleanup technology or even as in this year, with a cryptocurrency which could bring significant water funding top projects that are too small for Wall Street’s financing systems. Making water work is my mission and I love it.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- 90% or more of the people who say they can help you, can’t. I’m always astonished at the number of people who genuinely think they can help, and they are a waste of time. One particular investor relations practitioner dangled the prospect of a major celebrity in front of me for months for a potential endorsement. He even had the celebrity talk with me. It was a time-waster, I’m sad to say. My wife is very good at spotting them and I have learned to listen!
- You’ll fundraise… forever. It is amazing how much your job is about raising money. That’s just how it is. For example recently, as we have a major revenue upsurge and profits in sight, I’m having to go back to my longtime investors. It’s not easy but they are, as I say, wonderful.
- Your name will be reviled in message boards. One example was someone claiming I was wanted for child rape in Thailand — and I have never even been to that country! They will say anything, literally.
- At the end of the day, you are the one who has to make it work. That’s something I learned again as a sailor. In February 2013 I was sailing with friends and we rounded a cape. Suddenly, the wind took us aback and we were flying for the rocks! The one person who said she was experienced disappeared into the cabin below. I took three guys, including my son who was 15 at the time, and walked them through the steps to get the boat backed away from its suicidal course. It was a dramatic moment (my wife is still in shock) and it underlined how in the end, it’s all about you.
- You basically have to be an athlete. It’s physically and mentally tough. Also, you have got to remember to take care of yourself and work out diligently. It actually gets rid of stress in a big way. Handling the pressures of this job without physical exertion is literally suicide. I learned that this year, when things got unbelievably busy as we were doing WaterChain and the Modular Water acquisition as a ton of financing, all at once. I stopped working out for a couple of months. Not only did I gain weight, but I was stressed. Now I work out almost every day.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I am most inspired by the potential for cryptocurrency in eliminating the middleman and empowering the actual stakeholders. I tell the “Beyond Uber” example which is compelling, I think. Uber is great, but Uber drivers don’t make enough — a Beyond Uber crypto concept would change all that.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Here’s my favorite quote, I carried it around since my teens. « Il n’est qu’un luxe véritable, et c’est celui des relations humaines. » (The only true pleasure is that of human relations.) Antoine de St-Exupéry (Terre des Hommes) Human relations — there is nothing else.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Elon Musk, no question. I love his breezy, insouciant, humorous approach to innovation (the Boring Company!?!?). He just gets it done and seems to have sooo much fun at it!
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