Pedal to the (removal of) Metal — PowerTech Water bring electrocoagulation to the mainstream
A chemist-by-training turned serial science entrepreneur, Cameron Lippert is now tackling the challenge of access to clean water. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of PowerTech Water, a Kentucky-based clean-tech company using advanced carbon materials and electrochemistry to deliver specialized solutions for targeted water treatment. This week we spoke with Cameron about the birth of PowerTech, the power of trial and error, and the importance of collaboration.
Tell us a little about yourself and what led you to found PowerTech Water?
I’m originally from the beaches of the Florida panhandle. After spending 5 years in grad school working on my PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and on the verge of burning out, a series of events would lead me to founding my first company and forever change the way I see the world. I founded a functional beverage company…and quickly learned what not to do as I saw my first company dive into failure. However, I caught the entrepreneurial bug and knew I would be back at it one day.
In late 2012, I met my future co-founder James Landon while doing post-doctoral work at the Center for Applied Energy Research under the same advisor, Kunlei Liu. We shared an office which would serve as the catalyst for the birth of PowerTech Water (PTW). I was working on materials synthesis and chemical modifications while James was developing electrochemical devices using carbon materials. James discovered failure mechanisms of carbon-based electrodes which was a major issue in limiting their commercialization into the marketplace. Pulling from the expertise of both co-founders, we came up with a plan to chemically modify carbon materials to overcome the newly discovered failure mechanisms. It was a huge success which led to numerous scientific publications, and would serve as the core of PTW. Having previously being infected with the entrepreneur bug I began to call everyone and anyone involved in water treatment to see if there was a pain point that are newly discovered science can fix, and fortunately the news was good.
In December 2013, I signed James up for a business plan pitch competition hosted by the local startup community known as 5 Across to pitch a new idea for a company based on his research/science. This was the final piece of the puzzle that would lead to the creation of PTW. James gave a business pitch built around his research on carbon electrodes and how they can be used to purify water and beat 4 other challengers to win $4,500. One of judges was an angel investor, Chris Young, who would go on to be the first investor in PTW with a $25,000 investment, and PowerTech Water was born.
By late 2017, we had developed the core science concepts of stable carbon electrodes and turned them into an electrochemical water treatment platform to build targeted solutions and devices for water purification. In 2019, PTW was accepted into the ImagineH2O Accelerator program and the technology is being utilized in installations across the USA.
What’s the biggest thing you have learned as a founder?
You can not do it alone! Surround yourself with a Rockstar team that is smarter than you. If I am the dumbest person in the room, then I did my job. Make these people (employees, advisors, investors, consultants, whatever) excited to work with you and want to go above and beyond to see you succeed.
What are your priorities for 2019?
I have 2 main priorities. (1) The first is to close our funding round. Raising funds for a startup is a soul crushing and brutal distraction from growing the business. However, it is a necessary process as cash is the lifeblood of a startup. It looks like I will get everything closed by mid July and I can get back to dominating wastewater treatment and making my customer’s lives better. Which brings us to priority (2) Customers and market traction. We’re developing and executing our GTM plan with an initial focus on the battery manufacturing sector. We are building momentum in the space and are always on the lookout for pain points to solve. Looking ahead to 2020, we are laying the foundation to tackle adjacent market sectors such as electronics manufacturing, electroplating, and metal finishing sectors.
If you could do anything differently in your journey of PowerTech, what would it be?
I would have spent less time in the lab engineering and more time in the field talking to customers and selling what is “good enough”. This would have helped us get more focus, faster.
What would be your advice to entrepreneurs entering the water sector?
Don’t do it! Just kidding. Be VERY patient and get creative. It is a long journey in water and the traditional startup funding sources will most likely not be a fit, so use your creativity to find a way to persevere. Also, get your stuff in the field ASAP - get out of the lab! Find friendly customers whose current processes are a nightmare that can be your lab. Fail with them.
Sum up your IH2O experience so far in 3 words.
Legen, wait-for-it, dary!
Check out what Cameron and the team are doing at PowerTech Water. You can contact Cameron at email@example.com.