Let’s talk about some of the challenges you’ve faced in growing your business. What keeps you up at night as a business owner? And then what challenges have you faced and overcome?
I get asked that question all the time, and I always feel like I’m answering it wrong, but I sleep well at night. I hit a 6 a.m. workout almost every single day. The business doesn’t impact my sleep. I don’t worry about the business. I’ll put it this way: Most business folks just think about what they’re building. For me, I’m just a tool in building this business. I’m doing it because I’m a tool for God’s work. I am just managing this resource that He’s blessed me with to lead, and as long as I can stay true and stay grounded and know he is always in charge, everything works out. I don’t know how to explain it. I’m a believer and that’s just how it is.
As far as challenges we’ve faced and overcome, one of the challenges we’ve had as a startup is having access to serious capital. We were fortunate enough that I met Terrance “Terry” Berland, who was advising me on IROC Tactical when ecoSPEARS came about. He, with David Scalzo through Kirenaga, invested and led our Seed Round on a post-validated and pre-commercialized NASA technology and our mission to make a difference in the world through clean water, the environment, and sustainability.
Before then, access to that size of Seed Round in Central Florida, without hindering the potential value creation the founder can create through a low valuation, was very foreign here. You could maybe get a $50,000 to $150,000 check, but the valuation would be low. As such, you’d often find the CEO continually raising capital instead of running the business and creating value. Terry and Dave really ensured that their founders had ample funding, but also the proper mentorship to help them 1) build the team, 2) secure and build the technologies, and 3) grow the mission.
In our next growth phase, Ian and I sought to raise a $5 million Series A round and again, we continued to seek capital outside of Florida, being careful of course that the new capital didn’t have clauses that forced ecoSPEARS to move out of Central Florida. In Q3 of 2019, we prepared to raise our Series A and kicked off the capital raising campaign at the Katapult Ocean Accelerator Investor Pitch Day. Katapult Ocean, a Norwegian-based accelerator program, is led by former Altamonte Springs native Jonas Skattum Svegaarden, who also has a passion for not just the ocean, but the blue economy. Much like the world, little did we know that COVID-19 would completely shut everything down come March 2020. During that period, we raised a SAFE round and continued to speak with lead investors outside of Florida, including Portland, Norway, Sweden, California, New York, Texas, and Hawaii.
I’m happy to say we have committed to our next round of capital. I can’t say yet, but it’ll be public soon.
This is something we need to do better here in Central Florida. The only way it’s going to get better for our startup community – and Terry, Ian, and I have the same belief – is if the startup community and the founders who are successful pay it forward and invest back into the Central Florida ecosystem. We should not just rely on legacy investors to fund the next generations of ventures here in Central Florida; it’s up to us now. If we fail to do this, then I have nobody else to blame but myself. So I’m taking on that shared responsibility.
What challenges do you foresee in the next few years?
Finding passionate and talented key hires! We have projects as far away as Guam and Hawaii, Washington State, California, Washington D.C., and all the way to Sweden. As we embark on the next stage of our business, we will need folks with industry experience who think outside the box. We will need more diversity on our team, both regionally and culturally. I want to have a well-balanced and diverse leadership team. I want more powerful women in science and tech to be part of our team. Only through diversity can ecoSPEARS serve a global market.
What are your goals for the next few years? Where do you see the business going?
Create global impact. I’m happy to say that we are already starting to operate globally, even with our small team. For us, it’s about solving real-world issues — more specifically, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals of clean water and environment that lead to clean food.
I want to focus on impact and continue to build new technology that the industry has never seen before to not only address the legacy contaminants that have already been in our waterways and our environment for the past 50 to 60 years, but also to build technology for emerging contaminations like dioxins, advanced pharmaceuticals, and PFOA/S so that we’re ahead of the curve. If you look up the infrastructure bill, there’s a big portion of that for emerging contaminations.
As part of the expansion plan for 2022, I’d like to find some licensing partners in different regions of the world so we can joint-venture partners to build ecoSPEARS in South America, an ecoSPEARS in Europe, and an ecoSPEARS in Asia. The world needs real solutions. These contaminations and these issues that lead to cancer and other health issues and birth defects don’t just fall within the borders of the U.S. They are in every single industrialized nation. We live in one world, and we’re affecting one another, and we need a global strategy.
What’s been your proudest moment so far as CEO?
I’m not one for the spotlight. When it comes to awards, I always tell people it’s going to be hard to get me to attend because I’m often on travel, but I’ll make time when it’s about our team. This is not about me; it’s about the ecoSPEARS team. My proudest moment is when we can take interns from UCF or Rollins and groom them from scratch, enrich them and then watch them grow to where they’re leading projects. I’m proud to be able to see a group of individuals who are so passionate and so mission-driven because they want to make a change outside of themselves to be part of ecoSPEARS.
What did it mean to you to be selected as an honoree for the GrowFL Florida Companies to Watch?
I’m honored. It’s God’s grace. Honestly, this honor is really a reflection of my our ecoSPEARS team, not me. It will always be THE TEAM!
And what did your team think about it?
They are super excited. They love the recognition. You’ve really got to celebrate the wins because it’s good for the team. If there’s something that I can improve on in 2022, it’s that: taking time to stop and celebrate. It’s all about the passion. So to be able to see our team recognized and awarded for all their hard work, it’s truly heartwarming.
Is there anyone you’d like to thank?
Yes, first and foremost, God. I wouldn’t be here without Him. My wife Kristie and my kids Kai, Teo, and Cru because they keep me grounded. My co-founder, Ian, who has been with me from the beginning and has shared the late nights, long flights, tough decisions and pitches on the same stage. My ecoSPEARS team. I’m blessed to be surrounded by an unbelievable group of young men and women who believe in our mission and are passionate about our environment and helping communities. Last but not least, Terry Berland and David Scalzo from Kirenaga Partners. Before they became our lead investors in our Seed Round, Terry and Dave were first mentors and advisors. They doubled down on Ian and me when others found it hard to see the opportunity. To them, the mission of solving real-world problems and healing our planet from toxins was worth it enough to back us through ecoSPEARS.