Membrane Bioreactors systems weigh $4Bn a year today (and growing). Yet, in the early eighties, no one really believed membranes would ever make a dent in clean water applications. So before envisioning a wastewater application, there was a long way to go… and a valley of death to cross for Zenon!
with 🎙️ Andrew Benedek, Executive Chairman of Anaergia, founder of Zenon and CEO for 26 years, a former member of the IWA board, and the inaugural recipient of the Lee Kwan Yew Prize.
💧 Anaergia aims to convert waste into useful resources, protect the environment, and sustain life for generations to come. Where some see waste, they see resources.
What we covered:
💰 How Zenon created the $4Bn/year membrane bioreactor market from scratch
💸 How no investor would have dared to put a penny in Andrew’s vision
⏰ How wastewater reuse would become mandatory and how only a few people had realized it in the early 1980s
🌐 How you can’t change the World with academic research and how that led Andrew to become a water entrepreneur
🤷 How for almost two decades there were no positive signs for wastewater treatment membranes on the market
🧰 How technology development wasn’t a peacefully boring straight road either
🌐 How with Zenon membranes now in the middle of the market a merger or an acquisition became inevitable
🦸 How Andrew tempted an audacious move that – here again – would have been two decades ahead of times
🛋️ How with several million in his pocket and a beautiful house on the US west coast, 63-year old Andrew Benedek still wasn’t done with business
🌊 How teaching and researching at the Scripps institute became an eye opener on the advancement rate of climate change
🪃 How Andrew plunged back into the shark tank by turning a bankrupt german company on its head – leading it to its IPO
💪 How over time, Andrew developed a 4-step recipe for changing the World
🏭 The one single business book you need to read, being an idealist, dealing with market players that copy you, failing and learning from failure, using gatekeepers to enter the mass market, believing in yourself, building for the future, becoming more ambitious every day… and much more!
🔥 … and of course, we concluded with the 𝙧𝙖𝙥𝙞𝙙 𝙛𝙞𝙧𝙚 𝙦𝙪𝙚𝙨𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣𝙨 🔥
🔗 Have a look at Anaergia‘ website
is on Linkedin ➡️
Teaser: The untold story of Zenon
Infographic: Zenon the Lonely Prophet1385256_LinkedinInfographicS5E12_060822
Table of contents
These are computer-generated, so expect some typos 🙂
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Antoine Walter: Hi, Andrew, welcome to the show.
Andrew Benedek: Hello Antoine.
Antoine Walter: I just told you that I’m excited to have you on that microphone because you, one of the industry legends. So I’m really glad to have the chance to explore your path today. And we’ll go into that in just a minute, but I have a tradition on that microphone, which is to open with a postcard and you’re sending a postcard from France.
That’s something which is quite funny as well. What can you tell me about Cannes, which I would ignore it by now?
Andrew Benedek: candy is only a good place during the festival. If you are a member of the industry Well,
we are really enjoying very much the excitement we see movie stars go by, but we’re not being welcomed on the red carpet. a few years ago, I, did actually managed to buy a ticket and be on the red carpet, but nobody took a picture of me.
Antoine Walter: I still believe you you don’t need a picture to prove it. it’s not going to be about, I mean, I mentioned your legends. You’re not a cinema or movie legend. You’re a water legends. It’s going to be a bit more about that. And I was doing my due diligence and looking at your path and in multiple interviews, you’ve mentioned that you are first mentor, Jack Hutchins had offered you a business book in 1980, and you never mentioned the title of that book.
And you mentioned it to be the single business resource you had when you started your full path. And when I see your food path, that book must have been really awesome. So do you remember the title of the book?
Andrew Benedek: Yes. It was called the entrepreneur’s guide.
Antoine Walter: So you start with that entrepreneur’s guidance, what’s everything inside, or did you learn it? Hands-on.
Andrew Benedek: Well, I mentioned the book only to say that I think had I been educated in business beyond this book that I read carefully, I would probably have not done what I did because. To attack the water market using a technology that’s unproven and no one in their right mind would have gone into it.
Took some courage. It also took some courage to start a company with no money and then to start it, not just by making membranes, but by getting equipment analytical equipment that were quite costly. So what the book did help me interestingly, is to realize That you should make everything a profit center.
That was the single most powerful idea. And the only reason I survived with this lack of knowledge in business, was that, Having bought GCMS spec, which were critical at the time to measure pollutants. And spend my last dollar on it. I found a way to actually make money from it by starting a analytical business. And it’s ultimately the analytical business that actually made the money. The membranes was a way to invest. I had no venture capital investor, no venture capital investor in fact would have been crazy enough to invest in a professor wanting to find a solution to water reuse. .
Antoine Walter: That brings me trade into the deep dive, because that’s something I’d like to understand first, if anyone doesn’t know by now that’s tiny little company, a little thing that you started is Zenon, which is maybe the one company that revolutionized the way that we treat our wastewater. And you mentioned that you wanted to go into this reuse from the beginning and that you were a professor.
So that was back in 1970. If I’m right. You were a professor at McMaster university, I’d like to understand what you did before. 1970 and 1980. Did you develop something that you ultimately turned into a company, or how did you come to Zenon
Andrew Benedek: between 1970 and 1980, while I was a professor at McMaster, I was focusing on water research. And trying to find solutions of the future. But I was betting on a technology that turned out to be relatively marginal that was activated carbon. So I did a great deal of research with my students on the modeling activated carbon.
EPA thought that is the technology of the future. There were many conferences, and I should tell you because you’re French that the idea of going to membranes was born together with a French friend who used to work for La Lyonnaise and he’s name was François Fissinger. François Fissinger and I. We’re at a conference in Atlanta, probably the 10th conference on activated carbon of the year. And we looked at each other during the conference. And by then we have done all our work in this space. Lyonnaise’s laboratory was created in Le Pecq partly to focus on activated carbon, together we won the prix Chemviron active carbon research. That was the biggest prize at the time. But we looked at each other and we said, this isn’t going to work. This isn’t a solution. So what the hell is So we actually rented a little cottage on Lakeland ear north of Atlanta and spent a weekend together debating what to do instead of the carbon. So we both agreed that membranes is the answer.
Antoine Walter: That is bold because we are in the seventies and thinking that the membrane is the answer by then you are 20 or 30 years in advance of the timeline of the water history.
Andrew Benedek: this was in the late seventies. He actually went back to France and convinced Jerome Monod, who was at the time chairman of La Lyonnaise is to begin a membrane project in Toulouse. I went back to Canada. And started to think about how to create a membrane company, because we also both realized that you, don’t change the world through academic research.
Antoine Walter: So you you turned your research and your interest into membranes into a company and that’s 1980. So you creates Zenon. When do you have your first product?
Andrew Benedek: I started by doing what I knew how to do research, but then there was a company available that was making membranes in Kitchener, Waterloo, not far from where our company was. in Ontario. So I bought this company that was making very primitive membranes, tubular membranes, and Zenon began making tubular membranes for purifying water in particular oily wastewater from automotive production, because that’s what the company was doing.
Antoine Walter: What was the material of those membranes?
Andrew Benedek: At first it was polysulfone And then eventually we started working on PVDF .
Antoine Walter: So in the eighties, you start having that company that you acquired, you go into this tubular membrane, which you call primitive and you keep developing. I like to share you a, an extract here of an interview I made a while ago with Graeme Pearce. And he was explaining how his own experience was difficult with bringing membranes to the market.
And they were looking at oil and gas like you, but also the drinking sides of the markets. Where they had some regulatory push. And here’s what he said about Zenon
On the wastewater side, the Xenon people were basically telling industry, this is what the future is going to look like. And for a long time, nobody paid much attention to them, or didn’t really accept what they were saying or were saying it’s going to always be too expensive. It’s never going to work.
It’s too technically difficult. They didn’t get the legislative drivers that the clean side got.
Antoine Walter: bringing membranes to the market is already incredibly difficult. And you go to the waste water side of it, which is apparently even more difficult.
Andrew Benedek: I have always been an idealist. I grew up in a communist country. By the time I was 13 years old, I read virtually every single classic European book. That kind of made me idealistic almost in a foolish manner, to be honest, because a lot of these books, like immuda Zola, I read all of his books as an example.
And I told France just to talk about French writers, all of them. Basically suggesting solutions to the challenges of the 19th century, late 19th century, early 20th century. And they were somewhat idealistic and of course, life is more complicated but it basically gave me a direction that perhaps a bit unusual. Starting to work as a chemical engineer. I realized that us chemical engineers do some good but they also do some bad. And I realized that because I started some summer jobs and. We were polluting the river and the company wasn’t serious about doing anything about it. And that’s what made me go back to graduate school. And then when I became a professor still wanting to do something about water pollution I started looking at the world in a different lens as I really books like the population bomb and the limits to growth, which was the club of Rome.
This is before you were probably born Antoine, but we had a population of 3 billion having grown from a two and a bit after the second world war and people were projecting. The world running out or resources. The one resource that seemed like you’re going to run out of water, because if you keep growing, people need more water.
If you improve the standard of living, they need more water. And frankly, we were wasting water. And this is a period when rivers were going on fire because industry was discharging without control. So.
I actually got into this space for idealistic reasons and I started Zenon for the same. I started Zenon wanting to find a solution to the future water crises.
Antoine Walter: It’s very interesting because history tends to repeat. We are talking right now of a potential water scarcity by 2030. According to the projections, we’re missing 40% of the water to strive by then. And water reuse is hence now seen as something that shall cover, 10% of the world’s needs by 2030.
But again looking at that, even with an idealistic lens in the eighties and thinking that is going to be the place to strive, that is beyond the visionary. So really impressive. There’s something you mentioned how you read only one business book. I do get that’s you’re reading much more books but at the time only one business book I’ve read many business books.
I never started a company and it never was so successful though that you were, but there’s one common pattern in these business books is that they say you should look for competition You should look for competition because that’s a sign, that’s the niche you’re addressing and the space you want to evolve in has a good potential.
It’s hard to be the only one, which is right. Yet, Graeme said that Zenon was the lonely prophet.
Graeme Pearce: Zenon, basically, it was a bit like the lonely profits in the wilderness.
Antoine Walter: And I’ve seen you in interview saying that you see the opposite. You say, competition is what you should avoid at the beginning. You shall go for very dedicated niches, cut your teeth. And once you’re strong enough, then go to competition.
And it seems like against all the odds and all the books. You’re right. So what’s your take on that?
Andrew Benedek: I don’t want to comment on whether you should look for competition or not, but definitely if there’s no competition, there’s no market and it’s very hard to create the market. But on the other hand, if you are developing technology and you’re a small company and you’re up against established companies, entering such a market is very difficult and you’re less likely to succeed unless you have very deep pockets and you sustain yourself for a long time and you have an advantage over the existing competitors Who in today’s world can easily copy you. And therefore you lose your advantage and you lose your chance to really make money. In the case of Xenon Graham was right. No one thought that a membrane could actually work at all in Wastewater because it’s such a delicate material. And second, no one thought could ever be practical to go up against gravity and sand, but we believe so. And so systematically, we looked for a solution.
What is interesting Antoine is that for 16 years we had no competition because everybody thought this is crazy in America. We had some in Japan, but they were doing the building wastewater treatment. Small scare stuff, but they were doing it. We actually started getting into the membrane bio-reactors basically because we had a client that made us put , the tubular memories that I talked about ahead of the biological plant. And I said to myself, that’s crazy. You’re much better off to do the biological, to retain the bacteria and reverse it.
Antoine Walter: Who were your early adopters? How in these 16 years, where you’re this lonely ranger, lonely prophet in the desert, maybe with, I guess the Japanese must be Kubota or I might be wrong.
Andrew Benedek: Kubota Mitsubishi.
Antoine Walter: So in north America you are alone in Europe. My research indicates that maybe Wehrle was a bit into that field as well,
Andrew Benedek: Oh, after us,
Antoine Walter: okay.
Andrew Benedek: in Europe, competition is much quicker. So we went to the first IFAT meeting. nobody showed membrane bioreactors for wastewater treatment, not a single one. The next time we went three years later, there were three. And the time after nine. So it kept exponentially increasing.
Antoine Walter: So in the water industry where everybody wants to be first to be second, how do you find your early adopters?
Andrew Benedek: It was two ways that we got into it. One was on our own which was, we were supplying these tubular membranes that?
I talked about to general motors and general motors had visionary leader. We wanted to find a better solution. his name was Raj Mishra and he agreed with us to install one at Mansfield, Ohio in a general motors plant. So that was the first large scale, maybe the first period industrial wastewater treatment.
Antoine Walter: When was that?
Andrew Benedek: Sometime in the late eighties, I don’t remember the exact year. I should look that up,
but around the
same time, around the same time we were supplying membranes to another company that was in fact the first commercial, MBR a little bit of MBR history for you, Antoine MBRs very invented in the 1960s. Not by me. I had nothing to do with it by door Oliver. The problem or Oliver had is that they actually built a municipal plant called Pike’s peak couple MGD plant. The problem they had is that they use their own membrane, which was plate and frame membrane, because that’s what they knew how to make from.
Play them frame filters, and this was terribly expensive and difficult to maintain cleaning. It was difficult. That failed. And I think after that, it’s the Japanese that started with the Shinkansu membranes in the buildings. But in north America, there was a company called Stepford.
The people that make toilets for RVs in Michigan, they actually had a small group that was doing membrane bioreactors for small scale. Projects. And we bought that company as well. And then we worked with them and this are all tubular membranes. So far four developments, buildings, and shopping centers. So we kind of entered the MBR business directly by ourselves and also indirectly through a company that was buying our membranes.
Antoine Walter: When did you switch from tubular membranes to hollow fiber?
Andrew Benedek: I’m trying to make sure I get the right date. I think it’s happened toward the end of the eighties. And it happened from pain of the head of research this is in Canada, so he was French Canadian. And one of my PhD students from McMasters it happened because we had a major project in fibers. I knew that tubes are not the answer. So we’re looking for fibers and we had a, brilliant idea that would be fantastic in university setting because it took advantage of a particular kind of fluid mechanics that would make these membranes super efficient, but it turned out to be a product that wasn’t practical and particular, not for wastewater and for MBR. We called it “moustiquaire” because it looked like something you put on your windows in Canada to keep the mosquitoes up. It was fouling so quickly that it became hopeless. So we spent $7 million of our precious money on fiber research only to wind up with a dot. And out of desperation. Pierre suggested we should try membranes directly immersed into wastewater. That’s how we went to what later became Zeeweed. It looked like seaweed, but because our company was Zenon and everything began with a Zed or Z be called the Zeeweed. Interestingly Antoine, I just attended a ceremony, but professor Yamamoto was given the same price I was given.
I got the first Lee Kuan Yu prize in 2008. He’s got this year’s prize for being the first one to propose. That wants you to put fibers into water for wastewater treatment, naked fibers. I believe that we had no connection to him, but I also believe that he deserved the prize because he was before us. The difference is that we commercialize the idea and he did not,
Antoine Walter: It’s about the execution. An idea is nothing. If you don’t execute on it, I’m not judging. I’m just saying the devil’s in the detail, which you find out if you execute it.
Andrew Benedek: well, the world doesn’t change from ideal. And that’s why I quit the university because I would write papers and I realized. I going to have no impact, no matter how brilliant the mathematics, it will have no impact.
Antoine Walter: So by the late eighties, you start to develop the hollow fiber. You have your first full-scale reference, you have your two different ways of going to the market directly and through someone who uses your membrane, what is the point in time where you feel finally a strong traction, like something is happening and all that technology is really selling like hot bagel.
Andrew Benedek: the first step interestingly in our evolution was not what we intended to be. In fact, nothing ever happens the way you think it should. So, interestingly, there was a catastrophe in Milwaukee with cryptosporidium and all of a sudden. Membranes was the answer for water treatment,
Antoine Walter: For the clean water side. Yeah.
Andrew Benedek: So we didn’t want to go into clean water side. We wanted to be in the wastewater side. I’ll always, that’s why I started the company. It does wherever we were. And in fact we try to work with Memcore because they were only on the water side, but they refuse to cooperate with us in the drinking water side. And so we said, all right, well, we see an opportunity here. Let’s see for membranes work for water. And so our first significant references were not for wastewater. They for drinking water and the drinking water market. Pooled ahead and became very significant in north America, but we of course continued our wastewater work we’re not talking early nineties, drinking water is going toward membranes.
In fact that particular period, almost all the plants in Canada for drinking, whatever based on membranes and waste water was still very few municipalities, small ones that would go that way. it’s around maybe the late nineties that water reuse in the west became more and more important. And we started building reference. And most important. We started building connections to key consultants in the water market, which as you know, in north America is critical for commercialization that both believed in MBRs and the water reuse, using membranes and believed in our company as a key supplier.
Antoine Walter: So in these late nineties, actually, you see the same thing happening that for the clean water on the dirty side of it. I mean, I say same, but it’s similar in the same that the boom in the clean side was this cryptosporidium and all the quality concerns like e.coli and colloidal is in Europe quite a lot.
the higher quality standard led to the inception of membranes and in wastewater treatments, if you want to reuse it, that means you improving the grade of treatments. You want a higher quality standards at the outputs and hence it somehow commends for membranes. So the driver is really the use of the water.
So the higher ends, the treatment needs to be the better it is for your technology and for its breakthrough within the market.
Andrew Benedek: Yeah. So it was watery use and. The embracing of water reuse globally and in particular, Singapore, which is a fascinating story on its own.
Antoine Walter: I’ve seen that you mentioned there as the company that enabled NeWater, which is bold when you see how important. NeWater is for Singapore’s geopolitical environments. So, but really I’ve seen that you receive some awards there too, to underline the role you played in that water reuse scheme.
So in the nineties, reuse is driving forward in the late nineties. There’s that boom , in China of MBRs. And it becomes today almost a go-to in wastewater treatment, not only for reuse, but also for compact plants. I mean, activated sludge is still the workhorse of the industry, but nevertheless, membrane bioreactors are now quite commonplace.
How do you see that from a technology company perspective, how do you feel that finally you’ve reached beyond the mass market, almost the commodity?.
Andrew Benedek: It’s interesting that you bring up China. So China. didn’t have any MBRs at all. And it was a relationship between me and the founder of sign or today she was in another company prior And they decided that they want to bring MBRs to China. That’s the beginning of MBRs in China and China today is 50% of the wastewater plants are MBRs. So when you asked me earlier, when did all this get started and I saw that it’s going to happen? Well, I always knew it was going to happen because it’s dramatically simpler and better than the old ways that we were using a much more reliable. But what is interesting too, is that the water market now for membranes is only a third of the wastewater market, because what I always knew is happening, which is water shortages, and they’re accelerating. MBRs are still growing at about 15% a year. And that’s a remarkable thing in technology. When you think back starting 30 years ago, what technology is still around? Nevermind prospering and growing, but now it’s everywhere. In my current business we bought recently two plans that are really badly built.
But they have MBRs the MBRs, our membranes from China. They didn’t work, but somehow whoever decided to build it chose MBR. So I see MBRs everywhere now.
Antoine Walter: And if you have to put a flag somewhere and to say that is the date at which it’s mass market, and if you have an event which tells you that is a mass market, when would
Andrew Benedek: Well, I think if you were to put a day or a particular event probably when CH2M hill decided to use MBRs for Seattle, which would have been early 2000, maybe 2002, 2003, that, that era CH2M hill and brown and Caldwell, we’re both focusing on MBRs in many of their plans.
And Singapore also started to build them. So I would say it’s the early, maybe 2002, 2003 was the break point.
Antoine Walter: I think you’re getting what I’m trying to do to find out here. It’s, I’m just trying to redraw the timeline. So seventies to eighties, you do your research and you think, okay. Having looked at everything, which is around the best options, probably membranes. And you want to go beyond the idea and to go into the real phase.
So in the eighties you launch enon and for the first 10 years, it’s. Looking around trying to find the right spots, bringing the triple membrane to markets late eighties, you get your first reference. Then you switch to hollow fiber in the nineties, you start to get some tractions and to really have the booming MBRs starting in the late nineties.
And by the beginning of the two thousands, you’re in the middle of the market, which means you need 30 years of dedication to your original intuition and to your original idea that you will make it in that sphere. And you will have an impact. Do you have time over these 30 years or you think what if I was wrong?
Andrew Benedek: You know, what, if you have any doubts whatsoever, you won’t make it. And I had none And in fact, I also believe that if you truly believe something and it’s a reasonable belief, in other words, it’s something the world needs. it will happen. There’s a big difference between desire and belief. I want to lose weight, right? That’s my desire. I don’t believe I will lose weight. Even if I lose some weight, they will come back again. But if I believe that I’m going to be slim for sure it will happen.
I’m thinking of very simple example, but it’s the same in the business.
Antoine Walter: You’re familiar with Paul O’Callaghan’s thesis on the dynamics of water innovation and with Paul on that microphone he underlined is how needs driven. Innovation is the one that makes it and makes it faster than value driven.
So you have to go for a need and yeah, at the beginning of your full story, there was an intuition which turned out into a need when the words needed to reuse its water. So that’s somehow correlates with the findings of Paul across his thesis, unless you have a counter example and you say, no, I disagree with that thesis
Andrew Benedek: let me say that. I generally agree with Paul, so no, no disagreement I just want to crystallize what I was trying to say. One, you have to absolutely believe that whatever it is that you want to do, you can do. Two, you have to be persistent. And in, in the Waterfield, particularly persistent because it seems like markets move extremely slowly. I like almost like no other industry. But if you are a believer and you’re persistent and you’re willing to work at it miracles happen?
Antoine Walter: me go to the final chapter of that Zenon story. In 2006, you sold Zenon to general electric. So GE water, how does that happen?
Andrew Benedek: Well, just so you know the year before GE made the offer to buy our company, my wife and I bought a house in California because we said when GE buys, the company we’ll probably want to have that house. I actually tried to prevent GE from buying the company. This is a story that probably no one knows.
So I’ll tell it to you particularly because you’re french. I’m somewhat of a francophile. So I thought rather than have GE buy the company, which I thought was inevitable because they liked to be number one, this was the number one water technology company. This kind of company fits with GE.
They want to manufacture, they want to manufacture a scale. They had all the ingredients and the other companies they were buying did not. So I figured at some point they’ll figure out that they’re buying the wrong companies and focus that energy on us. I didn’t know how I could prevent that, except I thought I could do it maybe by buying Degrémont. So I knew Jean-Louis Chaussade So I came to see Jean-Louis and I said, Jean-Louis you got a losing company, Degrémont, why don’t we combine the two? You will have a public company in which you will have control and I’ll fix up your mess at Degrémont. it went quite a ways all the way up to Mestrallet, who was then the CEO, who said, we can’t let go such an important part of our company, like Degrémont So that was the end of that story. And at that point, I said, okay, well we have no choice. GE is going to offer something and we’ll have to sell it to them because they certainly have the resources and we’re a public company.
So that’s what actually happened. What is truly interesting is that many years later Jean-Louis Chaussade was now the CEO of Suez. And when GE put the business up for sale I’m told by people who Jean-Louis talked to, I didn’t speak to them that he bought it because he really wanted Zenon within Suez. But of course now he’s retired and Camus lost it.
Antoine Walter: I cannot tell you what he told the people, but I can tell you that at that time I was working for Degrémont and that’s what everybody was saying. It’s it was like that full move is because yeah, we need Zeeweed inside the product range. So it sounds relatable. I’d say I was actually not at all at the same sphere of decisions than you were, and it’s crazy how, That would have been awesome actually to see that joint venture happening at the time you wanted to have it happen. So you bought that house in California one year early from the sales from Zenon to GE. So again, you’re ahead of times and a bit visionary and what’s crazy in that story.
Sorry. To use the word crazy, but at that time, without cracking a secretary, you’re 63, you have that house in California, you just sold your company for seven hundreds 60 million to GE, not all in your pocket, but still, I guess you must have had some money from that dealer which comes to you.
So you have everything aligned to, to just retire and to peacefully strive on the west coast of the US you even started to being a researcher at the Scripps Institute and giving some courses there non-paid assignments from what I read. And one year later you acquire a German company, which is just in bankruptcy.
You move to Europe and you just turn the company on its head. And 15 years down the line, we’re here, speaking together. You’re still heading that company. And that company just won the global water awards for the wastewater project of the year. I’m just wondering, why did you decide to dive back into the shark tank?
Andrew Benedek: I have to tell you that it is a shark tank?
and sometimes I wonder what the hell I got myself into, but remember that idealism I started working at Scribbs and talking to scientists And looking at the ocean. I really got scared about climate change. So here I am, I don’t need to work. I’m living in a wonderful place. I could do anything I want, but for me, I just couldn’t sit there and enjoy my money and watch a problem without wanting to do something. I didn’t want to go back in the shark tank. I just wanted to make an investment. And advise, you know that’s what people in that age group who have money want to do I got stuck to be very honest with you. I wanted to make a difference in climate change. I unfortunately got a company which I liked, which was the pioneer in German, anaerobic digestion technology. Had it been a healthy company. I would have just made an investment and tried to help them to come to America. But instead I wound up owning it and then I wound up with a mess that I had to fix. So that’s why I moved to Europe Gradually my vision and dreams got bigger and bigger. And the company did too.
You know, it’s like once successful, you think you can do it again, kind of thing. It’s in your, it’s in your breading, the bone almost, you know what I mean?
It’s like, you wonder, you see conductors and they’re like 85 years old and they’re still conducting, for me work is painful sometimes and strenuous, but it’s an art form. it’s not a job I do for money.
Antoine Walter: And know that you’re 15 years in, at Anaergia, did you see common traits between your two entrepreneur and ventures? So between Zenon and Anaergia, and did you see major differences? Did it maybe change over time or is it simply a different fields or is it really similar?
Andrew Benedek: Well to build a company that makes a paradigm shift, which this one also does. You need to do certain things that I hit up on by trial and error in Zenon And even though I didn’t always know what I was doing, I didn’t follow a script, so to speak in Anaergia, but as I look at it, I did exactly the same thing in the two companies, which is fundamentally four steps.
Step one, you pick a problem that’s big and it’s going to grow with time. So in this case of Anaergia you know, we talked about water recycle was the problem I picked on the first one, not picked that picked me almost, you know, just, I wanted to do something about it. In this case it was climate change, the fear of climate change, which is if anything is on steroids right now, the climate, the greenhouse gas issue.
Then the second thing you need is a sustainable advantage. And that’s in the context when we picked membranes and developed it, it was a new technology and therefore it was sustainable, but first kind of a first mover. In this particular case, we invested a great deal in technology to do things that no one else can do.
And then you really need to find a way to, and this one I didn’t do well at Zenon but I tried to do it here minimize the risk a little bit because no matter how good your plans are, what you can’t afford to do is to lose the company by one mistake.
And lastly, you read the really great people. You need great motivated people. And the good fortune I have is that. what motivates me is hopefully what’s motivating the other people and they don’t see working for Anaergia or Zenon. Nobody ever saw it as working for Andrew Benedek or working for making more money.
The senior people they’re always part of the mission. It’s what brings out the best in human beings.
Antoine Walter: I said it several times today, you have this visionary element. And you know, that is one of the major outcomes that society is looking at COVID like after COVID people want to work for a purpose, I mean, it has accelerated that transformation and more and more, we see generation of people just quitting that job because they don’t have that purpose.
And what I see is that actually from day one, when you started your first company until today, when you’re still working when you could be retired for 20 years this purpose is something which is leading you, which is at the same time. Awesome, but also a pledge because how do you determine success?
Do you have like a metric where you say, if I achieve that, then I have success or is it like a moving post and you have no chance to reach it?
Andrew Benedek: Well in this particular company, it’s really difficult to say, but why I’m doing it is because we need solutions to get to net zero and beyond. And what my company does. In fact, I truly believe is a critical part of getting to net zero and getting to scale is very important because the problem is so immense.
I mean, water recycle. If you talk to somebody 30 years ago, there was said water recycle as a very ambitious goal. it’s still an ambitious goal, but if you look at climate change and what it?
takes to shift us from using more and more fossil fuels to less and reversing it, it’s immense. It’s several orders of magnitude, more difficult than more complex than water reuse.
Antoine Walter: I. In the surface of that Anaergia story on purpose, because I agreed with Kunal Shah, who is working with you to have a deeper dive into the topic, because that’s really a fascinating take at that’s race to net zero. And at that transformation of the sector we have to undergo, and you could be one of these technology companies or these technologies, which could be a key to finally turn wastewater treatments into resource factories.
So it’s a fascinating field. If you have one more hour, I’d be very happy to take the deep dive right now with you. But I have to be cautious of your time as well. So I propose you to, to roll it out for that deep dive and to switch to the rapid fire questions.
Andrew Benedek: I just want you to know Antoine the that is really your future and that in my case. I’m working for your future is what I mean, because if you don’t solve this, you won’t have one. what I’m going to tell you is that the older I get, the more ambitious I get, because the problem is so big.
I really want to find a solution. I have the gall, Hotspur to believe that our company can find A solution that we can in fact, find ways of reversing it, or at least that I can influence others to find a solution and reverse it and at the same time I’m worried that I can’t I’m not doubting that I have the right solution.
I am very nervous about the speed, whether or not it can be done in time to avoid a major catastrophe if you’re having to get the answers every day. But I’m worried about billions of people dying.
Antoine Walter: You know, I’d love your worries to be wrong. But after say I share them, I can give you now it’s very self-centric and almost egotic. But, you know, I was publishing a podcast episode a couple of weeks ago, which had in his title, how to divide our carbon emissions by two. And to me, that was just common sense that is something we’d like to achieve as an industry.
And usually I don’t get feedback on my titles because I’m French and they are lame. But here I got people writing to me and saying, oh no, you are giving in into that climate change fallacy we shouldn’t be cutting emissions, and a lot of problem and our thoughts that we were past that point for a while and it turns out we are not.
So, yeah, I think it’s important to have voices like yours reminding us that is the big topic of the coming, not decades of the coming years and that we have to start with pledges and to walk the talk.
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Rapid fire questions:
Antoine Walter: My first question is what is the most exciting project you’ve been working on?
Andrew Benedek: In the water sector, the most exciting project we’re working on is a project called the Sterling natural resources in Southern California in a town near San Bernardino. And it’s one of the lowest lifespan areas of America. So it’s a poor area of America. And this will build is actually has built and is starting up the world’s most advanced Bayswater plan. It will be the most advanced wastewater plant for two reasons. One is that all of what comes into the plant becomes a product. There is no waste from Bayswater. Of course, the water would be recycled using a new membrane company that I invested in technology. The and the Anaergia technology will be used to convert all the solids into fertilizer. But for even more, it will be exporting power, not using power. so this is a really exciting development that I believe all sewage plants should be going towards instead of being a Bayswater plant, not just call it a resource recovery plant, actually make it a true resource recovery plan, What’s really, even more exciting about this project is a second element, which is that the wastewater plant becomes a social good, not a place to hide away. Nobody wants to live next to this plant will be in a park with a community center, with a vocational school at park where bodies used to be found. Now he’s going to be the pride of the community, and this is next to a high school where the kids don’t get a chance to graduate. We’ll be training them to become operators in the vocational side. So it’s really turning the wastewater concept as a disposal place that smells and. I have people have a from, into something which is the pride of the town and helps with social benefits and also resource to cover.
Antoine Walter: When would it be commissioned?
Andrew Benedek: It will be commissioned this summer. So we’re opening it actually on July 23.
Antoine Walter: That is a fascinating project. Let me try to keep my I could go into a deep dive in for that, but I have to refrain myself because if not, we are still there in, in two hours. Can you name one thing that you’ve learned the hard way?
Andrew Benedek: I learned everything the hard way I try, I fail and I pick myself up and keep.
Antoine Walter: Is there something in your job that you’re doing today that you will not be doing in 10 years? And usually many people tell me work at, they say, oh, in 10 years, I’m not going to work anymore. But if you say, if you tell me that I don’t believe you,
Andrew Benedek: Well, as long as I’m alive, I’ll be working. We lie be a CEO of energy. Probably not. But perhaps I’ll be chairman.
Antoine Walter: what is the trend to watch out for in the world?
Andrew Benedek: I think the biggest problem with the water sector is innovation or lack there off particular, the American water sector. It’s very difficult to innovate and. Without innovation. We ultimately don’t serve our community. Well,
Antoine Walter: And last question. If you were a word particular leader, what would be your first action to influence the fate of the global Watertown?
Andrew Benedek: well, I ever have a leader, I would move like we did to develop vaccines. I would move at maximum speed to reverse climate change. If I can reverse climate change, which is doable, it’s only a resolve that is needed. Some countries are managing then I think we will also make a major impact on water shortages. And so on and so forth. So to, to me there are many problems in this world. There’s environmental impact and species going extinct. That’s a little bit less important. That’s it’s terrible, but it’s much less important than people running out of water and much less important than all of us dying, which is climate change.
So you have to focus on and the number one problem. And then of course you also try to fix the other ones.
Antoine Walter: So if we do rights, they would be welcome side effects. Andrew has been an incredible pleasure to spend that hour with you. I’m sorry, because I took a bit more of your time than then, than I had promised, but I can tell you, I, I could steal some hours of your time, but I have to be respectful at some point.
We’ll have the pleasure to share the scene for the BlueTech forum in Vancouver. So I’m looking forward to meeting you physically on stage there. and yeah, if people want to follow up with you where should I redirect them the best?
Andrew Benedek: Well, it’s pretty straightforward. They can contact Anaergia or just email me directly. It’s Andrew dot benedek at Anaergia dot com
Antoine Walter: so like always the links to that are in the show notes if you’re listening to that and thanks a lot!
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