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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 23, 2020 11 months ago

Go with the flow: 'Waterpreneurs' fuel area firm's unique business model

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OriginClear, which has already disrupted water treatment infrastructure, sets its sights on an even more imaginative way to operate.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Is water set to become a hot new commodity for investors? Can the infrastructure model that delivers clean water to people — traditionally the domain of large, government-subsidized utilities — be privatized and decentralized? 

OriginClear, a Clearwater-based company that specializes in modular water-treatment systems, is at the forefront of answering such questions and, in the process, not only disrupting an industry but creating a new entrepreneurial ecosystem around it. 

“Instead of me trying to grow this company, we simply created a whole lot of small companies. Kind of the Amway model.” Riggs Eckelberry, president and CEO of OriginClear 

“Everybody’s interested in good water these days for health reasons,” says OriginClear co-Founder Riggs Eckelberry, a veteran of the tech sector who helped turn around struggling companies in the wake of the dot-com crash in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That experience awakened his entrepreneurial spirit, and in 2007 he founded OriginOil, which would become OriginClear, with his brother Nicholas. 

Eckelberry, 68, is now the president and CEO of the firm, publicly traded on the over-the-counter market, after his brother left to pursue other opportunities. Under his watch, OriginClear has expanded from being a direct provider of design and build services to an umbrella company for a growing network of what Eckelberry calls “waterpreneurs” — people who lease the firm’s equipment, which runs the gamut from pool-cleaning devices to machines that can treat water for entire trailer parks, and then sell its services. 

“Instead of me trying to grow this company, we simply created a whole lot of small companies,” Eckelberry says. “Kind of the Amway model.” 

One major challenge, Eckelberry says, is the traditionally long sales cycle for large water-treatment systems. Municipalities still think about water infrastructure in terms of massive, citywide projects, instead of the point-of-use technology OriginClear advocates and can provide. 

Courtesy. OriginClear President and CEO Riggs Eckelberry

“How do we break the ordinary, low-margin, long-cycle business that is the water industry and make it fast-moving and fast-expanding?” Eckelberry asks. “Miami-Dade County, for example, needs to spend $6 billion to put all of its 100,000 septic tanks onto sewage, but they don’t have the money. Not only that, but they don’t want to spend 20 years tearing up streets. The solution is point-of-use — people with septic tanks convert to self-contained water treatment systems, a water system in a box like what we have.” 

OriginClear offers a wide range of solutions — from cleaning a pool to treating and purifying water for hotels, schools, hospitals, military bases and agricultural and manufacturing facilities. Its products can also help alleviate water scarcity — a major global issue made even more problematic by overpopulation, pollution and climate change. 

“Only 20% of the sewage in the entire world is treated,” Eckelberry says. “Whereas in the U.S., we might treat, say, 80% of our dirty water, in some of the really underdeveloped countries they're treating none of it. They're just dumping it into the rivers. So worldwide, we have a tremendous public health problem with people literally getting sick from the water.”

Revenue, following that demand, grew 35.3% in 2018, from $3.4 million in 2017 to $4.6 million. It dipped to $3.6 million in 2019, but with the “waterpreneur” division — officially known as Water As a Career — heating up, Eckelberry forecasts gross revenue of more than $5 million for 2020. 

“We average about $1 million per quarter,” Eckelberry says. “This year, we had a 22% increase for the first half over the first half of 2019. Even though we had a full month of lockdown, we still did far better than we did in 2019.”

The earning potential for customers and investors, Eckelberry says, is high. He cites Ryan Kooistra, an Arizona man who leases an OriginPool Pool Preserver — “It’s kind of like a kidney dialysis machine for a pool,” Eckelberry says — for about $3,000 per month and routinely tops $16,000 per month in revenue from pool cleaning jobs. 

Philanthroinvestors Inc., an Inc. 500 investment firm that specializes in social-impact real estate investments, with a presence in 26 countries, has taken notice of Eckelberry’s disruptive vision — both its founder and CEO have joined OriginClear’s board of advisors. 

“They came to us and said, ‘We want to get into water, and you're doing exactly what we want to do,’” Eckelberry says. “They give us an international network and are highly compatible in terms of business model. … The investor does well while doing good.” 

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