I have a BSc in chemistry, and when you graduate with a chemistry degree, you either go into the lab or into sales. I worked in sales for a few years before I started up a company in 1989 to treat hydrocarbon-contaminated groundwater. But about 10 years ago, I saw that our existing market was not as robust as it had been, and it wasn't exciting. There'd been a transition from pollution control to sustainable development in industry and society, and we wanted to be part of that. Just cleaning up sites isn't sustainable development - it's mitigating an ongoing issue, as opposed to creating value around environmental work.
We wanted to expand the business, but we wanted to keep water treatment as a core principle of what we do, since we thought water would be a key area of future investment and sales. There were a lot of things that pointed us in that direction. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was talking about it, and there was more and more information about the fact that, as populations grew, the availability of water was dwindling. There's lots of water on the planet; it's just whether it's available where we need it to be. Agriculture uses 70 per cent of the world's water, and we couldn't find any evidence that water consumption, reduction and recycling in the agricultural space was being addressed.
We were looking for an opportunity to patent technology we had created, which would bring value, and we knew waste from hog and dairy operations was the EPA's biggest problem domestically. So we developed technology that takes manure and separates it into clean drinking water, a solid fertilizer and a liquid fertilizer for corn. We take contaminants and turn them into a valued product, while making farming operations more sustainable by giving them clean water. So it creates a zero-discharge facility.
An opportunity fell into our laps to try our idea out. We ran into a customer who was
desperate for clean water and had tried a whole bunch of things. They needed somebody to come in and figure it out for them. And it was really dumb luck that we got that opportunity so early. I can remember the day when we started making clean water and concentrated fertilizer products - it was a real "eureka" day around here.
Our biggest competition is the status quo. Farmers have been managing manure the same way since 1850, and we're bringing in a new technology and a new way to manage manure. Getting them to switch to a million-dollar onsite water treatment system as a solution has been challenging. Though there are four or five companies that are trying to do similar things, we're the furthest along. We're commercialized: we're selling and installing and operating units almost monthly. A year ago, people were just starting to hear about us, and now we have operating systems in Michigan, New York, Indiana and Wisconsin, which are key players in milk production.
This is really the biggest thing I've ever done, and there were certain steps that we took to ensure success. One was our patent - IP protection is critical. We also created a structured, thoroughly managed research and development program that is supported by both customers and outside investment. Previously, we just tried things until they worked out. We also brought on outside strategic partners as advisors. And lastly, we put together a strategic plan for commercialization, with great people here who developed and executed it. We doubled our sales year-over-year in 2013, and I'm sure we'll do that again. We're planning to sell a unit a month and then double that every year.
This is an $8-billion market, and we're at the very start of that. Our plan is to continue to grow our business in North America and then advance to targeted key international markets - the emerging economies. People are switching from soy to meat-based protein all through Asia. If you look where cows and hogs are, that's where we're going to be.