Erick Went & Venkat Kode: Pulling Drinking Water from Thin Air – Ep. 117

Erick Went is the CTO of Genesis Systems, and he’s together Dr. Venkat Kode, a research scientist on the team.

I’m not going to lie, Genesis Systems is one of the most exciting product ideas I’ve ever become aware of yet.

Genesis Systems manufacture the world’s first and only sustainable air-to-water systems that can carbon (CO2) capture. That’s right, they are generating fresh-water from air using integrated technologies never before conceived.

They’ve received several grants from the US Air Force and Army, and they are partnered with Google, Siemens, and more. They’ve raised tens of millions to date, and this is something I personally can’t wait to buy.

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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1.5 Days Left To Survive

*2:44 – (Erick Went) “Our founder, David Stuckenberg, was a pilot in the military and he was flying over Qatar and he watched trucks that were pulling water out of the last aquifer in Qatar and taking that water to their eventual destinations. And from that point forward, Qatar had only 1.5 days of water reserve left. That’s it. If there’s any disruption to desal or anything like that, they only have 1.5 days left to survive. And he knew this was something that was going to continue to worsen and the problem of water scarcity was going to continue to grow. And at that point, he decided to solve this problem. He had some great access being in the roles he was in the military, just from national labs. He found some best of breed solutions and some really interesting insights…and that speaks to our unique approach to this problem. You’re going to see other people trying to pull water out of the air and almost all of them are doing it with a refrigeration type method where they try and cool the air below the dew point so that that water naturally forms. It’s extremely energy intensive…Our path is different. We chose a chemical approach. There are chemicals called hydroscopic solutions which have a really high affinity for water so that solution will naturally pull water out of the air with no energy required.”

5:17 – (Venkat Kode) “I moved to University of Arkansas right after my Ph.D., working on different multiple projects, how to sustainably produce chemicals or biochemicals from food waste using a catalytic bioreactor, membrane bioreactor. And then I understood how much energy is being put in to actually being in the environment of sustainable economy and help the circular economy as well. And then I came across this Genesis website when I was looking for the full time opportunities and I was like, ‘Oh, okay, they’re pulling water from air and this is a bold innovation.’”

7:07 – (Erick) “It’s a closed loop. It’s kind of like when you see your air conditioner, there’s chemicals inside of it, but you never see them. You never touch them. You never have to deal with them. So our solution comes in contact with the outside air, pulls the moisture, we loop it internally, it gets separated by our separation process. The freshwater comes out and the solution goes right back to collect more moisture from the air. So you never have to touch or experience those chemicals at all.”

7:45 – (Erick) “We have our smallest unit, which we call the Water Cube Mini, which is a residential unit…So one for your backyard, it looks just like the external piece of your HVAC system. So it’ll go in your backyard. It’s about the same noise profile, about the same energy profile, sit back there and make you water – a hundred gallons a day. It scales up, though, right? So then we have a shipping-container-sized version we call our 5.0. That’s for businesses, FEMA, emergency response, DOD, anybody who needs to go drop a container, hospitals have been looking at a lot lately, small island nations, and that’s like a thousand gallons a day for those bigger needs. But we also make these in plant size, right? Like think desal plant without all the negative effects so we can make mass water. We’ve modeled these up to 100 million gallons a day. This is a huge problem. We need a huge solution.”

It’s Getting Bad In California

*9:13 – (Ross) “We need some solutions out here in California. And obviously Qatar is worse, but here’s getting pretty bad. And as we have this conversation, I don’t know how it is in your neighborhood, Eric, but in my neighborhood, we are not allowed to water outside at all starting September 6th through the 20th. Two weeks of not being able to water at all. So things are getting pretty serious here in the state of California as well. Not quite Middle East serious, but serious. And there’s no sign of let-up in the future. Anybody who’s been out here, this has been an incredibly hot summer. No clouds, no rain. I must admit that I’m getting a little personally concerned.”

11:20 – (Ross) “It all ties into the greater point because whatever energy needs there are, we’re discussing new solutions, right? Installing solar panels, getting more electric vehicles, getting off gas. So the idea of further enhancing that self-sufficiency is just something that I’m very, very, very interested in. I can charge my car and get off gas dependency. I can have this thing which also can be powered presumably from solar panels. I can reduce my grid dependency and I can also reduce my water dependency that is supremely attractive and groundbreaking stuff. And that’s the kind of solution that I look for and I seek out on this show.”

Water Neutral by 2030

*12:40 – (Erick) “The most interesting metric for me, right, is when we started this a few years ago, the first hour of any conversation, we had to explain to the people that there was a water scarcity problem. We had to say, ‘hey, listen, this is coming. It’s going to be a problem. Water is not going to be easy, cheap and free for the rest of our lives.’ And now that is a foregone conclusion. We walk in and people are like, ‘hey, there’s a water scarcity problem. I don’t know if you knew; we need to start doing this,’ so we can talk more about our solution and the problem. And that’s been apparent at all levels, right? We have seen a quicker uptake, I think, on the industrial side or the commercial side than we thought we would. You look at a lot of companies like Microsoft and Google and I think Amazon, Facebook, a bunch of the big ones, even like Coca-Colas, Pepsis, Nestlés who are pledging to be water neutral by 2030. They want to produce more water than they consume by 2030. So you can see that that has shifted definitely in that space. So we’re seeing a lot of movement there.”

13:42 – (Erick) “The reliance on a centralized infrastructure for all these things is not the strongest system. If we wanted to upgrade the water that you get in California, it’s like $11 billion to upgrade the infrastructure to get the water from Colorado River to your faucet in Malibu. That’s untenable. But if you look at what we’ve done with power, right, look at how many houses have solar. And if you’ve been part of any of the rolling blackouts or brownouts that have happened in Southern California, you’ll look down the street and one or two homes still have lights on at night in the middle of that blackout/brownout. Those are the guys who picked solar. Those are the guys who picked a battery wall, right? Water, I think, is the next step. That decentralization of those commodities – that improves your resilience and your sustainability. You’re self-contained. You’re not reliant on these larger powers that be to provide you with the essentials of life.”

14:36 – (Ross) “I think when you look at these price tags for these things, they seem expensive in a world of cheap Amazon goods where a couple hundred bucks will buy a big flat screen TV, you say $12,000 for this product, it seems like a lot. We sort of anchor things to the price of a car perhaps, you say ‘a car is $25,000 minimum so half the price of a car or for the price of a decent used car, it seems like a lot.’ And yet in the back of my mind I’m thinking, well, go one day without water. And then how much money would you be willing to spend? Infinite amounts, right? Take it all!”

Water Scarcity Is Painful And Scary

*16:19 – (Venkat) “People are not ready or not realizing how painful the water scarcity can be because it’s scary and I have personally experienced it back in India. During my childhood, I came from a place where we had to walk miles just to be able to get access to potable water sufficient for like a couple of weeks for the whole family. And I’ve been suffering, in fact, like my personal health, it has been affected and been suffering from fluorosis. And in case if you know, if you come across people who don’t realize or thinking that, ‘oh, we don’t need it right now,’ let them feel free to contact me. I’ll tell them and I’ll make them scared through sharing my stories, how painful it is.”

*18:38 – (Erick) “The interesting things are the amount of moisture in the air is increasing every year. Moisture in the air is an accelerant to climate change, more so even than carbon dioxide. The amount of moisture in the air is massive, nearly 40 quadrillion gallons at any given time. So there’s two answers to your question. One, if everybody did it, we would still be a drop in the bucket. There’s that much moisture. The more important answer to the question, though, is we would move it in a positive direction. So if we were able to pull out any substantial moisture out of the air, we would slow down the cycle of climate change, right? Because it’s an accelerant to climate change. So by pulling moisture out, we’re actually slowing that and hopefully having some impact on this overall problem.”

19:35 – (Erick) “Where you might see some interesting positive changes is places where you have heat islands like around the corner from you in Los Angeles. It is hotter in Los Angeles. It is perceivably hotter in Los Angeles because of all of the water vapor that’s pushed out of all those millions of air conditioners all the time. Right. We’re just pumping water vapor out of cars, out of air conditioners into the atmosphere. And you get what’s called a heat island – concrete and reflections and all that make the city actually hotter. So if the entire city started pulling moisture out of the air, L.A. would start to feel cooler, right? You would have localized positive impacts but global positive decrease is going to be really hard to do because it’s a massive amount of water that we need to pull.”

22:26 – (Erick) “It’s really pure water. We actually have to add minerality back to the water so it comes out at an extremely high purity. In fact, some of the people we’re talking to are out in California, people making anything silicon based need ultra-pure water. And we’re pretty much there. We’re talking to data centers. And one of the unknown secrets about data centers is a lot of them are very water hungry, like up to 30 million gallons of water per day.”

23:38 – (Venkat) “The probability of errors in our system are minimal because, as Erick mentioned rightly, when you have that supply chain, so there are multiple cases of contamination – it could be coming from pipes or leakages or any sort of other means of contamination or chemicals. I recently read an article where in India a lot of chemicals have been released through different water streams from an industry. So is contaminating the groundwater and then when you pump, the groundwater is coming in green colour. So I mean there is a high probability that groundwater is being contaminated and then even the filtration takes a lot of energy for drinking purposes or any other applications. So for us, especially using the atmospheric water, we have very minimal risk of contamination and we do use highly productive filters – the air inlet and also the water outlet. So trying to potentially kill any sort of bacteria or any production for human health.”

26:00 – (Erick) “Commercial, industrial sectors, agricultural is a massive user of water in California of all places, right? But I think you’re right, the system is archaic. It’s a 50-year-old system that needs billions of dollars in restoration. I mean, the other interesting thing in all the water systems around the world, the average loss in piping alone is 33%…we’ve been doing it since the Roman times. And it’s definitely time for a paradigm shift in the way we supply water to the world.”

31:10 – (Venkat) “It also raises the conflicts among borders or countries among countries, different countries. Because of this global water scarcity, people start fighting each other or it could even lead to wars because of this water scarcity. Yeah, there are some serious repercussions of global water scarcity.”

35:16 – (Venkat) “We have been working on some exciting projects in the lab, especially. One of the biggest pain point in our case was the energy during the regeneration. You capture water and then you have to release the captured water using a proprietary fluid and we recently developed a technology where you can just almost use no energy just to release the captured water out of our proprietary fluids. So this is very exciting.”

37:14 – (Erick) “Started a string of start-ups, over 100, I think we’ve counted now. On multiple continents. I spent some time in Brazil, all over Europe, all over Asia…Everything we did was a moon-shot. Everything was designed to save the world. And then we did a little partnership with the government where they were saying, ‘Hey, listen, you’ve done this innovation thing really fast and for a long time. How can we get a little piece of this?’…The one problem we couldn’t solve was water…a couple of months later, through a bunch of odd connections, the Stuckenbergs showed up and said, ‘Hey, we heard that you might be the right guy to help us solve this problem.’ And it was a goosebump moment. We met at a little airport in the middle of California and I was like, ‘Oh man, this could actually scale and do the job.’ And I thought for the longest time I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t want to go back to the start-up game. My wife’s going to kill me. I’m not going to do it.’ And we argued for a while and finally it was too compelling of a mission…I onboarded back on as the CTO and I was like, ‘We’re going to go solve this.’ So it’s been an amazing and fun part of the whole journey. And I couldn’t be happier. We’ve made tremendous strides since then.”

41:02 – (Ross) “One of the things that I get really frustrated about and thankfully most of the guests I’ve talked to are not like this because of the people that I seek out. But one of the things that I hate in the entrepreneurial world is there’s two realities. There’s this PR marketing speak. I hate when somebody just goes into the pattern of the kind of pitch that they’ve been making. And if you ask any entrepreneur, ‘Why are you doing it?’ say, ‘Oh, to improve humanity.’ Every entrepreneur is out there to improve humanity. Well, pardon the language, but I call horseshit. They’re out there to make a ton of money. And there’s this PR side, like you don’t make a ton of money unless you benefit the world. That’s the sort of go to stand by in the entrepreneurial community. But there are clearly levels to this. One person’s making a $300 piece of cheap plastic crap that they are selling to a consumer. One person is tackling a truly massive problem. And I see that separation very clearly.”

52:23 – (Venkat) “Water scarcity can be hard to imagine. And I’m excited, like every day, what kind of things can we do in the lab to make a bigger impact on humanity, you know? So if I could come up with the technology that minimises the energy requirements by even one kilowatt per gallon, that would be a huge deal, right? So that’s what motivates us. How do you keep doing things, what you’ve been doing or what are you been taught to do in the lab? And that would impact global water scarcity minimization.”

53:29 – (Erick) “I made the decision early on, right? It’s easy to wake up in the morning if you’re contributing some greater good. Right? And that’s kind of always been the direction I wanted to take. But this is taking it to another level. And I mean, again, Ross, it’s great, I think it’s amazing what you do. And that’s another thing that’s severely lacking in our world right now is people who are sharing this message, I think you’re right. It is these collisions, right? I got in touch with this on a complete serendipitous moment where I met two people in the airport that got passed to me by somebody who probably knew nothing about this. But somebody like you, I believe it’s those collisions right? There is somewhere else, somewhere out there, a scientist who’s working on something in a lab that can help propel us forward 100 X. And I’m hoping that they’re watching your show and go, ‘Holy cow, I can do this.’ Right? Or there’s somebody somewhere who’s in a water scare situation who’s like, ‘I have no hope.’ And then they see your show and they go, ‘Hey, now I have hope,’ right? It is these serendipitous collisions that can be created by people like you in mass that can help us get both the problem further out there and the solution further down the road.”

54:44 – (Ross) “My philosophy is very much in alignment with yours in the sense that technology is this big thing. Is it good or is it bad? But we know that it can be good. We know that there’s often unintended consequences of the stuff that we do. Or something that was good 50 years ago, we said, oh, but when you multiply that out, it turns out it causes all these other things – because cars, huge breakthrough, amazing, and then we built everything around cars and now it’s like, well, maybe we got to reconsider that one. So it’s always evolving, but if anything is going to save us, I believe it is technology. I don’t think there’s really anything else at this point. Things have gotten so dire. We know that we’ve missed so many deadlines. Now there’s a complacency to that where the layperson might say, oh, they’ll figure it out. They being the ambiguous scientist or somebody is going to solve this problem. But of course, at some point that somebody has to be the proverbial you, the proverbial me. At some point, we have to actually decide to try to solve this. So there is an optimism there, but it’s a nuanced optimism. It’s not just like, well, we’ll be fine. Somebody will figure it out. It’s like, well, we might be fine if we pool all of our resources and all of our brainpower and all of our smart people at this and explore all these avenues.”

57:15 – [On what people can do to help] (Venkat) “Try to minimize the water use as much as possible, wherever it’s necessary or it’s needed. So, I mean, steps like, for example, I’ve gone through the economic background a lot and then I have beaten the often path by joining Genesis, where they have taken a great initiative with the bold innovation and how to produce water from air with minimal energy costs and resources. So I would suggest scientists like myself out there try to connect their expertise with the mission that they’re really passionate about and then try to work for it. Money comes along the way and shouldn’t be an issue. And otherwise, I mean, I would spend four years in grad school. So I always encourage try to connect the passion to the expertise to solve these problems.”

58:35 – [On what people can do to help] (Erick) “The one thing is doing one thing – get off the couch, get off the sidelines, get in the game, Match that one thing that you’re really good at with that one thing you’re really passionate about. Even if that’s just sharing, right? You see this podcast and you tell ten people, right? You know, you’re really good at talking to people and shouting about it…If you’re a scientist get in the lab, right? Whatever you are, whatever your skill set is; just commit to helping be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

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