Environmental, Social and Governance
Innovative Technology Destroys Toxins
and Protects the Planet
Sergie Albino is the CEO and co-founder of ecoSPEARS, based in Altamonte Springs. This article is one in a series based on interviews with honorees of the GrowFL Companies to Watch. For information, visit www.GrowFL.com.
What does the company do, and how do you hope to make a difference?
ecoSPEARS is a clean-tech innovation company focused on green and sustainable solutions to remove some of the most destructive and harmful industrial chemical contamination in water and soil. We selectively remove toxins without having to burn them or transport them across the country or overseas. We have a firm belief that we should never sacrifice clean air for clean water and soil.
“Our biggest goal is to create global impact. 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.” – Sergie Albino
I want to focus on our impact and continue to build new technology that the industry has never seen before. This will allow us to address the legacy contaminants that have already been in our waterways for the past 50 to 60 years, but also emerging contaminants like dioxins, advanced pharmaceuticals, and PFOA/S. In the new federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a large portion of that funding is for emerging contaminants.
Talk about how and why you started the company.
Ian Doromal and I co-founded the company in 2017 after having the opportunity to access exclusive intellectual property rights for a NASA environmental technology that was discovered at Kennedy Space Center when I worked there. Two years prior to that, I was helping the Rollins College Crummer Graduate School of Business MBA program develop a Rollins-NASA Scholars of Distinction program that would marry technology from NASA, which was already developed and patented, with young MBA student teams. The goal was to “collide” the two and create a Silicon Valley effect, fostering startups and ventures that were homegrown in Central Florida.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I’ve always had a passion for the stars. I remember my aunts telling me to stop counting the stars or I’d go crazy. That’s a common Filipino saying. I’ve always aspired to be an astronomer, but I also had a passion for building things and digging up clay. This was pre-Nintendo and Sega Genesis, when you had to go out and make your own toys.
Back then, I liked to build and explore. I never really thought I’d be an entrepreneur and start my own business, even though I did help my grandmother and my aunts run a little store in the back of our house in the Philippines.
When you decided to start the company, was there an “Aha!” moment when you said, “We just have to do this”?
ecoSPEARS is my third endeavor into the startup world. I left NASA in 2012, primarily because the space shuttle program was ending and I knew things were going to slow down. I had just graduated from the Crummer MBA program, with a focus on operations and technology management as well as sustainability. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with this. At that point, I had an engineering consulting business, and a year or two later I started another company called IROC Tactical, which developed weapons platform technologies that would help prevent hearing loss and tinnitus for people serving in the military and law enforcement.
When the opportunity to work with the ecoSPEARS technology came up, I initially said no. I was enjoying my work in the private sector and IROC Tactical, and wasn’t familiar with the environmental remediation market. Then I started getting calls from big oil and gas companies and from state organizations that had somehow learned I was interested in licensing the ecoSPEARS technology. They wanted to figure out how we could collaborate and do a pilot study.
It was so foreign to us. I’m not a chemist, by any means. I’m an aerospace engineer and was unfamiliar with the environmental services sector. All of that was like “ground zero,” a big learning curve.
What did you do at NASA?
I was a space payload hardware engineer with a focus on thermal management. Technically, I was part of a team that developed plant growth systems that would go on the space shuttle to the International Space Station. According to my wife and kids, I made boxes that went up into space!
We also developed small satellite payloads and participated in a lunar rover program called RESOLVE. I managed and worked on the hardware for projects involving life science experiments in space.
Talk about the value ecoSPEARS brings to customers.
Environmental liability completely weighs down the balance sheets of some organizations, like certain manufacturers, which must allocate millions of dollars toward liability management and cleanup. Unless they can complete a proper cleanup and obtain a “No Further Action” letter from either state regulators or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, they must maintain their liabilities indefinitely.
“Our ecoSPEARS sustainable environmental solutions enable us to extract and destroy certain toxins from their sites, which ends their environmental liabilities forever.” – Sergie Albino
How many employees does ecoSPEARS have now?
We currently have 15 to 18 teammates, both full time and interns. We bring in interns from the Crummer school at Rollins and the University of Central Florida engineering and chemistry programs – that’s how we “load up our dugout.” I’m happy to say we’ve hired several of them after their internships.
I like bringing in folks who aren’t jaded by the industry and can think in novel ways, because we are approaching this work very differently, from the tech we develop, to the science approach, to the business development and marketing that we use to target new opportunities.
Talk about your company’s culture. What’s it like to work there?
There are a lot of dogs in the office. Many of our teammates bring in their fur friends. We foster a culture of creativity and hard work. While the office might look relaxed, we are making an impact at sites from Guam to Sweden and creating novel innovative technology – and that’s just in our first four years, with limited resources.
We lead people and manage tasks. Our team metrics are binary – 0’s or 1’s. Either you get it done or not. I don’t need to see your face or the back of your head – I just want to see results. Everybody we accept into our company goes through a detailed onboarding process.
“We want passionate people. If you don’t have that passion, this is probably not a good place for you.” – Sergie Albino
We drive the entire culture based on our nine core values. Those are what we hire and fire by. Our core principles are posted by the main entrance, and people see them every single day when they walk in and when they leave. These include values like “Keep your integrity,” “Be curious” and “Strive for excellence.”
Talk about your company’s competitive edge.
There are other companies that provide engineering or environmental services for this industry, but I haven’t seen anyone developing true innovative technology from the ground up. There are a lot of competitors that build “solutions” by assembling commercial, off-the-shelf technologies. But ecoSPEARS is unique in that we first focus on a major overall mission, innovate a purpose-built solution, and then challenge the industry to think better. One of my favorite quotes is by Abraham Lincoln: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
When we first started ecoSPEARS, pre-funding, Ian and I attended a global water conference. After perusing the aisles and booth at the conference, I told Ian, “Hey, I think we’re going to have fun in this industry. I don’t see any real innovation at all. I only see the same old 1970s and ’80s technologies and approaches revamped in 2017.”
I don’t really see anyone else using the smart systems and machine learning that we are building and continuing to evolve. A better incineration system to burn and destroy contaminated media, to me, is not innovative when you’re just sacrificing clean air for clean water or clean soil. We aim to clean water without transferring contamination to the air.
The industry is also not very innovative from a business development perspective. For us, everything must have a metric and scorecard to provide real-time validation that we’re doing the right things. We approach our work from the triple-bottom-line perspective of people, planet, profit — a position that’s “built-in” from the leadership down and not just “bolted-on” when it’s convenient.
As a partner or client-partner of ecoSPEARS, you must first and foremost approach solutions from the perspectives of human health, safety, and the environment. From there, we will work together to deploy our proprietary purpose-built solutions to treat and solve your environmental liability long-term. Through ecoSPEARS’ onsite solutions and our ability to sustainably destroy contamination using non-combustion, non-thermal solutions, we not only provide cost-competitive programs, but ultimately remove the liability from the client’s balance sheet.
“We want partners and client-partners to be the superheroes of their own communities.” – Sergie Albino
What’s the biggest hurdle your company has faced, and how did you handle it?
One of the important challenges we’ve had to overcome as a startup is having access to sufficient capital. I was fortunate to meet Terrance “Terry” Berland, who was advising me on IROC Tactical when ecoSPEARS came about. Along with David Scalzo through Kirenaga, Terry invested and led our seed round on a validated and pre-commercialized NASA technology. He supports 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 foreign here. You could maybe find $50,000 to $150,000, 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 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 would force ecoSPEARS to move out of Central Florida. In 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. He shares our passion for the “blue economy,” which the United Nations defines as “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem.”
Much like the rest of 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 (simple agreement for future equity) and continued to speak with lead investors outside of Florida, including in 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, create an environment where small businesses can raise capital. 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 business community. We should not just rely on legacy investors to fund the next generation 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 coming years?
Finding passionate and talented key hires! We have projects as far away as Guam, Hawaii, Sweden, Washington State, California and Washington, D.C. 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?
As part of the expansion plan for 2022, I’d like to find international licensing partners so that we can create joint-venture partnerships to build ecoSPEARS operations in South America, Europe and Asia. The world needs real solutions. These contaminants 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.