AquiPor tackles stormwater challenges
Startup develops permeable pavers as new tool for concrete contractorsJune 18th, 2020
The owners of AquiPor Technologies Inc. claim that after about a decade of research and development, they’ve produced a porous, hardened material with the ability to absorb surface stormwater and alleviate drain flooding in heavily paved urban environments.
Co-founded by CEO Greg Johnson and vice president of market development Kevin Kunz, AquiPor has developed its patented and proprietary material – AquiDrain – with the help of Matt Russell, who Johnson says is a highly regarded Spokane professional engineer.
To date, AquiPor has raised $1.5 million for product development. In late May, the company launched a fundraising effort with the hopes of raising $1 million, Kunz says.
The pair says they’ve received backing through direct investments from executives at local concrete and mining companies, says Johnson, who declines to reveal AquiPor’s financial supporters.
AquiPor has not sold any product to date.
Johnson emphasizes that AquiDrain isn’t intended to eliminate the use of conventional concrete.
“We’re not coming out to compete with them (concrete producers). We want to give them a new tool,” he says.
With AquiPor’s technology, Johnson says the company envisions large precast units of the material could be placed at the edges of streets against sidewalks and around storm drains to ease the flow of surface runoff into often overburdened storm drainage.
In the process of developing the product, and working with Russell, Johnson and Kunz say they’ve learned that on average, more than 40% of city surfaces are impervious. Stormwater is a perpetual concern in many urban areas as it has the ability to easily transport pollutants to aquifers and other surface waters.
Johnson contends concrete manufacturers have been using largely the same materials and technology for decades.
“We’re relying on subterranean stormwater infrastructure that was built in an era for the size of the populations that existed back then,” Johnson says.
Johnson, 38, holds an undergraduate degree in business administration from Carroll College, in Helena, Montana. Kunz, 32, has a fine arts degree from WSU.
The company is based in a third-floor suite of the Empire State Building, at 901 W. Riverside, in downtown Spokane. AquiPor also rents laboratory space at the University of Idaho Research Park, in Post Falls.
What the founders lack in the way of engineering and construction backgrounds, they contend they’ve made up for in the ability to market and sell their idea.
Their idea began roughly a decade ago when Kunz was at WSU. He enrolled in an environmental engineering class that ultimately captivated his attention, he says.
During the semester, he became friends with a student from China whose family operated a manufacturing plant that produced water-porous tiles, Kunz says.
“About two months in, I get a brick in the mail in bubble wrap that’s been completely decimated,” Kunz says, laughing.
Despite the fact the product was highly damaged, he managed to assemble most of it in a tray, ran water over it from a faucet, and watched as the water seemed to disappear magically, he says.
By that time, Johnson and Kunz, a pair of Gonzaga Preparatory High School graduates, had been kicking around their own business ideas but hadn’t generated any definitive plans.
After graduating from WSU in 2011, Kunz visited his friend in China and stayed there for a month. Johnson joined him shortly thereafter, the two worked with the porous-tile maker and eventually signed an agreement to market, sell, and distribute the product in North America, Kunz says.
“We think the world’s on fire now,” Kunz says. “This was going to be huge.”
The duo got back to the states, got their first two orders in the ground, and almost immediately discovered the material wasn’t effective.
“The quality control was horrible, and we don’t speak the language,” Johnson says.
They still recall turning away a $500,000 order from a general contractor for the Chinese-based product.
“We made the decision that we had to transition,” Kunz says. “I had to tell this guy, ‘No.’ It was one of the hardest days of the venture.”
By then, however, Johnson and Kunz already had started working with Russell to develop better material.
Russell was once an engineering student at Washington State University, in Pullman, and helped to lead a concrete studies lab program there, Johnson says.
More recently, says Johnson, Russell worked for Fluor Corp., an Irving, Texas-based company that’s one of the world’s largest publicly traded engineering, procurement, construction, and maintenance conglomerates. Today, Russell lends his expertise to a variety of companies in the development of aggregate in the Pacific Northwest Johnson says.
“We think we have now the technology that can go within some really very heady engineering designs,” Johnson asserts. “It’s pavement-like. It’s concrete-like, but it’s not concrete.”
Without revealing too much of their invention, Johnson says Russell has created a substance made from a “special-type of construction aggregate, mixed with his special sauce,” he says.
After an hour of kilning, miniscule pores form in the AquiDrain, which allow for the water to be absorbed absent surface debris, Johnson says.
“We realized we didn’t want to just be this company pedaling a widget,” Johnson says. “We needed to figure out how to earn our own technology and let that be what drives us as a stormwater solutions company.”
In 2015, Russell designed a product for the pair he believed could be effectively used to combat stormwater drainage.
Johnson and Kunz say there have been no shortage of detractors.
“Starting out, the consensus we got was that permeable pavement is great in theory, but in practice, go out five years later, it doesn’t work,” Kunz says.
With trace amounts of calcium, rainwater eventually clogs the pores in traditional permeable pavement, which historically has been clay-based in its construction.
“Our product is rock based and has the ability to survive longer term without breaking down,” Kunz says.
Says Johnson, “You don’t need to pave the whole street with this, just get it in the curb line.”