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Breakthrough Technology

Author: Jean Saylor Doppenberg
August, 2012 Issue


Entrepreneur and innovator John Webley turns his sights from telecom to clean air and water.

With $25 in his pocket and a masters’ degree in engineering from his native South Africa, John Webley arrived in Northern California in the mid-1980s to check out Silicon Valley. He told his new wife, Jennifer, that he wanted to see what the area was like, but that their stay would be temporary.

“I came for six months and never quite left,” he says now with a laugh.

Almost three decades and several startup companies later, Webley, 54, still has no intention of leaving the area. His newest ventures are based in the Petaluma business park that once housed the booming Telecom Valley companies of the late 1980s and 1990s—some that he helped get off the ground and nurtured to phenomenal success during that time.

Today, Webley’s passion is to clean up water, locally and around the globe, through a company he recently founded called Trevi Systems. He’s also the head of Innovative Labs, currently manufacturing “Sonoma Breeze” air purifiers for commercial applications.

The tall, soft-spoken Webley discounts the notion that he’s had a rags-to-riches career (“that may be overstated”), but admits that when he began working in telecom startups in Reno nearly 30 years ago, he and Jennifer had very little money and didn’t even own a car. “It was the perfect time for me, because the telecommunications industry was deregulating, and I went from startup to startup beginning in Reno,” Webley recalls. “I was in the right field at the right time and I had the right background, with a specialty in fiberoptic telecom. A little bit of luck in life goes a long way.”

He was also lucky to meet Don Green, who recruited Webley in 1987 to join a telecom startup in Sonoma County, called Optilink. So the Webleys said goodbye to Reno and bought a 900-square-foot house on six acres in Occidental, where they began raising a family.

Webley worked with Green through 1990, when Optilink was acquired by DSC Communications. Along with some friends, he then started Advanced Fibre Communications in his Occidental garage. Green soon joined the team. “That was the second startup Don and I did together,” he says.

The success of Advanced Fibre Communications (“it went from my garage to a $6 billion company”) and its subsequent 2004 acquisition by Tellabs led to Webley’s next two telecom companies: Turin Networks and Mahi Networks. “Venture capitalists offered me a lot of money to start more telecom businesses,” he says.

But during the technology industry meltdown in 2002 and 2003, many new companies didn't survive. “By 2005, I’d been doing telecom for 20 years and couldn’t face doing yet another one,” says Webley. “Plus the game had changed. When Don and I began, it was to build the infrastructure for telecom. By 2005, it was all built.”

Targeting dirty air and dirty water

Webley then spent a couple of years exploring opportunities in green technologies, and he partnered for a time with Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla in a company that was developing cutting-edge heating and air conditioning and wind turbine products. Realizing that company wouldn’t be as successful as the venture capitalists wanted it to be, Webley moved on and launched Innovative Labs. He hired a small team of engineers to help him solve two challenging environmental issues: foul indoor air and dirty water.

“Innovative” is the perfect word for the air purifiers the company’s created. In addition to capturing dust and pollen from indoor spaces, the devices also remove noxious chemicals and their odors, such as formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), using sophisticated sensors that mimic a dog’s or pig’s nose to detect smells humans can’t.

“If you think about it, the things that annoy you most are the things that stink: VOCs, household cleaners, off-gassing from plastics and other man-made smells,” says Webley. “And a lot of people are chemically sensitive. So if you put one of our purifiers in a room, within a few hours, you’ll feel fine.”

He plans to eventually ramp up production of the air purifiers for large commercial buildings and smaller units for home use. “But right now I have my hands full shipping to a couple hundred customers in the medical market, such as the mortuary industry and nursing homes,” says Webley.

Believing the fledgling water purification venture didn’t belong in the same company as the air purifier business, he split Innovative Labs into two entities in 2010. Through a reverse acquisition, Innovative Labs continues as producer of the air purifiers and is in the process of going public.

“A reverse acquisition let us raise money for the water company without having to go the venture capital route,” says Webley. “So we raised $1 million in a seed round through friends, family and a large Japanese conglomerate.”

Webley is excited by the global prospects for Trevi Systems (named for the Trevi fountain in Rome, which brought the first fresh water to that city from an aquifer, dramatically decreasing illness from water-borne contaminants). “Our product promises to be spectacularly more efficient for cleaning water than anything else out there,” he says, explaining that Trevi will be the first electric-free, solar-heated system that can economically purify brackish water and remove chemicals—and it can desalinate ocean water.

“I lead a team of four engineers, and we share equally in the creation of the technology,” says Webley. “We’ve had to come up with our own custom-engineered molecules, and we believe it’s breakthrough technology. The solar aspect means we’ll be the first to economically make fresh drinking water using solar energy.”

The research and development process at Trevi hasn’t been without setbacks, he points out. “We made a few systems that worked well, took them to Japan, and they failed,” he says. “So it was like, ‘Oops! Back to the drawing board!’ But if you don’t fail, you don’t learn. So we actually sent back the money to the Japanese company that wanted to invest.” The second time around, the system worked, and that company is an investor again.

Bringing jobs to Petaluma

This summer, the Trevi technology is being validated by the U.S. Navy in a huge facility near Los Angeles where it’s able to fast-track the testing of water purification technologies.

“The military is always one step ahead in technology, and it knows how to test very well,” says Webley. “The Navy also has the permits to take in ocean water and discharge it. To test our desalination on the coast here would probably take five years just for the permits. I don’t have five years.”

Before manufacturing can begin in Petaluma, the Trevi technology must first be vetted by the Navy. “We have to know that we have a viable process,” says Webley. “But it takes some time. Once we know it will work, I need to go raise some money and then add buyers and people to install the systems out in the field—the whole team.”

Trevi water purification systems will range in size from a small box that can clean the water for, say, a coastal resort in Mexico, to a warehouse-sized facility to purify water for a large city. The computer-operated systems would need only minimal oversight and upkeep, such as filter changes.

By partnering with companies all over the world, Webley says he can license the technology to them, “and then let them go out and build the facilities in their areas.” There’s been worldwide interest in the Trevi system, including from the Japanese, who contacted Webley about cleaning up hazardous radioactive water resulting from the earthquake and tsunami last year. Another country interested in partnering with him is Saudi Arabia, which is seeking to upgrade its image from an oil-producing nation to one that's clean and green.

“Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s leaders right now in desalination, and it has funds specifically aimed at building big systems to prove the effectiveness of it,” he says. “But it’s a bit too soon for us [to think about], and I really don’t want to spend all my time flying back and forth to Saudi Arabia.”

Webley is also getting a lot of calls from…islands. “Because islands buy gas and oil to run generators to power their water systems,” he explains. “So their water is tied to the price of gas, and their water costs keep going up.”

Asia has a huge demand for fresh water, including such island nations as Malaysia and Indonesia, as do places like the Caribbean. “With some 60,000 water-encased islands in the world, there are significant markets and opportunities for us.”

The core technology for Trevi will be manufactured in Petaluma and shipped from there. “That will happen in the next round of financing,” says Webley. He anticipates creating hundreds of new jobs in Sonoma County at all levels, not only in engineering. “That’s my push—to hire and manufacture locally,” he says.

In June, Webley still hadn’t found time to create a website for Trevi. “So far, I just have a logo and a business card,” he adds with a laugh.

Evaluating new ideas and inventions

In the meantime, Webley’s Innovative Labs is evaluating other green-leaning concepts and technologies. “That’s what we do. We look at ideas and dismiss the ones we can’t afford to spend time and money on, or that are technically unsound,” he says. “That leaves two or three ideas every couple of months that we look at and figure out how they can work.”

Webley says one entrepreneur brought a new design for a coffeemaker. “But it’s so difficult to introduce a new product into the retail space,” he says. “I tend to stay away from those because, for every dollar you spend on the product, you have to spend $10 on marketing. So maybe the world doesn’t need a new coffeemaker. Maybe the ones we have are good enough.”

Another idea recently analyzed by Innovative Labs was a new type of artificial limb. “The idea was good and the project would absolutely work, but then we started looking at the medical regulations of the implant certification cycle, which can take five to seven years to get approvals,” says Webley. “You have to build that time into your business plan, and that kicks up the amount of money you need to raise.”

Webley sees a lot of great startups with potential, he says, but the sputtering economy has slammed the brakes on moving them forward. “You just can’t get the money,” he says. “Even with my startups, it’s hard to get the money.”

One thing Webley says he’s learned about green technology is, if you want to make a difference, you can’t be a little company. “Because a little company only affects a small area. If you’re really going to make an impact in the world, it has to be done on a large scale.” For licensing the technology, that means partnering with honorable larger companies. “And they may not always be in the United States, because we can be a little cutthroat,” he says, smiling.

Choosing nations that are sensitive to intellectual property is also important. “For example, China would be a huge market for our water technology, but it’s one of the markets we’d go to last, when we’re fully developed and no longer have concerns about intellectual property theft.”

Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board (EDB), says Webley brings a business sensibility to the tech world. “Not everyone who’s good in tech is also good at business, but John is savvy at both. He has a boyish enthusiasm for business and technology…and a dry wit.”

Webley has served on the EDB for four years, says Stone. “John contributes to the board by giving his insights on global economies and how the California business climate compares with Texas and other states.”

Creating sustainable companies

Webley isn’t certain yet if he’ll take Trevi Systems public once it begins manufacturing. “But I always run a company as if it’s going to go public, to make it as big and successful as possible, and then, if an acquisition happens, fine.”

Yet he strongly believes the green movement is about creating companies that are sustainable instead of making as much money as quickly as possible. “Obviously, I want to make money,” he says, “but not at the speed I used to, which was three to five years. Been there, done that. It’s stressful. I’m trying to get away from that model. It isn’t sustainable.

“Making a green business sustainable begins right at the start with your hiring. It’s important to bring family and community into your companies, because it’s more than just the technology, it’s the way of life, a bit of slowing down.”

Webley is bringing family into Innovative Labs. His oldest daughter, a graduate of Sonoma State University, works with him there full-time. Another daughter is currently studying art in Italy. The Webleys also have two sons, one a recent college graduate and one a high school student.

Webley admits to keeping a low profile as much as he can, and “going underground” while starting a new company. “I bury my head so no one knows what I’m up to, then when the company becomes successful, it’s time for me to talk at functions and conferences,” he says. One of those is the six-year-old Sustainable Enterprise Conference (SEC), held annually in Rohnert Park and co-founded by Robert Girling, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Business and Economics at Sonoma State University.

“John is authentic and engaging,” says Girling. “He’s a remarkable speaker and an excellent individual. He brings you into his story.”

Webley has spoken at two of the SECs, most recently in 2010 as the keynote. “Although John’s company encountered difficulties, he came [to the conference] anyway and changed the content of his talk to address the issues he was confronting, despite the obvious possible embarrassment,” explains Girling. “But he wanted to share his story so others working in the sustainability field could learn from it.”

Webley says he’s “definitely committed to staying in Sonoma County” and creating new jobs here. He’s basing his companies in Petaluma for now primarily because of the slow-moving, bit-by-bit widening of Highway 101, a subject that raises his hackles.

“Until this freeway gets widened, I wouldn’t even consider coming north [to Santa Rosa], which I’d prefer,” he says with frustration. “I don’t know why we haven’t put more pressure on to finish this freeway. They’ve been working on this road ever since I’ve lived here. It’s appalling how slow it’s going, and it’s a major detraction for business in Santa Rosa.”

Tinkering in his home office

Some people know the Webleys best as the family who bought the famed McDonald mansion in Santa Rosa in 2005 and faithfully restored it to its former glory (See “This Old House,” Sept. 2010). At the stately home on McDonald Avenue recently, Jennifer Webley offered a bit of insight into the early years with her husband. “When John and I were living in Occidental, I asked him, ‘If I buy old television sets, will you fix them up for reselling?’”

Reminded of those old TVs a few days later while sitting in the gentlemen’s parlor of the mansion, John Webley nods and smiles. “Jennifer and I made good money for about two years fixing broken TVs, but then they became so cheap it didn’t make sense to do it anymore. But in those days, I did whatever needed to be done.”

He’s still doing what needs to be done. A stroll into Webley’s “tinkering” space in his garden-level home office suggests he spends many contented hours bent over books and testing equipment. “My office cubby is where I tinker with ideas, to see if they’re viable. If an idea works, it’s worth hiring people and starting a company.”

Jennifer Webley says part of the reason her husband is successful is because he’s so adaptable. “John really lives engineering,” she adds.

Webley won’t reveal the cost to renovate what is reportedly Santa Rosa’s largest private home, but “it was very expensive. I know what it took to build this, but I didn’t do it to get my money back out of it. I wanted this house to look exactly how it once looked, and the cost was really irrelevant. It had to be done the way it was done originally.”

Still, he couldn’t resist adding some jazzy embedded technology, too. Among other things, Webley installed hidden LED lights throughout the house to provide ambient background lighting. A hot water system and a chiller supplies the air conditioning, with micro ducting made in Germany that runs between rafters and behind walls so it can’t be seen.

“Everything is on hidden smart controllers, too, and I can run the whole house from my phone,” he says, smiling.

Outside, a Fisker hybrid automobile sits ready to whisk Webley back to work in Petaluma in style (See “Drive On,” Green Scene, Bonus 500 issue 2012). “I had my name down for a Tesla once, but got concerned because I do a lot of driving, sometimes 200 to 300 miles per day, going to Petaluma and then maybe on to San Francisco or San Jose. The trouble with the [all-electric] Tesla is, you can’t drive very far on one charge, and I can’t have range anxiety. Can’t have that,” he laughs. He says the Fisker is still a little buggy with software issues, “but that’s what you get when you try new technologies.”

This entrepreneurial engineer may have gone “underground” for the past couple of years, but as production at Trevi Systems and Innovative Labs ramps up, he’ll soon be back on the business radar. “I keep saying that I’m going to retire, but it’s so boring to retire,” Webley says with a sigh. “These may be my last two companies, although I have one more in the back of my head that I can’t talk about yet.”

Sounds like he has even more in store for us.


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