GLOBE VIPs (Very Impactful People): Jonathan Rhone
Over the past 30 years, GLOBE Series events have brought together a community of 170,000 change makers, executives, innovators, dreamers, government leaders, inventors, thinkers, investors and youth. To celebrate our 30th anniversary, we’ve invited a few of those Very Impactful People to share their stories with us.
First up is Jonathan Rhone, one of the organizers of the first–ever GLOBE conference in 1990. Since then, Mr. Rhone has had quite an impressive career as a serial cleantech entrepreneur, most recently founding Evok Innovations in 2015 and leading Axine Water Technologies as President and CEO since 2012. Not one for resting on his laurels, Mr. Rhone is also chair of the BC CEO Cleantech Alliance, helping to make British Columbia a global hub for cleantech innovation.
We spoke with Mr. Rhone to learn more about his experience in cleantech and what has kept him so optimistic for so many years.
What did sustainability and GLOBE mean back in 1990?
At the time, sustainability was a relatively new concept. There was a real growing awareness that there was a problem, but it was very much business as usual. The institutional sustainability ecosystem that we have today — technology, investment, activists, funds — all of that stuff was just in its formative stages.
People wanted to come to GLOBE because this was one of the very few pioneering forums that brought together people from the environmental movement, business, finance and government to start having conversations about sustainability.
What does sustainability mean today?
That’s a pretty interesting question. One the one hand, so much has been accomplished and. on the other hand, there’s still so much to do. On balance, it feels like we’re losing ground.
Here’s the good news. Thirty years ago, you could never have imagined that renewable energy — solar and wind — would be competitive with coal or natural gas. In 1990, you could never have imagined that 30 years later, virtually every auto manufacturer would be bringing out electric vehicle models in all classes — dozens of them! My kids have absolutely no doubt in their mind that they’ll never own a fossil fuel-powered car. We can see the beginning of a massive energy shift.
These are big accomplishments. However, all the problems that we’ve neglected are really catching up to us. We’re way behind on carbon emissions and governments just aren’t going to get us there. Ocean plastics, the accumulation of toxins in the environment, loss of biodiversity, water scarcity — these are all problems that it’s sometimes hard to be optimistic about.
To your question, I think sustainability today is in much sharper focus. As it was 30 years ago, it’s still fundamentally about meeting society’s needs today while protecting the rights of future generations. The big difference is that we can now see concrete examples of how we can achieve that goal. One final point: sustainability today is absolutely not a choice about economy vs environment, which is a tired old false dichotomy used to preserve the status quo.
Could you tell me about the work you’re doing at Axine and the impact it’s having?
Axine is my latest project. I’m an energy guy at heart, so water is new for me. It’s also an area that needs a lot more investment to address challenges that consistently rank it as a top 10 global risk by the World Economic Forum.
The problem we’re solving relates to industrial wastewater generated by manufacturing processes. Every year, billions of gallons of wastewater is produced by pharmaceutical, semiconductor, refineries and other industries. This wastewater is contaminated with toxic organic pollutants and can’t be treated with any existing technology. The only current solution is to truck it away and incinerate it using fossil fuels, which is dirty, expensive and risky.
At Axine, we’ve created a new standard for treating these pollutants that’s lower cost, lower risk and lower environmental impact. The technology uses catalysts and electricity to break down these toxic pollutants without any waste. We treat the wastewater so it can either be reused or safely discharged without having any impact on the environment.
Our first market is big pharma, where we’re eliminating pharmaceutical pollutants in wastewater to address a global risk to human health and water quality.
Very interesting. Now, I know you wear two hats. Tell me more about your work as Co-Founder and Director of Evok Innovations.
The idea for Evok came out of a GLOBE event. This is what GLOBE does!
GLOBE Chairman Chris Henderson hosted a roundtable discussion where a bunch of us were asked to bring big hairy audacious ideas. My idea was this: the oil and gas industry in Canada is an economic powerhouse, but it’s got all these environmental challenges throughout the value chain On the other hand, we’ve got this great cleantech industry in B.C. that’s solutions. So, why not create an intentional collision between the tech industry in B.C. and the oil and gas industry in Alberta?
I pitched this idea to the CEOs of Suncor and Cenovus and we created Evok Innovations, which is a partnership between the BC Cleantech CEO Alliance, Suncor and Cenovus. We’ve now made over a dozen investments in high–growth cleantech companies and about half of them are based in Canada. These are technologies that can have a dramatic impact on improving the performance of Canada’s oil and gas industry – reducing environmental impact, increasing productivity, creating new products and helping to transform that industry. That was the original mission behind Evok and it’s really starting to come true.
What has been the most inspiring moment so far in your sustainability career?
I see so many young people who want to have a career in the technology industry. We’ve got just under 300 cleantech companies in British Columbia — we’re one of the most productive innovation hubs for cleantech in the world here in B.C and we need thousands of talented employees to scale-up our sector. Our young talent really inspires me. These aren’t people who are just working in the tech industry. They’re not working on some new social media app. They’re passionate about solving some of the world’s biggest problems and creating a better future. They inspire me.
When you look back on your career, what are you most proud of?
That’s easy. There are two things I’m super proud of.
I’m so proud watching the people that I’ve worked with grow, thrive, learn and then become leaders themselves. I’ve always tried to hire really smart people and give them room to grow. It’s easy to say and it’s difficult to do. Many of the young people that I have worked with over the years have gone on to have great careers. Some of them have become CEOs in their own right.
The other thing I’m more honoured than proud of is to be part of a great community of cleantech entrepreneurs in B.C. and across Canada. I think we have a phenomenal ecosystem and I’m proud of every single CEO and entrepreneur. It’s hard to build successful cleantech companies and our CEOs are doing it each and every day. It’s amazing to see.
With so much negativity in the news, how do you stay positive, inspired and hopeful?
I think it’s part of the DNA of most tech entrepreneurs to be hopeful and imaginative — to imagine the world being different. We see the possibilities in front of us. We see a path forward. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing.
Is there a sustainability goal that you’re focused on in the next 5-10 years?
The immediate goal for me with Axine is to establish this technology as a new standard of care, beginning in the pharmaceutical industry and then expanding to other industries. I think this is a very valuable technology and I want to get it as widely adopted as possible.
Longer term, I’m really interested in new models of energy, particularly for consumers, and how we can eliminate the influence of large, monolithic utilities and move access to energy towards zero– cost, zero impact and make it more democratic.
My other goal revolves around helping British Columbia solidify its role as one of the most productive global centres of sustainability and cleantech innovation in the world. I think we have a chance to firmly establish B.C. as a leader in that whole area, which is something I feel very passionate about.