It’s easy to take access to clean, drinkable water for granted in first-world countries, but many people, whether due to natural disasters or poor infrastructure, are still without a sustainable water supply. Installing a countrywide transportation network to deliver water has generally been too expensive to accomplish outside of urban areas, but one company has come up with a new solution to get water to those who need it most.
TOHL, operating out of Atlanta, Georgia and Santiago, Chile, is aiming to make transporting water across rural areas much easier with its patent-pending pipe laying system. Using helicopters and spools of tubing, the startup has developed a system that makes the process of piping drinkable water to remote areas cheaper and more efficient than ever before. In the future, TOHL is looking to sell its piping system to government and humanitarian aid organizations for disaster relief efforts.
We chatted with TOHL co-founder and CEO Benjamin Cohen, who told us about the startup’s road ahead to securing its very first contract, how no two workdays ever seem to be the same, and his passion for building a company that’s making a difference in the world.
What is the backstory behind TOHL?
The technology, the idea behind what we’re doing originally came about in 2010, after the earthquake in Haiti. There were a lot of people that were dying from a lack of water in Port-au-Prince.
Bill Clinton was on BBC talking about they had plenty of water at the port but couldn’t get that water into the city because they didn’t have a supply line. The roads are basically useless and the helicopters are limited in capacity.
My co-founder and I were juniors at Georgia Tech and we were thinking about what we could do to help solve this problem. It obviously went through a lot of iterations, but what we eventually came up with was laying pipeline quickly via helicopter with large segments on large spools, through the methodology that we chose and now have pending patents for.
That particular application and that particular technology, we’ve tried to now start building a business around that. It just depends -- sometimes the helicopter technology is not needed, sometimes we’re getting into different applications, but that was originally where things started and where everything kicked off.
When did you know you that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I would say when I was a kid or sometime in grade school probably. I was just interested in business and starting things. When I was 10 I started a lawn mowing company and stuff like that, saved up to buy a car at 15. I was just very intrigued by business markets, economics, how things work, how money works and everything, even from a young age.
When I actually decided to take the leap of faith, as far as this venture, I left my job at the Georgia Department of Transportation after being there for three months. We had this funding that came through from Startup Chile; somebody had to jump in and take the lead there. I said, “It’s now or never, so let’s make it happen. I’m going to 100 percent regret this if I don’t do it now.”
I had to choose at that point if I was going to go down the steady path – am I going to work for the DoT, a government job which is generally considered “stable” -- or am I going to go down the path of trying to make something out of nothing? We had an idea on paper but we didn’t have our technology tested or proven, we didn’t have a business model tested or proven, so we just started from there and started rubbing some sticks together.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
I can honestly say there’s not a typical workday. For instance, on Thursday I’m flying to South Sudan to look at a project there. Right this second I’m in Atlanta, working remotely from our operations in Chile.
I’ve been doing so much traveling and there are so many different new things that we’ll come across. We’ll go on site visits, where we’re meeting this person or that person; we’re filling out an application for a competition or speaking with an investor on a conference call. We haven’t gotten to that stage yet where we have typical days.
The closest thing is when I’m with our full-time operations in Chile, in Santiago. I work out of an office called Social Lab, which is a social enterprise accelerator that branched off from a large humanitarian organization called Un Techo Para Chile, which means “a roof for Chile.” That’s the office that we work out of; they give us that space for free. That’s the closest thing to a regular day, but there’s not really one yet, to be frank.
What advice would you give to any beginning entrepreneurs out there?
The biggest thing would be to find something that you’re really passionate about and that you’re not going to mind spending a lot of time on. That’s the first thing. The second thing would be that you’ve got to have persistence because when it looks like something might not work or it’s really difficult or a lot of problems come up, an entrepreneur is the one that pushes through those and doesn’t give up when typically 95 percent or more of people would.
The last thing is that you just can’t be scared to jump out there and pursue the thing you are passionate about, because when you do that, even if you fail, you’re going to learn so many different things that it’s totally worth it. You’re going to get so much experience that it is going to be worth it.
If you had all the money in the world, what would your days look like?
It would be managing other people to manage that money. It would probably be a lot of board meetings with different companies that we owned and it’s important to allocate resources correctly. Your job would basically be asset allocation across the world and you have to have the right people in charge of the right branches in order to manage that money so the day would be board meetings all day, every day.
Maybe you go into site, but you’re going to have to basically trust people that they have that knowledge in those areas.
What is your idea of happiness?
For me, doing something that’s fulfilling, that’s gratifying, and one of the biggest motivators for us is that we’re trying to raise the quality of life of the poorest members of society. To know that you’re dedicating a good part of your life to that definitely brings me happiness.
I think happiness is really defined by all different people because their genetic makeup causes them to think happiness is one thing, versus somebody else who might think it’s something else. I don’t think it can necessarily be defined, but for me it would be making sure that I use all the potential that I have to increase the quality of life for poor people in the world. It’s a pretty exciting challenge to be taking on.
What does 2013 have in store for TOHL?
This year we’re looking to get our first contract, close a deal, execute the project successfully, and show profit margins there so that we can leverage investment to grow this thing even bigger in the years to come. There are just a few goals there, primarily to get that contract, execute that contract, and to get the funding to grow this.
Posted By Team www.MeetAdvisors.com
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