SanEcoTec Advancing the World of Water Quality in Canada, the Water Capital of the World

Hello all! My name is Erica, I joined the FYELABS team in May of this year (2021) as the team’s first non-technical member. I have now spent close to 5 months rubbing shoulders (virtually) with many engineers and techies.

One of my favourite parts of the job is learning about the different companies we get to call customers, the interesting story, and the remarkable human(s) behind each one. This blog series will focus on just that – our amazing customers, their story as businesses and as humans, and how they are changing the world!

To kick off our customer feature blog, I had the honour of talking to Els Vanbeckevoort, Co-Founder and CEO of SanEcoTec, about her experience as a woman in leadership. We have been working with her and her team for about a year now, helping SanEcoTec advance the world of water quality.  

Healthy Water Can Change the World

SanEcoTec is a science-based, clean-tech water company, with an established track record of innovation. With a vision of “Healthy Water can Change the World,” they develop software and hardware systems that support the water quality standards of the future.

The People Behind It

Els Vanbeckevoort is the co-founder and CEO of SanEcoTec. With a formal background in business administration and heritage of entrepreneurship, Els’ experience in business export consulting, business development in other start-ups paved the path to starting SanEcoTec with her co-founder and CTO, Jim Shubat. Her love and interest in water health came from a company that hired her as the Business Development Manager for Europe. “Although, I did take science in high school, it was not part of my initial post-secondary education. Early on, I realized that I had a significant interest in science and technology within the context of real-world application and problem solving. I ended up working with several large water companies and got to see firsthand what healthy water was all about. I was working on highly technical projects as we were starting to develop an eco-friendlier business in that industry,” says Els.

Els had the amazing opportunity to visit Evian-les-Bains in the Alps, a primary source for a premium bottled water brand. This experience led her to think about water more in terms of sustainability because she saw perfectly filtered and balanced water from the source in plastic packaging being shipped all over the world. “I was scratching my head thinking, ‘surely this is not sustainable, right?’ I understand that people need bottled water, so I’m not knocking the idea, but the whole premise of, we’re getting this water out of the source, bottling it, then shipping it everywhere. It was kind of an awakening for me to think about water in different ways,” says Els.

Els emigrated to Canada from Europe in 2006 and was struck by the abundance of fresh water in Canada. She quickly realized that Canadians don’t think about it that way. “This was part of the journey as well for me, for example, to see that Canada didn’t have a national water policy.” Before starting SanEcoTec, Els was a part of a couple different new companies, getting them started or helping them grow. So, the entrepreneurial experience, mindset, and passion for healthy water made it a no-brainer when her co-founder asked her, “Could we do something significant to contribute to water sustainability?” It was the beginning of a vision of what could be.

It's Like Putting a Man on the Moon

For any business, large or small, the big question is how to develop a scalable business model that can reach as many people as possible. For SanEcoTec, a big challenge was switching from an R&D company to a product company and developing a model to support that transition. As a company, SanEcoTec has executed some ground-breaking R&D. “I’m very proud of the team of people, both here and our colleagues in Europe, and our whole interdisciplinary group of water scientists and technical people. They share this vision, this passion for water sustainability,” says Els. “It was helpful to demonstrate our capacity to move the needle, to think outside of the box and do something completely different.” In making this transition, SanEcoTec has taken its application know-how, IP, and data and is transforming that into a profitable business model.

SanEcoTec has invested sizeable resources in showing the world that it’s possible to have better water outcomes. Still, it’s up to all stakeholders to make a change – it’s up to regulators, policymakers, the industry itself, and water users. It’s up to all of us to start to understand that there’s a connection between water health and general health, water health and energy use, and water use and general cost structures.

Jim Shubat, co-founder and CTO of SanEcoTec says, “It’s like putting a man on the moon.” SanEcoTec has faced many challenges because nobody has ever done or tried to do what they’re doing. “We wouldn’t be here today had we not gone through all that challenging time and figuring these things out for ourselves and drawing on the strength and experience of all these wonderful application engineers who’ve been in water for a combined 60 years. So, there’s a lot of good things that come out of wrestling through difficult things. “You can do something really positive, so I’m not regretting it, it’s just challenging, and it takes stamina,” says Els.

Persistence is Key

Els is a leader who has worked very hard to get to where she is today. She offered some very inspiring words of wisdom to other woman who want to lead and change the world in the field that they’re most passionate about. “Persistence, persistence, persistence is number one,” Els told me that this is the most important thing to remember as a woman in business and in leadership. It will be challenging and you will face problems, but Els speaks from experience and says, “it takes perseverance.”

A few other words of precious advice from my conversation with Els include not imposing limitations in your own mind; always having compassion and empathy; and being okay with balance. “I think women are fantastic problem solvers and capable of thinking outside the box. High-quality leadership doesn’t just require smarts; it also requires emotional intelligence,” says Els.

We Have Serious Environmental Issues

SanEcoTec’s grand vision is to move the needle in water health and sustainability across several application areas to have the most significant impact. “We have some serious environmental issues to contend with, and we all must do what we can,” says Els. SanEcoTec is not alone in it’s vision, there are other clean-tech companies in water and energy, and they deserve support from all stakeholders.

Els described two significant variables when working with water. Number one is that it’s always local and changeable, making it challenging to approach water quality from a singular perspective, which is how it’s typically done. Number two is that there’s never an ideal situation where a customer has all the foundational knowledge or has all the infrastructure they need to facilitate better water outcomes. Els told me, “I think that we’ve come up with a method and scalable platform that enables people little by little to make considerable improvements. We’re not going to get them there overnight, and we’re not going to get them there tomorrow [but there are those] ‘ah-ha!’ moments where they realize some of the things that they could be doing and the impact that it could have is so rewarding for me”

Els shared with me a few fascinating ways that they’re working towards their grand vision. SanEcoTec is working to reduce disinfection by-products in swimming pools by 80% to make swimming a much healthier experience while saving at least 20% of energy in the process. 

Another example is the water footprint in greenhouses or farms. SanEcoTec can help support precision agriculture and integrated pest management in greenhouses by providing water quality know-how, monitoring and data analytics. Good water management practices improve economic and environmental outcomes beyond compliance.

In drinking water applications, SanEcoTec is working to show that by thinking outside the box, we can reduce the amount of water that gets wasted. When using a conventional treatment model, the current practice is to do a lot of flushing, so on the one hand, they’re trying to save water, but when you save water, the water in the pipe is old, and you get all kinds of problems.

Els describes just by “moving the needle in different industries we’re ultimately going to, not only contribute to water sustainability, but we’re going to save energy and other resources. We reduce the chemical load and see a system of benefits across the water cycle. We need to support the resilience of our water so that at the end of the day, we can still sustain food production, and potable water for all. I think we have a substantial role to play in that.”

In the next 5-10 year, Els and the team at SanEcoTec hope to see the Water Health Index used in different application areas.

SanEcoTec's Special Ingredient: Pioneering Mindset

Every innovative business has a ‘special ingredient’ that sets them apart from the rest. Els told me that SanEcoTec’s is their “pioneering mindset.” Els also touched on the importance of working with a multi-disciplinary team, partnering with other companies like us, and taking their ground-breaking knowledge and making it applicable. “Though we have collected much data, developed new digital technologies and gained much insight over the years, you are the data scientists. Seeing the gaps and complementing our Water Health Platform  and know-how with advanced analytics and actionable intelligence activates the unique value proposition we bring to the market. 

That’s what the Water Health Index is all about – reducing cost and risk, improving outcomes, and gaining control in real-time.” Says Els.

Don't Give Up, Don't Ever Quit

I asked Els to share some of the most valuable lessons she’s learnt on her journey thus far. “As I mentioned, don’t give up, persevere. Make sure you have a big vision that continues to inspire you. That’s what makes me still happy.” Els also spoke to the importance of being patient to see this vision through to the end.

She told me that flexibility is essential, especially in today’s world. COVID is challenging for many ways for SanEcoTec and a lot of other businesses in so many ways. “Things were starting to happen for us, and then, many of our clients were closed. Having the capacity to be flexible is important. Els told me that you must be willing to respond to your circumstances with a mindset that says, “let’s look at this challenge and see what the opportunity is.”

Finally, having long-term, stable relationships with people you trust and share your vision is precious. “I have to express my profound gratitude to my fellow directors, colleagues, and partners. Building a team of people that you know together makes up so much more than the sum of their parts. Together, exponentially, your team can help get you to where you need to get to,” says Els.

From her experience, Els has adopted three core values (see Lencioni for the book that inspired her) that their company looks at for their team and the people they work with:

Being humble. 

“I don’t know everything, and I love to learn something new every day. I learn from everyone. I’ve learned much from FYELABS. I desire to really understand, so being humble enough to ask for help or be open to learning. Also, to change your point of view or your paradigm is important because if you’re prideful and stuck with ‘this is the way I’ve always done it, and this is the way it must be,’ then you miss out on a lot of opportunities,” says Els.

Be hungry.

“Not to give up, to continue, to strive for excellence; to go above and beyond what people are expecting from us. Having the enthusiasm to sustain that,” says Els.

Be smart.

“I don’t necessarily mean IQ alone, but emotional intelligence and awareness and being sensitive to the people that you’re working with. Understanding everybody’s strengths and weaknesses, and my own, we all have blind spots, so being open to that so that we can smartly work together and progress towards our goals,” says Els.

Talking to Els was the highlight of my week; she is such an inspiring leader and woman in business with so much valuable wisdom to share.

Don’t forget to watch our customer feature video with Els Vanbeckevoort and Jim Shubat on our YouTube channel!

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