Rachel Major is an avid tinkerer and writer with past experience at the Biomimicry Institute and The Academy of Natural Sciences. She is particularly interested in natural infrastructure, the circular economy, and biomimetic design and has degrees in biology, chemistry, and management from Drexel and Stanford Universities.
She brought the idea of bridging clean tech and biomimicry to NASA Ames, and from there created a biotech makerspace for environmentalists. This eventually became her start up NuLeaf Tech. NuLeaf engineers "NuTrees" which are decentralized wastewater treatment devices with an all-natural twist. They build compact ecosystems for off-grid water solutions so no one has to worry about dirty water and precious resources are never wasted.
Q: What inspired you to found NuLeaf Tech and what were the main challenges you faced?
Growing up in Silicon Valley, it felt like nature and technology were at odds. I’ve always loved nature but ecology is often considered a “low-brow” science, which does a great disservice to the genius of the natural world. So when I found the Biomimicry Institute drawing design inspiration from nature I was really inspired. By 2012, I was working at a branch of the Biomimicry Institute building a database of natural strategies for technological inspiration.
Now we are seeing more businesses incorporating the natural world into their tech, but even just seven years ago this was pretty new. I got a lot of weird looks at job interviews for wanting to work in this space. So NuLeaf was really born out of necessity.
While I was realizing that I would have to forge my own path in biomimicry, California was deep in its worst drought in recorded history. I saw first-hand the result of water mismanagement and knew that nature could show us a better way. This motivated me to find a better solution, and I think we’ve done this with the NuTree.
The first and most common challenge we’ve run into is just that water is a particularly risk-averse industry. If you aren’t flush with VC money or connected with a university, it’s difficult to get your foot in the door without an established technology - even when the problem is well understood by regulators and customers.
There’s also a problem of ageism/sexism in the business culture at large. I’ve been at networking events where everyone assumes I am a secretary or a student, even when I’m a speaker. And that’s just what people say to your face, let alone the behind-closed-doors biases people carry into pitch or sales meetings.
Another issue we have run into is that wastewater troubles aren’t well known. Water supply problems are well understood, but we have a sewage problem too! Most people just haven’t experienced... yet. It’s usually small businesses or rural residents that are easy for governments to ignore who get hit heaviest, but the problem affects all of us.
Q: Did you start the venture alone?
Definitely not! When we started off at NASA Ames in Mountain View, we had over 100 people from various walks of life who wanted to be involved with the project.
We were initially hesitant to become a startup. A lot of the business idols of the day were famous for being incredibly toxic, and many entrepreneurs try to emulate this. Since we finally did decide to incorporate, my co-founder Ari Ochoa and the rest of our team have done our best to try to change this atmosphere of toxicity.
Since then, we’ve had the benefit of mentors from NASA, RebelBio, and Foothill College. All our families were pretty against us pursuing this venture, so it was important that we were able to find people who could help us create something.
Q: What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
Basically, the problem with wastewater treatment solutions is that they are expensive, ineffectual, and difficult to maintain. In the United States, our large, centralized treatment centers are stressed, while communities that use decentralized solutions like septic tanks are struggling to pay for repairs or installation.
We aim to design systems that are simple enough to build that anyone who needs to expand their wastewater treatment systems can do it themselves. We also provide consultation, construction, and maintenance services for a nominal fee.
When we started out, our focus was primarily on craft breweries, but we’ve started to branch out into other markets. In addition to our full-sized NuTree wastewater systems, we now also sell smaller water-recycling systems for indoor/outdoor home gardening. We’ve also started offering custom systems and services to people with unique water needs, think tiny-homes, off-grid living, rural residents, etc.