Reimagining Waste Management
Updated: Dec 16, 2022
Unlikely Co-Founders: Master Gardener meets Army Combat Vet
It was the charcoal under Matt "Petey" Peterson’s fingernails that initially drew Miles Murray to his future co-founder. They met in 2018 on the first day of the Science Technology Commercialization Masters of Science program at the University of Texas, Austin, after Petey pitched his strategy for LoCoal to the class. He “was wearing cutoff sleeves, shorts, had black nails, and a ponytail,” recalls Miles. “I'm sitting there with slacks and a polo because I'm an executive at USAA.”
Petey lives on a nine acre property outside of Austin where he’s allowed the natural ecosystem to flourish. “The diversity of wildlife that I have here is amazing compared to when I go visit my friends and family in Austin.” On the day he met Miles, Petey says, “I came to class having swung an ax earlier in the morning, made charcoal and delivered it in a bucket. So I was dirty.” He had learned how to turn upcycled wood waste into clean energy and biochar, a soil enhancement that can help restore topsoil and sequester carbon into the ground. He was enrolled in the program to build the team that would help him scale his idea.
He’s watched Austin grow and manage its resources poorly. “Being that I love my city that I grew up in, I wanted to try to change something here.” For example, Austin Wood Recycling houses 100 acres of wood waste just waiting to be repurposed. According to Petey, “It’s not a sustainable effort.”
Petey was on the lookout for a partner who was “10x better than [him] in certain areas, which was the finance, the accounting, and just the overall business acumen.” He found him in Miles, who’s own interest in environmental conservation stems from his grandfather, “an infantry man and also a tree farmer and kind of an animal whisperer in a lot of ways” who taught him to “walk through the woods silently…and just exist with nature.”
Miles says, “It’s not enough to divert the waste…sending it off to somewhere we can't see it…You have to transform the waste…If we design things to not be thrown away, or to have secondary use, you end up having better supply line logistics and resiliency.”
Miles says he was impressed by Petey for two reasons right from the get go: first of all, “this guy [didn’t] realize he’s printing money via carbon credits,” and second, Miles could see that Petey shared his “heart and passion for doing hard things.” Miles had found his way to the program after a years long recovery from an injury he sustained serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq had left him “staring in the mirror,” thinking “I gotta get back into something that is purpose and mission focused.”
The Service and Circularity: Creating the Rainmaker
When he was in the service, the lack of basic utilities inspired Miles’ thinking on resource management and circularity. “We lived outside of a moat full of open sewer. And we had no place to take our trash,” Miles reflects. He had to use a third of his already limited fuel ration just to burn waste. “It's a very unsustainable lifestyle from an environmental conservation standpoint,” he observes. “The whole society lives like this. It’s prohibitive to progress…Basic human needs are not being met.”
Their shared interest in a more perfect system of resource management united them as a team. “Petey knows what to do with biochar, sequestering carbon, and regenerating topsoils,” says Miles, who’s own expertise is building the technologies that allow for scale. The next employees at LoCoal were two fellow veterans Miles had served with in Iraq, and today, over half of LoCoal’s employees are combat veterans. Together, the team has created the Rainmaker, a mobile, on-site, nearly autonomous device that converts wood waste into energy and biochar.
Miles says he went to Petey with the idea to hire some of the people he’d worked with in the military because they’d bring an ethos of “the guys on the ground that actually fix things.” As the climate changes, Miles is most interested in addressing and adapting to problems on the front lines. The conversation on cutting carbon emissions at the policy level “does very little to help the farmer right now, who’s facing a water crisis and irregular weather patterns…water restrictions; heat waves that can shock your crops.”
He says veterans make the difference because “they're all focused on the objective” and “not quibbling over who's doing what.” Miles says “when you have a team like that you succeed phenomenally when it's great. But even when it's not great, when there's a pandemic, when there’s inflation, when there’s unrest and uncertainty in the ESG and sustainability markets,” the team is able to focus on their “most singular mission. And we just punch through the barriers.”
Petey agrees. “I can't tell you how hard these guys work. And they have that, ‘get it done regardless’ attitude.” Petey says the group believes in Miles so much “because of what they went through” overseas “and how he supported them and their growth. And they've all really matured a lot with our project, too. So it's like, we bring them along, they're supportive, they work really hard, but they also are blossoming into even more powerful professional individuals.”
LoCoal for Regeneration and Community Power: What’s Next
As for his vision for the future, Petey says, “I would love for LoCoal to continue the movement of rebuilding our topsoil, to maintain healthier air, food security, and water.” He’s also a recognized face in the Austin sustainability community: “I like to teach. I did a presentation for an organic gardening group Monday night, 80 people showed up. And the people that I met afterwards were just so great to talk with. Opening up new networks and seeing the passion that's out there…We just want to continue to support that.”
“My vision for LoCoal is to be a recognized leader in creating that transformational business model from linear waste to circular economies,” says Miles. “In doing so, the radiating effect is more resilient power for communities, less dependence on long running transmission lines…it's better, faster, and cheaper…It's not beyond my imagination to see 100,000 rainmakers operating globally and all connected to our software system, monitoring that impact and relocating machines to the problem as we see fit and having a veteran team that can deploy anywhere in the world to get it done.”
Learn more about how the Rainmaker is creating the future of resource management below.