The accidental capitalist: An interview with Lou Licht

Published January 1, 2000

Dr. Louis A. Licht, Ph.D., P.E., is the founder and president of Ecolotree Inc., the world’s first for-profit phytoremediation company.

Phytoremediation is the process of using plants to control and even alleviate pollution problems. Ecolotree uses poplar trees, which grow very quickly and produce a hard white wood that has commercial value.

Lou himself is a former DuPont chemical engineer who became environmentally conscious in the 1970s. He has arrived at the conclusion that the best way to help the environment is to harness “enlightened self-interest” and get people to do the right thing voluntarily.

He isn’t evangelical, nor even much of an ideologue–libertarian, conservative, or otherwise. He is a scientist, a businessman, and, above all, an engineer. And as an engineer, Lou’s approach to solving problems is shaped by the defining question of all engineers: What works best?

Tiggre: Was your development of Ecolotree and phytoremediation driven by any philosophical concerns or interests?

Licht: It was experiencing life. I started out on a farm, and on a farm you thought it was normal to have everything plowed up every year and planted to corn. Chemical engineering didn’t help.

My interests turned to re-feeding manure back in the ’70s, which took me to Oregon, and coming from Iowa that was like falling into ecotopia. In fact, that book, Ecotopia had just been published in 1976 when I arrived in Oregon–it was one of those books about living a cyclic lifestyle.

In 1979, the government of Oregon put me on an alternative energy development commission. Through that I learned a lot about fast-growing plants that take sunlight and carbon and make it into C-H bonds that, when burned, release energy. One of the plants was the poplar tree.

In 1982, I started teaching a design class at Oregon State University, and my first question was, “Could we grow poplar trees in ditch spaces along I-80 in Iowa and harvest them for fuel for low-income housing?”

Tiggre: How did it come about that you started your first experimenting with actually planting poplars?

Licht: It didn’t happen until I decided that the only way to do it–if I was going to do it–was to drop everything and go back to college and get a doctorate. I was interested in using poplar trees to somehow control agricultural pollution, especially for preventing fertilizers and herbicides from leaking from fields into streams. That was looked on as kind of a wacky idea.

Tiggre: By the time you were working on your graduate studies, were there other people doing phytoremediation?

Licht: No one was doing phytoremediation. I thought, “Gee whiz, I’m spending $25 million on a plant for wastewater treatment that I think I might be able to manage with 120 acres of poplar trees.” I was working in a civil engineering firm, and believe me, that was the wrong answer. Nonetheless, the question is, if you’re really interested in water treatment, can you treat water with trees?

So that’s what I spent my doctorate work looking at: Could I get a root system to a design depth, even though I couldn’t see the bottom of the root system? I was putting it into my engineer colleagues’ perspective, thinking of how they think, and how they want control. Can you be certain you’ve got a known depth and then assign properties to the soil, microbial activity, the roots themselves, the plants . . . and then can you use that as a water treatment mechanism?

Tiggre: You were able to answer all these questions in the course of your graduate studies?

Licht: Yes. When I finished up my writing I took a break and went to visit some friends in Oregon. I gave a brown bag discussion on our results, and in that audience was the owner of Lakeside Landfill, who always wanted to put trees on his landfill instead of a plastic or clay cap. He grabbed my idea, and without talking to the regulators, went out and did it. He hired me to help him, and then I incorporated Ecolotree. We’re the oldest phytoremediation firm in the world, started in 1990.

Being from a farm, and seeing a lot of companies that have started and floundered because of overcapitalization or exceeding their grasp, my goal has been to grow out of cash flow, and that’s what we do.

Right after I graduated, the University of Iowa Research Foundation decided it wanted to apply for a patent for the use of trees for pollution control. So the University of Iowa paid the lawyer and for the paperwork to get this filed. They named me as sole patentee. I really feel a sense of gratitude to this day to Jerry Schnoor, my major professor, because this is the first time that a student was the sole patentee on a license fronted by the University of Iowa Research Foundation. Jerry admitted that, in fact, I brought the idea there.

That patent was filed in 1991, and we just got the patent in September of this year. Eight years, 8 months, and 8 days after it was filed.

In 1993, this looked like it was going nowhere. It was turned down by the patent office, because of a literature citing that was written the year after the patent was filed, and was talking about projects we were involved with. That’s how government bureaucracy works. The University of Iowa dropped the patent support and turned it over to us. If we wanted to pursue it, fine, but they weren’t going to. So they turned the ownership over to me.

Tiggre: What are your projections for next year? How much money will you make and how many acres will you plant?

Licht: We don’t have a lot of pass-through costs. Unless we do an irrigation system, most of our cost really is in trees, planters, planting crews, site prep, that type of stuff. So, if we had a three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar year, that’d be a great year.

Tiggre: How about acreage?

Licht: My hunch is that we will be planting 120 acres. That may be divided into about 14 or 16 projects.

Tiggre: What’s the average Ecolotree customer like and what’s the average project like?

Licht: Our major type of project is where a consultant has already been preselected by a large manufacturer. We bring the phyto piece to the design and do a presentation to the regulatory people and the owner buys in. We try to get the site work; we like to get a fall site prep done. That’s ideal, so that in spring we can get the trees planted at the right time.

We do not do much with government at the moment, like the Department of Energy or EPA directly. The DOE has quite a bit of money, but frankly, I’ve known too many small companies that have been too dependent on government contracts. They’re not always reliable payers, and they’re kind of a tar baby sometimes. We like a project we can get done–get in and get out.

That’s the focus. It’s very simple-minded, very clear, no doubt: Live trees are good, dead trees are the most expensive thing you can have on the site. Yet there’s sometimes a lot of government regulation, sometimes red tape, sometimes the owner interferes or the historic memory of the site is so poor or undocumented that the ability to get the work done isn’t there. Or the ability to get the site living isn’t good because it has a lot of problems and you have to deal with them. Salts, capillary wicking of sulfate, boron . . .

Tiggre: What percentage of sites would you say have those kind of really bad problems that prevent you from getting them living again?

Licht: I’d say 40 percent have problems that take some very specific site and soil management. Of that 40 percent, 75 percent are fixable. But we have to have the commitment; it’s not going to be done tomorrow morning. Especially when the problem is organic, it’s fixable.

Salts and salty water are two things that are long-term problems, and that won’t work above a certain threshold. You just can’t get the salt out. Every now and then, we get a toxic issue–boron is a good example. You have something that’s truly toxic and sometimes unless you basically put a whole new soil base above it, you can’t deal with the material that’s there.

There are some monofills out there that will probably never be able to support plant life because the anions and cations [negatively and positively charged ions] re too mobile. You almost have to put a barrier or they’ll start wicking up into the soil, if you have good fill to start with.

We have to recognize those kinds of potential problems, so we can turn things down before we spend a dime.

Tiggre: What you’ve just described is the vision a lot of people have of pollution–that there’s nothing you can do about it. What you’re saying is in many, many cases, something as simple-sounding as planting trees can do a great deal of good.

Licht: We put everything in terms of human health and ecological health–a functioning ecosystem and economic health of the owner. There are a lot of situations that the way a cleanup is imposed, it basically devastates them economically.

Tiggre: This reminds me a little of the Aldo Leopold land ethic. Was he an influence on you?

Licht: Yes. The Leopold Center funded my original research. I was in the first funding of the first year of the Aldo Leopold Center.

Tiggre: Your involvement goes back to the 1970s–that’s quite some time that you’ve been an environmentally aware and concerned individual.

Licht: In 1972, when I was at DuPont, the Clean Water Act happened. I remember going to the flume of the DuPont cellophane factory and taking my first water samples. It really started there, when I said, “Look at all this that’s going into the Mississippi!” That was my first shock.

Tiggre: A lot of environmentally aware people see anybody who’s doing anything that can be called polluting as being evil, and anything that happens to them is deserved: “Sock it to ’em, and if they go out of business, too bad.” But you don’t seem to have that attitude.

Licht: Growing up on a farm, I put manure from the dairy on snow in March. And I knew that when we got our first thaw–if it was rain it was worse–that manure would end up in the creek and it would eventually end up down in the Mississippi. I knew that happened, but I also knew that at that moment, based on what I knew, I was doing the best that I could because we had to haul the manure. Same way with DuPont: I don’t think they were trying to be evil.

Tiggre: Some environmentalists seem to regard with suspicion any private initiatives, because they consider the environment as being an almost sacred public trust, and that it really ought to be the state that fixes these problems. Do you have any opinions on that?

Licht: Sure. We can’t afford it! Look at what’s cyclic, because cyclic works. You can’t do it if it’s going to cause a lot of economic hardship, or if it’s going to cause social instability. I don’t think you can do any environmental program that creates that outcome.

So how do you set up an environmental program so that greed kicks in? How do you do it so that people would want to do the right thing, because it’s in their personal, economic best interest?

Tiggre: So your whole thinking relates back to the cyclic nature that you see that everything needs to be in. If I’m understanding correctly, harnessing greed is the only way to get it done, because you can’t afford it any other way?

Licht: But what that means is that what you’re presenting people with alternatives. You’ve got to give people viable options for how to deal with their lives. And you’ve got to give alternatives to the civil engineering firm, or to the city that ultimately is liable. How do they deal with their storm water, and how do they deal with it so that it’s not creating other safety problems? You have to be very sensitive to a lot of different perspectives. A lot of them are legitimate.

You know, some people say, well “they” don’t count. Well, no, that’s not true. It isn’t like they’re bad people. I believe that people are good, that people want to do the right thing. You just have to provide them with some alternatives sometimes, or, maybe, the right incentive.

Tiggre: Is there anything in particular you’d like to say about Ecolotree to readers of Environment News?

Licht: We’re now looking at Ecolovillage. We want to build a suburb of clustered housing, a small retirement village. That’s what we want to do–and treat all the water on-site, really get focused on solid waste management, and grow enough carbon that we have a good running start to be even greenhouse-gas cyclic.

You take a field and, instead of putting two-acre mini-mansions on it, you go out there, cluster housing, and keep the rest of the land either in productive agriculture or productive prairie, with wetlands and ecological diversity. We’ve got the piece of land and we’re making an offer tomorrow. It may or may not happen, but that is the thought.

So rather than always whining at people that they’re doing it wrong, it’s kind of like “put up or shut up.” We’re going to do it, we’re going to try it, we know it won’t be perfect, but we’re going to learn from our mistakes.

For more information

on Ecolotree Inc., visit its Web site at