This week’s edition of the Global Freshwater Seed Accelerator Spotlight Series finds us talking with Gaelle Burges, of Vegetal i.D. manager of the North American operations of a larger, French company, Le Prieuré, which has been in the green-roof business since 1989. Gaelle discusses the initial push-back she encountered while starting out in 2009, and the difficulties growing a French company on American soil.
Welcome Gaelle, would you please briefly describe Vegetal i.D. and the idea behind the company?
Vegetal i.D. is the American branch of global company, Le Prieuré, which installed its first green-roof back in 1989. We engineer, manufacture, and grow modular, living, rooftop, plant-systems, in order to bring nature back to the city and aid in decentralized storm water management.
We, Le Prieuré, invented and patented the Hydropack system, which is the technology used in all of our installations. It was the first modular green-roof system to be used in Europe, and to this day remains the leading system due to our constant innovations and advances in green-roof technology.
The Hydropack system is already developed and in the field, what technology are you going to be working on here at the Global Water Center?
The Hydropack system is already developed, but we continue to evolve the technology behind it, that is why we are here at the Global Water Center. The new system that is currently under development is the Stock & Flow system, which is a combination of the current Hydropack system, with new Hydrostock and Flow Control systems, as well as upward irrigation system.
Would you please describe each of those new components, and how they function together as a larger system?
Yes, so the Hydropack system is what we’ve already been using in our green roof installations, it is a pre-vegetated module, which also contains the growing media, filtering fabric, mineral drainage and water reservoirs.
The Stock & Flow system is currently in development; it is an upgrade of our current water storage module. It will store up to 2.75 gal./sq. ft., or 4.3” of rainfall, and features both permanent or temporary water storage options, increasing the runoff delaying effect by storing more water on the rooftop, making it much more cost-effective than ground-based water storage units. In combination with the other systems, it will reduce runoff significantly more than our current modules.
The Flow Control system is a patented flow regulator with a guaranteed constant discharge flow rate, which can be adjusted for preferred discharge rates. It filters and clarifies runoff water, and the interconnecting module design enables a single regulator to supply multiple modules.
The Irrig’ Up system, is a capillary irrigation system that enables plants to reuse stored water by harnessing the wicking effect to draw it up; decreasing any irrigation need for plants, while also enhancing evapotranspiration.
This all sounds fascinating, tell me a bit more about your background, and your career journey.
I’m an Agricultural Engineer, it doesn’t really exist here in the United States, but it’s a Master’s Degree in everything related to agriculture. Initially, water was not the original career path I intended to embark on, but has now become what my work is centered around. I am the manager of Vegetal i.D. in North America, unfortunately I cannot take credit for creation of the technologies used in our green roof systems.
You are the face of Vegetal i.D. and the company itself sprung from a study that you performed for the parent company, correct?
Yes, Le Prieuré became involved in water technology because they realized that the only way the green roof industry could sustain in the long-term is by focusing on storm-water management, it’s the main economical benefit of green-roofs.
When they developed the Hydropack technology in 2000, they were already focusing on storm-water management.
It started when they realized that the market was global, and in order to be strong in Europe, they needed presence abroad, and that’s why we entered North America. From a research and development standpoint, it makes sense to travel outside of your immediate environment to see what developments are occurring in other parts of the world.
In 2009, I began to do research to determine if there was opportunity abroad for Le Prieuré to be part of the global industry, and develop operations in the United States. In 2011, based on my market study, they realized there was a strong market opportunity & demand, and that’s when they initially invested in Vegetal i.D. and how I became committed to the concept.
Where does the name come from?
The French use Vegetal, for vegetation, I, for innovation, and D, for development.
Tell me about your experience thus far, you’ve been with Vegetal from it’s inception, what challenges have you faced?
There were many challenges developing a new company in a foreign country. You encounter an entirely new culture; my boss is just a small farmer in France, I myself am born and raised in France, so entering a completely different country, with a brand new concept was thwarting, just based on the social and business cultural shocks alone.
Initially, it was very hard to navigate the US tax and legal system, adjust to life here, and find our way as a new company, and add to that the language barrier. We had zero help from any US entity prior to being selected to participate in the Global Freshwater Seed Accelerator program.
This is the first time that we’ve had any kind of support; I had no mentors or any help since arriving in the US. I think that people viewed us as a foreign company just trying to exploit and make money off of the market here, when in reality, we are investing in the US, and trying to create jobs by expanding here.
The program has helped us very much by supporting us in terms of developing network connections, solving problems quickly, and answering questions that we may encounter as entrepreneurs while growing our business.
What have been some of the more fulfilling moments so far?
The most fulfilling aspect would be, this was my first job. I was hired fresh out of the university, and given the task to study market opportunities, from which I created this new company. To see it flourish and grow to where it is now, is very exciting, I have a strong sense of accomplishment, because I learned each of the different aspects of a small business, and built the company from the ground up by becoming a jack of all trades.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs that are beginning their careers, mainly those looking to enter the water industry?
At first when we created the company, we weren’t directly involved with water, it’s only recent that water has become a topic we focus on more. Advice I would give is, do not underestimate networking, it plays a major role in developing a startup. Also, be open to different people, and different ideas, because they will be able to give you viewpoints from unique perspectives.
Also, when you first start out, you are bombarded with paperwork and other administrative duties, which can consume much of your time; my advice would be, make time, learn to manage your time effectively, so that you are still available to be “in the field” meeting with new people and developing new relationships, instead of committing all of your time to working on clerical duties. At first, you can’t expect people to come to you, because they don’t know about your company or what you do, you have to make yourself accessible and available to promote your company, you have to be very active in promoting, developing and nurturing new connections in order to achieve growth for your company.
What are the main things you want to accomplish while at the Global Water Center?
Having a local presence, and being able to participate directly in Milwaukee’s water cluster is a major aid in growing our network, and creating new contacts, which in turn helps us accomplish growing our regional network.
Also, finally having access to resources and guidance here at the Global Water Center from the UW-Whitewater program will help us tremendously. As I’ve said, I was doing this on my own since 2011, so the coaching and mentoring available to us will definitely be a benefit.
Our biggest goal is to test the new system on a pilot project, for me it’s the main one that we are focusing on.
Will you be involved with the green roof being installed on the Global Water Center?
Yes, we will have a space that we will be installing in the next few weeks. The space on our roof will be for a Hanging Gardens test, for goals they have. We will be looking for some pilot project sites in the city, maybe Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District or UW-Milwaukee, once we have the product; right now we don’t have the final product because it’s still in the prototype phase.
What parting sentiments would you like to close on, or what main point should our audience take away?
Being a part of the Global Freshwater Seed Accelerator has helped to validate our company. Since 2009, this has been the first time I have had any support from a US entity, and it’s amazing how powerful that backing is. By investing in us, they are endorsing us and providing us with more opportunities to build and expand our network.
Also, I think it’s important to stress that The Water Council is known globally, I became aware of them not by any of my US contacts, but through a French magazine article that talked about the work they were doing here in the US, and the seed accelerator program. My point being, this movement might be new to some people, but this city, and it’s water cluster is already well known in the global arena.