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25 Years, 25 Profiles-Warren Sumner

It’s been 25 years since the Austin Technology Incubator (ATI) launched as the first business incubator in Austin.  Over the years we’ve worked with hundreds of companies and thousands of individuals that have helped transform Austin into one of the most respected technology communities in the world.  We’d like to share some of the stories from past directors, community partners, member companies and even former associates in a new series called “25 Years, 25 Profiles.

In 1989 Warren Sumner was a business student at The University of Texas and worked as an intern for ATI.  Twenty-two years later he returned to ATI and joined our clean energy portfolio as the CEO of Omni Water Solutions, an Austin-based company that develops mobile systems for water treatment and re-use.  I sat down with Warren for coffee one morning to talk about his evolution from intern to CEO.

As a part of one of the first intern classes (ATI has had over 300 student associates over 25 years) Warren worked with member companies on the same type of projects current associates do: financial modeling, market analysis, accounting work, etc. 

“ATI was my first experience working consultative role, and it gave me the opportunity to apply the functional skills I was learning at the time,” Warren explained.  “Helping these businesses solve their problems gave me a lot of confidence going forward in my career.”

Jump forward some twenty years and Warren is the CEO of his own company, working with ATI associates to help his business grow.

“Omni Water Solutions joined ATI because I knew from first-hand experience the value the Incubator provides businesses.  The leadership is extremely well-connected, not only in Austin but across the U.S., and the associates helped us with everything from market testing to honing our pitch.”

Warren paused for a second, then laughed.

“Plus I thought it’d be cool to come full-circle.”

The first application of Omni Water Solution’s water platform has been in the treatment of flowback water from hydraulic fracturing operations.  Over 20% of all oil and natural gas rigs in the world are located in Texas.  The water that explodes the shale two miles under the Earth’s surface comes back polluted with salts and minerals.  Omni’s technology allows that water to be reused so fresh water can be preserved.

“A lot of people think fracking causes a contamination problem, but it’s really a water-use issue.  Underground freshwater supplies are usually less than 1,000 feet underground, and fracking takes place 5,000-10,000 feet below that.  But once that water returns from the process it has contaminants that make it unusable in subsequent activity, so it gets shipped off to another location to be disposed of and additional freshwater needs to be brought in to frac the next well.  We obviate that need by treating the used water so it can be used to frac the next well, which preserves our freshwater supply.”

Does the technology work?

“When we were just starting out, we’d demonstrate our system using contaminated water, which was black, and then pouring the water into a glass once it was treated.”

And then, they drank it.

I have to admit, I spit out a bit of my coffee when he said that.

Before we left, I asked Warren what advice he’d give to other ATI associates aspiring to move into the C-suite.  

“What I learned at ATI was that, while there are a lot of interesting ideas being turned into companies, it’s a long journey to go from a good idea to a successful company.  Some companies made it, others didn’t.  And oftentimes it wasn’t the technology that made the difference; it was all the other pieces that had to come into place: the people, the partnerships, and so on.  Seeing that process take place with the ATI portfolio companies has served me well in my career, and it I’m sure it will in theirs as well.”

Omni Water Solutions was incubated at ATI from 2011-2012.  Warren was on hand at our graduation ceremony in January 2014.