Profiles of Innovation
In 2001 Tropical Storm Allison devasted Houston. The massive flooding shut down the Texas Medical Center and essentially turned much of the Bayou City into a lake. Lou Waters was out of town during the storm but came home to not only see the effects of the flooding on his city but on his own home as well.
"I had just finished building out a "man-room" for myself in my garage. It had nice walls, electronics, a music studio and it was all wiped out. I thought, there's got to be a way to stop that from happening. So I set about the idea of a fully automatic floating flood gate," he recalls.
Waters, a Rice University graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, designed the initial sketch and developed much of the idea in his own workshop. The company, which he named FloodBreak, now holds several patents on the product and additional variations.
"I thought, there's got to be a way to stop that from happening. So I set about the idea of a fully automatic floating flood gate."
"The flood protection industry has been around for 50 years. And for 50 years the industry has been building doors or gates that someone had to physically operate. Someone had to actually be there to operate these doors," says Waters, the company's CEO and inventor. "Our innovation and what has really set us apart is that our gate floats.
"It's completely automatic, it's hidden in the ground, and when the flood comes, it doesnt matter whether you're there or not, the water gets underneath, activates the gate and it works. It's active 24/7, 365. Going back to my Allison example, I could've had the best flood system in the world at the time but I wasn't there to activate it so it would've done nothing."
FloodBreak's revolutionary flood control gates also solved another major problem with conventional flood protection systems: Power.
"There are systems available that are 'automatic,' however they require power to operate," he says. "The problem with that thinking is, What's the first thing that typically goes when a storm hits? The power! So if you've got no power then you've got no flood protection. Our slogan is No People, No Power, 24/7 flood control."
Although Waters was born in New York, his family moved to Houston when he was 9 months old, which in his words makes him a "Houston boy." He was raised in an entrepreneurial family where his father, Lou Sr., started a solid waste company and was very successful.
Although Waters was born in New York, his family moved to Houston when he was 9 months old, which in his words makes him a "Houston boy."
"He always encouraged me to explore things" says Waters. "Through high school I was always doing something different, working with my chemistry professor and doing things outside the lines and that school didn't offer. I ended up going to Rice, which I chose over Stanford and Harvard because Rice had a very open, very interesting and very creative culture which was very much my style."
Waters started his first company right out of college, figuring "I'd take the leap now. Couldn't think when a better time would be." The company did product development work for other companies and utilized his creative skills. "This was actually great for me at the time as I got to see a lot of what makes an idea actually work, how you evaluate a market, put a plan together, implement the idea."
After it was bought out by a larger entity several years later, Waters decided to go back to school and earned his MBA from Insead (The European Institute of Business Administration in Fontainebleau, France). "While I had started a business I really didn't know all that much about business," he explains. Once he completed business school, he had a different plan.
"I changed my model. Instead of starting one company and giving all my time and energy to that one thing, I decided that I'd start several and build more of a portfolio of businesses and divide my time accordingly. I figured I'd be less beholden to the risk." It's this strategy that has served him well over the years.
"I've started over 10 companies and have had some great successes and also some spectacular failures. But I have several, like FloodBreak that are growing and special."
FloodBreaks customers are typically businesses that own an infrastructure that is in or near a flood plain. Their gates are used in the Texas Medical Center, at University of Houston and in developments, complexes and office buildings throughout the world.
Not ready to rest on the success of his latest innovation, Waters says that what keeps him up at night is thinking about the next idea. "We are adding new options to the gates, sensors, feedback systems, ways to monitor the gates from home or alternate locations so we're working on some pretty neat features."
But work isn't all he does. "Yes, I work very hard and have long hours but I still have the flexibility to do what I choose," he says. "I have a wonderful wife and three children so I coach teams and spend my time with them. I love music and have been playing in a band since high school. I'm learning to fly a plane, which is a new challenge and I spend a lot of time in the outdoors on our ranch riding horses."
Does he sleep? "Oh yes, I sleep very well. I need eight hours...I can function on a lot less but I like my eight hours."
Greg Scheinman is creator of the PBS show, PROFILE with Greg Scheinman, and an associate at Insgroup Inc., Houston's fourth largest independent insurance agency.