The plan was always clear: Go to law school.
Jonathan had one extracurricular opening in his first-year undergraduate course schedule, and polled some of his rugby-playing friends for advice on what would be a fun class to take the following semester. Unanimously, they recommended a geography course: Fun. Pretty interesting.
But then, unexpectedly, the original professor slated to teach the course dropped out.
Jonathan decided to stick with the class anyway, and the man taking over their lectures was an unknown visiting professor from the UK named Philip Dearden.
That just-for-fun, 100-level geography class changed the entire trajectory of Jonathan’s life.
Professor Dearden’s first lecture, Jonathan recalls, was about golf courses. About how cities around the world take the very best land available to them and reserve it for golf courses that are cordoned off. About how only the rich and elite are able to access them.
And then, adding injury to insult, chemicals are poured all over that land in an attempt to keep it looking as pristine as Augusta.
In 2011, The Globe and Mail reported an alarming statistic: it takes about 9.5 billion liters per day to irrigate the world’s golf courses. That same amount of water would support 4.7 billion people at the UN daily minimum.
And as early as 2008, NPR was putting out calls for the 16,000 golf courses in the United States to go green, by letting themselves go a little brown.
Long before any of that happened, though, Jonathan Rhone sat in geography class at the University of Victoria in 1981, and he made a decision: Law school was out. He was going to devote his life to the environment.
“It was a pretty hard conversation with my parents,” Jonathan says now, remembering the moment during a recent conversation at a coffeeshop in Kitsilano. “It was kind of one of those, ‘Don’t do anything yet’ moments. My dad actually came over to Victoria to try and talk me out of it.”
He didn’t succeed, although Jonathan did agree to his father’s request that he work in the oil industry in Calgary for a few years first. He describes that experience as an incredible learning opportunity, and one he’s grateful for, but says he’s always stayed true to that early commitment to himself.
“I’m inspired. I’m switched on,” he says, describing his younger self. “I really wish that for our younger generation: to be inspired.”
Jonathan says we have a civic responsibility, as we think about what kind of city and what kind of economy we want to build in the future, to present all those options to students, because innovation relies on youthful energy.
“The entrepreneurial approach is not for everybody,” Jonathan says. “But it certainly is required to make big change happen, and we need big change to happen.”
Jonathan’s first entrepreneurial venture might have been his undergraduate degree itself. The thing he wanted to study — the environment— didn’t exist in any formalized way yet at the University of British Columbia.
“We sort of designed the program,” Jonathan says. “It wasn’t mainstream, not at all.”
Jonathan describes a wildly eclectic mix of courses: drawing from ecology, economics, history, and geography. He sat down with the Dean of Arts, the college administrator whose sign-off was needed to approve the unorthodox degree program that Jonathan had written himself. At first, the dean wasn’t receptive, but the head of the geography department at the time was a self-styled environmental geek who had started seeing trends around environmental sustainability crop up in his research, and lobbied the dean on Jonathan’s behalf. Other professors in the geography department were by then beginning to work on things like climate change, land use, and industrial activity.
Today, UBC undergraduates can take a BA in Environment and Sustainability.
Jonathan now serves as CEO of Axine Water Technologies, whose mandate is to rid the world of toxic organics in wastewater.
Evok started with an impulse after he attended the GLOBE conference in 2012. A presenter invited attendees to think about their BHAGs — which is a well-circulated acronym in entrepreneurial circles, and particularly among impact entrepreneurs. It stands for “big, hairy, audacious goals.”
“At the time,” Jonathan says, “the oil and gas industry in Canada was facing all kinds of challenges and international opposition around its high carbon use and performance. The great problem in the energy industry is how to make it sustainable.”
It was in the collision of these two communities, energy and sustainability, where Jonathan saw the opportunity: “Can we make this new era where we create the world’s cleanest energy at the lowest cost? That sounds like a really daunting challenge.”
Jonathan had already described his entrepreneurial personality to me as the type willing to take risks, so the fact that it was a daunting challenge didn’t mean it was a dealbreaker.
Evok had attracted partners at Suncor and Cenovus who were into the idea, and in 2015, after two years of working on the model of how to secure and then deploy capital, Evok was launched.
Today, Evok is one of the largest Canadian cleantech investment funds, and has made about a dozen investments, all focused on shifting policy and making smarter choices.
“I see this as a pilot project,” Jonathan says, “just scratching the surface of our potential. We all need to be thinking entrepreneurially. I’m worried we’re not making progress fast enough in all areas of climate change. Our ability to retrofit the world economy is taking too long. And the impact we’re having is frightening; we need to go 10X.”
And here, I see the inspired undergraduate switch on. Behind octagon-frame glasses, Jonathan’s eyes shine bright with purpose, as he muses on an idealized future of what could be:
“We live in one of the richest communities. We’re well-educated, connected, entrepreneurial. We have one of the largest communities of sustainable and cleantech innovations in the world. In BC, we have almost 300 companies, 16,000 employees, and it’s just growing. Our ability to tackle climate change, water resources, plastics, is something that’s not only inspiring, but it also serves an enormous, multi-trillion dollar market. So I think that what we did with Evok is just the beginning of what’s possible.”
Jonathan’s at the peak of a successful career, with his hands on many different projects, all set off by that early lecture about golf courses. Golf being such a well-trodden cultural touchstone for successful entrepreneurs, a sort of shorthand for “businessman on break,” I can’t resist asking him whether he’s ever been tempted by the hobby.
The answer is quick, clear, and definitive: Nope. He’s never even set foot on a golf course since that geography class in undergrad.
“My parents actually gave me a set of golf clubs at one point in my life,” he says. “That was one of those presents that ended up being given away.”
Jonathan Rhone is President and CEO of Axine Water Technologies, Inc.