By Jenna Greer
It was March 2020 and Navy Mckee, then a junior at San Diego State University (SDSU) and Big Island Hawai’i local, had just returned home due to the COVID-19 pandemic when she discovered her father’s 30-year-old drawings of a stormwater filter in her family closet. Mckee, already involved in the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center and familiar with startup culture, knew she had to see her father’s ideas through.
One year of dedication later and Kai Pono Solutions is making waves by building the future of storm drains in order to protect our waterways.
Founder: Navy Mckee
The Macro Problem: Anything dumped or dropped on the ground or in the gutter can end up in the nearest body of water. According to the EPA, “This type of pollution is significant because, unlike the water that goes down a sink or toilet in your home, stormwater is untreated and flows directly to a lake, river, or the ocean. Stormwater systems were originally intended to route rainwater quickly off the streets during a heavy storm. Unfortunately, these systems can carry pollutants such as pesticides, bacteria and chemicals through city streets and straight to our waters.” Toxins flowing untreated into the ocean can kill native vegetation, harm fish and other wildlife, foul drinking supply water and make it unsafe to enter the water after a storm.
The Micro Problem: The Kai Pono team found that 76% of industry professionals are unhappy with the available solutions for stormwater filtration and actively looking for new ones.
“People are interested in talking to me about this,” said Mckee. “Big CEOs of companies are taking the time to talk and showing a lot of interest. That’s how I knew there was a problem that needed fixing.”
The current methods for stormwater filtration can be invasive, high maintenance, a public safety hazard, and non-universal.
“There’s just not much being done,” said Mckee. “Growing up around the ocean you’re told to not swim near storm drains or go in the ocean 72 hours after it rains. The health risks are well-known and people are advocating for it, but the current solutions are not up to par.”
The Solution: Kai Pono Solutions is a stormwater management system that uses a filtration subsystem to filter water at the street level in a low-impact, cost-effective approach.
“None of our competitors filter water at the street level. We never clog or flood a storm drain, and we are able to be placed anywhere, from a parking garage to a sidewalk drain. Our design is a super cookie cutter. It’s a very unique concept,” said Mckee. “We also want to make our solution as low-cost as possible, since most other methods are expensive.”
The Team: Mckee met her team, three student engineers from University of California San Diego (UCSD), on Handshake. Now Bailey Schantz, Edward Banuelous, and Jack Dickson are all working to promote waterway health and the power of cross-university student networks in San Diego.
Mckee touched on the startup company culture in reference to Kai Pono’s team.
“I feel like when I brought on my engineers they probably thought there’d be more rules, or someone to tell them exactly what to do,” said Mckee. “I was like, alright, all hands on deck, you guys have to figure it out as we go. Now they are constantly doing something they never had to do before and learning to use their professors, parents and Google as a resource. They are in charge of something, which is cool and also super empowering.”
Business Model: Kai Pono Solutions has a few notable revenue models. The startup will primarily function as a B2B brand working with the public works sector, selling to land developers, ports and government municipalities through contracts.
Kai Pono will also be adding in an IoT device to gather information on runoff conditions in order to sell the information to consumers.
Mckee has an eye on the marketing side of her brand as well.
“I want to make storm water cool,” said Mckee. “I want to engage people who aren’t on the B2B side with merchandise and an active instagram. Our logo is super cool; I want to use that and use the proceeds from our merchandise to go towards our design and stormwater awareness.”
Next Steps: The Kai Pono team is currently looking for piloting space.
“Our design is completely finished and tested; our next step is to just make that jump and install it. At that point, it’ll be game over. Once we can officially prove ourselves and have our design in-hand, Kai Pono will just take off,” said Mckee.
Kai Pono received a small donation from the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center and is currently trying to raise a $20,000 pre-seed round to install the pilot. This will include labor, installation and shipping. The cost of the actual product will be much cheaper, Mckee said.
Mentors: Mckee credits a couple of mentors with Kai Pono’s success.
Walsh is an SDSU alum and the founder of Enderamotors, an EV company. He came to speak at the Lavin Center and when Mckee asked a question about sustainability, they instantly hit it off.
“I’m so lucky I met John. He is who really got me started and instilled the confidence in me to start Kai Pono,” said Mckee. “He really saw the vision and passion we were going for and wanted to help bring it to life.”
Julius is a mentor in the Lavin center and took Mckee under his wing immediately.
“He’s super well connected so he helps with branding and networking in the community. He’s like a big brother to me,” said Mckee.
It was Mckee’s father’s original sketches that sparked the start of Kai Pono, so it makes sense that he has a hand in the company. According to Mckee, he is a passionate player in the company’s success.
“I call him literally everyday twice a day. He coaches me about everything I do in the business. He’s happy his dream is coming true, in a way,” she said.
Mckee’s Entrepreneurial Journey: Kai Pono is not Mckee’s first stab at a startup. She has been a part of the Lavin Center since freshman year and has moved forward with two other startup concepts., However,Kai Pono Solutions is where her true passion lies.
“Back then I was just trying to force things,” said Mckee. “I would think, am I going to be interested in this forever? Everything with Kai Pono just fell into place. I’m so passionate about the issue that I want to work on it everyday, which is not something I’ve experienced before.”
Mckee also discussed her love for startup culture and the work environment it brings.
“If I didn’t start my own company while graduating I would 150% work for a startup,” she said.. “The environment is so cool and different. There are no rules and complete creative freedom. The highs are really high and the lows are really scary, but it’s something I want to keep doing. The highs are worth it.”
San Diego Tech Ecosystem: Mckee thinks the San Diego startup community is something special.
“Somebody knows somebody who founded a startup or is starting one themselves. Everyone in San Diego is super supportive of young entrepreneurs and startups in general. It feels special that there’s such a huge acceptance here. People are so eager to help each other.”
Mckee believes the best part of the San Diego tech environment is the amount of entrepreneurial thinkers.
“I feel like I seek people like me. I’ll be in a crowd or in a class and I’ll think, oh they have an entrepreneurial mindset. Or if I’m interviewing for a marketing position I’ll think okay, this person has the same mindset as me and if there’s something to do they’ll just do it,” said Mckee.
Tacos: You can find Mckee at The Taco Stand.