Too many nitrates? Ian Roback found a solution
Ian Roback founded Clear Water Nitrate Reduction Education while a student at St. Olaf College in 2020.
ROCHESTER — Ian Roback saw the problem of too many nitrates in the groundwater of southern Minnesota, and he decided to fix it.
That decision led Roback to the development of his own company and the Minnesota Small Business Administration Young Entrepreneur award for 2022.
The U.S. Small Business Administration recognizes young entrepreneurs from across the country for their excellence in owning and operating a small business. SBA affiliates in each state distribute these awards, and the 2022 Young Entrepreneur winner for Minnesota is Ian Roback, founder of Clear Water Nitrate Reduction Education.
While a student at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., more than two years ago, Roback was researching nutrient runoff in the Cannon River watershed.
So, one day in his dorm room, he came up with the idea of creating a business to help reduce nitrate pollution.
"It's a similar system to what you see from a bioreactor or from a normal wetland system," Roback said of the process he developed. "But it's a combination of the two."
Roback said the "secret sauce" is a probe that increases the amount of carbon in the soil. The higher carbon content better reduces the concentration of nutrients by soaking up those nutrients.
“The social impact (on clean water supplies) is one of the most important parts of why I started it," Roback said. "That's a lot of what I'm looking for as I'm moving forward with partners for the business.”
With a better nitrate trap, Roback found business development partners across Southeast Minnesota that could help take his company from a dorm-room idea to a full-fledge business after he graduated from St. Olaf in May 2021.
The first organization to offer assistance was business incubator Red Wing Ignite.
“Ian is an extremely innovative thinker,” said Stacey Nimmo, executive director of Red Wing Ignite. “I think he has been further refining his business plan, further refining the solution and the plan itself in terms of operations and what the business model looks like.”
Mark Thein of Rochester Small Business Development Center nominated Roback for the 2022 Young Entrepreneur award. Thein and Rochester SBDC have been working with Roback in social media mentorship and networking over the last year.
“I think he is persistent. He knew that he had something that was different, that was not out there already," Thein said. "And he's passionate about the environment. He's got a lot of energy, that youthfulness, it's just great to see that. I think those are three key components that he had to be able to launch what he had."
Working with Red Wing Ignite and the Rochester SBDC has helped Roback to gain more connections for his business and expand his client list.
“With all of those connections I was able to get linked with a foundation called GreenSeam and worked with them a little bit on finding farmers and finding people that could benefit from the business solution," Roback said. "Everybody that I've worked with has had connections that have helped me to further develop the solution."
And he's been working with advisors to find more connections, more projects in the area.
Roback’s main area of operation is currently in Austin, Minn. Roback chose the Austin area for the start of his business due to the high concentrations of nitrates found that is spread from crop fertilizers and seeps into groundwater.
This led Roback to work with the Development Corporation of Austin.
“Growing a business is scary and it's takes risks,” said Aaron Keenan, a principal consultant with DCA, who mentors Roback on financial issues. “You've got to be okay with taking that risk and understand that you can't worry about everything because you can only worry about the things you can control. ... Look at the stuff you can control and try to drive it forward.”
Keenan added, "It's just an extremely unique way that he's structuring his business that focuses on (nitrate reduction), but also using resources that other people haven't thought about to support those operations."
Roback said winning the SBA Minnesota Young Entrepreneur award was exciting, but also he recognizes that the award could help his business grow.
“When I had learned that I had won, it was an amazing feeling," Roback said. "I'm really hoping that this brings more attention to the problem that is nutrient pollution in southern Minnesota and across the country. I hoping that people are able to recognize that there are solutions that exist and people are actively working to address it."
The SBA Minnesota Young Entrepreneur of the Year award will be presented to Roback during National Small Business week, May 2-5. A date and time has yet to be scheduled for the award ceremony.