Tech To The Rescue
Johnny Pujol Is On A Mission To Make Environmental Lab Testing More Efficient & Accessible
Welcome to Solutions September, a series where we talk to real people working for real change to help our environment. In a world with so much going on, it’s hard to know how to help. We’re asking people in many different sectors what inspired them to get involved in the fight to save our planet and how we can all take our anger and turn it into action.
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This Solutions September story is especially for those who have recently graduated from school and want to make a difference or anyone wanting to transition their career to work on environmental issues. When this “Solutions” person finished grad school, he didn’t see a job that fit what he wanted to do, so he created his own company bringing together many of his passions: science, technology, water, and more. He’s a science entrepreneur, which I think is pretty cool.
Meet Johnny Pujol, a water expert experienced in contaminant research, testing, and treatment. He has developed several new water treatment technologies for arsenic, fluoride, and heavy metal remediation as well as advised on UV LED technology for pathogen and pharmaceutical inactivation. He has a Masters in Engineering from UC Berkeley and Bachelors in Economics from Boston University.
Johnny is the CEO of SimpleLab, an award-winning science and health services company founded at the University of California in Berkeley with the mission of improving your drinking water and long-term health. Tap Score is a service for easy home water testing and reporting, created by SimpleLab.
Q: What inspired you to start SimpleLab? Tell us more about what you do and some of the impacts you feel the company is making in the world.
Johnny: Upon completing graduate school, I poked around at the environmental engineering industry and, to be honest, it looked kind of boring. You go to Berkeley thinking you’ll graduate and change the world—that you’ll learn some cool science and then throw yourself on the machinery of capitalism. But more often than not, you just become another cog.
The truth is, I couldn’t find the job I wanted so we started SimpleLab.
What do we do? We make sophisticated environmental laboratory testing more efficient and accessible to anyone. We recruited a national network of more than 100 leading water quality testing labs, indexing all their testing capabilities onto one online platform. That platform (SimpleLab) matches our customer’s orders for water tests with the ideal water testing labs. Algorithms optimize shipping, certification requirements, sampling instructions, customer service, pricing, turnaround time, digital data management, and results reporting (it’s a lot).
Meanwhile, we’ve built user-friendly ways for people to order all sorts of testing—from simple lead & copper tests to complex panels of PFAS, pharmaceuticals, microbes, radionuclides, and dioxanes. We sell residential water tests directly through mytapscore.com and our commercial partners sell testing on their own websites or through gosimplelab.com. Unlike conventional lab result reports, ours can be customized and configured any which way. Every customer not only collects a sample properly and ships it free, but confidently interprets their results and can take action as necessary (buy a water filter, stop buying bottled water, call the utility, etc.).
Currently, we’re gathering more than one million water quality test results annually. While that may sound like a lot, it’s only a drop in the bucket to where we’re heading… especially when you begin to realize the large-scale impacts of easily accessible information on and around our shared environments. As people become more confident in using labs and testing everything in their environment, this not only builds trust in tap water but it improves public engagement in science and environmental health.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you see with tap water and how can everyday people start to be more aware of what's really in their water?
Johnny: Many people today are afraid of their tap water. That’s not good. Misinformation and confusion are at an all-time high. This lack of trust in tap water has resulted in millions of households purchasing soft drinks and bottled water instead of trusting, testing, filtering, or drinking tap water.
Water utilities and municipal agencies simply don’t have the budgets or technology to fight back against the massive marketing and PR machines driving the bottled water industry. Until now, it has felt like consumers have very little say, if any, when it comes to curbing negative environmental and health outcomes caused by single-use plastic packaged drinking water.
This is why we’re obsessed with making valid and useful water quality data accessible and actionable. Information is power. We are now able to give people better access to reliable information about their tap water. And by doing so, we are now witnessing an immense turnaround in public trust around tap water. Millennials in particular are showing us they aren’t going to make major water filter system purchase decisions without having solid data first.
At the forefront of reclaiming tap water are the residential water filtration companies. Many of them are making major changes to their filters and systems, not to mention their customer engagement practices. For several decades, many brands in this industry have squandered consumer trust by ignoring the data and investing in antiquated sales tactics. But now, new filter companies are entering the market and offering smart, data-driven products and services that truly educate and protect consumers. In fact, I think the filtration industry could become one of the biggest champions in normalizing the practice of testing and bottling your own tap water without all the waste and health risks.
Q: When it comes to environmental issues, what do you feel is the right balance between individual action and working for overall policy change?
Johnny: We are big believers in the value of access to science and self-actualization. That said, most environmental challenges are far too big for improvement to take place without comprehensive policy change. With millions of individuals and businesses testing for environmental exposures, we are beginning to compile a much richer (and more convincing) story for leaders to enact policy changes.
Q: How do you define courage and what’s a time in your life where you called on it?
Johnny: To be honest, I don't think what we are doing at SimpleLab is terribly courageous. Hard working? Yes. Courageous? That’s a stretch. Right now, the world needs honest answers we can trust from scientific discovery. By making lab testing faster, more affordable and more actionable, we can empower people with sophisticated resources so they can be courageous in the way they live their lives and improve quality of life for others. For example, we have customers testing their rivers for algal blooms; testing their groundwater for radionuclides; and testing the claims made by their water filtration providers. We have nonprofits holding bottled water companies accountable. These people are the courageous ones. They use their precious time and scarce resources to build and test a hypothesis, which with the help of SimpleLab, can ultimately make an impact.
Q: What inspires you when you feel discouraged about the state of things?
Johnny: For starters, I feel lucky that I don’t get easily discouraged. I have a list of five things that I keep up with that generally keep me operating at my best:
Eat healthy food
Get plenty of sleep
Maintain love and relationships
It seems cliche, but it works for me.
Q: What’s your favorite natural place: Beach? Mountains? National Park?
Johnny: I love the beach (surfing up and down California) mostly for hanging out with friends and the peace I find being on the water. I also find tremendous satisfaction in the freedom and reflection of the desert (like Escalante and Death Valley).