Sep 21, 2020

Industry Icon: Transforming Beauty into Insight

Lifelong learner champions the importance of continuous knowledge gathering

David Drake

When he was just a boy, David Drake did not have computers, video games or cellphones. He had to make his own fun. For him, fun was learning to understand his surroundings and the world around him. He was inquisitive and questioning. And his mother—recognizing this in her 9-year-old son—bought him a chemistry set to satiate that appetite for knowledge.

“I went through the whole book page by page,” Drake said. “From the age of 9, I knew I wanted to have knowledge about how the universe worked. And that’s how you gain control, frankly, but it’s also how you gain understanding. You see all those colors in the rainbow and all of a sudden you understand where they come from. That knowledge turns beauty into insight.”

Drake is the vice president of innovation for Hadronex, which is more commonly known as SmartCover Systems. Drake describes himself as a creator, and an overly inquisitive one at that.

“I like to create new things. I like to explore. I’m a person who asks too many questions,” Drake said with a laugh, “and sometimes I get the answers.”

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Advice for Industry Professionals

For those just getting their feet in the door to the water and wastewater industry, Drake said a critical first step to managing future success is finding an internal driver.

“Find that point in you that creates your personal mission. Where do you find commitment?” Drake said. “Not every day is going to be a good day, so cultivate that.” 

With this mission in mind, the hard days that are tough to push through can become easier. He also placed importance on technical expertise and education. By gaining the knowledge to push yourself and your understanding to the next level, you can become an even more trustworthy public servant. That goal alone is not one to scoff at, Drake noted.

“There is no higher service to civilization than improving how we live,” Drake said. “Just think back in history. Some of the very first infrastructure anybody built were water supply and sewage removal [systems]. If you went back 5,000 to 6,000 years, it was the first thing they built.”

And for those in the thick of their careers, Drake noted the importance of learning and mastering two domains. For example, when an individual understands the water industry but also has a background in finance, they can become a champion of financing for water industry projects. Drake also pointed to combining a knowledge of statistics with water flow.

“If you know at least two things in the space, you have the opportunity to be the ambassador,” Drake said. “You can move from one domain to the other. You can advise both sides, and frankly, they pay ambassadors more than they pay generals.”

The Winding Road of Career

Drake’s trajectory in water was a meandering one. He grew up in northern New Jersey in the 1950s and ‘60s. At the age of 4, he lost his father, who was a test pilot, in an accident, so he was raised by his mother. By the time he became a teenager, Drake said he had a yearning to move to the West coast because he “kept hearing these wonderful Beach Boys songs.”

One year while watching the Rose Bowl Parade, seeing all the onlookers in shorts, t-shirts and sunglasses juxtaposed with the billowing snow out his window in New Jersey, his vision for his future crystallized. In the 1970s, he finally made the move across the country to attend college at California Institute of Technology. He followed that with earning a Masters of Science from the University of Southern California.

He also worked in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an electrical engineer at CalTech. This position further established his infatuation with space, a passion that has now become a long-time hobby through the use of a telescope. But in the lab, he was more focused on processing signals in sound, images and other measurements.

“My main background is in signal processing and holography, radar … things like that,” Drake said noting that after this period, he ended up in Escondido, California, where he eventually represented the city to the San Diego Water Authority in 1990, his first interaction with the water industry. “So I got involved in water policy issues 30 years ago.”

But it was not until the early 2000s that Drake would enter the water industry in a professional capacity. In 2002, he became the vice president of engineering for PointSource Technologies where he managed the real-time detection of microorganisms in water through his engineering prowess. Through his early years in the industry, he discovered that wastewater systems presented business opportunities that aligned with his skill set and found a like-minded friend and business partner to make those thoughts reality. 

“We realized there was a terrible problem in wastewater, and that problem was trying to prevent wastewater spills,” Drake said. “And 15 years ago, we started the company.” 

That company was Hadronex, and the other party in “we” was Greg Quist, CEO for SmartCover Systems. This business breakthrough met Drake’s desire for knowledge and constant learning. And it also pushed him to do more, think more and get more involved. 

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Rincon Water Board & Its Value

A year after starting SmartCover Systems with Quist, Drake was appointed to the Rincon del Diablo Municipal Water District, a position he has held since then for 14 years through elections.

This position helped keep Drake grounded in the efforts he and Quist were taking to solve problems for utilities. As a member of the water board, the issues and circumstances of water become real and evident. The problems were and are incredibly specific to individual communities and in some cases, the scope even narrows down to certain individuals within those communities. Hearing and understanding first-hand concerns from the public is a matter of perspective that Drake finds invaluable.

“Being on the Rincon board gives me perspective both in height and visibility, and in length of time and duration by seeing the effect of good things happening and bad things happening,” Drake said.

Philosophy of Successful Teams

By incorporating a diversity of voices, a group can attack the problem rather than the people. This adage is one of the cornerstones of Drakes management philosophy. When it comes to managing people and organizing them around a cause, Drake indicated three key things he uses to reach an end goal:

  1. Attack the problem, not the people.
  2. Assume you don’t have all the answers.
  3. Give people a mission.

Through these three principles, Drake said he is encouraged to ask questions, not take things personally and to then take decisive action. Without a mission statement, decisions are harder to make. When you have an effective mission, you can do more he said. But perhaps more importantly, Drake said you can be empowered to try new things.

“We have some consultants say, ‘Never use the word try. Say the word do.’ Those are the people who have never had to do anything hard,” Drake said. “Sometimes it is very challenging to create a team ... unless there is a well-defined, good mission that everyone is in agreement with.”

Critical to this is building the correct team for the work ahead. Drake said character is paramount when determining who to hire. For him, the characteristics of an inquisitive, life-long learner are valued most highly.

Photo Credit: Alicia Jeanne Photography
Photo Credit: Alicia Jeanne Photography
"It’s a magical power to have the ability to observe the universe around us and come to amazing conclusions we could not come to by just looking in the backyard."

Fascination With the Universe

Drake’s insatiable appetite for knowledge has extended into his personal life. He is an amateur seismologist who builds seismometers at home, an interest that began shortly after his move to California when the Sylmar Earthquake shook the San Gabriel Mountains in 1971.

“That got me going. I had to know more about that. I had to learn about that,” Drake said.

When he is not turning his attention to the trembling of the earth and its fault lines, his gaze drifts to the stars. His early position at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory was one step along a lifelong interest in the great unknown of space. Drake has a telescope for stargazing and tracking planets.

“[The stars] represent the unlimited like the way they have since Galileo,” Drake said. “It’s a magical power to have the ability to observe the universe around us and come to amazing conclusions we could not come to by just looking in the backyard.”

What he finds most fascinating about space is how removed society is from the truth of these celestial bodies’ existence. On Halloween, he sets up his telescope for the trick-or-treaters who come by the house. And when they see the moon for the first time—its craters and all—Drake said, “they go nuts.” 

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In another instance, Drake said while observing Saturn through his telescope when living in Pasadena, his landlord asked what he was looking at. He told her and invited her to look at Saturn and its rings for herself. When she peered through the lens, the tangibility of the planet’s existence and its rings clicked in her mind. It was suddenly real; not a mythical thing.

“She didn’t realize it was a real, physical planet,” Drake said. “That set me back saying, ‘Are people that far away from how the reality of the earth and how it works?’ It added more motivation to keep pushing the darkness away.”

Even now he is removing that uncertainty and is peeling back the layers of the unknown with the SmartCover units he has developed. And one in particular sits at the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and Rocket Road in Hawthorne, California, ensuring sewer overflows do not disrupt the next SpaceX project. 

About the author

Bob Crossen is senior managing editor for WWD. Crossen can be reached at [email protected].

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