Flagship Ventures partner Jim Matheson is also chief executive of Oasys Water of Boston. The five-year-old firm’s desalination technology is used to clean and recycle some of the world’s dirtiest waters, including the effluent produced by the controversial drilling technique known as fracking, which unlocks oil and natural gas from shale rock formations. Globe reporter Erin Ailworth recently talked with Matheson about his background and leading Oasys. Here’s what she learned:
1Matheson — who grew up in a military family — served as a Navy pilot in a career that began in the mid-80s and spanned several historic events, including the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the first Gulf War. In dealing with those events and the changes that followed, he learned to make quick decisions when information was in short supply.
“It’s the same thing as we do as a team here at Oasys. We don’t know everything that we want to know, and you try to learn as much as you can; you try to make the best decisions that you can at any moment in time, and then you hopefully adjust.”
2Sea water contains up to 4 percent salt. The waters that Oasys cleans can be as much as five times saltier, with additional contaminants, such as minerals and silicas, that need to be removed. For instance, Oasys helps to clean water produced by the companies drilling for oil in the Marcellus shale formation that stretches across Pennsylvania and other Eastern states.
“The water that comes out of hydraulic fracturing is on average 10 to 12 percent total dissolved solids.”
3The company cleans water using a process that draws rather than pushes water through a super thin cleansing membrane that captures the tiniest of contaminants. That innovation allows Oasys to handle water that is dirtier than most because it doesn’t clog the membranes. But you’ll most likely have to travel to see that technology being used commercially, Matheson said, even as the company expands here.
“We’re solving some of the thorniest and most important water and energy problems, whether that’s in Texas or the Middle East or Australia or China. We’re doing innovation here locally but we’re deploying it globally.”
4The water that Oasys deals with can be as old as the fossils that become fossil fuels.
“Remember that fossil fuel today was a living organism a million years ago or more and those living organisms largely lived in the ocean. And so when they got captured down in the shale, so did the water that they lived in. So it’s had lots of time to ripen, as it were.”
5While in the Navy, Matheson flew F-14 and F/A-18 fighter jets during hundreds of combat missions, including in Iraq and Bosnia. He also served as a Topgun instructor. Though Matheson retired from the US Naval Reserves as a commander in 2008, he says his flight suits, uniforms, and, of course, his fighter pilot jackets are stored in his attic.
“Life was easier then, I didn’t have to worry what to wear. I went into my closet and picked one of my five green flight suits that were exactly the same. And the only decision was how cold was it? Which jacket did I wear?”
6Matheson’s wife says he’s now a clotheshorse — from his designer Italian blazer (Canali to be specific) down to his colorful, striped socks.
“I decided some years ago — this is after I left the Navy — that life is too short for many things, including wearing boring socks.”
7Matheson has a prominent name twin: US Representative Jim Matheson, a Democrat from Utah. The congressman is the only person who outranks Matheson in a Google search — a fact, the CEO said, that he’s just competitive enough to want to change. Perhaps that little bit of envy is why Matheson once jokingly impersonated the congressman. (His success at fooling anyone was questionable.)
“On one of my many trips to Washington, as I was going around the offices of the House of Representatives, I came across his. I didn’t get a chance to meet him, but I did introduce myself to his staff and some of the people waiting in the office. I can’t remember if I promised [those constituents] anything that he’s going to have to deliver on.”