Talk Story with John Alderete

  • Contributed

    John Alderete is Surfrider’s Blue Water Task Force’s new leader.

Surfrider’s Blue Water Task Force has a new leader at the helm, and though John Alderete is a recent addition to both Surfrider and to the island of Kauai, he’s got a history with water quality and healthcare.

He’s been founder and chief executive officer of several companies that focus on product development and evaluation, and investments in the medical industry. Currently he’s serving as founder and president of Folium MioMed LLC, which invests in and develops new medical strategies and drug discovery. He’s also the current CEO of Aspis Health, Inc., owned by Folium, which develops medical devices.

He’s coordinated product development and marketing, done quality control and clinical activities, and has experience in working with the Federal Drug Administration’s approval process.

And though he’s busy in his professional life with product development and testing, designing clinical trials and doing assessments on different strategies in the medical industry, Alderete has decided to take on the BWTF.

You’re a microbiologist and developer of biotechnology, take us through your career and what attracted you to this field.

As a microbiologist, I followed my father’s footsteps, who is also a microbiologist — by the same name, no less! I did my scientific training at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine — Department of Micro — and found myself completing my Ph.D. at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. I wanted more clinical relevance in my work and the FHCRC offered a lot of real-world examples of the importance of microbiology in human health. I was a virologist by training, which I found incredibly exciting: many of the discoveries from studying viruses over the past 60 years have been astounding, and virology really has been played a central role in many of the biological revolutions of the last century. My work on a major human viral pathogen made me appreciate how all living things interact with each other and the importance of scientific research in bettering human health.

During graduate school, I found that I had an interest in the business of science and found myself in the Bay Area of California after receiving my Ph.D., where I was consultant at a pharmaceutical and biotechnology consulting firm in Palo Alto. I focused on strategic planning decision in complex diseases, new markets and new technologies. A short time after this, I started my first diagnostics company, took a product to market, got my MBA. I have been an entrepreneur ever since — a CSO (chief strategy officer), CEO and even the founder of a brewery. I am currently president and CEO of companies in the medtech space, both of which are headquartered in Seattle.

I’m a classically trained violinist and have always enjoyed creating things. My first foray into this was an orchestra I started while in graduate school, the Lake Union Civic Orchestra, which has been going strong for more than 20 years.

What brought you and your family to Hawaii and what made you decide to join Surfrider/head up Blue Water Task Force?

I have been coming to Hawaii —Big Island and Kauai — for decades and it was always in the back of my mind that I would find myself here someday. We were married on Kauai and enjoyed several fun vacations here. During one of those visits, I suggested that perhaps we should move here. We had grown tired of the frenetic pace and superficiality of the Bay Area and we were looking for a change. My wife, Christina, and I thought we could come to Kauai after our son, Ethan, went off to college, but he strongly objected to the plan because he really wanted to live here, too! So, we packed up and started a new life just before our son started ninth grade.

With regards to Surfrider/BWTF , I was aware of their efforts to clean up beaches and their water testing activities.

I really had no idea or intention of becoming as involved as I have been, but I initially reached out to Dr. Carl Berg (Surfrider’s senior scientist) to offer my assistance as a trained scientist. Over time, as my whole family became involved in the water testing, we eventually gave Dr. Berg time to focus on other activities in Surfrider and found ourselves running Kauai’s BWTF’s water testing efforts.

The more information I saw regarding the levels of pollution, both on the beach and in the water, and Surfrider’s efforts to help this whole island community, the more I wanted to become involved and do what I could to help.

As coordinator for Blue Water Task Force, what’s your plan forward and what would you like to do with the program?

The initial plan is to ensure the continued integrity of the program. Dr. Berg has done tremendous work over the past 10 years and in the short-term I want to make sure that the quality of the water testing program he built remains.

Part of what I’d like to do for the program going forward is to help to continue to streamline the process of sample acquisition, data analysis, and data dissemination. Currently, we have many important stakeholders that receive our monthly water testing reports, including this publication, like the Hawaii Department of Health and the US Government’s EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). I am in the process of including other important stakeholders in the discussion, like Senators Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz, to help build awareness of some of our water quality challenges here on Kauai.

Long-term, I would like to see a little bit more specificity with the testing. While we follow the current HI DOH guidelines for water testing, the testing process looks at the levels of Enterococci bacteria in our waters.

The presence of Enterococci in our water is an indicator of the presence of fecal material in water and, therefore, of the possible presence of disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. While Enterococci species contains some potentially disease-causing members (like certain E. coli species) the testing the BTWF performs does not allow us to differentiate; we are limited by the types of tests that are available. As well, we currently cannot easily detect other non-Enterococci disease-causing bacteria associated with fecal contamination like Vibrio cholerae, Campylobacter sp., Salmonella sp., Shigella sp., and Staphylococcus sp.

Being involved in the business of finding and building new technologies, I would ultimately like to find a test that we can use to be able to specifically identify different pathogenic bacteria. This could ultimately be incredibly useful in helping us to identify specific sources of bacterial water contamination.

Are you planning on expanding the number of sites and/or frequency of testing?

Currently, we do water testing on the second Saturday of each month, and it is a solid two-day affair. On testing Saturday, a small army of volunteers collects water samples, which find their way either via courier or by dropping-off to Island School where I, my wife, and my son, process the samples for testing. The samples require 24 hours to incubate so the bacteria can be counted, and Sundays my family descends on the laboratory once more to gather the data. I spend the next several hours after our time in the lab at home processing the data and reporting out to all the different stakeholders: Surfrider volunteers, members of Hawaii DOH, the US EPA, Surfrider leaders on Kauai and on the mainland, our local radio station and newspaper, and other interested parties.

We are always open to testing new sites. Because the Surfrider and the BTWF is an all-volunteer effort, we are only really limited by the availability of people to collect samples and my own ability to perform the testing.

Why is understanding water quality important on Kauai?

Flint, Michigan, is an important benchmark in understanding why water quality is so important to a community. Water quality testing is an integral part of helping a community understand potential health risks and create an environmentally just environment.

How can we encourage people to change over from cesspools to other systems and how important is that in the grand scheme?

I understand there are a lot of historical considerations that makes discussions around cesspools and other systems challenging. The more we can educate people, and our policy makers, about the issues, I think we can move the discussion forward in productive ways. This is why your work at The Garden Island newspaper is so important; helping to get the message out about important issues such as this.

While cesspools and other systems are certainly important variables in this discussion, there are a variety of factors that also have to be considered, like:

w Because we get a lot of rain here on Kauai, we have a lot of runoff that feeds into the ocean. Bacteria can be harbored in the particulate matter in the runoff and we see a direct correlation between rain and increased bacterial counts when water testing.

w Fecal waste from animals (pigs, cows) is a contributing factor to water quality. When it rains, animal waste simply runs into our waterways and ultimately into the ocean.

w Whether agricultural or industrial, chemical pollutants also impact our water quality (and find their way into the oceans the same way animal waste does).

So far, what are some of your favorite spots on the island?

Every part of this island has a unique beauty that I enjoy; many of my favorite places have been inaccessible since the road closure past Hanalei. However, I very much enjoy hiking the Makaleha trailhead and spending time with my family on the beach at Polihale.


Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or

  1. Charlie Chimknee June 11, 2019 9:02 am Reply

    Aloha John,

    We just read an article in a science Journal where scientists like yourself tested the water in 74 large rivers in the world, some even in Africa.

    Their findings showed high counts of Antibiotics in the water.

    Apparently the antibiotics are excreted from medically treated humans and guessing too from animals raised industrially and given antibiotics, especially to dairy cows.

    Might Kauai’s rivers and river front beaches and reefs have this same medical pollution, but not detected because the tests of the water are not looking for them?

    Antibiotics in rivers and ocean beaches and reefs are not good to swim in as ANTI-biotics means “against” life.

    Same for the seafood and river food we harvest from the water. Our fish polluted with Antibiotics? Yeeech…!

    In addition antibiotics fit like lock and key onto bad bacteria in our bodies, and so some of those antibiotics are accompanied by disease bacteria.

    Would you comment on that so we can learn more and protect ourselves.

    Can and would the Surfrider Foundation add ANTIBIOTIC testing of our waters to their regular testing at least for a while to rule in or out the presence of additional toxicity (Antibiotics) in our rivers and beaches?

    Might antibiotics be being over-prescribed to cause this possible new water pollution?



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