Richmond, VA, native and Annapolis, MD, resident Aaron McCrady has always loved the great outdoors. From his early childhood, he cherished the times in nearby wild areas and always sought to make the most of moments when he could immerse himself in activities in the region, such as rock climbing in the Appalachian Mountains and fishing in the Chesapeake Bay. As he grew older, he found that outdoor spaces became even more important in his life.
“They offered me respite from a busy built environment and connection to our larger environmental ecosystem,” McCrady says.
But that environmental ecosystem is continually changing. As human activity continues to have a massive impact on the natural world, the long-term vision for our planet’s habitability seemingly becomes cloudier every year.
Spurred by that potential danger, McCrady has grown his relationship with the environment to extend far beyond recreational enjoyment. “2023 has been, in many ways, a horrific year for global warming and climate change in the mid-Atlantic: from historic fires in Canada creating toxic air pollution throughout the U.S., to extensive flooding in cities like Philadelphia and New York City, to collapsing insurance markets,” he says. “Society must move away from fossil fuels.”
And looking at the situation from a business perspective, McCrady insists that sustainability has proven to be one of the most important issues that all industries face: “If an action or product isn’t sustainable, given enough time, the business must change and adapt. Huge amounts of capital must move from fossil fuel assets to more sustainable energy and solutions.”
One area that is particularly pressing is clean water.
“The Clean Water Act, originally passed in 1972, calls for American water to be drinkable, swimmable, and fishable,” he explains, underscoring that nearly every major American city’s water doesn’t satisfy the requirements for any of the three requisite qualities. “Global warming will exacerbate water quality issues. There is a tremendous need to improve water quality in the U.S.”
How to fight such a widespread and massive issue? McCrady is starting locally by taking matters into his own hands, combining entrepreneurial business thinking with practical science to better the situation.
In September 2023, McCrady launched Keystone Streams, which offers environmentally responsible solutions based firmly in science.
“My undergraduate studies at the UVA College of Arts & Sciences taught me that, for decades, scientists in the region have been sounding the alarm regarding water quality in the Chesapeake Bay,” he says, emphasizing that experts have long promoted planting riparian forest buffers, trees alongside streams and rivers throughout the Bay states, primarily in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. The strategy is not only effective, it’s also one of the least expensive solutions to improve water quality in the area.
He cites the many benefits of riparian forests, which include reducing the amount of sediment, pesticides, and harmful chemicals that flow into the water; providing floodplain protection; increasing carbon storage; reestablishing wildlife corridors for bird and pollinator populations; and supporting the region’s agricultural community.
McCrady says that Bay states plan to plant over 100,000 acres of riparian forest buffers, a massive number, considering most projects are 10 acres or less, but “despite lofty goals from the states, progress to date has been very slow. Keystone Streams plans to change that by building a business from the ground up focused on efficient process design and implementation.”
His venture employs thoughtful business design to reduce the time and cost of realizing riparian forest buffers. The intended result will allow Keystone Streams to reach a greater scale and ultimately reduce pollution at a faster rate.
Those measured business principles behind the approach come from his time in finance, with eight years spent at Hannon Armstrong that gave McCrady a solid background with which to build his own enterprise.
“Just as the residential solar industry is changing the power industry, many solutions to the climate crisis will come from distributed solutions, or relatively small actions from many people,” he says. “At Hannon Armstrong, now HASI, I learned innumerable business skills from effective communication to financial modeling and capital formation. These are critical skills for any new business. I also learned the critical importance of technology and policy forces that can drive business.”
He acknowledges that “many discussions about sustainability and global warming are window dressing or lip service,” with a problematic amount of greenwashing taking place in the finance industry, and he believes that it extends throughout all sectors of industry. “Most current corporate carbon and sustainability reporting is noise with little signal.”
But while he sees improvements taking place, McCrady would like to see more stringent SEC reporting regulations on carbon emissions and climate risk to “improve transparency, which would hopefully lead to more and better-informed capital allocation to low carbon businesses.”
Looking Past Negative Perceptions
Battling environmental damage isn’t the only major challenge McCrady is gearing up to face with Keynote Streams; another is overcoming the distrust between industry and the environmental community.
“Businesses have been the source of many of the negative externalities that result in pollution, whether it is water or air pollution,” he says, noting that this suspicion is often reflected in state laws that govern procurement and grant funding, which favor nonprofit organizations. As nonprofit organizations can be difficult to scale, McCrady says businesses “can and should be designed for the restoration of our environment. Business forces, such as capital formation, innovation, competition, and efficiency, are essential to scaling the solutions of environmental challenges facing our society.”
In one positive example, he points to Maryland’s 2022 Conservation Finance Act: “It incentivizes pay-for-success contracting to allow businesses to compete for pollution-reduction public funding. The goal of this legislation is to incentivize innovation and ultimately lower the cost of water pollution reduction. Broadly, environmentalists should understand that business can be a powerful tool for environmental good, and business leaders should understand that investing in sustainability can result in economic growth, not economic loss.”
Positive Climate Change with Commerce
Launching his own business to fight environmental damage has proven a challenge in its own right, but it’s one that McCrady is enjoying.
“You must ride the bicycle as you are assembling it,” he says. But despite the many issues that often define a sizeable portion of the startup process, Keystone Streams’ message and its vision for positive change are resonating with the right audiences, and McCrady is invigorated by its potential for creating an even larger impact.
An alum who completed his undergrad in the College of Arts & Sciences with an intriguing double major in Neuroscience and Philosophy, he stayed on Grounds to pursue McIntire’s M.S. in Commerce Program because it gave him the freedom to pursue those varied interests as an undergraduate and subsequently add to that base with skills in business strategy, finance, and communication.
“I entered UVA as an undergraduate on the Pre-Med track and decided that medical school was not for me,” he says. “Neuroscience taught me the importance of the scientific process for discovery and human progress, while philosophy taught me critical inquiry, analysis, and writing skills.”
He recalls that later in his undergraduate studies, global warming was growing in relevance, and though he was interested in dedicating his energy to finding solutions to lessen its damage, many dissuaded him, citing a high cost and impracticality of renewable energy. McCrady was undeterred.
“Each year, the cost of renewables became more affordable. I was interested in how this was happening and how these capital and power markets functioned,” he says. “In learning more about finance, I discovered that running a financial model was like a mini-science experiment not terribly dissimilar to my lab work in neuroscience. Change one input, and see the outcome; then change another input, and see the outcome to try to learn more about how something functions: neurons, organizations, or power plants.”
Fittingly, the M.S. in Commerce Program would prove vital to supporting his career goals, and McCrady cites classes such as Capital Markets with Professor Michael Gallmeyer, Strategy with Professor Ira Harris, and New Venture Development with Professor Gary Ballinger as exemplary of all the courses he says that were relevant to founding any new business venture.
“My McIntire experience was wonderful,” he says. “The professors were top notch, the material was challenging, and the other students were diverse in their perspectives.”
McCrady says he appreciates the program for its ability to accelerate students’ passion by teaching them how to implement and expand their interest in the real world through “tremendous skills [that lead to] impactful and fulfilling careers.”
Preparing graduates like McCrady will likely prove necessary if environmental challenges are to be solved. “Fighting global warming will require innovation and leadership from the McIntire community,” McCrady says. “There are countless opportunities for McIntire students to be a part of that positive change.”