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Glenn Rink

AbTech makes a malleable popcorn-shaped polymer called Smart Sponge Plus, which absorbs pollutants from water (and can then be burned as a low-emissions fuel source). It's used in 15,000 places around the world. The sponge's success has AbTech projecting revenue of $17 million in 2012, but it took Glenn Rink more than a decade to reach the market he wanted.

1. Target big oil spills

After a 1994 oil spill in Puerto Rico, Rink sensed opportunity and marketed his sponge for spills. But cleanup companies preferred methods like manually skimming oil off water.

2. Prove Yourself

Rink sought smaller water-purification problems. Bacteria-infested storm water was threatening cities' local water supplies, so he pitched areas in need of cheap purification.

3. Piggyback on a partner

In 2011, Waste Management became AbTech's exclusive North American distributor for cities. "The best validation is the support of a big company," Rink says.

4. Make a comeback

"Now our phone is ringing off the hook with requests for proposals on cleaning oil from water." It's a payday worth the trouble. Spills can be a million-plus gallons and AbTech makes up to $30 per gallon.