These Inventors Don't Want Your Water to End Up Like Flint's
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because everyone should have clean water.
By Jonathan Greig
Seyi Fabode can trace the birth of Varuna back to an alert from the Austin, Texas, water utility on Oct. 22, 2018.
Austin Water had been at it for more than 100 years, but that Monday morning it released its first-ever boil water notice, asking the city’s 950,000 residents to substantially reduce water use and boil any water ingested through drinking or cooking. It lasted for six days (and more than 625,000 bottles of water were handed out by the city).
After Fabode, 40, and his family spent days boiling endless pots of water, the inventor decided to dust off an old gadget he cobbled together after the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, gained national prominence.
when people know better, they do better.
He used what he had around the house. Dishwashers have a sensor that tells the machine to change modes once the water inside is clear enough for light to pass through it. Fabode repurposed it to indicate whether the water coming into his home was cloudy or not.
His tinkering paved the way to an artificial intelligence–powered platform that gives utilities the tools to stop the next water crisis before it starts.
This was not Fabode’s first foray into new inventions or utilities. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, he moved to London after college to get his master’s in manufacturing systems engineering from the University of Warwick.
Fabode got his start in utilities while working at a power plant in London that served a population of 500,000. This experience left him questioning how the average person gets their power and inspired him to move to Chicago and create Power2Switch, one of the first user-centric retail electricity marketplaces online. A larger company bought the startup in 2013 and he spent the next few years consulting for utilities looking to upgrade and modernize.
After Fabode put his first water-quality prototype together, he contacted his old Chicago-based friend and former Power2Switch coworker Jamail Carter, 40, who was eager to team up again and saw the device as a jumping-off point for something larger.
“Water quality is a symptom of a greater problem, which is the operational inefficiencies within the water utilities,” Carter says. Utilities either spend close to $50,000 for a single sensor that can only check water quality in one location or they do it manually with workers, which is costly and time consuming.
After spending all of November 2018 working on the prototype, Carter and Fabode decided to found Varuna, which provides utilities AI-powered alerts, recommendations and predictions. They named the startup after the Vedic deity associated with water, truth and enlightenment.
The first sensor that Fabode built could measure a wide variety of contaminants, but it was expensive to produce and wasn’t exactly what water utilities were looking for. The problem wasn’t a lack of data; it was a lack of recommendations on what to do about it.
Then in February, Austin Water reported a zebra mussel infestation. “At this point, we’d realized that the water-quality situation is actually quite bad across thousands of towns in the U.S., including in New Jersey, California and others, so we’d realized the solution wasn’t just another sensor,” Fabode says.
A mantra for Fabode and Carter whenever they’ve worked together “is this belief that when people know better, they do better,” Fabode says. “One of the ways we’re trying to bring that into Varuna and consequently have an impact on underserved communities is to take away the excuses.” It’s especially important when you consider that research shows water systems in communities of color have a disproportionate amount of EPA violations.
With the help of venture startup accelerator Urban-X, they simplified the sensor and pivoted toward creating a digital platform to manage the data collected by a large squadron of sensors.
“The hardware now measures one thing, is much cheaper and we collect a lot more data across the distribution system,” Fabode says, adding that it can improve utilities’ operational efficiency by 30 percent.
Take chlorine, for example. All of America’s more than 50,000 utilities are federally mandated to take chlorine residual samples daily. Most utilities go through the costly and inefficient sampling process manually, using trucks, paper records and physical vials that have to be sent to labs.
Varuna deploys sensors at sample locations that test the water and automatically transmit the data to Varuna’s cloud platform, which can then generate insights, trends and the reports required by the EPA.
Varuna is currently managing pilot programs with water utilities in Monroe, Louisiana, Arcadia, Texas, and Montgomery, Alabama. Along with Fabode and Carter, Varuna employs eight developers, designers and data scientists. They’re also teaming up with a group of scientists and researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago to figure out the optimal number of sensors needed to monitor the water quality of an entire city.
Sensors and data collection are nothing new to utilities. Walter Pishkur, water utility director emeritus for the city of Arlington, Texas, says that many utilities went to the kind of monitoring system Varuna uses after 9/11. But the problem has always been what to do with that information.
Utilities “have a whole lot of data that really goes unused because it’s so hard to manage it and store it, make it usable, make it accessible and turn it into things,” Pishkur says. “What I like about Varuna is that they’re potentially working on tools that allow us to take the data and make it actionable information and make it easily accessible.”
While Pishkur thinks companies like Varuna could usher in a new era of speedy data processing, he has “not been convinced that the ability to detect contaminants that some list as available can be done accurately or cost-effectively.” Varuna’s software-as-a-service platform costs $30,000 per year, but Pishkur says making sure the data their sensors collect is correct will require extra man hours and labor — likely pricing out smaller utilities.
Until now, Fabode says, utilities have often used a lack of data as an excuse for inaction. His company aims to end that, once and for all.
“Clean water is the one universal thing that everyone across the world agrees every other person should have,” he says. “Clean water is a right.”
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