Seyi Fabode’s path to URBAN-X Cohort 06 started with a recommendation. An acquaintance in his network in Chicago recommended Seyi, co-founder of Varuna, look into the accelerator. Alongside his co-founder, Jamail Carter, the serial-entrepreneurs reached out to learn more.
URBAN-X was curious about Varuna too. The team’s IoT solution consisted of software and hardware components providing real-time monitoring and recommendations for water quality issues. Using AI, their solution gives water management facility managers tools and information to improve water quality beyond the plant and help prevent the next water crisis.
“Varuna’s ability to reduce the number of water quality emergencies , by addressing the fact that those issues are directly tied to infrastructure and operational inefficiencies, was appealing to us. What they were developing is applicable to thousands of utilities in the U.S. and beyond,” says Liz Sisson, chief operations officer at Urban Us.
The Varuna team scheduled a talk with the URBAN-X team before applications opened. “(URBAN-X Design Director) Johan Schwind walked us through the product we built and highlighted the immediate issues that we would have getting the product into city water facilities,” Seyi says. “Even if we hadn’t been accepted, that first call with Johan and Dean DiPietro, both experts-in-residence, clarified a lot for us.”
Seyi and Jamail decided to apply early when Cohort 06 applications opened. Varuna was the first company accepted to the cohort. (URBAN-X accepts startups on a rolling basis.) “Varuna’s application really stood out because of the profile of the founders: they were second time entrepreneurs, who had successfully sold a company in the energy space — which is hard to do. They were passionate about tackling this new challenge of water management,” says Miriam Roure, URBAN-X program director. Power2Switch, an early energy marketplace, was founded by Seyi and later acquired by Choose Energy. Jamail was the company’s first employee and led business development and sales for Power2Switch through acquisition.
Their new company, Varuna, entered the accelerator with a product that needed heavy design and engineering. “We were clear about the business opportunity and we were clear what problem we were going to solve with water utilities,” Seyi said. “We hacked together the hardware and we tried to measure everything. It was going to cost $100,000 before we made 1 cent. No one was going to buy it from us,” he said. The team was clear that it needed some help with their product offering.
They also needed help with traction. Varuna didn’t have any paying customers, but the team had completed some customer development. They conducted interviews with 80+ water utility employees and managers to get clarity about their problems. “Even though we didn’t have any customers yet, we weren’t sitting in a room building something no one wanted,” Seyi says.
“The founders knew they needed help with their product and fundraising strategy and were open to our advice,” Liz says. “Despite them being on the early side of their company, we know they had direct lines to their customers once they refined their product.”
After 20 weeks of partner meetings, sprints, and hands-on product development from URBAN-X experts, the Varuna team had a redesigned cloud-based dashboard and, after three iterations, refined hardware. “We ended up with what we have now — which is what we deployed. It’s the most straight-forward product that serves the most critical needs of our customers.” Seyi says. Varuna is currently working with five utility companies with two others in the pipeline. Monroe, La. and Arcadia, Texas has seen the “most value from the product.”
According to Seyi, his greatest learning from his URBAN-X experience is to focus on simplicity: “My perennial problem is that I overcomplicate things. I’m a systems engineer and think about the whole complex system. URBAN-X taught me that it can always be simpler.”
His advice for those who are interested in applying for URBAN-X is, fittingly, simple: “Be clear about what you need from URBAN-X and apply. Be clear about where you are trying to go, because it is your business, but be flexible about how you get there. We needed to be flexible to get where we are now and URBAN-X has played a huge part in getting us to this point.”