What’s the first and most vulnerable casualty of climate change? Two founders of water data startups say it’s water quality. The United States gets a C- grade for drinking water infrastructure, so it’s clear our water needs help.
Both Doll Avant, founder and CEO of Aquagenuity, and Seyi Fabode, co-founder and CEO of Varuna, say the country’s water problems are best solved by using data to generate insights and direct policy changes, and that the blind spots, lack of testing and lack of chemical tracking negatively affects the water that comes out of our taps. Aquagenuity assesses water quality data to provide easy-to-understand, real-time insights for the public, and Varuna creates hardware that measures water quality in more depth and detail than previously available. Varuna’s data is meant to be used by infrastructure officials, and Aquagenuity’s data is meant to be converted into an easily digestible format for the home water user.
Both have expertise, data and solutions to share, so we sat down to talk about modern ways of tackling water quality issues.
(Left: Doll Avant. Right: Saye fabode)
Why is water data hard to find for people who drink it every day?
There’s three reasons. When water data is reported, it might come out once a year. Then no one reads it, and if they did they wouldn’t understand it. It wouldn’t mean anything to the average consumer.
A third issue that’s not addressed is that water quality changes as often as the weather does. Any time there’s heavy rain, heavy snow, hurricanes, if a factory or facility is doing any kind of dumping, or agricultural runoff—all of these things affect water quality in real time. That’s exacerbated by climate change.
Some water systems have a lot of data. They’re data-rich but are insights-poor. They might have all this data but they don’t get anything from it.
On the other hand, you have water systems that are too small to collect data because the same person who runs the water system is the same person who fixes things, who is the same person who sits in on the town council conversations about rules and policy.
There’s currently no [other companies gathering] data coming from points we capture from. That’s why we focus on data blind spots.
When and why did you start these two companies?
I’m a serial entrepreneur born and raised in Atlanta. I went to Harvard and later studied data science and analytics at Harvard Business School. Around 2015, Flint hit national and international headlines. 100,000 residents and families were poisoned by lead in tap water, and it opened the floodgates to everyday Americans being really concerned about what’s in their water.
Being a data scientist, I saw it as a data problem. Why can’t they put in their zip code and see water quality? Why do we have to wait until people get sick? I quickly realized it’s a difficult problem to solve from a data standpoint. There’s no easy way for anybody to understand water quality, and even if you got that information you wouldn’t understand what it meant to you without a degree in chemistry. I designed a data engine to translate data, using my algorithm, into a score. The same way we know the weather, now we can do the same thing for water with the data engine I built.
Varuna was officially started December 26th, 2019. But that’s when the papers were filed. The idea came around the Flint water crisis in 2016. I haven’t always been interested in water quality, but the bulk of my career has been in power utilities.
Water utilities, they don’t like me saying this, but they lag power utilities in terms of technology and process improvement, by about 6-7 years. Having worked at a power plant, I could see some of the gaps.
What have you learned by looking at water data?
Unfortunate things. One, the hyperlocal nature of this problem makes it very clear that the government, or the traditional way we address water systems, won’t be able to solve it.
We basically are solving the “last-mile problem.” In a perfect world where your city has perfect water, it goes to the local treatment facility, and it still has to travel the last mile to your house. That’s where things like Flint happen. If the pipes are old or corroded, it’s coming straight through the pipes and out of your tap.
People don’t have good information about how what’s coming out of their taps affects their health. The EPA regulates for approximately 93 contaminants, but there are over 100,000 toxins we know are in local water supplies in the U.S. They’re not being tested for.
Can you give us an idea of how U.S. water infrastructure is doing?
I won’t even use my report card. I’ll use the one for The American Society of Civil Engineers, and they gave the U.S. drinking water infrastructure a C-minus grade. I probably wouldn’t have finished college if I got C-minus grades.
How has working with URBAN-X impacted your ability to grow as a company?
URBAN-X was great for me. The technology side, and also growing as CEO, and growing as an operator and strategist. We come up with things we thought were out of the box in terms of machine learning and we would pitch to the engineering team and they’d say “yeah let’s figure it out.” Those types of thinkers to bounce things off of were helpful for me.
The other thing that was great was we had to do weekly check-ins with mentors and the management team.
We went through three hardware product cycles in a six-month period. That could not have happened without URBAN-X. Some of the insights they brought into the eventual solution still apply two years after. We were deploying hardware in customer sites less than a year after we launched, which is not typical for hardware companies, and I can ascribe a lot of that to the work and help we got from URBAN-X.
What do you hope people change about their lives or do differently with knowledge about their water quality?
Just by knowing what’s in the water you may need to get a filter. People can protect their health and their families’ health. The higher the score [for their water] the better, and so that means they can use less bottled water, which would help reduce plastic pollution.
Think about searching for a new home. People [limit their] search by traffic, crime, and schools. They could search by water quality. This type of data allows people to analyze and make personal and business decisions that weren’t possible before.
We put our hardware out and monitor chlorine, Ph, turbidity, conductivity and temperature.
Oh, your chlorine in this part of the city dropped faster than it normally does between 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning. At that same point, you reported that your pumps failed. The problem isn’t chlorine, the problem is your pump.
Do you see a water crisis as the next major issue caused by climate change?
If you have heavy rainfall, the pipes in the system are overloaded. It runs off the sewers, the drains and it’s on the grass and ground. Any pollution or things in the ground is going to get into the water, and it’s all coming back to the local water treatment plants.
If they’re not equipped [to handle] or required to test for these things, the first sign of climate change is deteriorating water quality.
Absolutely. We currently experience climate change a lot through water: floods, storms, droughts. The more contamination shocks we experience as climate change worsens, the more attention I hope we pay to it.