By moving from a few expensive, sophisticated water quality sensors to a lot of cheaper, less sophisticated ones and using AI on the resulting data, this young startup thinks it can change things for utilities.
That’s the underlying premise of a new partnership announced between the two companies, which have a few things in common. They both have ties to Chicago, they both are interested in selling to the public sector, and they even have some shareholders in common.
Now CityBase, which gained some financial clout last year when it joined GTY Technology Holdings in a reverse IPO to make it a publicly traded company, is offering to pay for any of its utility customers to use Varuna for a year.
Varuna, launched at the end of 2018, is pursuing a hybrid hardware-software business model. The company’s identity revolves around software: It wants to give utilities and their customers the kind of data that can tell them when and where water quality issues are happening. And for the people who drink that water, they want to put the information in context like, for example, how the level of lead compares to the regional average.
“[Most people] don’t know how many parts per million are good or bad,” said Mike Duffy, CEO of CityBase.
The problem with that data, according to Varuna CEO Seyi Fabode, is that the infrastructure needed to collect it is not particularly widespread. A big utility might have a fleet of bulky, expensive sensors that provide detailed information in a few locations. Medium- and smaller-sized utilities might have too few of those sensors to provide a good overview, or they might have none at all. Regardless, the sensors are often not connected to a network — meaning workers need to go read them in person.
So Varuna makes its own sensors, too.
“For cities or towns that currently don’t have connected hardware for sampling, we provide them water quality hardware, sensors,” Fabode said. “For those who do, but they might be old, we provide an amplifier so we can collect the data and channel it to our dashboard.”
And much like a recent trend in air quality monitoring, the idea is that instead of relying on a few sophisticated sensors, water utilities can rely on many cheap sensors that provide less detailed data. Rather than measuring 25-plus different contaminants, Varuna’s sensors simply tell utilities about the level of organic material versus metal.
That’s where artificial intelligence comes in. By ingesting data such as the age of the utility’s infrastructure, the water source and information from comparable jurisdictions, the company can take organic-versus-metallic readings and draw conclusions about the levels of different contaminants in the water.
“We just put the hardware in so they go from zero visibility to directional visibility from the sensor, and then the dashboard itself makes it more specific because we’re pulling in a bunch of data analytics,” Fabode said.
That means a quicker view into sudden water quality problems, allowing utilities to respond faster. It means visibility into where a problem is coming from. Hopefully, it would mean a more proactive approach that lets utilities solve issues before they become big, expensive beasts.
“Because our system allows them to figure out where quicker, they can get to remediation quicker,” he said.
Duffy said part of the reason for the partnership is “good karma” — he knows what it’s like to stare at the chicken-and-egg problem of gov tech, where a young startup needs success stories in order to get customers, and it can’t get success stories without customers. By covering costs, he hopes to de-risk the proposition of trying out Varuna for utilities.
But both companies see a business relationship to be had as well. Fabode sees a continuum that exists between Varuna, which can paint a picture for people of all the days that their utility delivers them clean water as well as the ones where they don’t, and the part of CityBase that handles utility bill payments and data visualizations.
Duffy sees an opportunity to beef up the data his company handles, and therefore the value provided to customers.
“We hope to be the platform serving that up,” he said. “We hope that our authenticated user experience is the place for people to consume new data.”
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