What’s on tap? Chicago startup’s tech helps water utilities maintain quality

Happy Wednesday, readers. How often do you really think about your tap water? Americans tend to take it for granted that water will always be there and that it will be clean and drinkable.

But that’s not always the case. Just yesterday, attorneys announced that the city of Flint, Michigan, joined a settlement for its high-profile water contamination case, and the total value increased to $641.2 million. The problem in Flint and other communities was a huge impetus for an engineer who worked at power utilities for 17 years to migrate to the water side and co-found Chicago startup Varuna Tech to tackle water contamination. CEO Seyi Fabode and co-founder Jamail Carter develop technology to help utilities get a better handle on water quality.

“There’s a problem of not knowing what’s going on in the pipes, which is leading to water quality contamination,” Fabode said. “We hear on the news that it seems to be increasing. We thought, how about we do something where there’s a ton of good that can be done, but a ton of opportunity as well?”

Today’s headlines:

🌊 WATER: Northwestern University and Argonne National Laboratory are leading a research team that made new discoveries about the ionic interactions between water and graphene, which could help with designing new energy-efficient electrodes for batteries.

💡 ENERGY EFFICIENCY: Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey announced a new program to provide nearly $1.2 million in grants to help business owners affected by this summer’s civil unrest rebuild while boosting sustainability, reports the Star Tribune. About 200 businesses owned by people of color will receive up to $40,000 to install energy-efficient technologies including LED lights and solar panels.

🚙 EVs:

  • Ohio electric vehicle startup Lordstown Motors is building a research and development center in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, reports the Detroit News. The facility will contain offices, testing labs, and space for vehicle prototyping, validation, and inspections.
  • Also from the Detroit News, a look at General Motors’ efforts to be the leading automaker of the future through efforts like commercializing its own EV battery and fuel cell technology.

🔌 MICROGRID: The National Renewable Energy Laboratory had an unexpected test of its utility-scale microgrid infrastructure when it experienced an outage that cut power to the entire site. The Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) suddenly went from idea to active application and repowered the campus as NREL had envisioned for renewable microgrids of the future.

Aerial image of a portion of NREL’s microgrid. Image from Flatirons Campus meteorology research tower camera.

📈 INCUBATOR: The Illinois Capital Development Board approved a contract for creating a $250 million technology incubator and teaching facility in Chicago for the University of Illinoisreports the Chicago Sun-Times. The new home for the school’s Discovery Partners Institute aims to attract more tech talent to Chicago and accelerate innovation and product commercialization.

💻 EVENT: The University of Missouri 2020 Crop Management Conference will take place virtually Dec. 1-2. Key topics include agtech use across generations and electrocution as a weed management tool.

Now, back to Varuna Tech, which recently closed a seed funding round and secured an investment from the Clean Energy Trust.

Major events this year — specifically, the global pandemic and record wildfires in the western U.S. — have increased attention to the value of clean water, as has the boost in attention to climate change-related water disruptions such as drought and flooding, said CEO Seyi Fabode.

“A bit more visibility is coming to the industry. … People quickly realized the critical nature of having clean water as a society. And we’re also starting to recognize that this isn’t just a ‘poor people’ problem, it’s a societal problem,” he explained.

The technology: Varuna Tech combines sensors from a vendor partner with their own proprietary algorithms to provide utilities with an Internet of Things-enabled product to monitor water throughout the system in real time. The platform gathers and analyzes data about the water’s chlorine content and pH. “Potable water should have chlorine within a certain band, pH within a certain range, and no dissolved content,” Fabode said. Levels outside of the ranges could indicate a metallic contaminant, for example.

The artificial intelligence-powered dashboard gives operators insight into their data, alerts so they can address any discrepancies or quality fluctuations immediately before they become a big problem, and recommends actions to remedy the problems. The platform increases operating efficiencies and is more reasonable than some competitors’ systems, Fabode said, so it reduces utilities’ overall costs.

Challenges: The lack of advance attention to water utilities and water quality is a barrier, and it is pervasive within and outside the industry. “That has been the bulk of the struggle for us,” Fabode said. It carries over to challenges with securing funding because investors have to be educated about the lack of real-time visibility into the state of tap water and the value of Varuna Tech’s technology.

Fabode and Clark also have experienced overt and implicit business challenges related to being Black. However, Fabode sees progress on that front and remains optimistic about the future.

“I look at a future that is a positive and good one, and I explain how to get there to anyone who wants to get to that better future with us. That keeps me going every day,” Fabode said.

What’s next: Varuna Tech’s goal for the next year is product deployment with an environmental justice bend. The founders aim to get the systems installed in several predominantly Black cities to serve citizens who would not traditionally be able to afford advanced clean water technologies. “Now they will get access to clean water because our technology will prevent [contaminations] in their cities. I’m super excited about that,” he said.

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