Uncharted waters: Software helps water utilities boost efficiency and reduce data errors

This is it, readers. Not only is it Friday, but it’s the last time you’ll see Centered for a couple of weeks. We’re taking some time off for the holidays. I wish you and your families a restful and joyful holiday season and look forward to bringing you more great Midwestern tech stories starting Jan. 4!

Today we take a look at Waterly, a startup in Crystal Lake, Illinois, that provides data management software for water utilities. The software can be used on mobile devices and tablets to boost water and wastewater operators’ efficiency while preventing data entry errors or double entry. I spoke with Chris Sosnowski, Waterly’s founding CEO, about the business. Find out how human nature is turning out to be the startup’s biggest challenge, after today’s news roundup.

🌊 WATER: In other water news, the National Science Foundation granted $2 million to a University of Michigan research group investigating the use of adhesives to remove microplastics from wastewater. The adhesive discovery occurred by accident during another project aiming to reuse absorbent materials in diapers. The researchers hope to create a device that could be installed in water treatment plants to capture the tiny plastic particles.

🌞 SOLAR: Argonne National Laboratory is part of a research group that had a breakthrough with eliminating an obstacle in storing and distributing solar energy. They are using an innovative chemical process to produce a durable catalyst that triggers a process used to split water molecules. Solar electricity can be used to split the molecules and the solar energy is harnessed in the process.

☢️ NUCLEAR: Chicago-based utility Exelon partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on research that shows how turning the design process into a game using an artificial intelligence system can result in more efficient nuclear reactors. The AI system generates optimal configurations that can make fuel rods 5% longer lasting while achieving about $3 million in savings each year for the average nuclear power plant.

An AI-designed layout for a nuclear energy reactor. Image by Majdi Radaideh/MIT.

📈 INVESTMENT: Global pension fund Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ) invested $1 billion in Chicago-based sustainable energy solutions developer Invenergy. This is CDPQ’s largest investment in Invenergy since first partnering in 2013; it acquired a majority stake in the company in 2018.

💻 EVENT: Clean Energy Trust is holding a virtual event on Jan. 13 to discuss the future of electricity and how the pandemic will influence the clean energy transition.

Now back to Waterly, which CEO Chris Sosnowski said was designed specifically for water and wastewater utilities. He has worked in the water field for more than 20 years and identified a widespread problem: A lot of utilities were still manually writing down data and didn’t have a practical app for collecting and managing that data.

“A lot of times people build solutions and then try to shop for problems. Waterly lived through the problem and then built the solution,” he said. “We try to help them run their water system safely and efficiently.”

The technology: Waterly launched about three years ago when the Illinois team partnered with DeveloperTown in Indianapolis to create the software. Sosnowski says it was created based on input from dozens of water operators.

The app simplifies data gathering and management for water operators, who still largely relied on pencils and clipboards for information collection and manually entering the data into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, Sosnowski said. The old-school method was tedious and could result in more errors. The database can be populated with information from a water meter, programmable logic controller (PLC), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system, another smart instrument, or a cloud-based system. Waterly’s software provides insights and alerts operators when some of the data appears to be off. The software also can generate state regulatory reports.

Unique characteristics: Waterly prides itself on using a pricing model that is affordable to utilities of all sizes. “We have to make it affordable for rural utilities,” Sosnowski said. “We price the software according to average flow. ... I was told I was crazy to do it, but we're doing it.” The pricing scales up with the utility’s flow rate, so larger utilities pay more than smaller ones.

The startup also strives to simplify the hundreds or thousands of data points it takes in for each utility. The software is so simple to use that no manual is required, Sosnowski said.

Major challenge: Waterly’s main challenge comes from human nature, Sosnowski said. People naturally gravitate toward doing things the same way over time, and he said that is acutely evident in the water industry:

“Water and wastewater operators don't believe that there is a piece of software that was made specifically for them. Our biggest hurdle is convincing them that we did.”

What’s next: Sales slowed early in the pandemic but have since picked up again. Sosnowski expects Waterly to scale and hire more people in the coming months and years. Although the client base mostly is in the Midwest, the future holds further expansion into markets across the country.


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