11 Smart Water Technology Startups for Smart Cities
About one in three people on the planet currently lack access to safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization. You might recall that Cape Town nearly ran out of freshwater last year, and cities from Tokyo to London could also face water shortages in the next few decades. You’re probably thinking that the United States is immune to these sorts of problems. Wrong: America doesn’t even crack the top 20 countries with the cleanest tap water, as about a fifth of the U.S. population has been exposed to unsafe H2O at some point. Remember Flint, Michigan? Plenty of other U.S. cities are at risk of running out of drinking water in the future. Ironically, the impending humanitarian crisis offers buckets of investment opportunities in water technology, including desalination and infrastructure.
Most recently, we covered a publicly traded smart water technology company called Xylem (XYL) that’s infusing machine learning into sensor technology for automating water management systems. In that article, we also introduced you to a couple of smart water tech startups similar to Xylem that had been featured in a market map created by the big brains at data research firm CB Insights:
As you can see, there are a ton of other water tech startups under the water management category. Out of that list, we’ve covered Wexus, an IoT agtech company whose utility savings solution is increasingly being used in the cannabis industry, and Rachio, which offers products in smart home water irrigation. That still leaves us 11 water tech startups that are developing IoT solutions to help smart cities be smarter about how they manage their H20 supplies, from reservoir to stormwater. (A twelfth company that was developing technology for rapidly detecting waterborne pathogens, Safe-H2O, appears to be defunct, as its website appears broken. Alert readers, let us know if there’s a different story.)
Let’s dive in.
AI and IoT for Smart Water Management
Smart water technology has largely come to represent a merger between IoT and artificial intelligence, where connected sensors and other devices supply data for algorithms that perform near real-time analytics to manage H20 systems more efficiently, as well as detect leaks and perform other automated tasks. Founded in 2011, Austin-based Banyan Water has raised about $4.4 million over four rounds for its analytics engine that provides insight into water costs, use, trends, and anomalies for clients in industries ranging from Fortune 500 companies to school campuses. It offers four solutions:
For instance, Hewlett Packard (HPE) employed Banyan’s Irrigation Insight solution to juggle irrigation water management from three different sources. The system prioritizes low-cost recycled water first before opting for the Perrier from the city of Palo Alto. Since 2017, HP has saved more than three million gallons of irrigation water on its Palo Alto campus, a 42% reduction compared to prior usage. Banyan’s system also detected more than 20 leaks, preventing millions of gallons of additional water waste.
There’s plenty of competition in this segment of the smart water tech industry. There’s Smart Energy Water, a Los Angeles area startup founded in 2012 that claims to use machine learning to optimize both water and energy operations for smart cities. It offers products for both consumers and employees. The latter, for instance, helps workers in the field to manage scheduling and reporting tasks on a mobile platform.
Founded in 2017, Ontario-based Emagin is another company that has developed an AI platform for optimizing water management, specializing in utilities, food and beverage, pulp and paper, and chemical production plants, among others. However, it was just acquired this month by a Los Angeles area company called Innovyze that has a long list of products and services around smart water technology. Innovyze itself was absorbed in 2017 by a Swedish private equity firm for $270 million.
Seattle based FlowWorks, founded in 2010, goes beyond smart water management, essentially offering a full range of environmental monitoring capabilities, with machine learning gazing into the crystal ball of predictive analytics. FlowWorks isn’t picky with its data sources, slurping up insights from satellites, weather forecasts, and public datasets from agencies like USGS and NOAA.
For example, a coastal city like Richmond in the San Francisco Bay area, is interested in tracking tidal movements to manage its water infrastructure more efficiently.
Smart Water Grid
Smart Water Grid is really just another way to talk about how sensors, big data, and sophisticated software can help automate as much of a smart city’s water infrastructure as possible. But that’s how a Phoenix-based company called Fathom describes its IoT platform that helps manage municipal utilities. It’s sort of a joint venture between publicly traded Global Water Resources (GWRS), a water resource management company limited to Arizona that started Fathom, and a few key investors/partners. While Fathom doesn’t explicitly mention it uses machine learning anywhere in the usual places on its website, its chairman and CEO wrote a whole article about the coming disruption of AI in the water industry, so you figure there’s at least a data scientist or two on staff.
Smart Stormwater Control
While the focus of many smart water tech companies is on managing the potable water supply, what happens to stormwater is no less important. Uncontrolled runoff can carry pollutants into waterways or cause severe flooding problems. Founded in 2014, Boston-based OptiRTC has raised $10.5 million for its cloud-based platform that combines sensor data, weather forecasts, and proprietary algorithms to control the ebb and flow of stormwater through a city‘s infrastructure to reduce pollution and mitigate flooding.
For example, in one of the smartest cities in the country (by technology, not brainpower), Kansas City installed an Opti system at its 1.1 million-gallon dry detention pond. In nine months, the system prevented 98% of wet weather flow into the watershed compared to about 41% with a passive system. The estimated ongoing cost to manage the system is about $0.0045 per gallon versus $3.50 to $8 per gallon or more for other storage solutions.
Desalination for Shale Oil Fields
We’ve profiled a ton of companies offering desalination technologies over the last few years. Saltworks Technologies, a British Columbia startup that has received $5.4 million in government grants, seems to do it all and then some. The company is focused on treating water used for industrial purposes, such as mining or fracking. Just this month, the 11-year-old company commissioned a first-of-its-kind plant with new membrane technology for “supercharged” reverse osmosis.
Another potential game-changing desalination technology specifically developed for the shale oil business is called AirBreather, a type of evaporator that helps shale-gas operators reduce the amount of contaminated water that needs to be stored. That means less chance of your faucet catching on fire. In a paper describing the new water technology, the authors mention that “five substantial oil and gas companies, including one supermajor, have either pilot tested or reviewed the technology, and are investing in full-scale plants after two successful field pilots.”
Digitizing Water Pipes with Hydro-Powered Sensors
If fracking isn’t your thing, then you may be more interested in Aqua Robur, a small startup out of Sweden that raised an $800,000 Seed round last year to help develop and market its self-powered IoT device for monitoring water pipelines. In this case, it’s the device and not the data that’s probably the most exciting: The kinetic energy flowing through the pipe is converted into electricity that is generated by a small turbine, much the same way hydroelectricity is produced. That helps to connect remote pipelines in
recently denuded remote areas of the Amazon or other faraway places own by Jeff Bezos.
New York-based Ayyeka, founded in 2011, is also an IoT device manufacturer for water infrastructure. It builds low-power hardware that helps industrial-grade sensors and meters transmit their data to any cloud-based analytics platform.
Back on the Farm
For the last two startups on the list, we’re moving from the city back to the farm for water-saving technology targeting agriculture. Denver-based SWIIM System, founded a decade ago, has raised $10.7 million for its Sustainable Water and Innovative Irrigation Management (SWIIM) platform. SWIIM uses flow meters and other sensors to gather data that shows farmers just how many gallons of water it really takes to grow one almond. That hopefully leads them to plant a more drought-tolerant crop, or at least manage water more efficiently.
A company located somewhere between San Francisco and Sacramento, WISRAN just got $225,000 from the National Science Foundation to develop a platform to tell farms just how much blood, sweat, and tears go into each acre of land so they can figure out just how much money they’re losing each year. (Farming profitability is right there with online technology news startup.) No doubt water resources somehow figure into the to-be-determined solution.
There still seems to be more money going to startups that want to mine asteroids or the moon for water than cash flowing to companies that can help us with water use here on planet Earth. And that may be because there are bigger utility or technology companies that already employ similar hardware and algorithms. However, in the list here, we see there are plenty of players getting into the predictive analytics market in smart water technology, with just a few exceptions really. Just like in most businesses today, it’s all about squeezing out the last drop of water in the cheapest way possible.