Designing Water: Black Tech Startups Rethink Public Utilities And Social Justice
In 2016 the world watched from the perches of our Twitter timelines as news of Flint’s two-yearlong secret of filling residents’ homes with contaminated water was unveiled to the mainstream. The stories of children and families suffering from rashes and other lead exposure-induced diseases baffled a country unsure of who to blame: the public utilities managers and technicians, or the government officials who failed to ensure the safety of the water delivered to their constituents?
And yet, though it continues to be one of the largest water epidemics of our generation, Flint isn’t a singular story. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, a water main break happens every two minutes in the U.S. As a country, we’ve grossly underinvested in public water and wastewater piping infrastructure replacement, allocating just $45 billion amid a needed $150 billion.
Two entrepreneurs hope to change that by powering water utility managers with predictive technology and real-time analytics to get ahead of main breaks and contamination issues. Varuna, a startup out of Austin, is a cloud-based platform created to help water utility managers gain control of utility operations and predict water quality issues much faster.
Considering that many of us don’t think about how our water makes it to our showers and kitchen sinks each day, let’s put this into perspective. There are over 150,000 public water systems in the United States distributing drinking water across 1 million pipes that serve just under 300 million U.S. citizens. Most of our pipes, made of cast iron and PVC, are between 20 and 50 years old. Dating back to the 19th century, much of our piping is in significant decline, causing frequent breaks, massive water waste, ongoing contamination, and costly fixes that continue to put our water at risk. Flint was not the first crisis, and it most certainly won’t be the last. Enter Varuna.
Created in 2018 by Seyi Fabode, a systems engineer, and Jamail Carter a sales and business development executive, Varuna promises to reduce inefficiencies in water management operations. With their series of connected sensors, Varuna can reduce the number of times technicians need to drive around collecting water samples to bring back to the lab to test for quality issues. The current process, as Fabode explained, is highly inefficient and doesn’t allow for managers to act quickly to address contamination issues or identify a potential water main break before it happens. Technicians are still recording their findings (which take up to two hours to collect) in Excel.
“All the problems we’re hearing about related to poor water quality across the U.S. and world are due to operational inefficiencies,” said Fabode. “Technicians in water utility don’t have real-time visibility into what’s going on across the water distribution system.”
We’ve seen this play out even on a local level when our cities issue water boil warnings, an occurrence Fabode says happens at least 100 times per day in the U.S. (Note: The Centers for Disease Control currently does not publish nor collect comprehensive data on water boil warnings across the U.S., and we were unable to verify this claim.)
Fabode and Carter assert that by simply getting access and insight to the right information, each community water system in the U.S. can save $60,000 annually for every sample collection point they have on-site. Perhaps those saved dollars can be redirected toward replacing faulty pipes.
Varuna’s initial funding strategy
Varuna is Fabode’s second startup. He sold his first company, Power2Switch, in 2013 to a Dallas utility company where Carter led business development. Years later, when Flint became a national story, Fabode called up Carter wanting to find a way to build a preventative solution. That conversation turned into what is now Varuna.
The company recently landed a coveted spot in Brooklyn-based UrbanX accelerator powered by BMW along with $150,000 in financing. Seyi says they’ve raised minimal pre-seed funding from investors from his prior company but will do a seed round eventually.
Today, Varuna operates with a team of seven employees between Austin and Chicago and has since landed six-figure government contracts during its short life span. The team will quickly expand as it takes on more customers.
Providing transparency into local and national water infrastructure challenges is far from the only residential water access concern on the table. Some cities use water punitively, restricting access until residents pay up.
For instance, in LaGrange, Georgia, if you haven’t paid court-related fines or fees, the city can shut your water off. In Miami Beach, a resident’s water was shut off after failing to pay over $200,000 in short-term rental fines for using Airbnb to rent his home.
The most egregious cases in Detroit reached the national spotlight in 2014 when the United Nations publicly berated the city for human rights violations for forcing water shutoffs to nearly 100,000 residents (Detroit’s population hovers just under 700,000) when they fell into arrears on their water bill.
Struggling residents disproportionately live in poverty, are elderly, Black, disabled, or are single parents trying to get by, explained software engineer Tiffani Ashley Bell. Five years ago she and Kristy Tillman co-founded the Detroit Water Project, now called The Human Utility, upon learning about the crisis.
Since 2014, The Human Utility has paid water bills for over 1,000 residents in need in Detroit and at least 14 other cities in Michigan and Baltimore. The nonprofit nabbed a highly competitive spot in the Y Combinator accelerator in 2015 and continues to use its platform to directly pay the water bills of vulnerable residents.
For Bell, the issue comes down to water utility companies not understanding the data, something she and her four-person team manage through their software as they collect the stories of thousands of residents requesting assistance. Some requests have even come from citizens in Flint who have still been asked to pay for their use of contaminated water, which Bell must turn down to allocate payments toward water services that can actually be used.
And yet, water utility companies won’t budge. Instead, their reliance on internal assistance programs still isn’t meeting the mark when residents are required to pay a 50% deposit on their bill in order to qualify for assistance—a task that can be completely out of reach for those who have fallen behind significantly. Parents can lose their kids when there’s no water access in the home, and property owners can lose their homes.
Bell and her team continue to update pin maps of where they’ve paid water bills in addition to managing an internal system of data points that could provide an opportunity for utility companies to understand who they’re serving beyond a meter measurement and monthly bill remittance.
“They’ll take our money but not our expertise. Even though we have data on thousands of people and their situations that we’re reviewing month by month. We’ve paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to the water company and we’re still not looked at as a source of expertise,” said Bell.
What both Fabode, Carter, and Bell demonstrate in their ventures is that with the slow progress of innovation in the public utility sectors, Black tech startups in the govtech space have a unique opportunity to apply innovation through smart and thoughtful solutions that can scale. They’ll just have to be up for the task of working closely with the slow-movement of government to reap the rewards.