Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
Listen on Google Podcasts

An AI Fix for Aging Water Systems with Seyi Fabode

On this episode of What About Water? an entrepreneur in Austin, Texas turns his dishwasher sensor into a tech startup that’s giving water utilities a picture of their water quality in real time.

Jay sits down with Seyi Fabode, the CEO and co-founder of Varuna, to discuss how his company’s cloud-based software is helping cities keep track of their drinking water quality by the minute, allowing them to respond to spills, contamination, and fluctuations before it’s too late.

Jay and Seyi dream up a new tech idea together and trace Seyi’s entrepreneurial roots from his childhood in Nigeria to his post-grad in the UK. They discuss the $100,000 investment from the Google for Startups Black Founder Fund that opened new doors for Varuna, and what needs to change to get more black-owned businesses like Seyi’s off the ground.

At the end of the episode Jay answers a few questions about the Tri-State Water Wars and water privatization from listener Mark, who’s based in Atlanta, Georgia. Got a question for Jay? Write to him at ideas@whataboutwater.org and you may hear your question in an upcoming episode. Voice memos like Mark’s are also welcome!

Guest Bios

Seyi FabodeSeyi Fabode

Seyi Fabode is the CEO/Cofounder of Varuna, a water SaaS company that provides risk management and resilience building solutions to water utilities. Seyi Fabode has more than 19 years’ of experience developing and deploying technology solutions for the power and water utility industry. Prior to Varuna he spent several years consulting with global utilities and the World Bank. Varuna is Seyi’s second technology startup, having built and sold Power2Switch, an energy marketplace in the power industry. Seyi has an MBA from the Booth School of Business at University of Chicago, and an MSc in Manufacturing Systems Engineering from Warwick University in the UK. He lives in Austin TX with his wife and two kids. He was named a LinkedIn TopVoice in Technology in 2016 and 2017. Fabode is the author of 11 books, including ‘The Antifragile Grid‘, ‘Advancing Technology and the Utility Industry‘ and ‘40 Semi-Obvious (Startup) Lessons‘. Seyi moved from Nigeria to the U.K. and then to the United States. He received his MBA in Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Socials

Twitter

LinkedIn

 

Dive Deeper

  • Varuna Website
  • Seyi’s blog on Medium, where he writes about his process developing Varuna and ideas around tech and water
  • Varuna received a $100,000 in cash from the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund to help kickstart the business in 2020 (How my startup uses AI to reimagine water utilities)
  • Research shows that water systems in communities of color have a disproportionate amount of EPA violations. (NRDC: Watered Down Justice)
  • Less than 3% of U.S. venture capital funding went to Black-led companies in 2020, despite the fact that 10% of American companies are Black-owned, according to U.S. Census data. (Analysis: For Black founders, venture funding remains elusive despite new funds | Reuters)
  • Because of the United States’ aging water infrastructure, in addition to severe weather events and accidents, approximately 240,000 water main breaks occur each year, resulting in loss of service and drinking water advisories. (Journal of Public Health Management and Practice)
  • Globally, an estimated 785 million people do not have access to clean drinking water and a billion more live in water-stressed areas. (WHO)
  • In October 2018, flooding rains ravaged central Texas. On the morning of October 22, 2018 debris and increased turbidity in the rivers led Austin Water Utility to release an unprecedented boil water notice for over 800,000 customers within the City of Austin and surrounding counties. (Austin Water Utility)

 

Photo Credit

  • Seyi Fabode – Submitted

Full Transcript

Seyi Fabode: On the system scale, it quickly highlighted how the lack of operational information in real time was leading to failure and outages. It also highlighted how hard the people in the water sector work, but without the resources to match. It’s like the technicians and the operators are fighting a new battle with old weapons.

[MUSIC]

Jay Famiglietti: Having safe water to drink, bathe and use is essential to our survival. Yet all over the world, the very systems that track and monitor city water supplies fail. And life-saving information gets to us too late. I’m Jay Famiglietti on this episode of What About Water? How an entrepreneur in Austin, Texas took a repurposed dishwasher sensor and turned it into an award-winning idea that could save thousands of dollars and lives. You may remember the Flint water crisis, a public health disaster that lasted two years, caused 12 deaths, and exposed tens of thousands of residents to dangerous levels of lead, all because of contaminated drinking water. Seyi Fabode never wants that nightmare scenario to happen again. with his business partner, Jamail Carter, he launched a startup called Varuna. Varuna uses a network of sensors and cloud-based software to help cities and municipalities keep track of their drinking water in real time. That way, if there ever is a problem, an alarm gets raised before it’s too late. Seyi Fabode is co-founder of Varuna. He’s also the author of “The Antifragile Grid.” He’s in Austin, Texas. Welcome to “What About Water, Seyi.”

Seyi Fabode: Thanks for having me, Jay.

Jay Famiglietti: It’s a real pleasure. So listen, I have to start by saying I love the name of your company, Varuna. It’s so like melodical. What’s the story behind it?

Seyi Fabode: It is very simple, actually. I knew I wanted it to reflect both the value of water and as I started digging in concert with what we do, which is bring information to the hands of the operator so they can deliver clean water consistently. I found that the same word, Varuna, means enlightenment in Sanskrit, which is what we do. And Varuna is also the Vedic deity for the elements, water being the specific one for us. so, enlightenment and water, Varuna.

Jay Famiglietti: Perfect.

Seyi Fabode: Thank you.

Jay Famiglietti: It’s perfect. Sounds like a match made in heaven. It also sounds like a fast car.

Seyi Fabode: It does, it does.

Jay Famiglietti: I’m just saying, just saying. So there was a pivotal moment for you back in 2018 when your own city’s water supply was in danger. Take me back to that time. What happened?

Seyi Fabode: When Austin had the boil water warning as a result of zebra mussels in the water, the whole city essentially shut down in terms of water availability. We were told to boil our water. I’ve got two little boys, one of them and my wife had adverse reactions to the water we ended up consuming in the house. Took me back to Flint, which was a trigger for me to start thinking of how we could address the problem. How could the City of Flint have identified this issue before it affected people? How could Austin have triangulated this problem before it became a citywide problem? My background is in utilities, power utilities specifically, operations in power utilities. And I’m a systems engineer, and we’ve sort of had the technology to track the system on the power side and tell the operators what to do, where to go, how to address it. And so I kept thinking there must be an analog solution for this on the water side. While there were some old tools and approaches, including physically going to the location and writing down the problem, I felt it was inadequate. And so I started tinkering with a friend here in Austin called Jamail, who was my business partner and decided it was time to match just the education and expertise we have with with the opportunity to do good work in a space that is often ignored.

Jay Famiglietti: So, one thing that you’ve spoken about in the past is how marginalized communities are often the ones that are hardest hit by problems like these.

Seyi Fabode: Yes.

Jay Famiglietti: Why is that?

Seyi Fabode: Like every system, it’s pretty complicated. What the water infrastructure and the availability and access and safety of water represents in the US, or the lack of in minority communities, is just a reflection of the greater society we’re in. The word “underserved” truly means they’ve been underserved. We’re working on some research with depaul university, analyzing data from 65,000 cities across the US and that should be coming out in a few weeks here, but it clearly shows the overlap between where issues exist according to the expected standards for water safety, availability or affordability and the overlap with how we’ve deployed infrastructure over the last hundred years or so of enabling water access to people. So it’s just really, sadly, a reflection of how we societally have marginalized some people. And that just gets reflected in the water. And it’s worsening with climate change, too, as you can imagine. The field effects–

Jay Famiglietti: I understand.

Seyi Fabode: Yeah.

Jay Famiglietti: Yeah, no, I understand. And it’s– I mean, we really need to get on top of this. It’s at the point of being inexcusable. So I’m really curious about the technology itself. You and Jamail eventually come up with an idea to solve this problem. How does it work? I’m really curious about that.

Seyi Fabode: So the update here is that the product has changed from the initial version, as you can imagine. The initial version of our solution was a remotely located sensor that was self-powered that captured the necessary parameters for the technician to know what to do. So chlorine, pH, temperature, and to triangulate where a problem might be. What we were solving for at that point was the lack of data from blind spots where someone is having to drive to go capture the data. Where we are today, we took the data transmission element of our sensor and we attach that receiver, which is what we call it, to your current equipment.

Jay Famiglietti: So this sounds to me like some kind of a dashboard. Is that right?

Seyi Fabode: It is a dashboard. It’s a dashboard that is, we like to say it’s the most user-friendly dashboard in the industry. There’s a dashboard view for technicians, the people who do the immediate near-term action work. And there’s a dashboard for leadership who can look at, we’ve had pressure drops and chlorine decay at a rapid pace in this corner of the city, maybe we should deploy a storage tank, a mini storage tank in this quadrant of the city to reduce outages in that part of the city. So dashboard for the leaders for longer term strategic capital improvement plans and a dashboard for technicians who see the detailed day-to-day requirements for action.

Jay Famiglietti: That is really awesome, man. And I’ve been hearing this story that you got the idea for this technology from an old dishwasher sensor. Is that true? Because it sounds like a pretty good use of spare parts.

Seyi Fabode: It is, it is. So dishwashers have always had turbidity sensors. And the way the dishwasher works is really you pass water through with soap. The turbidity sensor keeps checking. Soapy, soapy, i.e. not clear. Soapy, soapy, clear, clear, clean, stop, and dry. That really is the answer. the original version of the Varuna sensor was unclear, unclear, clear, what might have gone wrong before, go check all your other assets or your SCADA. It did what it was supposed to do.

Jay Famiglietti: No, it’s very cool. And I want to thank you for explaining how dishwasher sensors work. I’ve never thought about it until this very moment. So that’s awesome. And also I’m thinking there may be a market for like showers too. Like if I had that sensor in my shower, and I would know when to turn the water off. And I could save a hell of a lot of water.

Seyi Fabode: That’s actually, you know, I’d never–

Jay Famiglietti: Well, there you go.

Seyi Fabode: I’d never thought about that, but yeah.

Jay Famiglietti: Okay, listen, cut me in, all right? I want equity in your next startup. And it’s all recorded, so you know. No, no, no, that’s really, I think that’s really, really interesting. So tell me, how is Varuna helping cash-strapped utilities track water better now with this technology? And do you have a lot of customers or people buying it?

Seyi Fabode: Yeah, so the desire when we started was to work exclusively with small water systems who didn’t have as much money to address the issues and risks they were facing and to help them build resilient water systems. ‘Cause regardless of the size of the water system, small or large, the people at the end of the tap want to be safe and want to drink safe water. So yes, we have customers, thankfully, but those customers don’t just solely fall into the small and medium-sized water system bucket. We have some of those, but then we also have New York City Department of Environmental Protection. We have Aqua America, which is one of the largest privately held water utilities, they own about 1,700 water systems across the country, small and medium size. So in a roundabout way, we’re still serving the small medium size by working with the large water systems. But my real desire, and there’s a new feature where we’re releasing in a few weeks here that allows anyone at a small water system to come type in the name of their water system, and some parameters that we need, and it will generate a full capital improvement plan so they can apply for grants from the infrastructure bill that’s out. They might need to tweak it a little bit, but the report will be minutes instead of paying consultants a couple hundred grand where they don’t have one.

Jay Famiglietti: Right, I got you. So how big, you know, to write these reports, to check these reports, are you trying to generate them automatically? How are you doing it now? How’s it gonna scale up when you’ve got like 100 customers?

Seyi Fabode: Yeah, so it’s–

Jay Famiglietti: Or 1,000 customers.

Seyi Fabode: I’ll tell you the slight secret sauce there, and I guess I’m telling everyone. But what we’ve done, Jay, is we’ve pulled, so capital improvement plans for cities live online, PDFs online for every, any city. Atlanta, theirs is online. If they have half a million dollars for the capital improvement plan, the master plan has to live online. and you have Buda, Texas, which is small, they have the capital improvement plan online as well. We went out and downloaded and ingested all those improvement plans and built a model which allows us to pool their source water, their geographic location, the temperature and all the requirements. The last time Buda had a violation, these were the issues they experienced and oh by the way, the 17 other cities like Buda that have had a similar problem and have similar infrastructure, this is how they addressed it, and this is how much it cost. Here is your capital improvement plan in minutes. Now, customize this to reflect the exact thing. So we’re not even doing any more of the manual work. We already did the work, built a model behind it. And I hate using the words, the buzzwords, artificial intelligence and stuff, but that really, we built a model that recognizes the city for all the critical metrics required to build a capital improvement plan.

Jay Famiglietti: I think it’s great. I mean, we have to, look, the space that you’re in, there’s an urgency there. And so you need to be doing exactly what you’re doing. So let’s talk a little bit about the entrepreneurship. So I’m really interested in learning more about how you get into this space. You grew up in Nigeria, you moved to the UK and you’re in Austin now. how did your life experience drive you to launch Varuna?

Seyi Fabode: I would never have called myself an entrepreneur, but as is always the case, when I was about eight, nine, my dad, who is a forensic accountant, decided to start his own business. I sometimes would go to the office, to his office with him. It was just this fascinating idea to me that you could see a problem and choose to address it. It was kind of mind blowing. And one of his closest friends did a similar thing and his business was to bring insurance to low income people in West Africa, ended up being one of the richest men in West Africa. And it stuck with me because I remember if he would come to our home and eat lunch with my dad and they’d have these long conversations about the impact they could have, the businesses they could enable. I saw the impact. I didn’t realize how much it stayed with me. You know? I did not realize how much it stayed with me such that when I moved to the UK, I was at Warwick University doing my Systems Engineering post-grad and all I could see around me were opportunities to solve problems. It was kind of this mind-blowing thing. I ended up at a power plant that served half a million homes and the software that the plant ran on was built for us by these three young scrappy guys who ended up building software, not just for us, but for a few power plants across Europe. And again, I’m thinking, how is it possible for two, three guys to have this much impact such that, um, by the time I came to Business School at the University of chicago here in the US, michelle, my wife, i met her in london and she moved back to the US and i realized i couldn’t live without her. So I moved here as well. And we got married, I was in business school, and I started my first business while I was in business school.

Jay Famiglietti: That’s amazing. And you clearly have an award-winning idea. You received $100,000 from the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund.

Seyi Fabode: Yes.

Jay Famiglietti: What doors did that open up for you?

Seyi Fabode: A lot. A lot of doors. Right after the Google investment came in, I think maybe about three months after that, We raised our first round of institutional funding, about a million and a half of funding. And then some of the investors we’d spoken to during that raise who didn’t participate, about a year later, ended up investing about $2 million. But those conversations came as a result of the publicity we got from the Google Black Founders Fund, directly from it.

Jay Famiglietti: That’s amazing. Congratulations on that.

Seyi Fabode: Thank you.

Jay Famiglietti: So we are at the start of Black History Month. And it’s worth reflecting on the fact that Black entrepreneurs still face many barriers. i just read that less than 3% of US venture capital funding went to Black-led companies in 2020, even though 10% of American companies are Black-owned. That seems like a real disparity, a real tragedy, given that we’re all living with the water crisis and we need as many solutions as possible.

Seyi Fabode: Yes, it is true. That number gets even worse for black and female founders. It’s addressable too. This just boils down to assessing on merit, taking a chance on people and recognizing that there’s just opportunity to address problems across the whole spectrum, even if you’re not experiencing that problem yourself. Because some of this gap boils down to not having the same lived experiences as some of the founders who addressed these problems. It goes back to the underserved comment I made earlier. the systems and the structures just chose to ignore some people and we just continue to perpetrate those unless we consciously choose to change it.

Jay Famiglietti: So Seyi, what’s your vision for the future when it comes to improving water utilities?

Seyi Fabode: This would be a whole other long podcast, but I’ll try and summarize it. I’ll try to summarize it.

Jay Famiglietti: — That they’re all using Varuna!

Seyi Fabode: Yes, yes. We’re in our fourth water crisis in the US. Some companies will show up during this fourth water crisis, solve the problems for millions of people, and get clean water to millions of people, and become generational companies. Varuna will be one of those. That’s my vision.

Jay Famiglietti: That’s fantastic. And a great way to wrap it up. Thanks so much for joining us today, Seyi.

Seyi Fabode: Thanks for having me, Jay.

[UPBEAT MUSIC]

Jay Famiglietti: Seyi Fabode is the CEO and co-founder of Varuna, a leading water distribution system monitoring company providing real-time visibility, awareness, and insights to water utilities. He was named a LinkedIn Top Voice in Technology in 2016 and 2017. If you want to learn more, check out Seyi’s own blog on Medium, where he writes a lot about the process of developing Varuna and ideas around tech and water.

[UPBEAT MUSIC]

Jay Famiglietti: It’s time for Ask Jay. And as always, that’s when we bring in producer, Erin Stephens.

Erin Stephens: Okay, Jay, are you ready to dive into some questions?

Jay Famiglietti: Oh yes, I’m ready to take the plunge.

Erin Stephens: All right, let’s do it. So we’ve got two here from our listener, Mark. He sent us a voice memo and we’re gonna go ahead and play part one for you.

Mark from Atlanta: Hi, my name is Mark and I’m from Atlanta, Georgia. I wanted to ask about the tri-state water wars between Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. It seems like Georgia kind of won that battle, but I’m curious if conflicts like these are gonna become more common.

Erin Stephens: So first, I wanna give a bit of an overview for our listeners about these tri-state water wars he mentioned, because if you don’t live in the Southeast, like myself or Mark, you might not have heard of it. But it refers to this dispute and litigation going back 30 years over shared water resources to river basins between Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. So back to Mark’s question for you, Jay, do you think transboundary water conflicts like these are going to become more common?

Jay Famiglietti: Thanks for that background, Erin. And yeah, I do think so, not only in the United States, but really all over the world, and not just about rivers, but over groundwater as well. As the dry parts of the world are getting drier due to climate change, water is naturally becoming more scarce. And we don’t really see water policy around the world planning for this. So we are seeing these historical conflicts like Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and internationally– Middle East, the Jordan River, the Tigris and Euphrates River, the Indus River between India and Pakistan, and new ones popping up like along the Nile and the greater Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Mekong River. I mean, they’re popping up all over the place. What I think is that it’s really time for more proactive national water policy and international water sharing agreements.

Erin Stephens: I would agree. And I think it’s really interesting that it’s not just this global issue, but it can also be really localized for people too.

Jay Famiglietti: That’s right.

Erin Stephens: Transboundary isn’t just across countries, It can be across states. And there are a lot of decisions that have to happen.

Jay Famiglietti: It could be across cities. It could be across counties. That’s the thing about water. It flows across, it doesn’t know those political boundaries, whether we’re talking about groundwater aquifers or river basins. It just flows across and through the land surface with no regard to political boundaries.

Erin Stephens: Absolutely. And Mark actually had a follow-up question.

Mark from Atlanta: I often hear the saying that water may become more valuable than oil in certain respects. How do you think the privatization of water is going to affect rural America in the next 25 years? And how do you think that we can do that in an equitable manner so that everybody has access to clean water?

Erin Stephens: So what do you think, Jay?

Jay Famiglietti: The privatization of water really refers to the treatment and the delivery of water, not the water itself. So someone has to pay for that infrastructure. And like anything else in the world, that’s us. It’s the consumers. In the United States, private water companies are as old as the country itself. And they actually currently serve about a quarter of the population. It turns out most of them are actually really efficient. They meet all the regulations for water standards. They deliver water at a fair price. And the truth is that some local governments just aren’t up to the task. And they fail at providing water and maintaining the infrastructure. And so then we start to have problems sometimes with local governments. That’s not to say that there can’t be problems with private companies and politics and corruption often come into play. It’s really important that when citizen groups have concerns, they publicly voice those concerns. If they oppose any action, that they get organized and they raise awareness about potential problems.

Erin Stephens: Absolutely, and maybe a bit of a follow-up question, to Mark’s follow-up, is water going to become more expensive for consumers in the future? Is that something we should know about or be thinking about?

Jay Famiglietti: So there’s actually two parts to that question. On the privatization side, in the US, probably not, but we have to think about water scarcity and across the country, if we had a national water policy, it may place more emphasis on the value of water, the value of ecosystem services. That’s not being discussed yet, but it’s a tool in the management of water.

Erin Stephens: Right, and it’s like maybe we might need to pay a little bit more for water in some places where it’s like dirt cheap and people can afford it to start valuing it more as water scarcity increases. Is that the thought?

Jay Famiglietti: Well, yeah, and I think that there’s this concept of tiered pricing where a family gets a certain amount of water for basic use in the region in which they live, which is appropriate for that region. But once you start exceeding that, then you pay, you might pay in tier two, double, in tier three, you might pay triple. And so that’s been really effective at keeping water, home water use under control.

Erin Stephens: That makes a lot of sense. Well, I always learn something new from you and from our listeners. So thank you so much to people like Mark who send us their questions. And if you’ve written in to Ask Jay and you haven’t heard your question yet, that doesn’t mean you won’t, continue to send them in to ideas@whataboutwater.org and you might hear your question in an upcoming episode. Thank you so much, Jay.

Jay Famiglietti: Thanks, Erin. Bye. Erin Stephens is our producer at What About Water. We record this podcast at Arizona State University which sits on the Homeland of the Akimel O’odham and Pee Posh tribal nations. And we produce this this podcast in Saskatchewan on Treaty 6 territory, the Homeland of the First Nations and Métis people. What About Water is the collaboration between The Walrus Lab and the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. This podcast is a production of Cascade Communications. Our producers, Erin Stephens. Our fact checker is Taisha Garby. We’d like to thank our studio crew here at Central Sound at Arizona PBS. Our crew at GIWS is Mark Ferguson, Shawn Ahmed, Fred Reiben, Andrea Rowe, and Jesse Witow. I’m Jay Famiglietti. Thanks for listening.