Growing up in a family of modest means in India, water security was a pressing issue for Meena Sankaran. With this in mind, after working for many years as an engineer, in 2015 she founded KETOS, a San Francisco-based startup with an AI-based platform aimed at making water safer and more sustainable through an automated testing and monitoring process. It began rolling out the service commercially over the past four years.
“Water security affects how much water we can access,” she says. “The amount of water you use and the quality of that water are closely related.”
We spoke to Sankaran about her business, her goals and what inspired her to start her business.
Tell us why you started your business?
Water is such a precious resource, yet it is taken for granted. People don’t really think about what happens when they flush the toilet or when the water comes out of the tap. And even today we haven’t embraced the best that technology can do and applied that in the water sector. It is one of the latest sectors to embrace new technological solutions to become smarter in providing safe and sustainable water.
A large amount of water, if reused, can be used more efficiently. Water safety is yin and yang if you’re thinking about water efficiency, the two sides of the coin when you think about water management.
It is essential that we understand that this is a resource that we cannot manufacture. We must preserve it for future generations. And part of preserving it is protecting it. For that, you have to know how to manage it. And to manage it, you have to be able to measure it. It is fundamental. And that’s what we do. We give people the tools to measure and understand what to do and how to manage the water they have.
Who are your clients ?
We bring robotic materials science, data science and IOT solutions to deliver real-time water quality information to industry, farmers and municipal operators in a way that allows them potentially comply with regulatory agencies and discharge environmentally safe water. . We change our behavior to be proactive rather than reactive.
Industrial customers include, for example, mining companies. As demand for lithium increases, mine operators around the world are studying how they use groundwater, as well as what happens to the water that is discharged. The life cycle of water, the reuse of water, is very important. We are able to help them achieve their sustainability goal: how much they use, reuse, recycle. Can we help them reduce the amount of chemicals they use, the amount of fertilizer they use?
Industries call on us for source control, treatment, pre- and post-treatment and rejection. We measure the water when they supply, during their operations and when they release it. A manufacturing system could have four of our systems located in different places and our platform can give them information about all of this. What types of alarms and anomalies are there? This helps them perform predictive maintenance, giving them insight into what they can do, historical and forward-looking information. We can also do climate modeling for them. The more data we can integrate, the more intelligent and predictive insights we can provide them.
Take the chemical dosage. Customers can save 12% to 15% on their chemical costs per week. It makes a big difference because the costs go up. Today, they simply take a sample, send it to the lab and wait seven days. By the time they get the data, it’s outdated. If people can’t wait that long, they invest a lot of money to build an in-house lab and it’s very labor intensive.
What about agriculture?
Water and food security are closely linked. For farmers, we work with water-intensive crops, such as pistachios and almonds. We monitor the water table. Well water is an interesting area. As climate change changes weather patterns, you start to see how much groundwater is decreasing, which means the concentration of water, the composition of water is changing. And we can tell them, for example, how much nitrate and phosphate is in the water and how much of that water goes into your food crop. Giving them this information makes them much more effective. This allows them to cultivate a safer culture and run a more sustainable operation.
Indoor agriculture customers were also very interesting. They test every 15 minutes and they need to know what’s going on with their nutrient concentration because they need to deliver consistent quality taste to their customers. They are able to use the data that makes a difference in the environment on a daily basis.
How do customers access data? And what is your business model?
The data can come from your mobile phone or from a computer. Most of the operators walk around on the ground or in the fields, so they prefer the mobile phone. But managers who are interested in multiple farms prefer to check out our web platform because they consider it a network. It can show them, here are your 50 sites and show which sites are green, which are yellow. What we’re setting up on site kind of looks like a big microwave. The robot is inside this material and works continuously. So whatever water flow you want to monitor, you feed it to the hardware.
Our business model is not to sell hardware. Our business model is to own, maintain and maintain the hardware. In this way, we reduce the risks associated with innovation for our customers. It also helps them want to test more. When they have to buy hardware and send samples, they do minimal testing because they have to worry about the total cost of ownership. We break that mindset, don’t test more because it will cost you more, because we charge predictable fees. And we make them think about architectures that must work together. They wonder how this is going to change sustainability over the next 10, 50 years. How are you going to integrate all of this so that you can be more data-driven and not view water data as just a lab report.
How did you come to found the company?
I grew up in India with a humble upbringing. My father was a worker in a chemical factory and my mother was a housewife who did tutoring. I had maybe 14 waterborne illnesses before I was 15, because of where we lived. And it was not uncommon. But I was focused on becoming an engineer and helping my family lead a comfortable life. Once I knew they were comfortable, I knew I had to change to do something I was passionate about. After more than 15 years of experience in enterprise technology, I had learned enough and gained enough confidence to know that I wanted to build a company that was capable of making a difference and that stood up for its culture and what we believed in.
We have been funded for the past five years. We are backed by venture capital and we benefit from a combination of impact funds, clean technologies and technologies that support us. We’ve raised nearly $40 million in funding and are just ready to expand globally. Unreasonable CHANGE has been a strong supporter in helping us evolve. We primarily sell in the United States, but have deployed to Brazil, Peru, Israel, Canada and are planning to expand to Singapore and Kuwait in the next three to six months.
We now have 170 million data insights and monitor approximately 13 billion gallons of water. But that only scratches the surface of the trillions of gallons of water that are dumped into wastewater today. My true vision is to prevent epidemics. Can we have enough data to give visibility to every human being and democratize our platform around the world? Can we achieve this in the next 10 years? I believe we can.