Raised in a family of modest means in India, water safety was an urgent matter for Meena Sankaran. With that in mind, after many years as an engineer, she founded in 2015 KETOS, a San Francisco-based startup with an AI-based platform focused on making water safer and more sustainable through an automated testing and monitoring process. She began deploying the service commercially over the past four years.
“Water safety affects how much water we can use,” she says. “How much water you use and the quality of that water are closely related.”
We spoke with 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 water comes out of the tap. And even in this day and age we don’t have the best of what technology can do and we haven’t applied it to the water sector. This is one of the last sectors to adopt new technological solutions to become smarter in delivering safe and sustainable water.
A lot of water can be used more efficiently when reused. Water safety is the yin and yang when you look at water efficiency, two sides of the coin when you think about water management.
It is vital that we understand that this is a resource that we cannot produce. We must preserve it for future generations. And part of preserving it is protecting it. To do that, you need to know how to manage it. And to manage it, you have to be able to measure it. That’s 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 customers?
We bring robotics materials science, data science and IOT solutions to provide real-time water quality information to industry, farmers and urban operators in a way that potentially enables them to comply with regulatory authorities and dispose of water that is environmentally safe. We are shifting behavior towards proactive versus reactive.
Industrial customers are, for example, mining companies. As lithium is in demand, mining companies around the world are investigating how they use groundwater and what happens to the water discharged. The life cycle of water, the reuse of water, these are all important. We can help them achieve their sustainability goal: how much they use, reuse, recycle. Can we help them reduce the amount of chemicals they use, how much fertilizer they use?
Industries use us for source control, treatment, pre- and post-treatment and discharge. We measure the water when they buy it, during their activities and when they discharge it. A production system can have four of our systems in different places and our platform can give them information about that. What kinds of alarms and anomalies are there? It helps them perform predictive maintenance, giving them insight into what they can do, historical and forward-looking insights. We can also do climate modeling for them. The more data we can integrate, the more intelligent and predictive we can give it.
Take chemical dosage. Customers can save 12%-15% weekly on their chemical costs. That makes a big difference when costs rise. Today they just take a sample and send it to the lab and wait seven days. By the time they get the data, they will be outdated. If people can’t wait that long, they invest a lot of money to build their own lab and that is very labor intensive.
What about agriculture?
Water and food security are closely linked. For farmers, we work with crops that are water-intensive, such as pistachios and almonds. We monitor the groundwater. Spring water is an interesting area. As climate change shifts weather patterns, you start to see how much groundwater is falling, meaning the concentration of the water changes, the composition of the water. And we can tell them, for example, how much nitrates and phosphates are in the water and how much of that water ends up in your food crop. Empowering them with this information makes them so much more efficient. It allows them to grow a safer crop and run a more sustainable business.
Indoor ag customers were also very interesting. They test every 15 minutes and they need to know what is happening to their nutrient concentration as they need to deliver consistent quality taste to their customers. They can use the data on a daily basis that makes a difference in the environment.
How do customers access the data? And what is your business model?
The data can come on your mobile phone or on a computer. Most operators walk around on the floor or in the fields, so they prefer the mobile phone. But the executives looking at multiple farms prefer to look at our web-based platform because they see it as a network. It can show them, here are your 50 sites and show which sites are green and which are yellow. What we install on site resembles a large microwave. The robot sits in that hardware and runs continuously. So whatever water flow you want to monitor, you pass it on to the hardware.
Our business model is not to sell the hardware. Our business model is to own, maintain and maintain the hardware. In this way we reduce the risk of innovation for our customers. It also helps them to want to test more. When they need to purchase hardware and send samples, they do minimal testing because they have to worry about the total cost of ownership. We break that mentality of, don’t test anymore because it costs you more, because we charge a predictable fee. And we make them think about architectures that need to work together. They’re thinking about how this is going to change sustainability in the next 10, 50 years. How do you integrate all this so that you can work more data-driven and not see water data as one laboratory report.
How did you come to start the company?
I grew up in India in a humble upbringing. My father was a chemical factory worker and my mother was a tutoring housewife. I had maybe 14 waterborne illnesses before I was 15 because of where we lived. And that was not unusual. But I was focused on becoming an engineer and helping my family live a comfortable life. Once I knew they were comfortable, I knew I had to start doing something I was passionate about. After more than 15 years of enterprise tech, I had learned enough and built the confidence knowing that I wanted to build a company that could make a change and that stood for its culture and what we believed in.
We have been funded for the past five years. We are backed by companies and we had a combination of impact, clean technology and technology funds backing us. We’ve raised nearly $40 million in funding and we’re just getting ready to really scale up globally. Unreasonable has been a big proponent of helping us scale up. We mainly sell in the US, but we’ve also deployed in Brazil, Peru, Israel and Canada and we plan to go to Singapore and Kuwait in the next three to six months.
We have 170 million data insights today and monitor approximately 13 billion gallons of water. But that’s the surface of the trillions of gallons of water that end up in wastewater discharges today. My true vision is to prevent the outbreak of disease. Can we have enough data to make every human visible and democratize our platform around the world? Can we achieve that in the next 10 years? I believe we can.