Growing up in a family of modest means in India, water safety was a matter of urgency for Meena Sankaran. With that 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. She started deploying the service commercially over the last four years.
“Water safety impacts how much water we can access,” she says. “How much water you use and the quality of that water are closely intertwined.”
We talked to Sankaran about her company, her goals, and what inspired her to start her company.
Tell us why you started your company?
Water is such a precious resource, but it’s 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’ve not adopted the best of what technology can do and applied that in the water sector. This is one of the last sectors to adopt new technology solutions in terms of how to become smarter about providing safe and sustainable water.
A lot of water, if re-used, can be leveraged more efficiently. Water safety is the yin and yang if you’re looking at water efficiency, two sides to the coin when you think about water management.
It’s paramount we understand this is a resource we can’t manufacture. We need to 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 need 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 handle the water they have.
Who are your customers?
We’re bringing robotic material science, data science and IOT solutions to provide real-time water quality intelligence to industry, farmers, city operators in a way that potentially allows them to be compliant with regulatory agencies and discharge water that is safe for the environment . We’re shifting behavior to be proactive vs. reactive.
Industrial customers include, for example, mining companies. As there’s more demand for lithium, mining across the world is exploring how they’re using ground water, as well as what happens to the water that’s discharged. The life cycle of water, the reuse of water, that’s all important. We’re able to help them reach their sustainability goal—how much they’re using, reusing, recycling. Can we help them reduce the amount of chemicals they use, how much fertilizer they use?
Industries leverage us for source control, treatment, pre- and post-treatment and discharge. We measure the water when they’re sourcing it, during their operations, and when they’re discharging it. A manufacturing system could have four of our systems located in different spots and our platform can give them information about all of that. What kind of alarms and anomalies are there? It helps them do some predictive maintenance, giving them insights into what they can be doing, historical and forward-looking insights. We can also do climate modeling for them. The more data we can integrate, the more intelligent and predictive insights we can give them.
Take chemical dosing. Customers can save 12%-15% on their chemical costs per week. That makes a big difference as costs spike up. Today they just take a sample and send it to the lab and wait for 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 that’s very labor-intensive.
What about agriculture?
Water and food security are closely related. For famers, we work with crops that are water intensive, like pistachios and almonds. We monitor the ground water. Well water is one interesting area. As climate change shifts weather patterns, you start seeing how much the ground water is dropping, which means the concentration of the water, the composition of the water is changing. And we can tell them, for example, how much nitrates and phosphates are in the water and how much of that water is going into your food crop. Empowering them with this information makes them so much more efficient. It empowers them to grow a safer crop and run a more sustainable operation.
Indoor ag customers have also been very interesting. They’re testing every 15 minutes and they need to know what’s happening with their nutrient concentration, because they have to deliver consistent quality taste to their customers. They’re able to use the data on a daily basis that makes a difference in the environment.
How do customers get access to the data? And what is your business model?
The data can come on your mobile phone or on a computer. Most of the operators are walking around on the floor or the fields so they prefer the mobile phone. But the executives who are looking at multiple farms prefer looking at our web-based platform, because they’re looking at it as a network. It can show them, here’s your 50 sites and show which sites are green, which are yellow. What we install on-site sort of looks like a large microwave. The robot is inside that hardware and running continuously. So whatever stream of water you want to monitor, you pass it along into the hardware.
Our business model is not to sell the hardware. Our business model is to own, maintain and service the hardware. That way, we de-risk innovation for our customers. It also helps them want to test more. When they have to purchase hardware and send out samples, they do minimal testing, because they have to worry about the total cost of ownership. We’re breaking that mindset of, don’t test more because it will cost you more, because we charge a predictable fee. And we’re making them think about architectures that have to work together. They’re thinking how this is going to change sustainability over the next 10 years, 50 years. How will you integrate all this so you can be more data-driven, and not looking at water data as one lab report.
How did you come to found the company?
I grew up in India in a modest upbringing. My dad was a chemical factory worker and my mom was a housewife who did tutoring. I had maybe 14 water borne illnesses before I was 15, because of where we lived. And that wasn’t 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 needed to make a change to do something I was passionate about. After more than 15 years of doing enterprise tech, I had learned enough and built the confidence knowing I wanted to build a company that could make a change and that stood for its culture and what we believed in.
We’ve been funded for the last five years. We’re venture backed and we had a combination of impact, clean tech and tech funds supporting us. We raised close to $40 million in funding and we’re just ready to really scale globally. Unreasonable has been a strong supporter in helping us scale. We’re mainly selling in the US but we’ve deployed in Brazil, Peru, Israel, Canada and we’re looking to deploy to Singapore and Kuwait in the next three to six months.
We have 170 million data insights today and monitor roughly 13 billion gallons of water. But that’s scratching the surface of the trillions of gallons of water that go into waste water discharge today. My true vision is to prevent disease outbreak. Can we have enough data to give visibility to every human being and democratize our platform across the globe? Can we achieve that in the next 10 years? I believe we can.