SmartAustin was delighted recently to have breakfast with Seyi Fabode. Seyi, a systems engineer with a background in finance and energy, is one of those thought leaders whose coolness you uncover only after you look him up on the web, since he doesn’t go out of his way to tell you himself. Check out his blog, his articles on Huffington Post and his book to get a glimpse.
Seyi engages in consulting with companies of all sizes, but a recent article he penned, and the response to it, inspired him to develop a new product: Varuna, a wi-fi enabled water quality meter for the home. The product, and the effort that produced it, are the subjects of this week’s post.
SA: Let’s start with Varuna’s ‘back story.’ How did you get the idea?
SF: Last fall, we met with a design firm in Round Rock. We were having conversations about connected homes and other IoT stuff. I actually had not worked on many IoT products but found most of the products in the category unsatisfying. They don't tend to serve real and/or critical customer needs. For instance, there’s a connected sock that stops movies when someone falls asleep, or an app that helps people measure their weight every day. I don't think people really need these things.
I sat down to brainstorm with the designers at Axis Design and we decided that for something to be both important and useful, it needs to speak to core human needs. . . . My favorite quote about how to engage consumers, by the way, comes from Irna Phillips, the inventor of the first radio soap opera: “To engage listeners in their home you appeal to i) the instinct for self preservation ii) sex iii) the family instinct or iv) all of the three together if you can manage.”
At the meeting, we came up with a few ideas that we think fit the bill and I wrote a blog post to solicit smart and quick feedback from ‘the crowd.’
The first idea was a connected coat hanger that enables functionalities in the home: for instance, if the kids don’t hang their coats up, then the wi-fi doesn’t turn on!
The second idea was a medicine dispenser for adults with illnesses, that communicates with the pharmacy, and the patient, about correct usage and refill requests.
The third idea was the one we ended up acting on, which is the Varuna water quality sensor. The crowd’s response to that idea was overwhelming!
SA: OK, so I understand you were busy with other work and not yet in the ‘product development groove.’ How did you manage to get the right resources together to get the project going? And what’s your role in the current effort?
SF: Exactly. The article happened, but then I let it go for about six weeks since I was busy with other projects. But then a public company reach out, and asked if they could support distribution. Shortly after that, two large private companies reached out with the same offer. That was pretty motivating!
So then, I got together a designer and an electrical engineer. I have experience in both domains and an undergrad degree in manufacturing, which helps as well. A recent problem we solved, which involved exactly that kind of cross-domain expertise, had to do with reducing the expense associated with our board design. On top of that sort of problem, I do a good amount of branding and market research work.
The companies that have approached us demand, of course, a fully-finished product and are not interested in funding development. So that part is now up to us! But it is exciting to have ‘skin in the game.’
SA: Tell us more about the product, itself, and how it’s deployed.
SF: Varuna is a water quality meter that is installed in the home and connects to wi-fi. It sends alerts related to a wide range of water, and water system, quality characteristics: water flow, water temperature, total dissolved solids, and so on.
The product includes a functional board with a turbidity sensor for finding the concentration of particles in the water, which is a proxy for contamination levels. Also, we are testing a conductivity sensor for measuring lead. Those are the first two measures of quality, and we’ve heard that loud and clear from our market surveys and expert interviews! It turns out that dissolved solids and lead concentration are leading indicators for a wide range of other quality issues.
We also have the potential, as adoption proceeds, to build more robust inferred conclusions from data points collected in a clustered, geographical concentration. Sewage damage indications would be a good example here.
Our solution is installed on the customer-side--with professional installation--because the customer side is where the pain and motivation are felt when water quality issues come up. Of course, Flint is the extreme example but beyond that there were, more generally, over 500 thousand self-reported water quality violations, nationally, between 2004-2009. And many of us face much more modest, but still important water quality issues. For instance, in my house, some limited water quality issues were causing my son’s skin to break out. We bought balms and lotions but none of them worked. Only when we tested the water did we realize that a water purifier could solve the problem. It just seems like good preemptive information to have!
SA: Got it. The product definitely seems well-considered. Before we wrap up, though, we’d like to hear your evaluation of Austin. What do you think of this town as a place to start a business?
SF: So, we moved to Austin about a year-and-a-half ago. Before that, we lived in Chicago for eight years, and before that, in London for ten. Austin’s technology space reminds me very much of where Chicago’s was about four years ago: there is a lot more potential energy than achievement. But I think all of that is about to change. And I actually think the potential here is, in some ways, even greater than in Chicago. For one thing, the diversity of interests is quite strong: we have everything from gaming to food tech to smart cities to crazy hardware stuff to drones.
There’s a huge gap in the ecosystem, though. You have Dell, then some three-million dollar firms, and then a lot of startups. You don’t have many 200-million dollar businesses with folks at the leadership level who can spill out and start the next set of 50-to-100-million dollar businesses. That’s the negative. But apart from that, there’s a lot to be excited about.