Is Software to Measure Water Quality Actually a Matter of Hardware?

with 🎙️ Meena Sankaran, CEO and Founder of KETOS.

💧 KETOS ambitions to transform how water operators measure, manage and forecast water quality and efficiency in Industrial, Agricultural, and Municipal applications.

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This episode is part of my series on (successful) Water Entrepreneurship – check it out! 😀

What we covered:

🍏 How digitization is everywhere but in the Water Industry, and how that may be swiftly changing

🍎 How Water Quality and especially Heavy Metal Ions is still a blind spot in many industrial and agricultural applications

🍏 How KETOS’ vertically integrates from Hardware to Software in a quite unique take at Water Quality digitization – and how that all came from thorough market research

🍏 How KETOS markets monitoring as a service in a zero-money-down approach

🍎 How growing an innovative hardware-based business in the water sector as a woman solo-founder is a challenging sum of hurdles – to say the least

💪 How Grit, Resilience, and Passion are the three most essential traits of a successful entrepreneur

🍏 How fascinating it is for operators to start leveraging the “power of knowledge”

🍀 How growth is a by-product of solving deep and vivid market pains, and how circular models are the best platform for growth

🍏 How committed Meena is to reveal women’s inner strength (W.IN.S) regardless of their career path and background

🍏 But also: presenting the SDG6 at the United Nations, Social Entrepreneurship, CoVid 19 leapfrogging digitization, and much more!

🔥 … and of course, we concluded with the 𝙧𝙖𝙥𝙞𝙙 𝙛𝙞𝙧𝙚 𝙦𝙪𝙚𝙨𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣𝙨 🔥 



➡️ Send your warm regards to Meena on LinkedIn

🔗 Check KETOS’ website

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is on Linkedin ➡️

Infographic: Digital Water Quality


Table of contents

Full Transcript:

These are computer-generated, so expect some typos 🙂

Antoine Walter:

Hi Meena, Welcome to the show!

Meena Sankaran:

Thanks, Antoine pleasure to be here and grateful for having me here!

Antoine Walter:

Well, you know I have many things to discuss with you today, but we have traditions. So I have to start with the postcard. And what I’m seeing right now from your postcard is, is really tempting. You are in Santa Cruz, right?

Meena Sankaran:

Correct. nestled in the redwoods right behind me. So I’m lucky that way. Thank you. Well, it gets tricky when there are fires, but it’s absolutely gorgeous.

Antoine Walter:

It looks more like gorgeous than fires right now. I hope that that stays that way for, for that interview. But if the interview heats… who knows!

When I was reviewing your, your path. I, saw many ventures, many things. Usually, I don’t take notes for that because I can remember everything. For you, that’s not the case. I had to take notes because you’ve really crossed so many paths.

Presenting the UN SDG 6

You’ve been working for satellite networks, water monitoring, banking, data centers, refugee support, empowering woman… I was wondering where to start. And I have maybe a hint. I saw that you were presenting SDG 6 at the United nations. Is that the right point to start your story?

Meena Sankaran:

It’s, it’s certainly a very interesting culmination of what the UN SDG 6 represented. You know, for me, that was more of a reward for the entire team of KETOS than individually. For me, I think I was representing the team.

Presenting the Sustainable Development Goal 6 at the United Nations. A milestone for Meena Sankaran.

But it was truly a moment where you feel like what you’re trying to accomplish. This vision that you’re trying to make a movement is coming to fruition. And it’s getting recognized at a platform at the right layers of a platform where people and leaders around the world know that they have to take the future of water.

Seriously. If you know, our future generations are going to have a glimpse of what it’s going to be to have clean, safe drinking water. So I think the UN definitely symbolizes a certain kind of stature in terms of commanding for what the future should hold for it.

And so I think being at that platform was certainly, a blessing, uh, of years and years of, you know, sort of different paths coming together.

How KETOS’ adventure brought Meena at the UN’s tribune

Antoine Walter:

So how did that happen? They just gave you a call and there you were?

Meena Sankaran:

It’s very interesting. Well you know, we have one of the projects that KETOS did in early 2017 has been a project around smart villages.

And part of that project called smart village in India was about really helping these villages. We went after 25 villages to take us a subset and these villages didn’t water for, I think that we’re getting about once every four days or so. And the idea was, well, you know, that shouldn’t be the case.

Presenting the UN SDG6 at the United Nations - a highlight for KETOS and Meena Sankaran.

And there is enough technology for us to figure out how to make sure that, both the quantity and the quality of water are somewhat managed. It’s more of a distribution problem than an availability problem. And what was fascinating is I met this woman and in India, when your villages, there’s someone that’s kind of the chief of the village.

And this woman was so fascinating. She had her little moped, she took me on our moped and she started showing me all the different water reservoirs, the tanks, and everything. And what she was struggling with is there was no way for her to control the water of how much water she needs to get like distribute around her region.

Experiencing water challenges in the field in India

And the second part, she was dealing with water theft. So we were able to implement a solution for her that allowed her to get water every day, even if it’s a couple of hours because they could put a limit on it and manage that threshold versus not getting water for a substantial amount of time.

And so very simple things like that were implemented across 25 villages. And my philosophy has always been keeping local people involved at this, because I think when companies fail internationally, it’s because if you’re trying to just go into a community, it’s not just technology, it’s people, it’s the culture it’s involvement and including them to be part of that solution.

So we created a circular system where we take the local teenagers and the youth and make them part of the solution so they could manage our system when we leave. And by doing that, they get more enticed to be in the village versus migrate off to cities. And so you’re creating multiple impact layers there.

Meena Sankaran presentend the UN SDG6 at the United Nations.

That circular model that we created from a business standpoint was very attractive to the United Nations. And we got nominated for how can impact projects be created that have not just a commercial and a social impact but also impact from future growth.

And how can alternate business models be created for impacting migration around communities where in a lot of underdeveloped regions that’s becoming a huge issue. So it was, it was several fold in terms of how we got pulled into UN and world bank supporting us and others, but it’s you know, several projects like that. And I hope we get, you know, as part of keeping those journey, we get to do a lot more of those.

Impact Driven, Social Entrepreneur

Antoine Walter:

You mentioned impact I’ve seen in the various descriptions of yourself, something, sometimes you mentioned you were a social entrepreneur sometimes you say you are impact-driven, purpose-driven. What’s your definition of all these terms? How do you see yourself?

Meena Sankaran:

I think an entrepreneur is just an entrepreneur.

I think there are so many ways to, you know, add to what that qualifies. At the end of it, it just means you as an individual, if you were going to go on this path and journey, that is extremely challenging and you’re trying to solve a problem, you have to have the grit, you have to have the resilience, you have to have the passion.

A successful entrepreneur needs grit, resilience and passion. Three key rules to entrepreneurship by Meena Sankaran.

Because without the combination of those three, it doesn’t matter how big an idea is, you’re not going to be able to sustain it. And so for me, that grit and that resilience and that passion come from a place of, if you are functioning towards solving a problem.

And if you want to make that problem, your core mission, that purpose has to be bigger than you bigger than your team, bigger than your company.

The Business of Business is not just Business!

That is what will draw people together. And so to me, the social side of entrepreneurship just means that you’re not just addressing a problem that has some commercial value, but it has to have a community impact. It has to have a social impact that task to have a multi-dimensional, you know, value that not just is a transit single, transactional value, but, you know, sort of adds several layers post that transaction.

And so to me, entrepreneurship is really about what is it in you to take an idea and make it a movement and drive that movement beyond you beyond the team, beyond the company. Because that’s, when you know it can be successful.

without grit, resilience and passion, it does not matter how big an idea is, you're not going to sustain it.

Antoine Walter:

It’s a very interesting definition because I think that goes quite well along with a shift of paradigm, which was described by, I think it was the Dean of the Oxford university. He was explaining that the old model of entrepreneurship was to make as much money as you can. And nowadays it’s more like finding a problem in the society and solving for that problem and being profitable in doing so, but first solving a problem.

Meena Sankaran:

Yeah. I mean, think of this Antoine. Back in the day when our parents and grandparents were working, it was a very different, you work, you come back and you sort of have a shift and you come back home.

Digitization also has some drawbacks…

Now we all carry this device with us that keeps us 24/7 online. And so even when we’re not working, we’re at home, we’re still sort of working. So if you’re spending a massive amount of time in your entire life on the so-called thing job that is defining maximum one of your time away from your family person, wouldn’t you want that quality of time to be very definitive of who you are and what you want to contribute or land of doing something that makes you happy.

Because if we’re working 10 to 12 hours a day, and we’re not doing anything that makes us happy and lighthearted and enjoying the company of people who are also happy and want to do that, I mean, you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.

A successful social entrepreneur needs to have community and social impact - so Meena Sankaran says.

So it, to me, I’m a big believer that when people told me and I actually did receive that advice said, well, you know, go do a startup who knows you might be successful, and then you’ll make a lot of money. And then after the tape, then go start philanthropy. It’s a very typical trajectory that people do.

They want to do a startup, they might, and then they think they’re going to become financially free to a point that then they’ll go and do philanthropy.

… so you better have a purpose!

And I, my thought process was one in thousand startups succeed, or maybe one in a hundred, if the odds have gotten better. But if those chances are so low and you don’t know what your outcome is, why would I wait for doing good for a certain part of time where I have no outcome guarantees? And if I can make that difference, doing everything I do is actually serving a purpose.

And I think that we may not be able to compete with the likes of Amazon and Google and apple on a salary or a paycheck, but as a team, we are so purpose-driven, we are so customer focused about the impact we have for our customers, the success we want to create. That’s what draws people.

That’s what keeps our team together. And I think that I don’t think I could bring that kind of influence in any other type of you know, idea or a function that they know is not going to, you know, make a difference for their future. That would be really sad.

KETOS’ purpose: Transform the Water Industry, Digitize and Automate Water Quality

Antoine Walter:

You mentioned the purpose, you mentioned the problems you’re solving for the customers. Let’s start the deep dive a bit with that. What is actually the problem that KETOS is solving today?

Meena Sankaran:

So you know, we’re fundamentally looking at water monitoring. And when I say the reason why we look at water monitoring, take a step back now, you know, with COVID, everyone’s wearing masks and people are very heightened about air quality.

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And you know, there’s a lot more focus on air quality. Now, if you look at the basics, air, water, food, most of it, we take it for granted and we land up measuring every aspect of our day. How many steps do we walk? What’s my heartbeat?

Yet. 99% of people have no clue about the quality of water they drink.

And it’s very easy because we have just been very privileged in our society to not have to think about the water we drink, nor care about how much water we use. And if you ask most people, I’ve had the lamest answers where I’ve asked, it’s genuinely, the answer was like, where do you think water comes from there?

Like it’s coming from a tap, right? So it’s, I mean, it’s like, well, do you know how many people worked so hard to get you that water from that tap 24/7 through the day? And part of it is, you know, these, this entire sector of water is sort of the last frontier.

Digitization is everywhere… but in the Water Industry

So you had a wave of the 21st century and all of the technological innovations that are happening in digitization. You know, the, these markets hit in banking. You’ve got the changes happening in the enterprise tech sector, which is farther, farther along. It’s always leading the chart. Then it comes into power. It comes into transportation.

People will still regard energy as it much, much higher priority in their mind than water. And so as you plug along and you come through water, sort of, you know, if you went to, if you said, you know, I really want to understand like what my water quality is or what my city’s water is.

Entrepreneurship means taking an Idea beyond you, the team and the company says the CEO of KETOS

Or in general, I want to be able to look at data and say, can I prevent a disease outbreak? That’s water, quality-driven, right? And that amount of possibility doesn’t exist today. So you can’t just go to a website and understand the different aspects of what water quality impact could happen and how could that affect my future health.

Yet Water Quality is a Health Discussion

And so fundamentally, if you go, if you start there like I want to prevent a disease outbreak and you start looking at that’s waterborne, where do I start from? The first thing is understanding the different things that could create that water quality impact for that kind of public health hazard.

And then you take that layer. You’ve got all kinds of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms that are being developed on a massive amount of platforms, but they’re not being developed as a holistic tool for water quality, from a really, really broad sense of understanding how much lead is there.

Your job must have a purpose and a meaning. An advice by Meena Sankaran, CEO of KETOS.

Arsenic is there, you understand pH temperature, people do typical physical parameters. So the big gap was you have a lot of software platforms out there that can do AI and ML, and they can bridge the gap between what the water industry has with the lack of digital expertise.

The monitoring of Water Quality misses Heavy Metal Ions sensing today

But fundamentally we’re missing monitoring of heavy metal ions, which is where you had Flint, Michigan. You had a lot of different types of other cities in a similar issue, and you have industrial water. That’s about 30 to 40% coming out with lots of different types of ways. You’ve got agricultural water, which is about another 60%. And so drinking water is really only 10%.

So what KETOS fundamentally wants to accomplish is how do we create first the sensors and the hardware to actually detect heavy metal ions in a continuous manner. Because if that existed, I would have just done the platform, but then it doesn’t exist.

If you want to make a difference today, what you do must serve a purpose - so Meena Sankaran advises you.

So we had to dive in and build the hardware layer in the way that it bridges all the gaps from what we see in the traditional legacy market today, and then be able to take all of that data and create the layer of intelligence, which allows industrials, municipalities agriculture to now look at water safety, food, safety, across all their customers in a very different lens.

Fostering Water Quality starts with Hardware Development

Antoine Walter:

Let me ask you a very candid question here. You know, if I want to develop a software platform, I imagine nowadays I can find software engineers quite everywhere, and chances are, I can develop that not easily, but certainly I can find people who have that knowledge and build it on the hardware level.

If you ask me tomorrow, to start from scratch and develop hardware to test the various ions you just mentioned, it sounds like, like a moonshot, something really much more difficult. Is that a true impression? And how did you do that? Did you really start from scratch? Did you partner? What was your starting point there on the hardware side?

Meena Sankaran:

Antoine, it’s fun that you asked me how many people, like a lot of people, have asked me, Meena, would you do it again? Would you do it again? Like hardware is so hard. And which is also why investors like run away from hardware, if possible, they, you know, it’s easier to invest in SaaS, startups, easier to measure them as well.

99% of people have no clue about the Water Quality they drink

I think that, but I believe that hardware is transformational because, you know, robots couldn’t exist without hardware and you know, like Tesla or everything that we are surrounded by the intelligence that software creates for us to do really impactful stuff.

And that comes from revolutionary hardware. So it has to begin somewhere. And so from my standpoint, I believe, you know, our bodies are, again, it’s another piece of hardware with all of the other neurons and intelligence that exists in our brain.

So to me, that combination can be very lethal if used the right way. For hardware, as a starting point, you know, water is very complex. So first recognizing that this is a complex problem. Second is if you look at traditional hardware, you have to see what exists and what’s not working when you’re trying to build something.

What are the gaps in Water Quality Hardware today?

When you look at traditional legacy hardware, you have a lot of probes. So you would go take a probe, go to a site, dip it in the water, see how the watercolor changes. And then you have some data loggers. And some people log that data to that. Or some people manually are taking that data in a PDF.

There are different forms of how people have traditionally done it. They do pH turbidity temperature. There’s like the common things. And then you’ve got in the last seven years, these online analyzers sort of like a single parameter.

People don't know where water comes from - a sad truth shared by Meena Sankaran.

Here’s my chlorine analyzer. Here’s my nitrate analyzer and well what ends up happening Antoine is like, let’s say you’re a water operator. We are now expecting you to not only keep ramping up on new technologies, manage these instruments.

… and in the way the Water Quality equipment is operated?

Now we’re expecting you to clean this instrument every couple of days, calibrate it every couple of days. And by the way, if you want to freak, when the tests more, you’re going to purchase more consumables. So it’s counter-intuitive to want a test or encourage more frequent sapling.

And then after all of this period, your technology is already gone up obsolete because technology is evolving so fast. So if you purchase that equipment and spent a ton of money as an asset by year three, you’re already like, well, that’s already old news. I can go, just use my chlorine analyzer and go do something with nitrates. It’s a very fixed design, right?

How KETOS aims to vertically reinvent Water Quality from Hardware to Software

So my whole philosophy fundamentally was: I’m going to look at this as an intersection, bringing in the best of minds to bring that together. So chemists, material scientists, physicists are kind of the core of my R&D team.

My hardware team is sort of like the electromechanical robotic type of engineers. And my software team is cloud architects and data scientists and sort of embedded software firmer leaders. So you have a true blend of very cross-functional, but very interdisciplinary science needs, engineering meets sort of software to bring that analytics that you finally want to deliver to the operator.

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That’s how that has come to fruition. And so to see how we have a 100% remote-controlled robot that can continuously monitor and test, uh, 26 or so parameters, and can do it in a way that you’re able to control it from your mobile phone and manage it based on the frequency that you think is important for your operations makes it very significant because you now have the power to test with no labor consequence and no cost impact, which has never existed before.

And so think of it as almost like taking principles of software, like when you would do software packages and how you had sort of upgrades remotely taking a lot of those principles and applying it and almost making the entire infrastructure as a service and delivering water quality data as a service where you as an operator are no longer tied to this new technology thinking I have to ramp up on anything. You’re just looking at the data and thinking, how do I use it?

A disruptive approach to Water Quality…

Antoine Walter:

Let me put, this aspect of as a service in the fridge for a second. I wanted to dive into that one, but just before I’d like to come back to the hardware. If I get it right, you got the certifications, which allow you to replace a lab analysis. Developing hardware in that industry is already a beast. You explained it quite well! But then having the certifications for that is usually even another beast!

How did you get that? Because that is now not only disruptive on the approach, it’s also disruptive saying that instead of going to the lab and making a traditional analysis, which is the way we’ve done since the sixties, seventies, you can do everything online with the same accuracy. Was that as easy as saying it that way, I guess, no. What was your path?

When it comes to Water Quality, hardware is transformational, says the CEO of KETOS.

Meena Sankaran:

I would say absolutely not easy at all. It’s still a work in progress. I think the battle here is shifting people’s mindsets. You know, we’re a six-year-old company we’re going to come upon six years in three months.

… built upon resilience and early adopters

So, you know, and, and in the water sector, Antoine, I’ll tell you this, that I’ve had companies tell me a large legacy, strategic water leaders, one company say we don’t take any company seriously. If you’ve not crossed the five-year mark, because we want to see if you would survive.

Another person gave to me a seven-year mark and a third one told me 10 marks. So yeah, so essentially it’s a lot about building credibility. And so I think that I’m very, very grateful for the early adopters because they’re taking a chance on us.

In this time and age, technologies become fast obsolete - hence KETOS' move to Water Quality as a service.

They’re foresighted, they’re trying to be innovative with their operational systems because that’s allowing us to prove the solution, prove the data and ultra prove the model, not just technology, but also the business model.

And that together is facilitating others to at least have those conversations. And for me to plant those seeds because they get intrigued enough that they want to talk about it more.

A different take at municipal and industrial sectors

But I would say it’s a lot of, lot of nurturing. It does not happen quickly, especially in the municipal sector. In the industrial sector, it’s actually quite different. So in the industrial, agricultural sector, they’re not looking at us from a compliance perspective.

For example, they’re not looking at us and saying, well, I’m going to take the report directly from your system and submit it to my DQ or APA. That would be great, but I think that’s a lot of work for, and in terms of like EPA is federal aid, it’s not going to endorse a company. It’s going to be someday.

EPA is going to say, under these guidance conditions, observations we might allow for continuous monitoring or some sort of, you know, I, I believe they’ll come to that point, but it’s not going to be a specific device or specific company, but industrial and agriculture have a lot of value in using equipment like ours, to help them with their own process, to remove blind spots and to be able to save massively on their chemical feed on their treatment, on improving their membrane filtration.

KETOS is a blend of hardware and software to bring Water Quality to operators.

So a lot of aspects of their own compliance to be compliant, not necessarily take us as the compliance sample. So by the time EPA comes knocking on their door, they have nothing to be worried about because they have a substantial amount of data from us.

That’s keeping their process while functioning and, you know, under the thresholds that they want to operate under. So I think that’s where the crux is for municipalities. There are some who will jump in to do that, whereas versus others who still sort of, you know, nervous about what am I going to learn?

What will you do with additional information on Water Quality?

Ignorance is bliss. And so there is a bit of mindset shift, and there’s also what procurement allows you to do within mentalities. I’m coming in at a model of there’s no purchase. Some procurements are set up to not operate as a service model. It’s purely purchasing if especially when it’s associated with the hardware.

And, you know, they may be set up for Microsoft what, as service operations. But if I would go as service operations, and there’s a physical piece of that hardware, they don’t know how to capitalize on that asset. So I think there are still system vice somewhat changes that need to happen to encourage municipality adoptions.

KETOS produces a robot that monitors 26 Water Quality parameters. Disruptive!

But I’m hoping that with the water infrastructure bill and the amount of capital being assigned for emerging technologies, as well as you know, the disadvantage with communities and others, I’m hopeful that we’re able to make a difference to a lot of them in, in a meaningful way.

Adapting the Business Model to leapfrog Water Quality market adoption

Antoine Walter:

Let me start with bad news. I had Paul O’Callaghan on that microphone and he’s made a thorough study of all the water technologies and how long they take to be adopted by the market. And what he was able to show is that if you take even the most successful – take UV disinfection or take membrane bioreactors – between the moment where they are first going to the early adopters and the moment where they are mass adopted by the market at very best it’s 15 years.

It’s the way innovation ticks in that, in that sector, it might get faster with time and it might get faster because of the approach you take. But yeah, I feel you regarding your, your business model. Was it, your plan, from day one to go with this zero CapEx because you know, a very candid question again, you disrupt the approach to sensors. I’m overusing the word disrupting now, but on purpose, you disrupt also the vertical saying you’d go from the sensor to the platform, the software platform. And on top of that to disrupt the business model, that’s many things at the same time. So what was your rationale for this zero CapEx? What was your intention?

The worst thing that can happen to a startup is to just build another new, cool technology that nobody thinks is a must have.

Meena Sankaran:

The adoption you know, and, and also a lot of conversations Antoine I had done as part of my process in 2014. I come from a tech background. So I have spent a lot of my time in the data center, world infrastructure world. So I understand scale, I understand security understand the sort of like IOT communication edge device.

How do you build software architectures? How do you build large architectures with a blend of hardware software, like that used to be my world.

Starting from the market needs to build Product-Market Fit

Taking all of those concepts and applying for an application like water was a very important problem for me to solve you know, for several reasons, including a personal journey. So when I was thinking about that, the first thing is market validation and talking to customers and really, really defining that pain point, because what I didn’t want to happen is you just build another new, cool technology that nobody thinks is a must-have.

That’s like the worst thing that can happen to a startup. So, you know, lots of conversations and one common thing. This was, it was interesting that I had this validation both from a director of a public utility in both the UK, as well as in the US and they were in they said it together in a panel.

You must think of your business model in terms of putting yourself in your customer's shoes

They said technology is obsolete when I keep purchasing it, and I’m not interested in purchasing it because I want to evolve. As technology evolves, my workforce cannot become an expert in every new technology that’s coming up. My workforce can not be expected to learn and to become an IT analyst overnight or a data scientist overnight.

And I don’t have massive amounts of money to constantly go to EPC firms like Aecom, Jacobs, and so many others who are going to charge me $25,000, $50,000 for doing integration and software strategy.

Validating the Water Quality needs of the UK, US, Singapore… and finding alignment

And I’m kind of left 100% dependent without knowing how to put these building blocks together. I want my technology service providers to offer a more holistic view. And so to me, that was the perfect validation for what we do and, you know, talking to another very large ex you know, very well-known water expert in Singapore.

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You know, so just speaking with a lot of experts and having a phenomenal advisory ecosystem around me from the very early days to kind of have them as soundboard in prioritizing what we do certainly helped us. And, you know, I want to share with the person in Singapore said he was like, I land up purchasing so many instruments. I don’t even know what I’m doing with them, because I’ve got so many different data streams.

Everyone is telling me to take that data stream elsewhere. Everyone else is giving me a new dashboard.

Data needs to integrate to be leveraged!

Now I have so many of these dashboards. I actually need a consolidated strategy. And that means I have to go spend another 250 K with some McKinsey or somebody else who’s going to come and tell me what to do. And it’s sort of like, that’s because starting from the beginning, people are not thinking about interoperability.

People are not thinking about integrated architecture. You can never be a one solution that fixes every problem inside a manufacturing plant, but you have to become that solution. That’s open to being a glue to a lot of different solutions that bring that together.

Your business model has to be catered to your audience - advises Meena Sankaran, CEO of KETOS

So it’s not about us, it’s about the operator. And so if you think of your business model in terms of putting yourself in that person’s shoes, what they can and cannot do, and what different procurement and other constraints around their business model allow for you, I think your business model is much more catered to your audience versus defining it for your own commercial growth.

I think that’s how we’ve defined it. And I, I feel good about that strategy from day one.

An open-source island in an ocean of proprietery environments

Antoine Walter:

Your open aspect is also interesting because you’re based not that far from Palo Alto, which is a place where we know people love a close environment. And I’m not criticizing – I’m a fan boy. Just to say it may be counter-intuitive, as a startup starting an environment. You, you come up with the hardware with the zero CapEx. And on top of that, you say, no, I can integrate everything because I’m open-source.

If you go to my software platform, you can keep your legacy and try to integrate as much as possible into that stream. How do you build that? Because this market is full of proprietary systems. So it means you have to adapt to the others. They are not going to adapt to you, at least not in the beginning.

Water Quality as a Service means a continuous loop of engagement - a paradigm shift for Meena Sankaran, CEO of KETOS.

Meena Sankaran:

I couldn’t be creating more roadblocks, right? Like, that’s always a concern, but the idea is not to, you know, our system, our hardware’s proprietary software platform that we have built as the price rate. But I think it’s important to allow for easy, flexible integration with the rest of APIs, with different types of other, you know, sort of layers on top of your platform for the customer to play around with it.

Because otherwise, it’s very difficult for a customer to sit with six proprietary systems in their environment that don’t talk to each other. And I think the DRIP part of, you know, being data-rich information poor that, you know, that keeps going around, and a lot of the water sector, I think it’s because of that legacy approach. And I think the enterprise world is quite used to integrated best breed type of mentality for decades of adoption.

I think that mindset has not seeped into the water sector yet. So people have operated a certain way for 60 years and 50 years. So there’s definitely going to be some pushback on that, but I’ve also noticed, and people, you know, one utility director just had a chuckle with me and he said, I wish you had met me three days ago because I just signed $500,000 in a service contract.

And I feel like, you know, tears in my eyes listening to you at this point, because I’m thinking, why did I not meet you sooner? I would have not signed that document. And he also mentioned, he was like, well, Meena, how are you going to make money? I don’t want you to belly up. So, you know, he was trying to also understand that part. And I think it’s in the value of the service we provide to you.

A shift in the relationship between customer and Water Quality technology provider

Because I think that in this model, the relationship between the customer and the technology service providers shifts because we’re taking the risks, we’re taking that liability. So it’s an ongoing trust, which deepens over time because we’re providing you continuous value, continuous improvement of our solution as we gather your feedback.

So there’s a continuous loop of engagement, and that is a very different approach than a single transaction purchase approach where here’s the new device. I’ll see you in a few years when I have to come back for service renewal, right? It’s a very, very different model.

After finishing deployment, you first see all your Digital Water Quality data online. A decisive moment, according to the CEO of KETOS.

And I think that the traditional legacy support structure will shift as we’re doing this. And more and more people are going to be thinking about how do I have a massive decentralized network of sensors, monitoring, all kinds of things. I have a centralized structure of viewing everything and gathering that intelligence to proactively and predictively do something.

And how do I democratized that data to make sure everyone can benefit from it? I think that implementation will take time. It will certainly take time, but I see more and more people willing to have that conversation and doing something about it and taking a step in that direction far more this year than even in 2019, or even talked about it in 2017. So there’s hope!

Is the Pandemic an accelerator for Digital Growth?

Antoine Walter:

When you say far more this year, it has something to do with the pandemic we went through, or is it just a sign of time?

Meena Sankaran:

I think the whole digital Smartwater, you know, has hit its inflation point with like the hype. I think it sort of crashed a little bit with the height and now it’s coming a bit more to the realistic curve. And people are, I would say 2017.

They were like, yeah, I’m hearing about this trend in 2019. It was more about, yeah, I’ve heard that utility does some project around it. I’m curious to see the results in 2021 post COVID with automated remote control being top of mind, operational budgets being top of mind, consolidation being top of mine, that’s certainly helping us move the needle forward with digitalization far with the pandemic accelerating. Cause in 2021, the questions I get are more, not the why, but the how,

Investors may traditionally be risk averse in the water industry. A hurdle more to overcome for water entrepreneurs.

Antoine Walter:

There was a period of time where people were digitizing for the sake of digitizing because it was cool and hype and all of a sudden, everybody discovered this year, that is not only cool, it’s useful.

And once you’ve hit that bar, then things change a bit faster! Something interesting in your approach, as well as that, to enable this shift of paradigm, you already explained it a bit. But if I get you right, there’s a tipping point.

A tipping point in Water Quality testing

If a user is making more than two to four measurements and months he has reached a balance of costs between what he was doing before and what he’s doing now with your system. But that means you can now be testing every day, twice a day, or however you wish and be much more granular with his approach to testing. How often do they test today and from your experience with your early adopters, how did they change their behavior once adopting ketos solutions?

Meena Sankaran:

To me, one of the most fascinating moments is after we’ve finished deployment and we’ve given, we’ve done this like knowledge transfer, we’ve given them their login password and they have all of the platform and everything.

Hypergrowth in the Water Quality hardware segment needs enough fuel to get it ramped up, shares Meena Sankaran, CEO of KETOS

It’s the excitement of when they’re navigating through the platform or they’re watching all the data and it’s that expression in the face of, oh, this is cool. I could do this. I could do this like simple things that took them, you know, three hours to manually do that. They’re just doing it at their fingertips in a couple of seconds.

This is very exciting to see. And I think that’s the reward for me. An average person would probably do so we have something called continuous mode. So if you have a continuous water stream, you can do a continuous mode. So there are you know, you don’t need to know everything all the time.

You can now test your Water Quality better and/or more…

There might be some parameters you need to know once a day, there are some parameters, it’d be great to know every 60 seconds. There might be some, you want to know every four hours. And that’s also another important aspect.

People’s hardware is not modularized to accommodate that. Every time you need something like that, you have to go and purchase another piece of hardware. So by allowing software and the intelligence to control that you now have a customer who’s able to do a certain amount of testing that they do every 60 seconds.

Women shall be empowered in the Water Industry and everywhere, thinks Meena Sankaran.

So I would say by default, every single one of our customers has continuous mode on and they all have about six or seven parameters. They get every 60 seconds. So like pH conductivity, salinity, TDS, temperature, so forth. And then they do like, Hey, I’m curious about iron at 6:00 AM in the morning.

I want to know nitrates at about 10:00 AM. Maybe at 4:00 PM, let’s do arsenic manganese and just kind of see how that’s going. So it’s, it’s exciting to watch them play with it and experiment with it because they don’t have to think, is this gonna cost me? And it that’s, that’s very refreshing and liberating for the operators.

… regardless of any cost impact

So I don’t remember if I go to a platform, we have a savings tab where we actually show them if you did the same amount of tests with the lab, here’s how much this would have cost you. And it’s an interesting one for them to seem like, oh, I would’ve never done that. Like, and so it’s, it’s fascinating in that regard because the cost per data point lands up being somewhere around zero points, your 1 cent to two Darla’s $2 and 14 cents, depending on the variation of your testing.

So and that’s where the power is because if you’re able to test and collect more data, collect more qualitative relevant data, and you actually are able to make a difference in how those data pieces make a difference like chromium gets tested in most places once a year if I’m able to know from you once a day in certain locations, near mining sites, I might be able to understand how that impacts the groundwater and what it’s doing later to it and the neighboring community.

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And is there a public impact from it? So I think being able to even gather that knowledge and provide that insight to the customer can be very powerful if they have no way of knowing or controlling it.

Better Water Quality measurements also mean better Plant Operation

Antoine Walter:

I was curious to know if you already had the chance, to make an analysis of how much an operator is saving through this increased level of information, be it on chemical consumptions, on energy to go consumptions because you know that we are dealing with water at the end of the day.

If you’re not meeting your treatment targets, you have problems. You always wash whiter than white, just to be sure. But if now you have a very accurate vision of what’s flowing in and the current state of things, I could imagine that that’s where you have a big potential, for savings and simply to operate better.

Meena Sankaran:

Yeah. There’s so we do something called like an ROI calculator. So playing around with, you know, potentially how you’ve used your lab stuff. And there’s, no, I don’t think it is a complete replacement of lab because you still can, there’s still so much to test and water. So you’ve got, you know, different types of bacterial things we don’t do bacterial today.

Woman can leverage their inner strength! Here's why Meena Sankaran founded W.IN.S

You know, there’s a lot of research in that space that we’re doing. So I would say that it’s more about thinking, what are the types of that you would send someone to collect the sample, prep, the water, and, you know, manage your current equipment. And all of those pieces can be fully replaced and you can repurpose your analysts to not be driving around but to actually do relevant work that he would care more about. So it’s almost repurposing of the workforce in a way that you’re helping the plant be sustainable and scalable.

That’s a better way of, of sort of looking at it from what we have seen implemented.

KETOS is a financially well backed company

Antoine Walter:

Let me come back to what you said earlier about the fact that now the risk is a bit more with you. You have quite a unique level of financing, in this industry. You closed a series B last year for 18 million dollars which absolutely makes sense with, your business model of being a zero CapEx company.

I guess you need to be investing yourself at the beginning, to start the flywheel. And that is something which is not common but often seen in other industries, but absolutely uncommon in the water industry. What’s your intended path for growth? Is it a nice, steady growth, like you would see in a typical successful startup in this industry, or do you have that ambition to go to the absolute next level, to embrace hypergrowth, and to eventually become one day that, that very first unicorn that we never had in that sector?

If you put the focus on value creation and problem solving, the other parts fall in place.

Meena Sankaran:

You’ve thrown a lot of the good dream points there. And on the dark, I think the important piece there is you know, most entrepreneurs who are coming into the water sector are kind of shy about how they carved the company’s projected growth because investors are traditionally very risk-averse in this sector.

And when I say investors, not necessarily the typical water sector investors, but the enterprise tech investors or so I’ve, I’ve landed up building a very cognitively diverse community of investors who are from clean tech to tech to impact.

The privilege (and the curse) of the first-mover

And a combination of all kinds of investment communities from is from the single approach of, you know, us leading the market in this disruption that we are we’re doing. And so there’s pros and cons to being the market leader in that space, because, you know, you’ve because you have the first-mover advantage time is on your side, but because you’re the first-mover advantage, you also are the one breaking all the barriers for others to evolve.

So, yeah, so it’s not like there are pros and cons and trade-offs there. I think that I’m hopeful that investment communities will be more mindful of how water startups really deserve to get better valuations as well as get better funding to survive.

Because first off, the fact that an entrepreneur is jumping in and trying to do something, anything in water is hard. So the fact that they’re jumping in to do something in the water sector should be really applauded and, you know, really supported and nurtured and encouraged.

And I don’t think it’s done as much as it should. And the, and I’m talking very relative to the enterprise and other sectors, and you don’t even see this even a comparable level of funding that goes into ag-tech for water tech. So it’s kind of like if you start putting a list of the least funded type of category, the water’s probably right there at the bottom yet.

ESG and Impact benchmarks shall help

It is the most important thing for our entire community from a survival standpoint. So I hope that as ESGs and everyone is talking a lot about different types of capital people walk the talk and they actually put the money where their mouth is in terms of the conversations.

And so that’s yet to be seen, I think I’ve had some tremendous supporters who’ve pushed the needle because they’ve realized hardware is hard and we’re bringing a proprietary, um, an, a disrupted and a patented solution to market, which means, you know, they need to give us the fuel enough to get this, um, ramped up and for hyper-growth and scale.

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So, you know, our focus is clear, increase customer value rapidly keeps increasing market adoption. We’ve got some clear vendors in the industrial agriculture and municipal sector. In agriculture, we’re hitting both.

We’re able to get really good support from both open field ag, as well as indoor ag, like protected ag with greenhouses vertical farms. So you know, we’re here to stay. We’re here to really make a difference in what we provide to customers as value. And we’re very keen on customer feedback because we’re continuously improving. And we can only hope that investors recognize that because we can be competing against a food delivery app.

Being a female solo-founder is (still) a challenge in the Water Industry

Antoine Walter:

The other thing is that you are starting with an unfair disadvantage in that field. I was discussing with Orianna Bretschger on that microphone. And she actually advised me to discuss it with you. So I’m very glad she gave me that advice. And in her interview, she mentioned that 1% of the capital money goes to female-led businesses.

So you have kind of a double issue here. The water sector is not the one which is funded the most as you said, and even within this sector, if it’s a woman-led start-up, you face another handicap. It’s, it’s a terrible way to say it, terrible way to say it, but is it something you experienced yourself?

Meena Sankaran:

Yeah, I believe, yeah, absolutely. And I think Oriana and I have talked about this briefly, and I would say that we both have hit multiple tears. There’s only one thing that I would say Oriana has slightly better luck with, but we both went into the water sector, so there’s your first ding.

And then the second is we both get classified in that “women entrepreneur” thing, but third is, we both are building hardware. And so again, we get another ding. Um, and when I say, as in, she’s really building something very innovative as well. It’s not like the types of hardware that you hear about where I’ve taken two sensors from commercial off the shelf and packaged it up on selling it as a B-to-C product in a, in a house.

… especially if you ambition to disrupt a hardware approach – in this case to Water Quality

Like that’s very different than the complexity, what she’s building and what we’re building.

So the hardware lands up being the third ding. And the fourth is I got dang, additionally saying, you’re a solo founder and you don’t have a sort of a co-founder. And Oriana has a co-founder.

So I have landed up getting instead of multiple things, but, you know, I, I think every time someone brought up five reasons why I shouldn’t do something or why they would tell me, and no I’ve even been asked by an investor.

What if you got hit by a truck because you’re a solo founder. It’s, to me I’m even more driven to you know, do the right thing and find the right partners we’re supportive of the KETOS ecosystem and to drive the mission forward. I think they’re helping me put more fuel in the tank. So thank you for that.

Does “Water Quality Disruption” apply as constrained creativity?

Antoine Walter:

I think it’s this constrained creativity, which I’ve been alluding to several times on that microphone. It is this element of these NASA engineers, which had to find a solution for Apollo 13. And when it was somewhere in space and hat’s 24 hours to find a solution and they couldn’t come with something which was not on with it, with the astronauts and in those conditions, you get more creative.

So sometimes being constrained – and not saying we should constrain everyone just because it’s going to make them more creative – but you can overcome those hurdles.

“Woman’s INner Strengths”

There’s one last thing from your path that I’d like to take here. And then I’d like to come back to KETOS to close this deep dive. You are working with the Woman’s INner Strength, the W.IN.S. Can you just explain to us in a couple of words, what you’re doing there and what you try to achieve?

Meena Sankaran:

Sure. Thank you. Looks like you really dug upon, these things here. So I started you know, one thing that I realized very early on as I was progressing through my career being an electrical engineer of being in electronics, communications engineering, most of these classes, it was like two women in a class of hundred.

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And along with my career, again, infrastructure network engineer, all of these roles is like one or two women in an entire organization. I landed up being mentors to a lot of different girls women, different startups supporting.

And so I thought to myself, there are very specific patterns in how women share performance or how mentor performance, and I think just general characteristics and so forth. So I wanted to let women feel more empowered that they can control their own destiny of how they feel happy regardless of the outcome and how they can leverage their inner strength to truly achieve the potential that they are capable of.

What is W.IN.S?

And there’s nobody stopping them besides they themselves. And don’t take no for an answer. So in order to kind of encapsulate that, all of those thoughts together I started something called W I N S, which is women’s inner strength.

There’s no membership for you or anything. It’s just a group. It’s like a lean-in group that we meet. Once in a couple of months, we’ve had some, you know, rough breaks doing COVID. But the net has been really being that support system for women of all backgrounds, all different types of careers.

Cause you always land up seeing women in engineering, women in law, where people start thinking that your career defines who you are, but that’s not the case. I want to encourage even the Housewives to come in because that’s a very, very hard job. And I have even more respect now that I have a seven-month-old for what that means.

It’s really about dropping judgment and bringing women together regardless of the type of career you have and building that strong support mentor network to uplift every single person and make them feel they’re not alone. And second that they can achieve anything that they put their mind to, or they want to.

Antoine Walter:

I made myself the promise to stop asking these kinds of questions to every woman on that microphone, but I can’t help.

It’s just that, you know I know that you alluded to, to that in your interview with Dave McGimpsey on his own podcast on the silver wave. And even if you think of it as a sector, when we don’t invite the woman at the same table, we are just leaving half of the talents and it’s just shooting in your own food.

It’s nonsense and I’m a son of a feminist and have two daughters so to me it’s an important thing, which we should all be looking at. I mean, I’ve been working with so many brilliant women and at some, at certain levels in the hierarchy at certain decisions circles they just disappear and that’s nonsense.

I didn’t want you to push in a corner there, but I, I was impressed by that in your path. So I thought that that was worth mentioning

Where will KETOS drive Water Quality in the next 6 years?

To come back to, KETOS and to close our deep dive. Usually, my last question is I have that crystal ball and you can see, the future. Let’s say that the future of KETOS… you’re six years old. So let’s say six more years. Where are you in six years?

Meena Sankaran:

You know, in six years, I hope KETOS is no longer having to worry about awareness. To start with people, actually understand that there is a solution to solve this problem.

Second people are able to look at their phone and throw when they’re dropping their kid off at school, know that their school is monitoring their water quality and their kid is drinking safe water, and know that in the area and by punching in as accord and the lively neighborhood that they’re living, they understand what that water safety looks like for them.

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So that communities feel the control and the power back in their hands. And the ability for utilities to also be respected and appreciated by their own constituents, knowing how hard they operate. So I hope that all the cities and utilities realize we’re here to help them.

I hope that industrials realize we’re here to help transform their businesses, sustainable operations, and ultimately the data across the globe becomes so massive that we’re able to potentially predict a disease outbreak, if not prevented.

A purpose-driven vision of the Future

Antoine Walter:

It’s very interesting because everything you saw in that crystal ball is value and purpose-driven. You didn’t tell me that you’re going to triple your business, or you’re going to go through this or that. It’s like you’re bringing value and then your success is going to come with that value, almost as a by-product.

Meena Sankaran:

Exactly, and I think it kind of comes back to your first question of what is social entrepreneurship. And I think this, the entire thing ties together is that when you are successful in creating value, the money will come. And I think if you put the focus on value creation and problem-solving the other parts fall in place.

Antoine Walter:

That’s a perfect conclusion, Meena, if it’s fine with you, I propose you to switch to the rapid-fire question.

Meena Sankaran:

Oh, go for it. I’m excited about this rapid-fire!

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Rapid fire questions:

Antoine Walter:

The principal is I come with a list of questions. I try to keep my questions short and you try to keep your answers short. And I’m usually always the one which, which is sidetracking the conversation. So don’t worry.

First question, what is the most exciting project you’ve been working on and why?

Meena Sankaran:

Oh tons of projects, but a quick, most exciting one is going to be a project in Israel, invest bank where we’re going to make I believe a huge difference in a community for their all of irrigation where they absolutely have the water. So lots of interesting things going on, but that’s an exciting one. As we are embarking on lots of international projects.

What’s your favorite part of your current job?

Meena Sankaran:

My favorite part is when I’m actually at a customer site and we are finishing an installation, finishing deployment and sort of, you know, seeing the customer react to the value we’ve just done. And then seeing that data for themselves, that expression for the first time, from a water expert who has done something a certain way for 30 years is priceless.

It feels like the first time, you know, your grandparents take an iPad and look at it like, oh, I could do all of these things. So I think that is, is I think I really enjoy that from an external perspective.

And probably from an internal perspective is just sitting with my team at the end of the day, even if it’s at 11:00 PM or whatever time when we are trying to do a massive shipment and then just everybody feeling good about what they’ve accomplished and then just, you know, listening to trans music and having fun with them, really enjoying with my team.

Antoine Walter:

You mentioned right before this project, in Israel, how international are you today with KETOS?

Meena Sankaran:

In the past, we’ve deployed in India and Mexico, and US. We’re now deploying actively in Brazil in Israel. We have several projects underway in Peru, Chile, Mexico, so quite a bit in lap time. And essentially growing in Australia and UK as well later part of the year,

Meena Sankaran:

Hm. I think it’s an important question because there’s so much noise in the industry right now. And I think it’s the hardest thing for a water operator or a decision-maker in the water sector is separating that signal from noise.

So I would say, be demanding of the technology or service provider to really show value rather than diving into the status quo or relying on your comfort zone, necessarily a trend. But I would say the latest trend would integrate all your digital assets to create value for yourself.

Antoine Walter:

That’s a precise trend because I’ve had digitization as a trend, you’re now so much more precise!

What is the thing you care about the most when you’re working on a new project and what is the one you care the least?

Meena Sankaran:

To least I’ll go with the least the paperwork and procure probably if I can. If there was a procurement facilitating company that would be fantastic to work with which may be a, something a startup can actually work on for all of their companies.

So that’s probably the least the best part is, you know like I alluded to before is understanding you know, and seeing them pack them, will you create for a customer, but also more exciting is kind of looking at the horizon of how I, how we can be a trusted advisor for other customers.

We’re getting started on this journey. You know, how can we be that beacon of light for them in a truly unconditional manner for them to succeed?

Meena Sankaran:

There’s a lot of different types of sources. I mean, I do a lot of different types of newsfeed, but what is online is an interesting one. Everybody I think uses them. So yeah, those are, those guys are good. There’s also global H two a news I’ve been tapping on recently.

But yeah, there’s, there’s tons of water feeds that you can read about. But I tried to read a little bit more global and not just us, because it gives you very different perspectives of you know, us is still far behind in terms of the amount of investment and focus. They put on water compared to several other countries in the world.

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Antoine Walter:

And finally, last question.

Would you have someone recommend me to, to get on that same microphone like you today?

Meena Sankaran:

Actually yeah, Adam tank, I don’t know if you’ve already had him on the show?

Antoine Walter:

Yes, and he was a great guest, so I fully subscribed to your suggestion.

Meena Sankaran:

Yeah, Adam’s great. I was, you know, and now he’s at transcend, so I definitely thought he would be, he would be a kicker there. Well, have you had Melissa Meeker? There we go. And a fireball of a woman.

She is yeah, she runs a water tower. She would you know, she can come at it from a very different perspective. She’s doing as a non-sort of a technology company on our like Oriana or me, but more from a lens of somebody who’s seeing a lot of water companies and I’m working with a lot of utilities as well as others. And so she’s, she’s fantastic.

So you will definitely enjoy speaking with her. So I hope that works out!

Antoine Walter:

Fantastic. If people want to follow up with you, where shall I redirect them? Where are you the most active?

Meena Sankaran:

I would say I’m very active on LinkedIn, so that would be a great place. I think everybody’s aware of our website. for additional information, just email us info at And we’d be happy to share anything that we can add value to you.

Antoine Walter:

I put the links in there in the episode description, because I found out that there’s another KETOS, which is doing foilers…

Meena Sankaran:

We’re not a keto diet neither because we do get that too!

Antoine Walter:

Meena, it was a pleasure. I’d be very, very happy to have you again in six years to check out if your prediction became true, and yeah, all the best in that endeavor.

Meena Sankaran:

Thank you, Antoine. Absolutely a pleasure being here as well. And, truly again, thank you for thinking of me and, and I guess thanks to Orianna for recommending me as well. So really appreciate the opportunity.

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