Wellntel Aims to Sprout Groundwater Info Market With Sonar Device

6/26/14Follow @XconomyWI

Groundwater is a precious resource. It irrigates vast fields of vegetables in California and wheat in Kansas. It supplies water to a third of U.S. cities—and to 90 percent of people who aren’t on systems run by municipalities or private water companies.

It’s also increasingly coming under threat. Worries are growing in some areas that we’re using too much of it. And at the same time, a growing population and the droughts expected with climate change will require taking more water from underground reserves—making the water that remains even more important. “One of the big concerns is as the planet continues to heat up and drought becomes more frequent, groundwater becomes our water resource insurance,” says Norm Miller, a geography professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Given how valuable groundwater is, one would think that well owners—and the nation in general—would be keeping close tabs on water levels. Surprisingly, that’s not the case. Even as well monitoring becomes “more and more important” to society, as Miller says, most of the data about changes in groundwater levels still come from infrequent inspections by public agencies at different locations using tape measures lowered down holes in the ground.

Wellntel co-foundersBut that may be about to change. A Milwaukee-area startup, Wellntel, is aiming to bring groundwater monitoring into the Internet Age. The company has developed a battery-powered device that sits on top of a well and tracks its water level using sonar technology, then wirelessly transmits that information to the cloud. The initial target customers for co-founders Marian Singer and Nick Hayes (pictured above) are homeowners and farmers, particularly those located in regions facing water shortages, like California and Texas, or in isolated pockets of declining clean water supplies, like Waukesha, WI, just 20 miles west of Lake Michigan.

The technology’s most immediate tangible benefit is enabling well owners to avoid the expense and headache of water pump failures by keeping a closer eye on the water table—the top line of the underground layer completely saturated with water. About 44 million Americans depend on private well water, Wellntel says, and unanticipated equipment repairs cost well owners $1.2 billion each year.

“The old way of finding out that you had a problem with the water table is your pump would run dry and break,” Hayes says. With Wellntel’s device, well owners are alerted before the water level drops to a danger point. “The first time that you don’t have a catastrophic failure, the device pays for itself,” Hayes says.

Yet Wellntel’s ambitions go far beyond just making a clever water level sensor. The company hopes to invent a whole new water information business. If the startup can sell and deploy enough of its devices to generate a critical mass of data, it plans to add another set of customers, who would buy subscriptions to Wellntel’s aggregate water data for a particular area. These customers could include researchers, municipalities, bond rating and insurance agencies, companies setting up operations in a new city—basically anyone with a vested interest in projecting what will happen to local groundwater, Singer explains.

The information that Wellntel’s sensors would gather simply isn’t available now. Currently, the U.S. Geological Survey database lists more than 850,000 sites where manual measurements of well depth are taken in the field. But fewer than 1,600 of its test locations are equipped with devices able to wirelessly send water level readings to the cloud at frequent intervals. Meanwhile, there’s little information on levels in private wells. As a result, “the amount of data that’s available to anybody—scientists, industry, communities, policymakers, consortiums—of where groundwater is at any given moment is very limited,” says Hayes, Wellntel’s chief technology officer.

Wellntel’s sensors could be used to create a map that tracks and predicts water level changes over time—from both the bird’s eye-view or zoomed in on a 100-meter radius, says Singer, Wellntel’s CEO. “It completely changes the way groundwater modeling can happen.”

The data could aid geological researchers and have an impact on public policy, among other applications.

Consider Wellntel’s pilot project, in which 12 of its devices were installed in private wells in January within a 3-square-mile area in Paso Robles, a central California city known for its wine. Paso Robles has been facing a water crisis because of dropping groundwater levels, leading to fights over how to manage the groundwater that remains. Singer and Hayes connected with the leader of PRO Water Equity, a volunteer coalition of residents and farmers that depend on the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, to recruit well owners for the pilot project. Wellntel also partnered with UC-Berkeley’s Miller and Raj Singh, a post-doctoral student who has incorporated Wellntel’s data in his models that simulate long-term changes in groundwater levels, among other geological measurements.

Wellntel pilot projectWellntel’s devices have shown that the Paso Robles water table continues to drop. The project’s 12 wells were previously tapping water from an average of about 300 feet below the ground’s surface, but since January the water table has dipped between 15 and 25 feet, Hayes says.

“The drought is real, and we’re seeing it in this information,” Hayes says.

Wellntel’s data give well owners facts about what’s happening below the surface mid-drought, so people can take that information to their city council or state legislators and help shape better-informed policy, Singer says.

Hayes likens groundwater to “nature’s bank account for water,” from which humans make withdrawals and, over time, nature deposits more water underground. Some states, like Wisconsin, have laws requiring people to log how much groundwater they extract for irrigation, with permits required for significant withdrawals.

“But without information about what’s on the supply side, you can’t have a smart approach to what the limit might be,” Hayes says. That’s where Wellntel’s device comes in, he adds. “It’s a much smarter way of thinking about the resource.”

Right now, Wellntel’s product is still in beta testing, but the company intends to have it on the commercial market by the end of the year. The device will cost $380 to $480 for homeowners and up to $2,000 per well for systems of larger, coordinated wells, like on large irrigated farms in remote locations. (The price primarily varies depending on the distance needed to transmit data from the well—where the sensor unit sits—to the home or building where a cloud device is plugged into an electrical outlet.)

Wellntel isn’t the first to use sonar to measure groundwater levels, but competing approaches have struggled to distinguish between water and surrounding obstructions, like rocks or noise, the company says. Wellntel solved this problem with more sophisticated technology that emits a digital signal and establishes a baseline measurement that gradually improves as it detects movement in the water level. With “a whole bunch of readings over time,” the device can tell which is the groundwater and which is obstruction “because the groundwater is the only thing that moves,” Hayes says.

Some competing devices include water level sensors that are submerged in well water, meaning they can take a beating over time. Wellntel’s device avoids such wear and tear because it sits on top of the well, the company says.

That could prove an important selling point to homeowners, who sometimes aren’t keen on dropping equipment down their well, says Tim Grundl, a professor in University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences and geosciences department, who has advised Wellntel.

“This just makes it much easier and more palatable for well owners,” Grundl says.

The device is also easy for consumers to install using a household pipe wrench, Hayes says.

Once Wellntel starts selling its product, its goal is to form a dense network of groundwater-monitoring devices—350,000 in the U.S. within four or five years—pumping out real-time data about individual wells. Achieving that scale will be challenging, Singh says. And the challenges don’t end there. If Wellntel reaches its goal, it will then need to deftly manage a vast amount of data in different ways for different audiences, from farmers to public agencies, he adds. But he believes Wellntel has the right strategy for deploying the devices. The startup plans to go to market primarily through well maintenance firms, who can recommend Wellntel’s device to well owners as a way to proactively manage their pump equipment and water supply.

The technology and market strategy have attracted investors and other backers. Wellntel raised $1.2 million from angel investors last year, and is currently seeking another $800,000. Last week, the company was accepted into The Water Council’s water tech startup accelerator program at its Global Water Center near downtown Milwaukee. The accelerator, entering its second year, gives each startup a $50,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., office space, and access to water industry mentors and potential business partners.

Singer and Hayes have sales and marketing backgrounds and previously ran a consulting business together, FiveTwelve Group, that mainly served large corporations in the water and energy sectors.

They have so far only hired contractors to help develop Wellntel’s technology. They expect to add three more full-time employees by next year.

Wellntel dataWellntel’s stated goal of 350,000 installations in the next few years represents slightly less than 3 percent of the 12 million private wells nationwide, the company says. But Singer and Hayes realize that not every well owner will see a need for their technology. Hayes frames it like this: “You can achieve grand-scale data density and help a lot of folks by only outfitting about 3 percent of wells.”

Wellntel’s co-founders see their startup as more of a data analytics and technology developer than a manufacturing company. They say they were inspired by the Netherlands, where water-related businesses have sprouted from an abundance of publicly available groundwater data. It will take years and a lot of work, but they believe Wellntel’s devices can spark the same movement in the U.S. and, eventually, around the world. As part of this larger plan, they’re developing related products, such as devices that measure water quality.

“From a little water technology startup in Milwaukee, our goal wasn’t to be a sensor company at all,” Hayes says. “It was to invent the groundwater information business and democratize it.”

Jeff Engel is the editor of Xconomy Wisconsin. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @XconomyWI

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