The recent contamination of drinking water in Corpus Christi is a reminder that the United States has a water infrastructure problem. Pipes are corroding, monitoring systems are out of date, and many of the biggest health issues are below the surface and very hard to detect until something goes wrong.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, America’s drinking water systems are nearing the end of their life. Fixing this issue has a large price tag – $1 trillion – for the country to maintain standards of public health using traditional methods of replacing and repairing pipes.
“There is no way we can really catch up,” says Bart Bohn, head of The University of Texas at Austin’s new water technology incubator, part of the Austin Technology Incubator (ATI). “So, how do we extend the life of the existing infrastructure and reduce the cost of new infrastructure? We think the fastest way to do that is with digital technology.”
The startup specialists at ATI believe Central Texas, which is already a hotspot for startups, is poised to be the future leader in water innovation that can improve health and save taxpayers money.
“Nationally on average we lose about 25 percent of our water. It just leaks away. Which is infuriating because we spend a lot of money and time to get it clean, and then it leaks out of our pipes. That is really costly,” Bohn says.
By adding new sensors and software to monitor existing water systems, companies can test for problems regularly, catch them early and identify precise points of failure.
These new technologies can help answer consumers’ concerns about the cost and quality of drinking water.
“There are not a lot of direct spots for water utilities to test the water and have direct knowledge of its quality. So sensors, communications and analytics are essential to make sure we can test the quality and make sure we are providing clean, safe water for everyone.”
With current low-tech systems, we don’t know about most leaks until they are a problem. “On top of that, issues like Flint Michigan or the recent incident in Corpus Christi could have been more proactively addressed,” he says.
ATI Water launched earlier this year. Their goal is to accelerate the development of innovative water technologies. The program has already brought in $1.5 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the City of Austin and startup leader Pecan St. Inc.
“We expect that this new cluster will result in dozens of new innovative water technology companies, at least 100 new water-technology-focused jobs and millions of dollars in economic activity,” says Isaac Barcas, the head of ATI.
Bohn and his team are convening with early-stage innovators, UT faculty members and experts across the state, vetting and connecting the most promising ideas, as well as finding the right industry partnerships to pilot the tech.
“It’s impacting all aspects of our lives and our economy as well,” Bohn says. “We want to get traction faster and begin solving the problem.”