Student Company wins $12,500 at Inaugural Transcend Madison Innovation Competition

Emonix develops a smart water softener, saving University of Wisconsin facilities thousands of dollars.

Zach LaValee (left) and Neil Klingensmith, cofounder of Emonix

One PhD engineering student was working on a project in Chadbourne Residence Hall when a maintenance man approached him, asking him if he could take a look at the building’s water softener. The student evaluated the system and setup some crude sensing equipment to moderate its salt consumption.

The application ultimately improved the efficiency of the water softener by nearly 50 percent, saving the residence hall over $8,000 in the first year alone.

Neil Klingensmith, a PhD student of computer engineering and Zach LaVallee a senior studying mechanical engineering, met through their advisor, Suman Banerjee, a professor of Computer Science.

“It cost 20 cents to put a pound of salt in the water and it cost $5.00 to take it out”

Faced with a problem and armed with a solution, the two students, originally brought together through research under a shared professor, turned to build their own enterprise, Emonix.

“It was more of an independent project than a research project,” Zach said. “I think we’re both interested in working on things that originate from us.”

Using sensors to moderate the salt applied by water softeners, Emonix cuts the amount of salt dispensed by nearly a quarter, saving the building in salt, expenses and reducing the negative impact of salt on the environment.

“In Madison, we’re surrounded by, you know, lakes,” Neil said. “The salt that is used by water softeners and the salt that people use to melt the snow on the streets, all that runoff ends up going into the lakes…it’s a big environmental problem around here: it’s really bad for the fish and wildlife.”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources mandates that Madison’s sewage department reduce the amount of chloride flowing into the area lakes, Neil said. Approximately 60 percent of the chloride annually leaking into the lakes comes from these water softeners, Neil said, but salt is extremely expensive to remove.

“It cost 20 cents to put a pound of salt in the water and it cost $5.00 to take it out,” Neil said, noting that a hundred tons of salt passes through Madison’s sewage plant every day.

For the environment, and for facility managers’ wallets, there’s clearly a need for their product. Of all the sales meetings Emonix has had, no one has turned them down.

“We haven’t had anyone tell us no,” Zach said.

After selling their product to a handful of campus buildings, the two students wanted more direction. Neil and Zach applied to gBeta, an accelerator run by Gener8tor and were accepted. Through the accelerator, they received mentorship, capital and, upon completion of the program, a physical space. Emonix’s office is now a neat office on the tenth floor of 30 W Mifflin St, with a view overlooking the Capitol Square.

“It helps to show people that there’s something besides school that you can be doing and I like that”

Emonix was one of the early presenters at Transcend Madison, UW-Madison’s first-ever student-led innovation competition, hosted March 10 and 11 at Union South. After evaluation of 27 teams by five judges from the local entrepreneurial community, Emonix placed first, taking home $7,500 and immediate enrollment into Madworks seed accelerator, an intensive, 10-week program to provide them with the resources, mentorship and $5,000 in capital to take their idea to the next level.

Emonix presents the first day of the 2016 Transcend Madison innovation competition

“Transcend was a great opportunity,” Zach said, noting that he thought the event had great value to all of the competing students. “It helps to show people that there’s something besides school that you can be doing and I like that.”

Neil and Zach put their winnings towards the costs to attend and set up a booth at the main water treatment trade show recently held in Tennessee, giving the two a chance to meet distributors and share their idea.

Going forward, the two plan to focus on developing their product and design, ensuring that it can be installed anywhere.

“It kind of boils down to making sure our product is bulletproof, everything works as intended and just cleaning everything up and making sure what we have is perfect,” Zach said.

For more information about our competition, student organization, and other winners, checkout our website at

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Written by Cadence Bambenek