From Apple to H2O: One entrepreneur’s quest to digitize water in India’s second-tier cities

Urban Drinking Water Innovation Series

We recently caught up with Gokul Krishna Govindu, Founder and CEO of SmartTerra, to discuss his path as an entrepreneur seeking to digitize India’s water. SmartTerra is one of three winning startups of Imagine H2O’s inaugural 2018 Urban Drinking Water Challenge.

Gokul Krishna Govindu, Founder and CEO of SmartTerra

At what point did you decide to become a water entrepreneur?

My entrepreneurial “aha moment” was a gradual, years-long journey. I had an awesome thing going, working in Cupertino for Apple as a computer engineer and living in San Francisco engaging equally with innovation, nature and art. But each time I visited family back in India, I would get quite upset by the environmental disaster that urban India was lurching into. It was the perfect trifecta of unmanaged solid waste and wastewater contaminating the already meager supply of water.

This parallel reality was just too shocking and I kept thinking about it even when I was back in California. I started researching the problems, brainstormed with folks in India and looked for opportunities to apply technology to solving India’s pollution problems.

As I started to openly consider moving home on an entrepreneurial journey, I was surprised by the number of cheerleaders I had in my court — my Indian-origin co-workers at Apple expressed the desire that they too had always wanted to do something similar; my friends with their own unconventional ventures told me that I would never look back; my wife wholeheartedly supported my passion for wanting to make a difference at home. With their encouragement, I made the leap and moved back to India.

The trifecta — improperly managed solid waste and wastewater potentially contaminating the water lines.

So, when did you actually make the decision to become a water entrepreneur?

I initially focused on the solid waste situation because trash is such a visible problem. I started with municipal composting and then assisted a friend who was developing a “smart” waste management platform. During this experience, I met my mentor, Srinivas Chary Vedala, who encouraged me to dive into the city’s almost invisible water and wastewater crisis. Invisible because the government heavily subsidizes water and this signals that water is not something you pay for or care about. Invisible because there isn’t much accessible data at the city level. Invisible because the network is underground, contaminants remain undetected and the pollution of lakes or rivers is somewhere far away from your home.

With my mentor’s help, I started visiting municipalities, speaking with operators and documenting the challenges facing water utilities. The first thing I noticed was that there was no dedicated water engineering or managerial department in these organizations. The networks were being run with mostly rules of thumb and from employee memory.

In Warangal, every alternate day, valve-men like Mr Iqbal, fill the elevated storage tank they are responsible for and on the next day, supply water to 3–4 neighborhoods from the storage tank. Supply lasts usually for an hour.

Without monitoring or central control for operations and maintenance, last mile distribution was both inadequate and expensive. Rationing, a common practice witnessed in many cities I visited, simply compounded the challenges further as cities send officials out to turn on or turn off communal taps. I began to ask, how could we tackle urban India’s intermittent drinking water supply issue without being able to monitor and measure where the water is going?

For India’s underserved cities shifting towards smart networks and 24/7 supply, they have a long, arduous journey ahead of them. This includes fixing leakages, metering connections and automating operations all the way to the end-user. With rapid urbanization, utilities will always need to play catch up.

I realized that the first step was to help digitize a city’s manual operations through access to affordable sensing and metering solutions. Automation, a stepping stone to a smart water network, would come next.

A trunk-main’s sluice valve gone bad in Warangal. Leakage fixes are mostly done in crisis-mode as there is very little condition monitoring. All maintenance done on the network is not tracked in a GIS or an asset database. Only the bills paid to outsourced contractors are tallied up annually.

India’s water utilities spend significant resources on infrastructure but do not institutionalize the expertise to properly run and maintain the systems. Looking even further ahead, I started thinking about AI’s role as a resident engineering and managerial expert that could equip underserved utilities with the decision making capabilities afforded to larger, better resourced cities. This all pointed to a massive opportunity given the potential for impacting nearly 600 million urban Indians. Then I made the decision to become a water entrepreneur.

What was the first step in starting SmartTerra?

Identifying a well-defined pain point and a business model are necessary starting points for any entrepreneur. In my case, this first step was quite challenging because municipal leaders spoke about problems in a general way. Not dissimilar to how the general public is told the same macro facts about water with headlines like “every city wastes more than 50% of the water”. Water engineers would just blame it on the government being slow and corrupt.

This process of understanding why water systems were so dysfunctional took time and patience. Without a concrete business model in place, I also had to convince people to join my team to start the first iterations of a minimum viable product. SmartTerra’s first step was a big leap of faith for all involved.

Most municipalities in India do not have consolidated or digital databases of network maps or hydraulic models. SmartTerra’s product UrbanWater helps a city not only create a database of all the assets but also helps it track network expansion, modifications and maintenance.

What is SmartTerra and what is your vision for the future?

SmartTerra’s primary product, UrbanWater, is an AI-powered water management platform that helps a city model its water infrastructure. The tool also integrates data from real-time sensors and provides actionable decision making at the operator, engineer and manager levels.

UrbanWater is both software and hardware. Our primary focus is the software — a cloud-hosted model of the water network and the operations and maintenance processes. Our hardware is an IOT module to connect any third-party meter or sensor to the cloud.

Our AI supports localized decision-making, helping operators on the ground, as well as equipping managers and engineers with broader, system-wide capabilities for long-term planning. Ultimately, we want our AI to play the role of a resident water treatment and supply expert.

In our future, we see SmartTerra becoming the go to expertise platform for municipalities and commercial buildings. By digitizing India’s urban water management, SmartTerra will help maintain fresh water sustainability and the reuse of treated wastewater.

Warangal, Telangana. The site of SmartTerra’s first pilot.

You have spoken to us previously about your experience working with utilities in this market? How has your experience been so far?

In a word, challenging. The traditional procurement system precludes start-ups from qualifying for most tenders. Since the government contracts out the technology scoping to engineering consultancies, these established players ultimately determine what solutions are deemed appropriate. In short, you have to convince multiple players for each sale.

However, there is reason for optimism as some Indian cities are showing a growing appetite to unlock new channels to emerging technologies. This creates new opportunities for SmartTerra and others to demonstrate that smarter water management through innovation can be both accessible and affordable.

How is Imagine H2O’s Urban Drinking Water Challenge deployment award helping you move forward?

We were ready with a prototype but found ourselves facing a common roadblock for entrepreneurs in this sector — convincing a customer to finance a pilot. In resource-stressed, second-tier cities, municipalities do not have the flexibility or resources to fund pilots with emerging water solutions. If we had the resources to take on this initial cost of installing a set of meters and sensors, we were sure that we could prove the benefits of our solution and persuade our customer to participate.

Imagine H2O’s Urban Drinking Water Challenge helped us remove the upfront capital cost out of the equation and de-risk the project for the utility. While we had been engaging municipal leaders for quite some time, the deployment award to co-fund the pilot enabled us to obtain approval from commissioners in two Indian cities. We have since started the first pilot in the city of Warangal in the Indian state of Telangana and the deployment award is being used towards hiring a field team and the purchase of key equipment.

Most importantly, the Urban Drinking Water Challenge gave us credibility and has been able to unlock new partnerships and offers of support from across the Indian water ecosystem and beyond.

The award helped in hiring a project team at Warangal, Telangana. L to R: Meghana, Srikanth and Abhinay, all civil engineers, at the Waddepally Water Treatment Plant.

As SmartTerra starts to gain traction, what piece of advice would you give entrepreneurs interested in tackling water problems?

There is a saying in India about jumping into a well to truly determine its depth.

The key is not thinking about how to apply technology from the outside; it is in understanding the problem from the inside, learning the system, flagging failures and diving into why these problems exist. The chances of failure are quite high but if you succeed, you will impact millions of people every single day.


About the Urban Drinking Water Challenge 2018

Imagine H2O and its Founding Challenge Partners, 11th Hour Racing and Bluewater Group, launched the Urban Drinking Water Challenge 2018 to identify and deploy innovative solutions to water-scarce cities globally. Three winning solutions were selected from a global field of 160+ applicants. Winners were showcased at World Water Week in Stockholm and received deployment awards to validate and scale their solutions in their chosen markets. As part of this initiative, Imagine H2O and partners are publishing a series of entrepreneurial profiles and perspectives from Imagine H2O’s innovation ecosystem.