Introducing Āpas — water-as-a-service

In the year since we founded RUKI, we’ve looked at hundreds of proposals, held dozens of meetings and consulted numerous young inventors. Now, we’re thrilled to present RUKI’s first partner, Vova Alekseev. He founded Apas, a company that produces water dispensers that fulfill the entire spectrum of water supply services.

We chose Āpas not only because we liked the product but because its creator sees the world the way we do. He founded his startup to solve a fundamental problem, one which will become more important in years to come. He’s not interested in cashing in on a passing fad. We believe Āpas will make a big contribution to solving the water crisis and surpass its competitors thanks to Vova’s attention to design and his unique approach to the problem at hand.

Vova talked to us about how his design sensibility led him to the bottom of the water industry, and how he plans to rebuild it from the ground up.

Tell us about your background.

I’m a mechanical engineer by training. I’ve always liked thinking up systems from scratch and seeing the results of my work, so by my early 20s I was an entrepreneur. I ran a couple of businesses, most recently Prokk, which launched in 2013.

Through Prokk, I learned the principles of running a company and picked up a lot of important practical skills. Creating furniture and wood panels taught me a lot about objects, most importantly the attention to detail it requires to create a seamless user experience.

Applying this perspective to the work Prokk did with office spaces, I found that discomfort and inconvenience wasn’t just a domestic issue — it also spanned the office. And no matter a company’s scale or interior decor budget, it seemed that key conditions for a comfortable work environment were being overlooked.

What gave you the idea for Āpas?

Water dispensers were one of the big things being overlooked at the office. Several of my corporate clients actually asked me to create furniture that would better incorporate water dispensers as a natural part of the office. After a little research, I found that there wasn’t a single aesthetically pleasing water dispenser, whatever the price range.

So I decided to make an elegant, convenience water device. It turns out dispensers are just the tip of the iceberg — a small part of a huge market with many players and major growth potential. I realized that for this device to be truly “elegant”, I would have to redesign the entire distribution and services field.

Describe the kind of system you want to build.

It goes far beyond a dispenser and an app. It’s water as a service. I see it as comparable to the invention of plumbing — something that changes our relationship to water consumption. Our system involves smart distribution for an individual or a group (company employees, for example), in other words, properties of water will be tailored to a user’s needs and preferences.

Another issue is supply. Where does your water come from? How’d it get into this bottle? What are they key mineral ingredients? Āpas will provide complete transparency about this. We also want to be transparent about pricing, and keep costs as dynamic as possible. User data will help us to get stats that can affect our water consumption and our approach to water in general.

From an environmental perspective, all this data allows us to pay closer attention to waste and how to sidestep it.

On the product side, we’re starting with the dispenser. It will be made from high-quality organic materials and connected to a smart online service. Traditional water dispensers have many flaws that we’re hoping to avoid. For example, top-loading dispensers are inconvenient because you have to lift a heavy bottle a meter up in the air. Water’s an important part of our office routine, but all that heavy lifting shouldn’t be part of the picture. Instead, I want to build an object that will unite people. We don’t want to do away with the customary water cooler conversation. We just want to improve the backdrop. And maybe collect a little data at the same time.

Why the focus on dispensers, exactly? Are there any other ways to transform the industry?

For now, dispensers are our best bet for implementing new technologies in a meaningful way. That includes widespread smartphone use, constant connectivity, the emergence of big data and smart algorithms. Dispensers are more centralized and therefore help us contain and track all these things once we begin to distribute to offices and homes.

Manufactured bottled water is another option, but non-returnable bottles pollute the environment and are produced by powerful corporations so it’s difficult to get actual data about its production.

Alternatively, transforming a water supply network might be a good idea, but it requires rethinking the way our homes are built. I’d like to return to this task in a couple of years. To us, that kind of task is like what colonizing Mars is to SpaceX. I’m also intrigued by new desalination technologies, but that kind of integration is also a more long-term goal for Āpas.

Tell us about your team.

I’m working with like-minded people who share my values. What unites us is a common aesthetic and a shared goal to apply that aesthetic to convenient services and seamless experiences. As a company, we want to keep our work interesting, stress-free and honest. We also want to avoid startup lingo, which I find counterproductive to those three things. Lastly, when we develop our product and service, all of our reasoning is built from the group up — from “first principles”.

I was also very lucky to find a great co-founder, Lesha Galkin, with whom I started Prokk and other projects. We’ve worked together for four years now, and I trust his taste and consider him a very talented designer. We both aspire to create something radically new, so he found the idea of Āpas appealing. Now he’s responsible for our company’s design-DNA.

Who are your competitors?

Whoever controls our daily intake of water. Still, we have very little influence over the quality of water and it’s clear that these companies aren’t interested in changing that, let alone other kinds of innovation.

These big market players have unprecedented power, so they don’t need to think about innovation. They don’t even really consider our basic needs. They offer inconvenient delivery timeslots and very generalized service plans. It’s just not about people, and it should and can be.

How do you see your service developing in the near future?

At the moment, we are testing our first prototypes with a small circle of users and setting up our online service. The latter might take some time because we need to create smart algorithms that understand our users.

We will reveal the first generation of dispensers and start beta-testing the service this spring. To receive updates, follow RUKI and Āpas.

What does the future look like with a different water supply chain?

We can’t live without water — unless, of course, Soylent can think up a replacement. Still, many people remain without access to clean water, and that number only gets worse when you take into account population growth and pollution of freshwater sources. This new water supply chain would provide some accountability for that. So, hopefully, a reimagined industry would contribute to healthier, more comfortable lives.

If Āpas succeeds, then we can put our system to use for food as well. For example, the company could work out how much fruit and vegetables people need for a balanced diet, how to deliver the produce fresh and how to provide vegans with a satisfactory quantity of protein.

I’ve lived long enough in perpetual discomfort to realize that the powerful, negative energy I’m feeling is rooted a lot in the objects I surround myself with. And the more attention I devote to objects, the more I realize there are ways to improve them. In the scope of daily life, there’s still a lot to improve. That’s what I want to work on for myself and others.

Photography: Sasha Chaika

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RUKI is a hardware incubator, based in Shenzhen, Moscow and San Francisco.

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