Sunit Mohindroo and Ahmed Badruddin don't control a drop of North America's water. But they can tell you where most of it goes.
The pair of engineers are behind WatrHub Inc., a Toronto startup that's making a big data play of collecting as much information as they can about the state and performance of the continent's water utilities, and the industries that supply and rely on them.
Already the firm has collected data from tens of thousands of North American municipalities into its databases. The information it can mine from this dataset is valuable not only to startups and vendors in the industry, who are looking for market intelligence about potential clients, but to utilities themselves.
"What we're trying to do is gather a large pool of data that is very fragmented, very non-standardized, and run analytics on it that are actionable," says Mohindroo.
The business is built upon the insight that utilities pump out almost as much data as they do drinking water. They are usually public-sector institutions that need to publish budgets, on top of which environmental legislation like America's Clean Water Act imposes additional reporting requirements.
The upshot is that there's an awful lot of data online – everything from how much money is being spent on what, and where, to reports on consumption and state-of-good-repair.
The challenge is that little, if any, of this data comes in a standard format. So WatrHub's 10-person team has had to devise the tools and processes to scrape, import, scan and make sense of volumes of paperwork, using natural-language processing to ferret out the data and store it in a format they can use to compare apples to apples.
"A lot of this data has been stored for years, but we didn't have the technology to mine it like we do now," says Mohindroo.
There are a lot of people with stakes in the water industry: Everyone from water-intensive users like food and beverage makers to power plants, to the suppliers who make the equipment they use. It also includes a growing startup space full of makers of filters and membranes and treatment technologies, who are looking for customers who are ready and willing to try new technology.
"They're having a hard time understanding the utility space," says Mohindroo.
"We can play matchmaker."
Badruddin and Mohindroo were both University of Waterloo grads who met in Silicon Valley, where they'd gone to seek their fortunes – Badruddin at Microsoft, and Mohindroo at Apple, where he worked on one of the early iPad prototypes. Realizing they both wanted to start firms in the sustainability sector, the two moved home to Toronto and set up shop, Badruddin as CEO and Mohindroo as chief product officer. More recently, the company has joined a Milwaukee-based accelerator program for water-based innovators, which has seen Mohindroo set up a satellite office in Wisconsin, to help give them a toehold in the American market.
As Mohindroo notes, water has an appealing target demographic: Every living thing. But water might not be WatrHub's end-game. Once the company has perfected the technology and processes to import and mine millions of documents, it could replicate the service in other sectors.
In the meantime, the use cases the company has been finding for its data are growing with every client. "Even day to day, week to week, we have new customers coming out of the woodwork, saying can you do this?"