July 22. 2013 2:00AM

Startup's system tracks water usage to improve conservation

  
When the Global Water Center opens this fall in Milwaukee, one company that will have an office at the research and business facility is a local startup, H2O Score.


The program that H2O Score will be a part of is called the Global Freshwater Seed Accelerator (GFSA), a mentor-driven seed accelerator program focused on startups that address global challenges in freshwater.

H2O Score is one of six early stage water technology startups that will be participating in the six-month accelerator program, for which each startup selected is receiving a $50,000 grant along with placement in the first-of-its-kind Global Water Center.

The company will have access to a low-cost office lease at the facility, along with strategic assistance and a variety of resources from groups such as The Water Council, the International Water Association, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC), the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District, Mandel Group, Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater's Institute for Water Business, in addition to other business tenants at the Global Water Center such as A.O. Smith Corp., Badger Meter Inc. and Sloan Valve.

H2O Score was founded by McGee Young, a Marquette University associate professor of political science, and the company aims to "change the way that people interact with their government around issues of water sustainability," said Young. The startup's goal is to be a national business that generates revenue through fostering water conservation.

"Our bet is that we can disrupt the market for local government and take an industry that's based around pumps and pipes and make that secondary to the connection that it has to everyday people, everyday residents," he said. "If we do that successfully, we accomplish our number one mission, which is sustainability of our water supply, and number two, we put Milwaukee on the map for real water innovation, where it's not just building a better pump or building a more effective membrane, but really redefining the market by what we value in terms of water in the United States. That's the big goal."

H2O Score is an online dashboard that allows users to view and track their water usage through analytics. Users are able to see their household water consumption through visualized data, in the form of various charts and graphs that better contextualizes and offers further understanding of how much water is being used at a household.

"From a homeowner's perspective, if I could get my water bill in terms I understand, that would help connect me with my water use," said Young. "In the United States, the average per person per day water use is 100 gallons per day."

The service is free for individual users, and when users demonstrate that they have conserved water during a billing period – as it compares to a billing period from the previous year – they earn rewards. For each gallon less water used, 1 cent is automatically credited to the user's account.

H2O Score has achieved several important milestones this year. In addition to being selected as a startup in the GFSA, the WEDC approved the company for Qualified New Business Venture (QNBV) credits, which makes investors in the company eligible for a 25 percent tax credit on the amount they invest in the business.

The company has also signed contracts with two cities – Waukesha and Grafton – to apply its service to the cities' water use, for which they receive an annual fee. It is targeting municipalities because there is opportunity for change, said Young.

"Municipal governments spend $50 billion a year providing water to their residents and the water industry itself has virtually not changed in 100 years. It's built around pumps and pipes and it hasn't had to change," he said. "They've never had to grapple with problems related to people – sustainability, water conservation. These are people problems."

H2O Score's goal now is to go from two cities to 1,000 cities, and Young sees real opportunity to reach that goal by being a part of the Global Water Center.

"We think that we can find 1,000 cities around the country – big, small, whatever – who are willing to pay us a low annual fee to provide these dashboards to their residents," said Young. "We think that the value proposition around that with local business engagement and the sustainability of the water supply is going to be a powerful enough argument to overcome this inertia that cities don't want to embrace aggressive water conservation."

In addition to Waukesha and Grafton, H2O Score is also available for users in Whitewater – essentially the company's pilot city, where new aspects of the web application are being developed – and in Milwaukee, where there have been challenges getting support from the city.

"We'd like to get support from the city of Milwaukee, since we're providing this for free to residents here. That's a work in progress," said Young. "Milwaukee has Lake Michigan. It has no need to conserve water. Using less water for Milwaukee reduces the revenue they bring in."

In addition to contracts with cities, H2O Score is also looking to grow in a business-to-business capacity.

"What we're looking at are these strategic partnerships that allow us to grow on the backs of existing companies, and this gives them a competitive advantage or differentiates them from their competitors," said Young.

Much is changing in the world of water consumption, said Young, and there are many problems nationally in need of solutions. H2O Score wants to be a part of that solution.

"Two-thirds of American states are facing moderate to severe water shortages over the next decade. Over half of counties are in a drought. They're trying to figure out how to engage their customers in water conservation, water efficiency, water awareness programs, etc. Most utilities don't have the staff or the resources to do that effectively," he said. "What we have is the ability to connect on the human level. This is a project that is borne more out of the social sciences and the humanities than it is the hard sciences or engineering. We're going to change the way that people interact with their government around issues of water sustainability. That's the disruption that we want to see."

Dan Shafer covers innovation and technology for BizTimes Milwaukee. Send news to him at dan.shafer@biztimes.com or follow him on Twitter @danshaferMKE.

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