Automating Water Testing with founder Ravi Karani

Automating Water Testing with founder Ravi Karani

Brent Peterson (00:00.558)
Feeding IoT in water, Internet of Things, I'm assuming? Anyways, go ahead, Ravi, introduce yourself, tell us your day -to -day role and one of your passions in life. My name is Ravi Karani and I'm the president of Sutro. Sutro is a floating laboratory for your swimming pool or spa that tells you what your chemistry is, your pH, your chlorine, and what chemicals to put inside your pool so you can always have safe and clean water for you and your family. My passion...

is actually water. So luckily, I actually get to work every day in my passion pools. A little bit outside of water overall, but still generally the same characteristics. That's awesome. I have a pool, so I'll ask you a few questions later. Anyways, before we get started, you have volunteered to be part of the Free Joke Project. I'm just going to tell you a joke. All you have to do is say should this or...

All you have to do is tell me if the joke should be free or if you think we should pay for it at some point. Okay. So here we go. I threw a ball for my dog. It's a bit exaggerate, but I know it's his birthday. He looks great in a tuxedo.

Brent Peterson (01:16.206)
That I think you should pay for that joke. All right. Yeah, thanks. I was just thinking it could be J. O. T. joke of all things joke of all joke of things anyways. All right. So, I've had a pool for about 20 years. And we continually battle with different. Different chemicals and and we also very hard water and if I don't.

If I don't keep it just right, we've already burned through one of the copper heating elements inside of our heater. So tell us a little bit about Sutro and how you're working in the water industry. Yeah. So maybe, I guess, just to kind of unpack your relationship with your pool, how do you currently test your water? Do you have a pool guy that comes by or do you use these test strips? What do you do to make sure your pool's looking good?

Great question. The majority of the time I use a test strip. Maybe a couple times a year we bring the water to the pool store and then they sell us a whole bunch of chemicals. Yeah. And in testing with the pool test strip, what are kind of problems? What are challenges in using a test strip? I mean, I think I don't know that much about it.

where maybe my pH is too low or oftentimes either I have the chlorine too high or it runs out. I mean, there's all kinds of issues that happen. And I think the alkalinity and pH balance are the hardest ones for me to understand. And that's when I bring it in and have the pool people help me and they tell me what I should be doing. Perfect. And I think you hit the nail on the head, right? It's just, it's difficult for you to understand as it is for everybody else. And we can go to the details of what is pH and alkalinity, but I think,

The root of this all is you run a busy life and your pool is in your backyard for you to enjoy. And using this test strip and trying to figure out all this chemistry like you're back in high school, your college chemistry class is just generally difficult. And you don't want to make the wrong decision in one way or the other. And that's actually right where Sutro comes in, right? We solve this problem of difficulty by automating the way that the robot actually measures water chemistry. And then very simply on your app,

Brent Peterson (03:37.773)
whether it be on iOS or Android, gives you basically a thumbs up or a thumbs down, right? Are you doing good or are you not? And if you're not doing good, what do I need to do? And we tell you exactly what to do so that you just really don't have these questions of difficulty. And so that's really what the problem solves is this difficult relationship between you, your pool, and that test strip. Does it tell me my pool temperature as well? It does tell you.

your pool temperature as well. Yeah, a lot of people actually do use it for the temperature. Yeah, that's awesome. So tell us a little bit, how did you get into this? Tell us about Sutro and some of the background of that. Yeah, so started off my pool career actually, surprisingly, as a pool boy. I grew up in sunny Southern California, just outside of Los Angeles. And my dad used to have a chain of pool and spa supply stores.

So I've done, you know, those pool stores you go into to get your water tested. That's, that's literally, I was the guy standing behind the counter that would test your water or sell you chemicals. so I've done everything from drive around in that little pickup truck, put chlorine in people's pools, clean their pools, install pumps and filters. And shortly after I went to undergrad for mechanical engineering and kind of helped my dad in basically bringing his business online.

I very clearly understood that water testing is actually the crux of the problem here, right? Because you walk into a pool store to get your water tested. You use a test trip to get your water tested. That's the first principles of kind of managing and measuring a swimming pool. And so we basically set out to figure out how can we design and build basically a floating laboratory. And when we looked at the off the shelf sensors that were out there, the biggest problem that happened is they began to...

drift over time, right? So if you think about your pH, when you have a pH of 6 .8, you're supposed to do a particular thing. But if that 6 .8 becomes 6 .9 and 7 and 7 .1, 7 .2, if the sensor itself starts drifting, it's almost like having a broken clock, right? A broken clock's right twice a day, but you don't know what time it is. And so we set out to basically solve that problem by taking exactly the way that you test your water using those liquid reagents.

Brent Peterson (06:01.869)
And what sometimes takes up whole laboratory benches and we shrunk it down to basically the size of a football. And that's kind of what Sutro is, is we are a floating laboratory. We are a precision piece of robotics that floats inside your swimming pool or spa and measures water chemistry the exact same way that you would just shrunk down really, really small. And once that data is actually digested in the cloud and pushed to the application, there's a lot of...

artificial intelligence and machine learning that goes into actually figuring out what your water chemistry is, because the future of Sutro is to actually be wherever water needs to be measured. And many people will ask, well, where exactly is that? Right? The first place that water needs to be measured is for your water that you drink that comes out of your tap. Municipalities and cities across the world need to measure water for its safety so that we don't have issues like Flint, Michigan, where you had lead in the water, or countries where...

The largest actually killer in the world is through diarrhea and dysentery. And those are water -based vectors. People need to measure water chemistry for agriculture. All the food that we grow in the world needs to have some sort of nutrients or fertilizers that are put in that needs to get measured from a water quality standpoint. All the chillers, the boilers, the wastewater industry, water is actually measured in a lot of the world's industries. And that's eventually where Sutra wants to be outside of the pool and spa industry.

I know in in or in your title on LinkedIn, you have Internet of Things in that. Tell us how that matches up with Internet Internet of Things. Yeah, Internet of Things is basically. Robotics or machines, things that are connected to the Internet, right? And if you really break down what is Internet of Things, there's there's this word Internet, there's the word of and there's the word things. Things can be anything they can be.

Connected street lights that you know send back information to the city to know if a light is green or red they can be Your Gauge that tells you how much electricity you're using in your house when the electrical companies come by and actually suck that data up Things or anything that are connected to the internet and so sutra is a is a thing It is a it is a machined object that is floating in your pool that is connected to the internet So you can basically access and digest that information?

Brent Peterson (08:30.957)
And so that very logically is what internet of things is and how Sutro is an internet of things device. Yeah. So is that a leader or, well, you are a leader in your industry. is this something that's emerging you've seen now, or is it, this is, I mean, tell us the background about how, how the water, I mean, let me just back up. My experience has been in the last 20 years that I bring it to my pool store.

Is this sort of the next phase in how people are going to treat their pools and their spas and water in general? Yeah, entirely so. If you look at the just advent of technology, if you think about your phone, your phone is an Internet of Things device. Do you send emails through your phone? Do you check Facebook through your phone? Do you send text messages through your phone? All of these things used to be analog behaviors that we had. We would go home and pick up the landline and call somebody.

Instead of an email, we might write a note. And so as these new technologies come in, and as they're connected to the Internet, they allow more flexibility and the ability to take in mind data for us to do better, faster, cooler things. Is it going to change the way that people measure their water chemistry? Yes, because you're not having to use a swimming pool test strip. But the native behavior still exists that you, Brent, need to test your water chemistry.

If you use your finger and lick the water to figure out what the chemistry is, if you use a test trip, if you drive to the pool store, those are all behaviors and utilizing existing technology or existing behaviors that are out there. And Sutro is just complimentary or supplementary to that. Our goal eventually is that, you know, a lot of people, we hope, you know, all pools, all places that water exists has a Sutro there to measure what the water chemistry is. And so to kind of answer your question, yes, it does change, but the behavior still is.

native behavior that we're doing today. We're just automating it through building robots and through connecting it to the internet. What challenges have you had as as an entrepreneur, as a leader in this space?

Brent Peterson (10:43.853)
the first is that hardware is hard, right? A lot of venture capital VCs in Silicon Valley, in particular, when we were fundraising, your multiples of returning your fund or getting money back is a lot better and quicker just by investing in a software company because you can write lines of code and you can push that out a lot quicker than if you legitimately have to travel across the Pacific to China or

to the US or to Mexico, wherever you're manufacturing, and legitimately pump out atoms in terms of plastic. And if there's not a problem with that, you're dropping tons of capital in making sure that you can actually manufacture. And so that's the first thing that's very difficult. Hardware is hard and fundraising for hardware was even harder. The second thing is water and kind of, let's call them the climate technologies are not really looked at.

favorably from the VC market. They kind of generally liked back when I was fundraising to just invest in billion -dollar products, right? And that can be like the Google, the social networks of the world. Those companies were a lot more lucrative from a VC standpoint than was something around water or energy or whatever that might be. And so your pool of investors, your pool of capital is just a lot smaller than if you were to just have a technology that could have fundraised from way many more.

So those were kind of the two biggest things that I can think back to day zero, day one that were challenging in starting a hardware startup. Yeah, I interviewed the CEO of Lovesac yesterday who kind of made the same statement that maybe it's changing that VC and PE is changing in terms of how they're interacting.

And you don't always get that runway, that burned down runway. And do you think it's different in hardware than in software? Like it, it feels like sometimes there's, there's companies that get valued at, at an unbelievable amount of money that's never, they've never made a penny. And if you look at a hardware company, you have to make money to get funded. Yeah.

Brent Peterson (13:00.493)
Yeah, I don't necessarily know about the generalizations of it, but my story definitely was that it was, you're held to the exact same ceiling, right? Or kind of goals that a software company has, but you have to do triple the amount of work because you're actually physically making a product. And so yeah, you're right. We're kind of held to the same baseline, but we have to do a lot more with the same amount of money.

Tell us a little bit about Sutra. Where did the idea come from and how did it get born? The idea actually came about when I was in India. So I was working as an associate at a venture capital fund that was investing in poverty alleviating technologies. So India has a lot of issues with water, with small batch farmers. We would kind of invest in local entrepreneurs that help with poverty alleviation. In

Reviewing a lot of the deals that came across my desk Water filtration was one that came up a lot, right? People were trying to make the world's best water filter You have you know life straw and all this stuff that can like fix water that can clean water for you but as you know with with the swimming pool right as an example is The parameters in which you need to hold the water is different for each application. You might put a lot of chlorine in your swimming pool, but

that's not good to drink, right? You shouldn't be drinking your pool water. And so when these guys were developing water filters, I was like, there's a whole sensing market that hasn't been looked at yet. We don't know what the water quality is. And so we set out to look at all the other sensors out there, figured out that they're either really, really expensive, which was not applicable to the Indian market because we were trying to focus on people who made less than $2 a day, or they were test strips, which were prone to the same exact issues that you had.

luckily, first world problems, you only have a problem with your swimming pool, now, magnitutely make that an issue with your drinking water and using that same test strip and the same difficulty and confusion that you have. Imagine if that's a kind of life and death situation off of drinking water. So we set out to build this technology, tried selling it to the Indian government, stupidest thing a startup can do because they take a ton of time and a lot of red tape and actually getting from one place to the other.

Brent Peterson (15:22.669)
And so we came back to the U .S. and I flipped the model around and I said, hey, I used to work at a pool store. The technology is generally the same. Let's go ahead and flip the business model to sell it to wealthy pool owners, use the capital to then fund the business from the bottom up, and then go into the agriculture and drinking water stuff later. So that's kind of the story of how we came up with the idea and how we got to where we are.

That's awesome. So what's on the horizon that do you have products that are geared towards just drinking water now? No, so we were acquired by Sandy Mark, a large water sanitation company in Canada in 2018, 2019. And so since then, we've been focusing on the pool and spa arm. But probably this year or next year, we're really looking at actually expanding into other markets, be that the commercial pool and spa industry or potentially other kind of adjacent markets.

to the water industry. I do want to ask a water question because it feels like the world is gated to drinkable water and non -drinkable water. We can go to Mexico, you can't really drink the water. You come across the border to California and you can drink the water. You can drink the water in Canada, obviously.

And I've been to India, I've been around the world. What is it that makes a government focus on water quality? Like Singapore, you can drink the water in the tap, right? It's in South Asia, but I don't know if there's anywhere in India that you would dare to drink the water. Yeah, I think it really just probably comes down to the priorities of the government. Funnily enough, I actually have a podcast on water called Liquid Assets, and we talk about this a lot on

It's really a prioritization of what the government finds important at the moment. In India, for example, they have a bustling and growing population problem, if that's one. And so as policymakers in India, I'm sure they're more concerned about shelter and infrastructure and how do we make sure that we're actually getting people where they should be, we're not clogging up roads. And...

Brent Peterson (17:37.261)
In terms of water, there is an alternative to clean water, right? You can always buy bottled water. You can boil your water. They have tablets to clean your water. So it's not that the entire population is drinking dirty water. It's that you probably just shouldn't from a country standpoint to come straight out of the tap, but they do have access to clean water. And so I think because the problem is quote unquote solved, the politicians can then focus on kind of other issues with, you know, a population that has 1 billion, 1 billion plus people, which is.

five times the size of the U .S. Right? And so there's just a there's kind of a discrepancy around priorities there. Yeah. Is it also the downstream of where the water goes through that could be a problem in that, you know, the pipes and everything else, is that also part of the water quality problem? And maybe it's a bigger problem than just dealing with the water in in at the source.

Yeah, I mean, if you if you just logically think about kind of the way that water is distributed, there's many points in that chain that can contribute to water being dirty. In this example, right? There's there's obviously the source water. Is it is it coming from a source that is clean or not clean when it gets to the processing facility? Is it is it clean there? Are there regulations that that maintain or mandate that it is clean? Maybe there aren't. And they're cleaning it to the best of the legislation's.

requirements, but it's not enough to drink. Maybe it's clean coming out of the distribution facility, but the piping is not clean, right? And so your last mile might be an issue. And so there's kind of many, many points through the chain at which you can kind of introduce a pollutant, if I would, right? It doesn't necessarily need to be from the source water or from the last mile. And I guess Flint, Michigan would be a good example of the last mile that was bad or the entire, entire.

infrastructure of delivery that was bad. Exactly. What excites you? What's next on the horizon for you in terms of product development? We definitely want to incorporate more artificial intelligence in the Sutro system to get kind of one smarter with the existing measurements that we have, but secondarily begin to actually triangulate other measurements so we can actually increase the amount of things that we actually test for.

Brent Peterson (20:00.237)
And the second thing is actually getting, like I said, into more commercial contracts. So getting Sutro in the hands of more places where water is really pivotal from a commercial pool standpoint and then kind of larger into the drinking water agriculture cooling tower industries. From an agricultural standpoint, does it matter what we spread in the fields in terms of water? I would imagine, I suppose, some

chemicals that were introduced, but what is it that we worry about when we're putting water onto fields? I guess also cattle or something like that. I didn't think of that. Yeah, the biggest issue is actually runoff, right? So you see these issues with nitrification happening in the lakes and streams where you get these big algae blooms, right? And it sucks out the oxygen and a bunch of fish die. If you ask why is that happening, that's because

farmers many time are over fertilizing their crops and the runoff of what the plants are not sucking up into their roots is then running off into the lakes and streams that then cause that problem. And if you ask why again, why are farmers over fertilizing is because many times they don't have enough clear data because managing environmental indicators is very tough, right? We don't know how much sun is gonna be there. We don't know.

it's going to rain, there's all these things that happen in the world that we just can't predict. Kind of like you can't predict what the weatherman says, right? You have to take that with a 50 % grain of salt. And so if we could measure water quality, and in water quality, many farmers will actually use nutrients and plug that through the water to actually water the plants so that they can then suck up those nutrients.

gives us a clear ability to actually know are the nutrients reaching a particular part in the crop? And then secondarily, are the plants actually sucking it up? And the kind of third thing is in a plant's life cycle, there's generically three kind of chemicals it needs, nitrates, phosphates, and potassium. Those three things are put at varying levels in different parts in a plant's life. And so you could just equally spray all of them, or you can actually optimize your fertilizer based off of the plant's growth cycle, which,

Brent Peterson (22:24.461)
Many farmers do, but this gives them one layer of additional data to actually be able to not have runoffs and grow their crops better and cheaper. We winter in Hawaii and if you're not on the city system, you have to get a catchment tank. Is there a lot of good applications for that as well? Just measuring what is what is the quality of your water?

as it comes off of the rain, off your roof, or however you're gathering it? Entirely. Yeah, and that kind of focuses on like a water generation question. Everything we've been talking about right now is you assume that the water exists and you're kind of treating that water for an agricultural crop or for a swimming pool. But water generation, as you just mentioned, is also an entirely interesting topic, mostly because our availability of fresh water is also decreasing. So catchment.

totally, you can catch the rain and figure out how to treat that water and then drink it. There's also a lot of work being done around water recycling. We use fresh water to flush our toilets. That's the same water we drink that's going in that toilet bowl. You could use recycled water, which actually has a decently clean parameters, depending on how you actually sanitize it could or could not be good for drinking. But there's a lot of opportunities in taking things like

planting or watering our plants, flushing our toilets, things like that that can actually use recycled water, which a lot of cities in the US are now starting to actually implement as well. I think I read that Catalina Island has all their toilet plumbing, they have non -potable water for their plumbing systems or their toilets and then they have a drinking water supplies. Do you think that's for places where water is scarce and it's drinkable, do you think that's?

Part of where we're going in terms of water. I think we need to, because you're, you're ending up with a lot of places actually having these. Issues like day 0 issues, right? South Africa had a day 0 issue where they literally would. They just didn't have any more waters. They would turn off the taps like you. If you're to turn on your tap in your home, you would not have water. Mexico city is having a day 0 issue. Phoenix Arizona is having a day 0 issue and so when we come to that level. There is just physically not there's no supply of water there and so.

Brent Peterson (24:49.965)
I don't think it's a matter of like, should we or could we, I think it's that we're going to be forced to do something in saving our clean water for what we need it for and not using it to flush our toilets. And, you know, some of these kind of easy wins can come if we start implementing solutions like this early on. Do you think that this water issue, let's talk about Phoenix and trying to deliver electricity to the growing population, is it going to be harder to deliver water to that region or electricity?

I think electricity has had its wave with decentralization, if I would, right? You can, especially in a place like Phoenix, you can put solar panels. They have large scale photovoltaic. There's a lot of geothermal in the area. There's ways to get energy that we figured out how to decentralize. But water right now is the same that we've done since the Romans, right? Like, it comes from a central location. It has to travel via an aqueduct to your home.

in that in that piping system so you can turn on your tap. And so I think what we're talking about now is the decentralization of water, right? How do you put feedback loops where you're taking your toilet water, you have on -site waste cleaning up that water, and then you're recirculating back into your toilet? I'm not saying you should drink it, but we can at least use that water to pump back into things that are not critical. And so, yeah, entirely so. I think to answer your question, it would be much easier to deliver energy and electricity than it is to water.

In terms of Sutra, what would you like people to know about your company? If you have a pool, you should get one. That's kind of a, that's, that's one thing I'd like for, for people out there listening to to do. That's awesome. Ravi, as we close out the podcast, I give everybody a chance to do a shameless plug about anything they like. What would you like to plug today? I'm going to double down on what I just said. So for, for all of the, all of the U S and all the listeners out there that have a swimming pool or hot tub.

go to mysutro .com, that's -Y -S -U -T -R -O .com and order a Sutro for your pull or spot. That's great. Ravi, Ravi Kurnari, the president of Sutro, it's been such a pleasure speaking to you today. Thank you, Brent. Thank you for having me on.