In this episode of Hardware to Save a Planet, Dylan is joined by Patrick Kiely, CEO of Sentry, a biological activity and water quality monitoring sensor platform. The conversation pivots around improving wastewater treatment in the context of climate change. We discuss the importance of reliable water quality data to optimize the water treatment process and how Sentry’s sensor platform measures the health of bacteria in wastewater environments. Patrick also highlights the potential of wastewater treatment plants to become net-positive energy generators through biogas.
Patrick is the CEO of Sentry and an environmental microbiologist with over 15 years of experience in molecular microbiology, microbial ecology, and next-generation wastewater / bio-energy applications. He is passionate about the environment and improving the world through smarter water and wastewater treatment decisions. Patrick believes that when leveraged appropriately, the power of competitive thought and processes can be the key to enabling a better environment for all.
To learn more about the scalable and efficient solution for treating water and wastewater, check the key takeaways of this episode or the transcript below.
- 07:44 – 10:18 – The impact of wastewater treatment on emissions and energy use – Patrick explains that wastewater treatment consumes about 25% of an average city’s electricity supply. The process of cleaning wastewater is to separate the water from the biomass in the wastewater. Wastewater from the sewage lines flows into large pools at the treatment center, where oxygen breaks down the biomass, and the purified water is separated. The challenge in this process is accurately matching the amount of energy and oxygen used to purify the water.
- 11:31 – 12:55 – How the lack of accurate data impacts energy consumption – Energy costs account for 75% of the total cost of wastewater treatment plants. The operators of the treatment plants don’t have access to accurate data on the concentration of the biomass in the water, and hence they use more energy than required just to be on the safe side. Another challenge is that the biomass concentration in the inflow varies across the day. It is typically the highest in the morning and afternoon flow and tapers off during the rest of the day. Hence, real-time data needs to be collected continuously. This is the solution that the Sentry platform provides.
- 15:50 – 17:02 – A custom-built sensor to tackle the challenge – Patrick explains that normal sensors are ineffective because they get coated by a biofilm when immersed in wastewater which makes them ineffective. The sensor developed by Sentry uses metallic plates with a preset potential that tricks the bacteria into thinking that the surface of the plate is oxygen. The bacteria collect around the plate enabling the sensor to measure the concentration.
- 31:50 – 33:18 – Building a global ecosphere for real-time data – Sentry has a client book of over 150 global customers who use the sensor. The generated data is transmitted to the Sentry plant, analyzed, and the results are returned to the wastewater treatment plant in real time. The customer base extends from US plants to those in Singapore, China, and India. The average annual saving for their customers is around $2.7 million in energy costs.
Dylan: Hello and welcome to Hardware to Save a Planet. I’m very excited to be talking today with Dr. Patrick Kiely, the founder and CEO of SENTRY. We’ll be talking about improving Wastewater Treatment. In the context of climate change, this is important because Wastewater Treatment is responsible for around 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 25% of the typical city’s electrical demand. As I’ve learned from Patrick, the industry is way less efficient than it could be because there’s a lack of reliable water quality data to inform treatment decisions. Like we’re seeing in so many other industries, when we lack good data, we have to overcompensate with energy and resources. Closing that gap will of course be a big part of meeting our emissions reduction goals. I’m excited to hear from Patrick why getting good data about water quality is hard and how he’s solving the problem with SENTRY. Patrick holds a PhD in Microbiology and he has spent over 15 years working in the fields of molecular Microbiology, microbial ecology, and next generation Wastewater Treatment. In the short time I’ve known Patrick, I’ve been struck by his technical depth and passion for the work he does. But I think what stands out the most to me is the joy he finds in his work. It’s a lot of fun to talk with someone who’s having such a great time while also doing the serious work of saving the planet. So Patrick, thanks a lot for being here. It’s really an honor to have you.
Patrick: Good man, I’m not sure how much fun I’m having, but.
Dylan: I was going to ask if that’s real? Is that accurate, because I definitely comes across as can be a lot of-
Patrick: Yeah. Some days are a lot of fun. It depends sometimes maybe where we are on the cash flow and the burn and the investment cycle. Certainly, I’m getting tired of having to count. When it comes to a new investment round, you’re trying to squeeze the last bit out from a coordinated investor and stakeholders together. I’m not sure I want to be doing that too much longer, but yes, working with customers, giving them data that allows them to make smart decisions at their Wastewater Treatment Facility. That part is a lot of fun.
Dylan: Yeah. I’ve picked up on some excitement and enjoy hearing you talk about things like Bacterial nanowires and the technology that drives your solution. So hopefully we’ll get into that a bit. So just a little bit of like on your background, you’ve been in this field of Microbiology for a long time. I’m curious, how did you end up going down the path of studying Microbiology initially and was climate change on your mind at the time?
Patrick: Well, okay, good. There’s a very long answer to this and there’s shorter versions of it. So, but yes, just from a Microbiology perspective, even from high school, just being at the time amazed by the concept of DNA and just understanding what DNA is and then understanding that, oh, we can work with microbes and we can look at a genetic level, what genes actually define different characteristics for microbes and how they grow and how they attach on surfaces and how they infect other cells. So just inherently interested in Microbiology at a genetic level, that was the first thing. Did a PhD in Ireland, understanding how different bacterial species grow on plant roots, how they help plants grow faster and stronger, because it’s crazy, like microbes and biofilm, they can produce growth-promoting chemicals that actually help plants grow and protect plants. There’s a symbiotic relationship, which in itself is amazingly interesting. Studied how bacterial biofilm grows in the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis and understanding the genetic characteristics of what causes those bacterial communities to be pathogenic, understanding that at a genetic level. There’s just so much interest in this, like Pure Science, and then finished my PhD in Ireland and literally just typed in the name of my bacteria that I was working on at the time, which was pseudomonas aeruginosa, and type in going to change our clean energy or something like that. And professor at Penn State Berks Logan, his name popped up when he had literally just discovered that this bacteria could be used as a waste treatment application to generate direct electricity, converting wastewater into electricity using this bacteria and that concept just blew my mind. So conflicting waste and nutrition using this material. I’ll send Bruce an email saying, I’d love to do a post-op in your Lab. He sent me a note saying, that’s great. I’ll email you back if there’s an opportunity, a classic email that you never think you’ll ever hear back from someone. And I went traveling and got an email like six to nine months later saying, yeah, Pat, we have an opening if you’d like to consider it. And yeah, packed my bags and moved to Penn State. That was the start of me just getting into wastewater and the start of me working in a Lab that was just so exciting because you had all of these researchers from all over the world, like the Lab in Penn State. It’s the best Chinese researchers, the best Korean researchers, the best American researchers, and randomly the best Italian or European researchers. And they’re all just in the same Lab in State College in the middle of Pennsylvania. So that was the genesis of me basically starting to work with bacteria in wastewater environments and starting to understand how when you’re growing bacteria on conductive surfaces that they can generate signals that tell you how happy they are, if they’re healthy, if they’re not healthy. And that basically was the starting point for some of the thought around our sensor platform and how it works and we could maybe begin to think of it for optimizing the Wastewater Treatment process.
Dylan: So when you first said using this bacteria to generate electricity and wastewater, my mind went to generating renewable energy. But was that ever the goal or ever part of the research it was? Okay.
Patrick: And that was the initial genesis of the concept was microbial fuel cells.
Dylan: Oh, cool.
Patrick: And there’s still a lot of research going on. It’s just a few moments where you’re doing it. And for me, yes, science and science and the rigor of science is always super interesting and exciting. But there was always this nagging thing in the back of my head all the time going, what’s the commercial opportunity? What’s the application? How can you actually do something with this? I don’t know where that drive comes from. I think weirdly from my dad, I know he always, you know, dads are always saying random sentences when you’re young. And then they take it in the head. But there was always this nag, okay, well, where is this out there? From a microbial fuel cell as a commercial perspective, when you just do the numbers on it, you’re like, oh, I need like a meter cube of wastewater and its power like, this is not going to change the world. But the data from that is remarkably interesting. And then you’re like, oh, but we can understand in real time how much food these bacteria have. We can understand how much energy they need to clean this wastewater just from this signal. That when you start putting those together and you realize that, oh, now we can optimize how this asset is performing. That’s when it gets exciting.
Dylan: I want to make sure I understand. So I have a very elementary understanding of how Wastewater Treatment works. Is it possible to describe quickly why it is such a big source of emissions and such a big power draw?
Patrick: I love it. So, wastewater it’s not pleasant. Like it’s not a pleasant substance. I mean, all of us wake up in the morning with no idea. You go for a poo, you then have a shower, you then go down to the breakfast and you put all of this stuff down the drain. If you can just imagine the volume of that. And then if you imagine that you have to mix it all together and then it has to go in a pipe to some other person, you don’t even know where this person is. You certainly don’t know this person’s name. And that person at the end of that pipe has to clean that wastewater for you and then deliver it back into the environment. Like it’s such a bananas concept. And the fact that none of us even know where it goes and we’ve no idea who these people are is such an insane concept. And then when you think about, well, how much energy does it take? If I fill my bathtub every morning with shit and organics and shower water, if I feel that every morning and then I ask someone to come and clean it or to use energy to separate the water from all the organic matter after I’ve mixed it up, you can just imagine how much energy that would take. So that’s why 3% of World GHGs are linked to Wastewater Treatment or 2 to 3%, depending on how you’re calculating it. because it all arrives in one location and someone has to separate the water. So the way people do it normally is there’s a big pipe and basically what you have is a series of massive concrete tanks like swimming pools. And what you do is you fill those swimming pools with biomass, and you pump in the wastewater into the biology and then you give the biology oxygen. And the biomass can use the oxygen and use that and eat the waste water, the organics in the wastewater and basically generate clean water at the back end. That’s the very, very, very simple version. And the challenge in our industry is to match in an accurate manner, the amount of oxygen to the concentration or the organic load coming into your Wastewater Treatment. And that’s the part that people are really struggling with. That’s the most basic version of it. And that’s just getting rid of one contaminant, which is carbon. There’s a whole other level of treatment when you want to get rid of nitrogen nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus. And then there’s all an insane other level of treatment if you want to get rid of PFAS, like these indestructible compounds that we’re now picking up in wastewater that are very nasty. So, but the most basic concept is wastewater coming into big, large tanks, building them up in biology and adding oxygen to the biology so that they can eat that wastewater and clean it up for us.
Dylan: And some of the other stuff is about filtration.
Patrick6: And then you can clean that wastewater in different ways. Yes, you can add oxygen, you can add membranes and try to push wastewater through membranes and separate it that way. But if you can imagine the energy costs to a lot of these things, like the most energy efficient way to clean wastewater, wastewater in a tank and bacteria do its magic and eat it for us. I mean, the most energy efficient way is to do it anaerobically and put the wastewater into an anaerobic environment without oxygen and generate Biogas. That’s it. And people do that too. It just depends on how concentrated the wastewater is where the economics make more sense. But yeah, using biomass is certainly the most cost effective way. When you start bringing in membranes, that’s fine. But your energy costs just tend to go through the roof.
Dylan: Okay.So even at this simple level you’re adding oxygen to match the biological load, depending on how many people are pooping in the morning or whatever it is. What is the addition of oxygen? I mean, I’m picturing like churning the water or bubbling oxygen through the water or something like that. That is a significant energy draw in and of itself. And is that what we’re looking to optimize by having better data?
Patrick: Yes, exactly. So that typically makes up about 75% of the electrical cost of a Wastewater Treatment plant. Just that additional oxygen. Because you have these massive blowers that literally just blow air and oxygen into wastewater all day long. And that’s where we come in because operators, because they don’t have good data telling them how clean or dirty that wastewater is coming into their facility, they just turn those blowers on full pelt all day long.
Dylan: Yeah, as the biological load is up and down, they’ve just 100%. We’re just going to treat it as if it’s the worst case all day long. Got you.
Patrick: We’re humans. We all do the same things at the same time. So that means we all basically go to the toilet at the same time. That means there is a period of time in the morning, but usually in the midday by the time that waste water reaches the plant where the operator has to deal with the most concentrated wastewater coming back to us. And it can change. And there’s little spikes at different times of the day, but after breakfast, there’s a wave of poop coming down. After dinner, there’s another wave of poop coming down. The operator can’t predict these things very accurately because he doesn’t have good data, but he just says, okay, I know what the peak is of my day to day. I have a good idea. I’m going to set my aeration of that peak and consistently about that peak and keep them on there all day long. Because all I really care about the most important thing to me is that the water that’s leaving my bank is clean.
Dylan: Right. Much more motivated by that than saving energy.
Patrick: Because they couldn’t even save it anyway until they had good data.
Dylan: Without the data. Yeah.
Patrick: Oh, it wasn’t even part of the equation.
Dylan: Yeah. Yeah. Interesting. I wonder how big events, like the super bowl and that data, you know, like new patterns you get.
Patrick: Yeah, for sure. Well, at smaller levels, we see it all over the world. And this is so cool when you have good data, but how you can start sharing it with your customers, like things like COVID, we can see that, oh, people cope differently now. Like not traveling into the office and their patterns at home are changing. So literally we generate like weekly profiles for a lot of our customers so they can see that and you can see pre-COVID, oh, that was the weekly coup profile. Oh, both COVID, oh, it’s something different. Wow, that’s crazy because they’re moving differently. They’re getting up later. There’s all these weird things. There’s more kids at home. If you have communities that are seasonal, if you have Cape May or places in the world where you have just a bunch of more people in the summer, it can change dramatically.
Dylan: Okay, so the problem is without your sensor, these facilities don’t have that real-time data. Why is it hard with prior technology to get that?
Patrick: So historically, the best techniques are tools that people would use to measure water quality if you take a light beam, you send it through a glass prism and you measure the refraction of that light beam in the water environment, basically how murky that water is. And that would tell you how clean or dirty the water is, that light refraction of those different compounds. The challenge is if you come to wastewater and if you can imagine your bathtub that’s full of all of your poo that you’ve just been mixing up all morning, if you put a nice sensor that has a glass prism on that and you put it in that environment, it gets clogged, it gets covered, there’s biofilm growing all over it very fast. So it’s just not suitable for what you’re trying to do. Biofilm grows on everything. And certainly in wastewater, biofilm grows on everything. And that stops those sensors from working. So when we start thinking about our sensor, we start thinking, well, our sensor is a Biofilm Sensor, or like we have a bio electron sensor. We’re growing biofilm, electrode surfaces and conductive surfaces should be perfect in Wastewater and that’s what we found. So we tend to put our sensors in the dirtiest part of the Wastewater like just as it enters the Wastewater Treatment plant, to get an intended digital profile of. This is how much food is in the wastewater, this is how much food bacteria are eating, and we can generate that digital signal as the wastewater enters the treatment plant.
Dylan: Okay, and we’ve touched on how it works, but can you just give a description of what’s actually happening with the sensor?
Patrick: Yeah fantastic. So what we take is we take conductive surfaces, metallic type surfaces, and we see the potential surface mass, maybe too technical, but we basically trick the bacteria into thinking that that surface is oxygen or somewhere where they can get a lot of energy. And the bacteria are very happy on that surface, so they form a film on that surface. And then we put these sensors in the wastewater stream, and as the wastewater moves across the sensor, the bacteria eat the food in the wastewater as it passes them, and then they respire, they breathe, and in that breathing they drop their electrons onto our conductive surface. So in a very real sense, we’re connecting bacterial activity, bacterial metabolism, bacterial health, and we’re converting it into a digital signal. It’s very analogous to maybe having a Fitbit. People will wear a Fitbit because they want to understand their heart rate, they want to understand when they’re pushing themselves hard, when they’re exercising, when they’re relaxing, what their resting heart rate is. We’ve developed a Fitbit for bacteria. The bacteria tell us in real time how much food they’re eating, how healthy they are, and we use that to measure the quality of the wastewater.
Dylan: Just to make sure I understand, this is a specific bacteria that you apply to your sensor, not the bacteria that is the target for treating in the water or like the type of bacteria you’re trying to take out of the water.
Patrick: It’s a specific subset of naturally occurring bacteria that are really good at this. But it’s not something where we pick one bacteria and we say, no, that’s the one. In fact, everyone’s bacteria have, everyone’s wastewater has these bacteria. So the general bacteria is called Geobacter. That’s the bacteria that produce what we call nanowires, these appendages, whereby they can grow on electrodes and literally produce these fingers almost, but they’re conductive fingers. And through those fingers that they basically shuttle these electrons to the conductive surface. And those Geobacter form these Centrophic Biofilms with all the other bacteria. They all live together. They’re all very happy. Bacteria love to share electrons. They love to share food. They love to share electrons. So they grow on that film and they take the food, they work together and eventually the Geobacter uses their nanowires to put those electrons onto the electron surface.
Dylan: It is so cool. Okay. So can you just put your sensor, maybe a silly question, but can you just put your sensor in the wastewater and the Geobacter finds it? Or are you actually applying Geobacter to the sensor before you put it in?
Patrick: I’ve learned over whatever 20 years as a microbiologist, it’s very hard to fight against nature. You’re much better off developing a platform, a surface that selects for the type of bacteria you want in a natural environment as opposed to going to try and find one specific bacteria, putting it on a surface and then putting that in a natural environment because nature wins. If you take one bacteria but if he’s not perfectly suited for that environment, some other bacterial species is going to be like, hey, wait a second, I’m better than you in this environment. I’m going to live here instead. And within not a long period of time, those bacteria will take over. So you’re much better off developing surfaces and environments where you naturally select for the bacteria you want out of the bulk population.
Dylan: Okay, cool. So to play it back, the problem with current sensors, you put them in the water to try to sense continuously. They’ll just collect biofilm and stop working. They’re optical and the light doesn’t pass through the biofilm anymore. You can’t detect what’s happening. Your sensor, the bacteria, you’re actually using biofilm to your advantage. The bacteria grow on your, live on your sensor and the more as they eat, as they’re munching on different levels of organic matter in the wastewater, the electrical signal you’re picking up from them changes.
Patrick: And that’s how you determine the lines in real time with how clean or dirty that water is. And it’s that signal. It’s almost like having a thermostat, except it’s just telling you how clean or dirty water is. That signal is then used at the facility to say, oh, right now we need a lot of energy because it’s really dirty. Oh, right now we do not need a lot of energy. You can turn and it’s all automatic. It’s all controlled and now we can turn down our blowers. You don’t need to be spending blowing.
Dylan: Okay. Yeah, I was going to ask that. Is it a closed loop system where these facilities can take your data and automatically change their treatment levels.
Patrick: Once you figure out that part, the data part, the rest of it isn’t hard. All of the technology exists, the blowers exist, variable frequency drives exist. Blow more, blow less, that is not the hard part. It all exists. It really is a smaller step now to say, oh, okay, now let’s just not aerate all the time. Now let’s just do it based on this signal.
Dylan: So cool. So your business, are you selling sensors to these facilities? Are you selling a service? What does that look like?
Patrick: Great question. So we typically sell a service. So we give our customers two sensors, they install the sensors, we support them and tell them where to put the sensors. And then we’re providing, we’re the remote telehealth or the Wastewater Treatment plant operator. So we can tell them when this data is coming in, when the wastewater is coming in. But then as we’re providing a service, there’s other cool things that were incentivized to do, because we always have to be showing our value. Every 12 months, it comes up and it’s like, well, are you showing enough value this year for me to want to keep working with you guys? When you’re incentivized in that way, it allows you to think creatively maybe about what else can we do with this data? And that’s when you start thinking, wait a second, can we start doing smarter things here? Can we start using machine learning algorithms? Can we really think about what’s going on with this data? If we take three years of data from a customer, what can that tell us about what’s going to happen in the future at this customer site? So that’s where we tend to be, where we’re going now, or where we’ve been going more recently, is doubling down on that service, but offering real cool insight as to what’s going to happen in the future with the wastewater as it enters the facility.
Dylan: Okay, so can you say a little bit more about that? What kinds of insights might and then what might those facilities do with that information?
Patrick: Aligning environmental factors, for example, oh, we figured out if it rains more than X millimeters at your plant, then you’re going to have this type of problem because heavy rain is another big issue for a lot of Wastewater Treatment. A lot of Wastewater Treatment infrastructure, for example, is combined. So when it rains, all of that rainwater, all of the stuff that’s washing off the roads, washing off the land, also goes in the same pipes and ends up at the Wastewater Treatment. So you can begin to understand, oh, if you have five millimeters of rain, your plant is going to be okay, your biomass will be healthy. Oh, but if it’s 17 millimeters of rain, you’re going to have a complete washout of your biomass, you’re going to get a complete upset. So that one level where you’re just incorporating other environmental factors and other data sets into what you’re doing, but more broadly, with our sensors, you install a sensor for a year or two years, you’ve just been monitoring the wastewater, really you’ve been having a problem with installers. When you start using machine learning algorithms on those data sets, one year, two years, they become very, very good and very predictive at helping us understand, well, what is the future going to look like? What’s the next day going to look like here? And just bringing all of that together and then trying to help alert the operators much smarter as to what the problem conditions are in the Wastewater of what they’re going to do.
Dylan: Welcome. And you know, speaking of the value you’re bringing to your customers, like I saw on your website, you listed your saving customers, $2.7 million monthly. That’s across your customers, 150 guns. Yeah. So it sounds like there’s a meaningful financial incentive here, just reducing.
Patrick: At base level, what we’re doing with our sensors is we’re flagging for operators before the wastewater has come into their plant properly, we’re telling them, you’re going to have a problem with this wastewater. Like 99% of the time, we’re saying there’s no issues and we’re monitoring the wastewater quality. But the best thing we do is we tell them, if there’s a brewery that all of a sudden put a big load of extra food down the collection system, or if there’s a semiconductor company that just put something really nasty down the drain, as that water enters the treatment plant, we can tell the operators in real time, oh, there’s something strange coming on here, guys. There’s something strange entering your plant. And it allows the operators to make a smart decision, a proactive decision to protect the treatment plant and to protect the wastewater quality, the treated wastewater that leaves into the environment. That’s the best way we can help the customers. It’s about making sure our operators get the best quality data at the right time so that they can make a decision to protect the treatment plant. That’s the first step. And that’s a lot of where we save our customers money because without that information, it’s always retroactive. They’re finding out a day later, oh my God, we’ve been discharging out of compliance. We might get fined for this. We have to now go and invest all this other time and effort to change equipment out, do XYZ, do all this head thing. But if they can be proactive, they don’t have to incur any of those costs because they’re like, oh, okay, we see it. It’s coming in. That’s a bearation for a little bit here, guys. I don’t need to meet the demand. Or let’s bypass the wastewater to this holding time for a few hours. We know it’s nasty. We’ll feed it slowly over the next few days. There’s things operators can do if they have good data.
Patrick: That’s where we support.
Dylan Okay, so it’s actually these exceptional events and identifying those that are, that’s one of the big values.
Patrick: Yeah, I’ll give a good example. We have a customer in Frankfurt, Kentucky. And yeah, before we showed up, I think they had two massive plant kills in the previous year. It was someone in their collection network, whether it’s a brewery or someone like that was just dumping something. And they didn’t know exactly. They have their suspicions. They don’t know. But then you put the sensors in and you begin to find out. It’s like, oh, every Wednesday, guys, you’re getting this big spike. I wonder what that is. And then the operators, because it’s always Wednesday at four o’clock and the operators get to think internally, oh, you know what? Yeah, we have Joe over there who drops something off to us every Wednesday. Maybe that’s what’s causing this problem. So when you have good data, people get really smart about it, actually that’s what it was. I thought it was X, but you know what? It’s actually a boy.
Dylan: Okay. And then that’s actually preventing another problem I didn’t, I wasn’t thinking about, but it sounds like because this water is going back into the environment, there’s a risk without the data, there’s a risk of actually polluting more than intended by not treating the water properly.
Patrick: And that is always going to be our number one goal, protecting people’s rights, protecting watersheds and making sure that water is being returned to the environment.
Dylan: Yeah, I was going to ask this, you and I were introduced through Elemental Accelerator, which is a group I really admire because of their equal focus on climate impact, but also social equality and the positive impact to the communities that the solutions they back are deployed in. So I was going to ask, what that angle of what you’re doing is, but I’m guessing that impact to the local watershed is part of it. Is that right?
Patrick: I mean, yes. We’re a water company, as a company that’s designed to only protect water and make sure people are cleaning water appropriately. I think we’ve been a very good fit for the Elemental ESOS and their goals. We love that group. They’re so amazing and it’s so powerful because what they do really better than anyone else, they get clean tech leaders and the best groups and the best minds from all across cleantech. So you’re not just talking to fellow people in the water industry. You can learn from the Solar Industry. You can learn from bioplastics. There’s all these different things that people are doing, energy, water, biomass, and everyone’s thinking creatively about the best way to commercialize this. What are the barriers? How do we get this to market? And learning from outside your own industry is just so powerful because other industries have moved a lot faster than the water industry. Solar industry is most of the industry. manufacture cost effectively to create financing tools to get things deployed faster, reduce those barriers. I mean, that opportunity to learn from people is second to none.
Dylan: Yeah, that’s an awesome group. I want to talk about the physical, the hardware a little bit. And I actually got a chance to see it in person when we were together at the last Elemental Accelerator event. So people have a visual, can you describe what it looks like physically and how it’s built?
Patrick: Yeah, the sensor is an anode cathode pair, a fuel cell architecture. So in theory, if you apply enough voltage, you’d be producing hydrogen on the cathode. But if you apply small voltages, you can convince or trick the bacteria into forming films on those surfaces. And the bacteria form a biological catalyst and actually catalyzes the flow of electrons. In a very real sense, the bacteria use the energy in the food in those carbon hydrogen. They break those bonds, extracting energy. They have to put it to get energy for their metabolism. They basically aspire and donate that energy to the electron surface and we measure the flow of electrons.
Dylan: And I just like the physical makeup of it, it looks, I mean, it’s roughly the size of, I don’t know what you would say, like a curling iron or something, right? It’s kind of like that, maybe that’s a terrible analogy.
Patrick: That’s the first time I’ve heard that one. That’s good. Yeah.
Dylan: Take over if you have a better analogy, but it’s kind of this handheld size device with the electrodes that you’re describing and poking out of the cylinder.
Patrick: When you’re working in industry like wastewater, everything has to be bulletproof. It has to be reliable, like no consumable parts ideally. It has to be happy in a wastewater environment. The form has to be resilient, robust. The individuals that are working at a Wastewater Treatment, they don’t want fickle pieces of equipment. If a big slug of wastewater comes across it, something’s going to break or something’s going to fall off. Well, it really does have to be high tech but low tech at the same time. And that’s what we’ve done. Oh yeah, it looks very much like ash coming. That’s interesting. I’ll go with curling iron. Yeah, that form and the sensor component pops out at the end. And it’s a flat surface that’s just designed in such a way that allows bacteria to breathe out or to respire onto and that surface is representative of the bacteria in that treatment plant. And all we have to do is match our equipment to that number. And then we know that we’re providing the right amount of energy and air to clean this wastewater.
Dylan: And how do you get the data from the sensor to the central operations of the plant?
Patrick: The technical customer of ours will receive two sensors and a control panel and the control panel will have a universal global SIM card in there. So, ship a sensor, the customer puts it in, plugs it in straight to the cloud. We can see the data, the customer can see the data and we work from there.
Dylan: I know you’re Commercial, you’re at 150 sites globally. What have been some of the challenges of getting the hardware to this point where you can deploy it and it’s up and running reliably?
Patrick: When I first started off selling equipment in the wastewater space, we were selling solar powered packaged ISO container Wastewater Treatment. That’s what I was doing like nine, ten years ago. The genesis of this company strangely was a Solar Powered Wastewater Treatment Company. And what I would say is we learned so much from selling, manufacturing, designing, not just our sensor, but everything else that went around at the time, solar power, anery packs, tanks. We just learned a lot. And when you take almost like a step back to just focus on a sensor, you don’t have the same problems anymore. It’s very easy for me and for our team to assemble, integrate, manufacture, bio-inoculate, grow our sensors and ship them to Singapore or ship them to China or ship them to India and just do everything over the air. Like it really is amazing what you could do.
Dylan: Are you building all of your sensors yourselves now in your facilities?
Patrick: Yeah, vertically integrated. So yeah, we just get PVC Pipe and Stainless Steel Materials and we grow them, yeah, assemble, grow the biofilm, do everything in house and ship to customers directly.
Dylan: Can I ask what you sell them for or what they cost?
Patrick: A typical customer, so as I said, it’s a service based, 80% of our customers are on a service. A typical customer starts off, they’re paying $14,000 a year for that service, which is quite low. That might be one particular problem statement. So they might say, okay, well I want you to monitor my influence. Awesome, we’ll do that for a few years. The same customer a year later might say, I also have a Biogas plant over here and we want to protect that and we want to optimize and we want to get more Biogas. Okay, same sensors, different problem statements. starting from 14,000 and then going off with a customer depending on the problem statements they want us to see.
Dylan: And do you think as you scale, you’ll want to optimize the sensor further for cost or is that not a big driver in your business model?
Patrick: The cogs for the sensor are not a big driver for us. We’re okay. That’s not, the challenge for us is the sales cycles with our customers and we provide a lot of support. When you’re offering a service, you realize this. You can’t just sell something. You can sell a CAPEX sensor and walk away and never think about the customer ever again. That’s great. When you are a service based company, you have to have a team of customer success people that are always providing value. So that’s where our cost is. We typically average out about 30 customers per client manager right now. So having one person who maybe has 30 or 40 years experience as a wastewater treatment operator, that person is looking at or managing the data from maybe 30 sites. And when there’s events he can reach, he or she can reach out and say, oh, I’ve seen that. And then we might even have another data analyst behind this person who is crunching the numbers on those peri plants and saying, oh, weirdly every Wednesday we’re picking this up. Our algorithms are saying this is going to happen here or whatever it is, but there’s this support service that we’re providing behind the data. But that’s great for us because right now it’s just building our value, building our knowledge and allowing us to do and show a lot more, provide a lot more value, but show a lot more insight to our customers.
Dylan: So you’re at 150 customers now. What’s the vision in terms of scale? What do you think the total potential market is for a century?
Patrick: Yeah, we’re definitely only scratching the surface. Right. There’s 20,000 Wastewater Treatment plants alone in the US, just municipal ones. So it’s a massive opportunity for growth. Our goal is twofold. So conservatively, we’re growing 50% year over year. So we’ll keep doing that with our numbers. But the most important thing with our customers is we start with just as I was mentioning one problem statement. So maybe we’re just going to monitor your influence and protect your treatment. But after a year, our customers are coming out to us, are coming back to us saying, can we use this for aeration optimization? Can we eliminate 30% of our electrical bill here? Yes. Awesome. That’s another sensor. So let’s do that. Let’s do an aeration optimization program with you. Again, oh, I have a Biogas plant. I’m only using it at 20% capacity. I could be generating five times more Biogas from my facility. Could you help us understand when we add more food to our digesters what that means for our performance? Yes, that’s another problem statement. So that ability to scale with our existing customers and then add new customers is really exciting. And that’s the other catalyst for us would be eventually getting across the line with Channel Partners, those Global Multinationals that have a much bigger reach than us and really allowing us to scale a lot faster.
Dylan: I think I’m ready to hit the last few questions, but I wanted to check with you if there’s anything else, any other topics or questions you thought we should touch on before we do that.
Patrick: The general vision that we have for the Wastewater Industry is a vision where we have bacteria growing on conductive surfaces, that is the sensor issue of bacteria, sensing the wastewater environment, working ideally with machine learning algorithms to understand what’s happening right now, but what’s going to happen in the future. And for those bacteria and those algorithms to work together to control the assets of the plant, that’s the vision that we want to get to where you have bacteria basically optimizing these assets. And that’s a world that is not far away. Like everything exists for that to happen today. So just really excited to see that move in the industry toward that, because there’s just so much energy that’s being left on the table. No hanging fruit energy. Yeah, we’re really excited as a team to be part of that and to really be part of the impact globally that that could lead to in terms of GHG emissions, but also potentially in terms of increased renewable Biogas generation at these plants as well.
Dylan: Okay, without that ML and predictive side of it, there’s only so much impact you can have, but you can take that even further once you bring the smarts into it.
Patrick: We published on our YouTube page a case study where basically we can show 30% more events or the data is 30% better when you’re using smarter algorithms than it is, if you’re just using basic high low and special days that I am sure are more basing agonistic models.
Dylan: Wow. Yeah, that’s really exciting. And when we think about maybe this is a good way to think about it, when we think about that global impact you’re talking about, I mean, one is less pollution in the watersheds. But also, just from a greenhouse gas emission standpoint, we talked about it being two to 3% of global GHGs. What impact do you think is potentially there? If this gets optimized to the level you’re envisioning?
Patrick: You’re certainly looking at a 30% reduction in general anyway, that’s the base. The real exciting part comes when you start incorporating the renewable Biogas side.
Patrick: For example, in North America, and this is bananas, there are so many Anaerobic digesters sitting at Municipal Wastewater Treatment Plants that are only being used to 10 or 20% capacity. There’s this big push in North America right now to do more Biogas, more renewable Biogas, and there are hundreds of assets just sitting basically underutilized. We would love to work with people who want to utilize those assets. If you can turn those assets into not just energy draws, but net positive, there’s no reason Wastewater Treatment plants should not be net positive.
Patrick: One of our favorite customers, I’m sure, is Central Marine Sanitation in California, just across the Bay Bridge, and they are net positive. And they work with us to basically blend more food into their digesters, generate more Biogas, and actually have a return for the facility, which is super exciting. If you can turn a Wastewater Treatment plant, which is a cost, 25% of the electrical bill at a community is going to the Wastewater Treatment plant. And if you can reverse that and make it a net positive, that’s just bananas. That’s so exciting.
Dylan: I see. Yeah, you had mentioned it, but that was a huge benefit that I hadn’t fully picked up on. Could every Wastewater Treatment plant potentially be a Biogas generator?
Patrick: Yes. Every wastewater. I mean, there’s economies of scale, so they have to be at a certain scale typically for it to make sense. But these are perfect. They’re always receiving wastewater. It always has organics in it. They have biomass that they need to tree typically on site. If you have this asset that’s only being used at 10 or 20%, why not go to the local community, get all that restaurant waste, go to the local farmers that you have, get their waste streams as well, lend it in and literally start printing money.
Dylan: That does get really exciting and cool. Printing money is fun.
Patrick: And the challenges aren’t technical. That’s the interesting thing. And the challenges are incentive based. So it’s who at the municipal level actually wants to make money? Like here as our operators, their job is to protect wastewater quality and protect the water that’s going back to the environment. That’s great, we’ll help them do that. But if there’s someone else at the municipal level who has the vision to say, you know what, instead of this costing us 25% of our budget every year, can we do something different here, guys? Can we actually have it make money for us? The answer is yes, but you just don’t necessarily have the people in every community just have this information in front of them that can begin to think like this and make these decisions.
Dylan: Oh, wow. Okay. Is part of that because these are public government organizations or they’re not private businesses?
Patrick: Yeah, they’re municipal, they’re local. They tend to be in North America. They tend to be like every Municipality owns and operates their own Wastewater Infrastructure, Water Infrastructure. But to be honest, that’s not because the US is the best place in the world to do these things. You can go to parts of the world like the UK where the Wastewater Industry is privatized. There’s nobody doing anything. It’s completely backwards. The fact that the industry is fragmented in North America, the fact that every community has the capacity to make faster decisions and actually do projects, it tends to be easier for companies like ours to help them and actually get work done on your project.
Dylan: Okay, they just need to know about it’s almost like education, knowing that it’s a possibility.
Patrick: And yes, and see the US utilities have nimbleness because they’re smaller, you just have to get two or three people on board, they can make a decision. It’s like, awesome, let’s go do this. Why not? But if you’re working with some private organization, probably have an organization that perhaps has 300 wastewater assets, all sorts of levels of bureaucracy internally. And for them to turn or to shift or to do anything different than what they’re normally doing, just takes so much momentum and takes so many people to get to the table at the same place. So in a weird way, the US is perfect. It’s almost like you have this, all these startups, that’s the way we almost look at it is every little utility is like a startup on their own and you can work with them individually. And then in the future, you’ll get those larger privately held organizations, corporations to actually begin to think about it and begin to make the investments they need to move forward.
Dylan: Okay. Yeah, that’s super cool. See, this is, you’re stoked. I can just tell like you’re excited about this. This is fun.
Patrick: But it’s weird. Science is super interesting. And I always thought, you know, day one, it’s like, oh, if we build it in the best sense, everyone’s going to want it. It’ll be so easy. And it’s not bad at all. Like the actual challenge is on who’s incentivized to win here. How do we incentivize people? How do we help people? How do we present the value? Who on the other side needs to know about this? Who needs to make the decision? Like there’s so much outside the Technology that actually is central to the commercial success that allows you to do more and better technical work. And that’s where the real challenge is.
Dylan: Good reminder. Yeah. It’s easy for me to always think about the Technology. Cool. So three last questions. How optimistic or pessimistic are you about the future of the Planet and why?
Patrick: I’m optimistic because I can see good work happening. It’s happening too slowly. So I’m pessimistic about that. And from a water perspective, I’m also worried about the quality of wastewater that we as a community are actually generating. What we’re putting into wastewater today isn’t just carbon or nitrogen or phosphorus. We’re putting in painkillers, like everything that you ingest in your body that you then put down the toilet. There’s so many other nasty things in there that Wastewater Treatment infrastructure is not designed to treat. PFAS, these chemicals that just literally are going to persist in our environments forever and build up in our environments. So that part of it worries me. And just having a, I think we just need a much bigger awareness of what we’re putting in our bodies and then how that is actually going back into our environment. Cause nobody knows. You think you take something, oh, well it’s gone forever. No, it’s not. It’s going through the Wastewater Treatment plant as well probably. If it’s recalcitrant or if it’s non-biodegradable and it’s just building up in our ecosystem and someone else down the street is eating it and then we’re eating that again. So it’s a whole concept of just protecting water and awareness of water quality. Certainly worries me, but maybe positive too. I don’t know.
Dylan: Yeah. Who is one other person or company doing something to address climate change that’s inspiring you?
Patrick: In the water industry or the Biogas industry, there’s a company called Energi that is great. Thanks. someone I would look up to.
Dylan: How do you spell it?
Patrick: B-E-N-E-E-K, I believe.
Dylan: Or the company name?
Patrick: Anaergia, A-N-A G-I-A. Okay. They’re a Biogas company, but they’ve basically figured out Technology or figured out a Solution to basically take all of that organic waste. Everything that you put in your organic bin at home, they take all of that. And they just have very good ways of extracting every last ounce of energy out of it and turning it into renewable Biogas. Cool. Yeah, they’re great. side of the water industry. Sure. I mean, Elon, Elon is my boy. Elon Musk is just amazing.
Dylan: Oh, yeah.
Patrick: I know there’s a lot of noise around him too, but what he’s done individually is just one person. older and more relaxed.
Dylan: It’s pretty hard to ignore the impact he’s had. What advice do you have for someone not working in the climate today who wants to do something to help?
Patrick: I mean from a water perspective we just need a lot more people understanding the value of water. People think that, A, I can just put anything down the drain and it’s going to go somewhere and it’s not going to cost anything to clean it. Understanding the value of water, understanding where your wastewater goes, knowing who’s working at those facilities, like all of these things are important. And then understanding and maybe advocating for more investment in water because people don’t know where it goes. It’s easy to think, Oh, water is free. I turn on a tap, I get clean water, I can drink it. None of it is free. It’s all costing all of us money. We don’t know this and we’re not making it easier for the people downstream either. So advocating for more money, more resources to improve our Water Infrastructure, to help us clean the water better so that what we’re delivering to the environment is better for everyone. Yeah, just advocating, just getting smarter about where your water is going, where you’re getting it from, what it costs and advocating for more and better infrastructure. I think it would be something. Nice. I like that.
Dylan: Patrick, that was really fun. I always enjoy talking with you about this stuff. Thank you, Jeana. I get excited about it. I have fun talking about it. Yeah. So I really appreciate it. And what you’re doing is really cool.
Patrick: Awesome. Thanks very much.
Dylan: Yeah, thank you.
Patrick: Thank you.