KETOS is an award-winning water intelligence and analytics company that aims to empower municipal, industrial, and agricultural water users by providing them the insight necessary to make data-driven decisions in their daily operations. It charges customers a flat service fee to install and maintain a fully integrated proprietary hardware and software stack that provides real-time intelligence related to the quality and quantity of water that is making its way through their systems at various critical points. In this interview, KETOS Founder and CEO Meena Sankaran tells Municipal Water Leader about the company’s technology and how it solves long-standing water industry pain points.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Meena Sankaran: I grew up in India and experienced what a good 70 percent of the world experiences when it comes to water: a limited supply of unsafe water. We only had a couple hours of water supply a day for the majority of the years I was growing up. There were also questions of affordability when it came to purchasing water filters. Under circumstances like that, you are more conscious about how you protect, preserve, and use such a precious resource.
I studied electronics and communications engineering in India and came to the United States to pursue my graduate degree in electrical engineering. The first 16 years of my career were heavily focused on datacenters, infrastructure, and networking. I felt that my efforts were geared toward improving the companies that I worked for, but I never felt that I was leveraging technology toward an application with a broader social importance or addressing a dire need. That desire for a mission-driven culture is at the core of why the seed of KETOS was planted and why solving an important problem, no matter how hard the challenge, was something I didn’t hesitate to embark on.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your company, KETOS.
Meena Sankaran: I founded KETOS in 2015. My thesis always has been that you only start a company when you know you’re solving a clear pain point and are adding value for customers.
KETOS is a water intelligence company that enables operators to make data-driven decisions in their daily operations. Our target customers are industrial, municipal, and agricultural entities for which understanding water analytics in real time can be transformational. The water industry is used to siloed purchases, vendor-oriented decisionmaking, and point solutions that require high capital investments and the labor-intensive maintenance of specialized equipment. We, by contrast, want to shift people’s mindset to thinking that water testing doesn’t have to be cost prohibitive. Our goal has been to offer a vertically integrated stack with intelligent hardware, stable connectivity infrastructure, an interactive software platform, and hassle-free services, all for a predictable, flat service fee. We’re not giving our customers a piece of hardware and leaving it up to their operators to figure out how to use it, manage it, calibrate it, clean it, process its tests, and use its data. Instead, we set up a complete communications stack with the hardware sensor node deployed at the customer’s preferred location, giving them a comprehensive, robust platform that analyzes water quality data at the parts-per-billion (ppb) level. Our goal is not to make water operators into technologists, but to allow them to be the experts they are, with us as the technologists who empower them.
The last 5 years have been quite a journey. Our team includes around 50 Ketonians, and even prior to the COVID‑19 pandemic, we were geographically dispersed, with employees in 13 or 14 U.S. states. We’re headquartered near Santa Clara, California, and our core engineering team and research and development lab are here as well. Our manufacturing, building, and testing setup is located in the United States, and we are conscious of how our supply chain and manufacturing quality can be upheld at the highest caliber while focusing on solving a water quality problem.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you describe the pain point you mentioned earlier and explain how your technology helps to overcome it?
Meena Sankaran: There are several filtration, water remediation, and water treatment companies out there, but I saw a big gap in how monitoring was done. Compared to the power, transportation, and energy grid industries, the water industry is lagging behind in terms of technology adoption. It’s not because the technology doesn’t exist; it has more to do policies and mindsets.
Our focus is water monitoring—not just sensing, but detection, data collection, and analysis as well: everything that is needed to provide the customer the data they need to make an actionable decision. There are two sides of water monitoring. There’s efficiency and quantitative monitoring, which covers variables like flow, pressure, and smart distribution grids. Then there is qualitative monitoring, which covers variables like water quality, water composition, and water safety. I look at these as the yin and yang of water management. If you only focus on water efficiency, you miss out on water quality, and if you only focus on water quality, you lose your water. In the United States, 14 percent of treated water is lost in leaks alone. Both aspects are important and need to be monitored in real time.
KETOS has two solutions: one that addresses smart water distribution and efficiency management and one that addresses smart water safety grid management. The KETOS Wave measures water efficiency and water distribution, detecting anomalies in flow and pressure and sensing leaks at a single location or across a distributed network. The KETOS Shield is a holistic solution that addresses water safety and smart water management by sensing data for over 20 water quality parameters without compromising the specificity, sensitivity, and precision demanded by industry-standard labs. In addition, the KETOS Shield stores, analyzes, and reports data in a robust analytics platform and alerts users in real time about any issues that arise while also providing advanced diagnostics and maintenance-related predictions using an advanced layer of machine learning and artificial intelligence. The end goal is to provide the operational intelligence with water data as a foundation for nutritional management, chemical treatment, and the creation of digital twins to help enhance diagnostics and insights for each of our target customer verticals.
Municipal Water Leader: How does the KETOS Shield differ from conventional water quality monitoring systems?
Meena Sankaran: There are a lot of single-parameter or multiparameter probes manufactured by legacy companies on the market that can provide environmental data about things like pH, electrical conductivity, or turbidity. However, if you need to test for heavy-metal toxins in an autonomous manner without experiencing any data drift over time, you have to go to the lab for every single test, which involves labor. Even when you have online analyzers and probes, somebody still needs to be in the lab calibrating, cleaning, and maintaining these systems on a weekly basis. On top of that, you also need to buy all the consumables for this equipment. Your operational expenses include lab costs, labor costs, material costs, and the time and effort needed to manage all this equipment. This is all in addition to the capital expenditure required to purchase the equipment upfront with a limited shelf life and fixed capabilities of the system itself.
Our system addresses these issues with what I call the four A’s: It’s fully autonomous; it has lab-precision accuracy; it’s affordable, since there is no capital purchase; and it provides actionable analytics. Our model allows the customer the flexibility to choose which parameters they want to measure from a continuously growing menu of constituents within a single system. They have the ability to choose what they want to test and how often, all while operating the system from a mobile phone. The system has 24/7 remote monitoring and can give threshold-based alerts. In terms of automation, our system self-cleans and self-calibrates after every experiment. That’s one of the reasons why our data degradation rate is 0 percent. In terms of accuracy, we’ve had extensive third-party validation of our results, and we encourage our customers to do third-party validation as well.
We have a 100 percent service-based model, so no capital purchases are needed. Customers pay a flat service fee that does not change, regardless of how often they test, how much they test, and how many parameters they test. We also do the setup, the ongoing maintenance, and any surprise service visits that might be required. All the customer needs to focus on is how to use the data in their business operations. We save the customer costs on lab, labor, material, and overall operational efficiency.
KETOS Shield can monitor water for things like lead, copper, cadmium, arsenic, manganese, nitrates, boron, dissolved silica, and floating calcium. We’re now starting to monitor selenium, iron, mercury, and zinc. We are still researching bacterial testing, so that still needs to be done in the lab, but our autonomous solution can test for inorganics, heavy metals, nutrients, and other environmental parameters.
Precision matters. Our results are within 10 percent of what any lab offers. In some parameters, we even get to within 3–5 percent. We can measure most metals at levels as low as 1 ppb. Most U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits are set at levels around 10–15 ppb, so that level of sensitivity is compelling to customers.
Municipal Water Leader: KETOS Shield involves both proprietary hardware and software, correct?
Meena Sankaran: Correct. We’ve been issued several patents already in different countries.
Municipal Water Leader: What kinds of water can KETOS Shield monitor?
Meena Sankaran: Many existing probes on the market need to be calibrated on a weekly basis and can only monitor a fixed source of water. Our system can monitor drinking water; treated water; groundwater, including well water; produced water; and in some cases, surface water, such as river water. We don’t monitor sewage or water with heavy suspended solids.
We are compliant with the EPA’s data integrity standards. KETOS reports are directly accepted by some environmental agencies and are in review with a few others. We’re also working to secure additional compliance approvals on both the state and federal levels for wastewater and drinking water testing.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you describe the KETOS Shield system in physical terms? Does it involve multiple probes, or just one system?
Meena Sankaran: The KETOS Shield solution is a single modular system. The unit is about 24 inches by 18 inches and weighs about 50 pounds. It can be mounted indoors or outdoors. If it’s outdoors, we will put it in a secure, weather-proof cabinet. It can be placed by the intake of a municipal water treatment plant, by the effluent discharge, or both. If you monitor both the intake and the discharge, you can get a strong sense of how well the water has been treated and whether it complies with regulatory requirements or internal process-control needs. Wholesale water suppliers that supply water to cities usually have one system per well so that they can continuously monitor their groundwater quality.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about some of the municipal use cases of your system?
Meena Sankaran: One of our customers is Southern Nevada Water Authority, a foresighted agency that is an early adopter of new technology. It has been using the KETOS Shield to monitor arsenic and chromium and understand how well its arsenic removal system is working. It has also used another Shield to actively monitor and understand variations in nitrate levels.
We’re currently in conversations with at least 40 utilities that are thinking about how to deploy the KETOS solution in their water treatment plants, usually for water reuse.
Other common applications that are of interest to municipalities include lead testing, corrosion testing in distribution systems, and arsenic and nitrate monitoring in wells. If the KETOS system is deployed in a distribution grid with multiple units, we can identify the region that is responsible for lead toxicity. That enables a focused, targeted repair of that section of piping and eliminates the need to spend millions of dollars replacing an entire city’s piping infrastructure.
Another interesting application we’ve seen is that utilities will use our system to gain a more precise knowledge of other utilities they are considering purchasing. Because of specific legal and liability concerns, they want to know how good a utility is and what the quality of its water is before a proposed merger.
Municipal Water Leader: How can KETOS’s technology help enable the smart city concept?
Meena Sankaran: Our system helps customers to understand a resource anytime and anywhere and to take proactive actions as a result. That’s fundamentally what smart resource management means. In order to make water a smart resource, you need to have the infrastructure to detect, collect, transmit, and analyze data in a meaningful way so that you can take appropriate management actions or even automate them in real time. For example, our KETOS Wave product detects leaks in real time and can shut off a pipe if it is leaking remotely from a mobile app. A comprehensive use of solutions like this can automatically prevent disease outbreaks and keep cities safe if the composition of water is measured and proactively well understood.
We’ve been fortunate enough to receive several awards, including the Smart 50 Awards—KETOS was named among the top 50 local Smart City technologies. In addition, KETOS was named the recipient of distinction in the category of 2020 breakthrough technology company of the year at the Global Water Awards.
Municipal Water Leader: What are your prospects for growth?
Meena Sankaran: We’ve raised several iterations of funding. We have a significant number of investors and advisors, a large ecosystem of supporters, and strong customer champions. Our KETOS Shield system has been deployed in 13 U.S. states and in Canada. The KETOS Wave solution has been deployed in India, Mexico, and the United States. We are actively working on several international opportunities for future growth in countries including Australia, India, Israel, Singapore, the UK, and countries in Latin America.
Municipal Water Leader: What is your vision for the future of KETOS?
Meena Sankaran: The COVID‑19 pandemic has brought about a focus on how utilities can help people understand public health. KETOS’s vision has always been to let data lead the way for an operator to help their local community. How do we make data-driven decisions to potentially prevent a disease outbreak? We’re well on our way to developing the diagnostics, the analytics, and the intelligence to do that. The adoption and deployment of millions of our sensor nodes and systems will pave the path for a breadth of data intelligence that doesn’t exist today, opening limitless possibilities ahead for all involved in this industry.