Christine Boyle was working on her PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, when she first developed the idea for Valor Water Analytics – a startup that uses innovative software to help water utilities analyze their data, detect revenue loss and make more efficient decisions.
Since receiving her doctorate in water resource planning in 2011, Boyle has developed an award-winning company that works with utilities in different states and recently received $1.6 million in seed funding. Valor hopes to use the new funds to grow its business across the United States, to expand into additional utility verticals and to move beyond meter data into sensor-based technologies.
Boyle says there’s much California can accomplish if more technology and water collaborations take place. “There’s so much that could be done if there was more collaboration, if there was some sort of trust building and risk-free ways to share information between big tech companies and water districts,” she told Water Deeply. “Currently, no one wants to go first, but once we’ll have some successful examples, many will follow.”
Water Deeply recently spoke with Boyle as part of “Meet the Minds,” our series canvassing California water experts.
Water Deeply: What are you currently working on that you want the world to know about?
Christine Boyle: We are helping utilities operate smarter by leveraging data they already have, their customer meter data, to improve operational processes, address broken meters and essentially save a lot of money and water.
Water Deeply: What is the most surprising thing that you’ve discovered through this work?
Boyle: There’ve been lots of surprises. But one of the biggest ones has been seeing how different companies that are helping water utilities have failed to deliver products that help those utilities think through long-term problems. Some data companies have sold water utilities choppy and unsophisticated technologies that don’t actually allow them to reach their long-term goals. In addition, some companies have charged water utilities tens of thousands of dollars to access data the utilities needed to report back to the state. That means that some water utilities are paying up to $30,000 to get access to their own data.
Water Deeply: What do you see as California’s biggest water challenge?
Boyle: From a policy point of view, the way the state manages water is very fragmented. Most decisions are made on the ground. Small agriculture and water districts throughout the state make 3,000 fundamental water resource decisions every day. That’s a huge problem in the sense that many of these decisions should be made regionally, at the watershed level, and that fragmented decision-making poses a huge challenge for actually managing the state’s water as a system.
Water Deeply: What is the most important thing that California should be doing right now to create a more sustainable water future?
Boyle: The people in charge are doing a lot of good things, but the state and local folks need to invest in long-term modernization of the system, ranging from water reuse to smart meters to different kinds of basic infrastructure. They need to invest now, in a level comparable to what we saw in the mid-20th century.
Water Deeply: Looking out 10 years from now, what do you hope California will have accomplished when it comes to water issues?
Boyle: I hope that the rates of water reuse will be very high and that a lot more closed-loop water technology will be used at the industrial and municipal level and in agriculture. I would also hope that there’s massive transparency about water use, from the utility to the customer, from the utility to the region, from the region to the state. There needs to be a lot more sharing of basic water use information.
Water Deeply: You’re in an interesting place because you’re both in the tech world and the water world. What are some of the things that could be done to accelerate such collaboration?
Boyle: I’ve had a lot of conversations with big tech companies about what they want to do in water, and the answer usually is “nothing.” Companies like Apple and Google don’t see water as very modern. A lot of it comes down to one thing – tech companies are begging for data. For example, Sidewalk Labs is an Alphabet company that is doing a lot of great work on electricity and measuring transportation. They’re working with large electricity and gas providers, but water utilities won’t work with them or even release data to them. There’s so much that could be done if there was more collaboration, if there was some sort of trust building and risk-free ways to share information between big tech companies and water districts. Currently, no one wants to go first, but once we’ll have some successful examples, many will follow.
Water Deeply: Has anything or anyone particularly inspired you in your field?
Boyle: There are so many. I call them my water heroes. One is Felicia Marcus, the head of the State Water Resources Control Board. Marcus has brought so much humanity to what was sometimes seen as a scary, ominous entity. The humanity she brought to the job, as well as the deep intellect, have gotten our state through the drought and on a path toward a really promising water future. Another one is the director of D.C. Water, George Hawkins. Hawkins wants the water in D.C. to be clean, he wants it to be affordable, he wants the people that work for him to understand what they’re doing and be inspired by what they’re doing. The people I consider water visionaries don’t just think about water but think about people. I think about it in that way, too. What I really care about, why I got into this business, is because I love people. Water is essential for all of us to live our lives, and at the end of water are people and animals and plants.