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Meet the Minds: Tom Ferguson on Technology to Combat the Water Crisis

As vice president of programming at Imagine H2O, Tom Ferguson works with some of the most exciting companies helping to solve our water challenges. He tells Water Deeply what California can do to be the leader on water issues.

Written by Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
El nino future flooding
This photo shows a DJI Phantom 3 Advanced drone controlled by Trent Lukaczyk, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) engineer who builds and flies drones to monitor changes in the ocean environment.Jeff Chiu, AP

Tom Ferguson’s dream for California’s water sector is an ambitious one. In the next decade, Ferguson hopes the state becomes first in class when it comes to water issues. “I hope we will have led the way in showing how you combine efficiency of use, investment in technology, the deployment of sensors, upgrading of infrastructure, decentralized recycling and reuse, messaging and communication, innovation in pricing, resource recovery – all of it – to build a system that is the envy of the world,” he told Water Deeply.

Ferguson is vice president of programming at Imagine H2O, a San Francisco startup accelerator that has worked with some of the most exciting and innovative water companies in California. Ferguson works with the entrepreneurs in the accelerator program and helps the organizations scale.

As part of our Meet the Minds series, we spoke with Ferguson about the work of Imagine H2O and the challenges and opportunities ahead for California water.

Water Deeply: What are you working on that you want the world to know?

Tom Ferguson: Imagine H2O is first and foremost an accelerator for water companies. We help entrepreneurs and innovators get their companies from A to B faster than they can on their own. We select 10 companies a year to advise, plug in to our network and elevate within the industry to maximize their chances of success. We spend all of our time thinking about how technology can help deal with the burgeoning water crisis, and people should know that there is seriously impactful technology out there that needs to be deployed.

Beyond that, our mission at IH2O is to empower people to develop and deploy innovation to solve water challenges. Our projects vary from helping innovators in USAID’s Securing Water for Food program think through their business strategy and execution, to our second Policy Challenge that is focusing on identifying policies that would increase the deployment of water data technology in California. What’s particularly exciting at the moment is that we’re about to announce our 2017 accelerator cohort – 10 of the highest-potential startups in water data, from monitoring and sensing to software and analytics. The 2016 cohort raised over $10m in funding, earned $6m in combined revenue and created 35 jobs in 10 months. There are companies in there that have very bright futures indeed – some superb entrepreneurs. We can’t wait to see what the next group achieves.

Water Deeply: What surprised you in the past year about your work in the water field?

Ferguson: This year we chose to repeat our theme for the accelerator for the first time. Last year, we focused on data, and this year we chose to focus on data again. We view data as one of the fundamental issues that has to change in water – the network needs to get smart, and fast, so we can target investment, find the leaks, efficiently operate the plants, monitor the water quality 24/7, automate alerts, etc. We were a little nervous about going back out to find 10 more top-class companies, but the response was extraordinary. Even after curating an outreach list, we invited 88 [people] from 18 companies to submit full applications. Of these we could easily put together 6 or 7 quality cohorts so our judges have a task on their hands. The depth of talent and the breadth of creative solutions is amazing – it’s a great problem to have.

Otherwise, I have been struck again by the dedication of water professionals from across the sector. They are committed and eager to work together to literally keep everything flowing. Nowhere is this more true than in our Beta Partners program, which grew from 22 to 56 companies this year. They’re a group of utilities, companies and organizations committed to identifying and deploying new water technologies. They want to be part of the solution and this is a great way for them to do something deeply practical to help. They’re open to new approaches, new ways of doing things and there is going to be some really interesting stuff emerging in 2017.

Finally, we have been struck by the increasing level of interest in water from outside the “traditional” sector – a range of players are peeking over the garden wall, trying to figure out this water thing, and it’s been gratifying to help some of them navigate their options from the early stage company point of view.

Water Deeply: Who/what do you find most inspiring in your field?

Ferguson: I think it’s that water is the whole ball game – climate change first and foremost will manifest itself in water issues. Too much, too little, too saline, too warm, too polluted. If we don’t figure out our most pressing issues in water, we won’t adapt successfully to the changes in climate that we know are coming no matter which side of the aisle you stand on. Inspiring may not be the right word – “motivating” certainly is. I’ve really started to feel the urgency around getting the world to take this issue seriously.

The “who” is an interesting one. Catherine Flowers is a huge inspiration, fighting against the inequity of access to water and sanitation that is a manifestation of much larger social injustices in this country. I know Christine Boyle already said it, but George Hawkins at D.C. Water is a really excellent example of an industry leader. Read this post from him. He just gets it, fundamentally, and he really makes the effort to spread the word, to try and bring the industry along with him.

Water Deeply: What’s the one most important thing California should be doing right now to create a sustainable water future?

Ferguson: Getting the funding right. None of what needs to happen urgently, from investing in customer care systems, to fixing pipe leaks, to getting next-generation innovations in the ground, happens without money. At the moment, the money comes a) from ratepayers, but that never goes up because our officials are elected, and no one gets elected by putting up the price of water, or b) from state or federal funding. In the U.S., we have $650 billion to $1 trillion worth of work to do to upgrade the system, and like in the rest of the country, California’s water utilities need help to pay for it.

To do that we have to reframe the way people look at water. It is almost a valueless commodity to most people. It often costs less than their monthly cellphone bill, and most people have never experienced a problem. We need people to understand that wherever they are, the water flowing from the tap is an almost miraculous occurrence, a result of the dedication, skill and vigilance of hundreds of thousands of professionals. At least let’s get to a place where utilities are able to cover their costs.

As a society, we need to pay more for water, without increasing the rates for those least able to pay. As it stands, water and sewer rates are essentially a regressive tax, they disproportionately impact the least able to pay, and that has to change. If we can alter attitudes around the value of water, and people demand of their elected officials that these issues are fixed, it will be interesting to see how the state and federal landscape will change.

Water Deeply: Looking out 10 years from now, what do you hope California will have accomplished on water issues?

Ferguson: I hope we will have led the way in showing how you combine efficiency of use, investment in technology, the deployment of sensors, upgrading of infrastructure, decentralized recycling and reuse, messaging and communication, innovation in pricing, resource recovery – all of it – to build a system that is the envy of the world in the same way that Israel and Singapore have. That will mean that we will have done it not with 5 million or 8 million people, but with almost 40 million people. I want California to have demonstrated that it is possible to manage this fundamental resource sustainably under extremely challenging hydrological and demographic conditions.

In energy, we’ve demonstrated that we can better manage a resource while growing our economy. We need to do the same in water. That’s going to take cooperation, but it’s also going to take leaders, people who are brave enough to articulate, to own and repeat the hard and uncomfortable messages that Californians need to hear if we’re going to achieve a profound and fundamental task that preserves this state’s position in the world.

Read more in our Meet the Minds Series:

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