When the city of Augusta, Ga., began receiving calls from residents complaining of sewer overflows, they were faced with a perplexing problem. The calls seemed to be coming from one area of town, but with over 36,000 feet of sewer pipe in that one drainage basin, they had no idea where the actual blockage was located. As a result, the city utility department would have to clean the entire basin at a cost of over $1.10 per foot.
To the rescue came InfoSense, a Charlotte-based startup that manufactures an innovative acoustic (sound waves) pipe inspection system that can determine exactly which pipes need to be cleaned. Using the InfoSense technology, Augusta spent just three to four days inspecting the pipes in the troubled area and determined that only 1,600 to 2,000 feet of pipe actually needed to be cleaned. The resulting savings from just that single project more than paid for their acquisition of the inspection system.
InfoSense is the outgrowth of a unique development partnership between UNC Charlotte and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility Department (CMUD). The new technology is revolutionizing sewer line maintenance and is an example of how creative collaboration between government, business, and academia can help solve difficult problems.
In 2005, senior administrators and engineers from CMUD held a brainstorming session with the UNC Charlotte Electrical and Computer Engineering Department to discuss how the University might assist in solving a variety of issues faced by the utility. One issue that floated to the top early in the discussions was how to combat sanitary sewer overflows.
CMUD maintains over 4,000 miles of sewer pipe countywide, with over 100,000 individual segments. (A segment is the portion of the system between any two manhole cover access points, with the average segment being about 220 feet long.) CMUD was experiencing roughly one overflow per day somewhere in the system, but with so many miles of pipe and so many segments, the probability that any one section would overflow on any given day was extremely low. As a result, it was almost impossible to predict when and where a problem might occur.
On average, CMUD had been cleaning up to 25 percent of their system annually, or about 1,000 miles. But 70 percent of those 1,000 miles didn’t actually need cleaning; they just had no practical way to inspect the lines. Robotic camera systems were the most common alternative, but the cost to inspect with camera technology was almost the same as just going ahead and cleaning the pipes. So what CMUD wanted was a cost-effective way to figure out which specific segments needed cleaning, so they could focus their efforts on the real problems.
Ivan Howitt was one of the UNC Charlotte engineering professors who participated in that first brainstorming session. After several follow-up meetings, he came up with the concept of using sound waves to determine whether a pipe was dirty or clean. In March 2006, Howitt submitted a proposal for a joint development effort, and the study received funding approval in 2007.
Working with CMUD senior engineer John Fishburne, Howitt and several graduate students began working to explore acoustic technology and to prove whether the concept would actually work. The field environment is difficult because every sewer line looks different, and the variation in the ambient noise levels can be quite significant – very quiet at one spot and incredibly noisy at another.
“One of the things that is somewhat novel about this development is it was actually developed in the field, and we did very little lab experimentation,” says Howitt. “We immediately went into the field because we felt the field environment was going to be so difficult. Actually developing the algorithm in the field is, I think, one of the key reasons why we got it to work. That was the advantage of having access to Charlotte’s system. They were a great resource.”
Once Howitt and his team had proven to themselves that the concept worked, he wrote a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant proposal, which resulted in a funding grant under the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program in 2009. The SBIR grant allowed Howitt to refine his algorithm and to develop a working product.
The system consists of a transmitter placed in one manhole that sends an acoustic signal to a receiver placed down an adjacent manhole. Based on the strength of the signal heard by the receiver, Howitt’s algorithm determines how dirty that pipe segment is, and whether it needs to be cleaned.
CMUD began to see the technology’s real potential, so they agreed to fund a pilot project by purchasing a prototype unit. By the end of 2010, the prototype had been further refined and CMUD purchased four more units. The product would eventually be dubbed the SL-RAT (Sewer Line—Rapid Assessment Tool).
On to Commercialization
The research and development initiative had now morphed into a commercial product, and Howitt knew he needed a company and he needed a team with business experience to complement his technology expertise. So with the help of Paul Wetenhall at UNC Charlotte’s Ben Craig Center business incubator, Howitt began working to commercialize his product. Because the initial development work was done at the university, UNC Charlotte owned the patent, but Howitt was able to negotiate an exclusive license for the new company.
A mutual friend then introduced Howitt to Alex Churchill, who would wind up joining InfoSense in early 2011. Churchill brought financial and business experience gleaned from his years in business consulting and management positions at companies like Blue Rhino and Allied Waste. Churchill was looking for a new entrepreneurial opportunity that he could get involved with from the ground up, and InfoSense seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
“Ivan had enough information to show that camera inspections cost $1 per foot and this product was in the range of $0.10 per foot to operate, so his product looked to be about 1/10 the cost of the alternative,” recalls Churchill. “I also knew he had a customer and they liked what they bought enough to buy more, so I felt this could be a real company.”
Churchill came on board as chief operating officer and immediately began working to refine the marketing and business plan while Howitt continued to refine the product with CMUD. A few months later in July 2011, the third member of the management team, George Selembo, came on board.
Selembo had an extensive background in successful startup companies in businesses ranging from student housing to wastewater treatment equipment. He had retired to Charlotte in 2010 before he even turned 40. Selembo was enjoying life and working as an adjunct faculty member at UNC Charlotte when he had the opportunity to meet Howitt and hear about his product.
Selembo bought stock in InfoSense and offered to work for free for the first six months to see if the new management team had the personal chemistry needed to run a successful new enterprise. They did.
“I had a background in startup companies, but I also knew the challenges Ivan was going to face in bringing a new technology to the wastewater industry,” offers Selembo. “I had been on the treatment side and he was on the collection side, but there’s a similar challenge there for new technology.”
Selembo, who now serves as CEO, helped the new company compete for a variety of grants, which have allowed them to fund their marketing and development efforts without giving up ownership in the company to venture capital firms. InfoSense has won grants from the NC IDEA competition, the Charlotte Chamber’s PowerUp competition, and the Charlotte Venture Challenge.
“Unlike many of the other startup companies, we had a commercial product,” says Selembo. “We actually made something and had a real, viable product, so a lot of the risk was already taken out because we were ready to hit the street and go to market.”
InfoSense officially started marketing in 2012 when they began building a national network of sales reps. The company’s sales network now covers 41 states and has sold over 50 SL-RAT units to customers nationwide. These independent sales reps also sell other products to the sewer industry, so they already had the relationships InfoSense needed to build.
“In this industry, it’s about having connections with the local municipalities,” explains Selembo. “We don’t have the broad product line to support a full-time sales staff, so we outsource sales. But we spend a lot of time supporting and training them.”
Each SL-RAT costs in the neighborhood of $20,000 for the transmitter and receiver combo, plus a carrying case. Components for the system are sourced from suppliers across the country, but all final assembly is done at the InfoSense facility on Tremont Avenue.
Each sales rep firm is provided with a demonstration unit that their reps can use for presentations, because demonstrations have proven to be one of the most effective ways to overcome initial doubts about the new technology. InfoSense says their sales close rate is almost 100 percent, and potential customers include municipalities who choose to do the inspections in-house or contractors who do such work for multiple municipalities.
“We encourage the reps to leave the unit with a customer for a week,” says Churchill. “We suggest they train the customer and let them use it. You can train someone to do this in five minutes.”
The success in Charlotte-Mecklenburg has been the springboard for their success, and they have continually improved the product based upon input from CMUD and other customers. Some of these improvements include GPS-enabling, improved menus, and making the SL-RAT more robust.
“Charlotte has been using the product for two-and-a-half years and they’ve probably done 1.5 million feet of inspections with their five devices,” says Howitt, who is now on leave of absence from UNC Charlotte. “The algorithm has actually been relatively stable over that time, but the operators have trained me on how to make the device more rugged for the environment it’s used in.”
While the initial commercial application for Howitt’s acoustic technology has been in sewer lines, the company believes the technology could find its way into other types of pipelines, including those supplying oil and natural gas.
“The advantage of the sewer systems is there are not a lot of people developing new technology for sewer lines,” says Howitt. “This is the first new technology to revolutionize the collection system operations, and we also see many more opportunities.”
“Ivan has come up with the technology and the patent is very general,” says Selembo. “It applies for applications in all pipelines, and we expect there are going to be other product developments in a lot of other application areas that are going to do very, very well for us. We don’t know what they all are yet, but we have a great, solid flagship product that is supporting all of these activities.”
The support from the Charlotte community, and UNC Charlotte in particular, has been key to the company’s great start and its bright future.
“One of the compelling things about our company is this was all developed in Charlotte,” concludes Selembo. “It’s a public, private, academic partnership that developed this technology. UNC Charlotte finds ways to get things done in this community, and they are cheering you on all the way.”
Photo by Fenix Foto