In the beginning there was an idea …

Oct 9, 2012 | Economic Development

Ivan Howitt (on the right side of this photo) is a UNC Charlotte engineering professor who specializes in wireless networks and technologies. He also has a hot new invention to his credit. The SL-RAT just won the 2012 Innovative Technology Award at WEFTEC, the largest annual water-quality conference in the world.

How did Ivan come to invent a better way to prevent sewer-line overflows?

Credit strong support from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities, a collaborative environment at UNC Charlotte, timely help from Ventureprise (formerly the Ben Craig Center) and Ivan’s own creativity and persistence. Sometimes failures really do lead to success.

A SEVEN-YEAR JOURNEY

The story of the SL-RAT begins seven years ago. Like most inventions, this one started with a problem. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities had a big one. Blocked sewer pipes were overflowing daily throughout the 4,000-mile network, and the EPA demanded that CMU find a solution. So the utility staff asked the university to hold a brainstorming session on ways to improve sewer-line inspections and reduce overflows.

Ivan’s not sure why he attended, since the topic seemed far removed from his field. “I weighed my options and opted to attend the meeting. We sat down and had a discussion, and I was intrigued by their passion for getting their job done right.”

He also loves to solve problems. The conversation quickly turned to reducing overflows. Most are caused by blockages in the pipes such as roots and grease. CMU was using robots with cameras to spot problems and cleaning large expanses of pipes each year regardless of whether they had blockages or not. Could the university help develop a faster, cheaper way to spot problems and save the utility from cleaning lines that don’t need it?

“I’m a wireless expert and what do I do? I use the tool I know,” Ivan says. So he suggested that perhaps there was a way to use radio waves to provide continuous sewer-pipe monitoring. “They thought, ‘This is weird,’ but they were intrigued.”

The utility eventually agreed to support an initial study of Ivan’s concept. Working with a student, Ivan took measurements to see how well radio signals propagate down storm drains. “It turns out, not well in concrete conduits,” Ivan says.

CHANGE IN DIRECTION, PART 1

“On the other hand, I did realize that when you yelled down the pipe, the other person could hear well … I went back and said, ‘RF (radio frequency) is not going to work, but sound is going to work really well.”

So with CMU’s support, Ivan turned his research toward testing whether he could find a way to use sound waves to monitor pipe blockage.
“CMU has been a tremendously valuable development partner from early on,” Ivan says. “When we got the CMU grant to the university, we got not just seed money but actual engineering support.”

Ivan launched InfoSense in 2007. The group went after additional funding for product development, winning a $100,000 National Science Foundation grant in 2009.

They also applied for money from NC IDEA, a group that helps high-tech start-up companies.

The NC IDEA application for Ivan’s continuous monitoring system was harder than for previous grants, partly because it required a very structured business plan. Ivan credits Paul Wetenhall at Ventureprise with helping them draft the NC IDEA proposal. “It was a very successful project,” Ivan says, “but the business case for me was much more difficult to develop.”

In the end, NC IDEA rejected the 2009 request. But that failure helped Ivan see that they were trying to develop the wrong product for their launch.

CHANGE IN DIRECTION, PART II

Ironically, Ivan already had the prototype for the right product. It was the device he had developed to take all of his pipe measurements. A two-person crew with no special skills could get blockage estimates on 10,000 feet of pipe in a single day simply by sending sound waves from one manhole to the next and reading the results on the device. CMU could then clean the pipes that needed it and skip the rest.

Ivan soon shared his news with John Fishburne, one of the CMU engineers who had been in on the earliest meetings.

“Do I have a tool for you,” Ivan says he told John. “As soon as I started talking his eyes opened up. ‘I really like that,’ John said. Two weeks later I was meeting with Angela Lee, the head of field operations.”

InfoSense delivered its first SL-RAT to CMU in February 2011. CMU now has six devices and has tested more than 220 miles of line including the entire downtown area just before the Democratic National convention.

By cleaning only the lines that actually have blockages, CMU estimates it can save up to half of the current cost of sewer cleaning – roughly $1 per foot for about one million feet of pipe each year.

Instrumental in moving InfoSense forward was bringing in Chief Operating Officer Alex Churchill and CEO George Selembo in 2010 to provide business leadership.

With their expertise last December, NC IDEA granted InfoSense a $38,000 marketing grant to promote the SL-RAT.

In September, the company won the Charlotte Chamber’s inaugural Power Up Entrepreneurship Challenge, gaining valuable local recognition along with a $25,000 Duke Energy grant and a package of legal, financial and marketing services valued at more than $100,000.

At the Water Environment Federation’s WEFTEC conference last week in New Orleans, the SL-RAT was one of just three products to win Innovative Technology Awards. Ivan says the InfoSense sales team came home with perhaps a hundred leads.

HEADING FOR HOME, AT LAST

The next step is to turn leads into sales. InfoSense has hired a manufacturer’s rep to make that happen. It also has arranged with a local machine shop to make the main pieces and an electronic manufacturing shop in Seattle to create the circuit boards. A local company will probably do the final assembly, Ivan says.

The sales potential could be huge if even a small percentage of the Water Environment Federation’s 36,000 global members place orders. And when those orders turn to cash, Ivan, his InfoSense partners and UNC Charlotte will benefit, since the university holds a broad patent on the device and InfoSense has exclusive worldwide rights to use it.

But it’s not all about the money for Ivan – certainly not the seven years of running tests in sewer pipes, transforming sounds into useful data, drafting business plans and finding funding.

“Why do I get excited about this?” Ivan asks rhetorically. “It seems so pompous, but this actually does have the opportunity to revolutionize an industry and address an issue they really have a problem with.”

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