Freeing up better quality water for everyone
FreeUP paints a more complete picture of the water supply we all rely on
A few years ago, I spent an afternoon with startups on an accelerator programme run by United Utilities. I saw how important and (perhaps unexpectedly) interesting innovation around tech for water suppliers is. Indeed, the first startup ever featured in PreSeed Now had a ‘water tech’ focus.
Today’s startup is deep into that world, and has developed tech it hopes will help us all get higher-quality water. Scroll down to read all about FreeUP. As usual, PreSeed Now members get the full story.
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FreeUP wants to make better sense of our water
It might not cross our minds very often, but water quality is critically important to all of us. And it’s vital for water companies to monitor their entire network of reservoirs, pipes, and facilities to ensure everything is operating as it should.
FreeUP is a Manchester startup that wants to make it easier to collect high-quality water data from more locations at a lower cost. The ultimate goal is to make water quality a bit like the weather forecast - something that is easily accessible and widely useful, whether you’re a reservoir operator or just want to know which beach has the best water quality on a specific day.
“Historically, one of the problems is you have incredibly accurate data at the sites you measure, but you don't really know what's happening between those sites. Our mission is to enable a really good overview of the entire area,” says FreeUP founder Tom McNamara.
“Conventionally, there are two main approaches. You've either got the hand sampling or the very expensive instrumentation which can go at a few sites - or you have satellite imagery on the other end of the scale, which is obviously covering the globe. And we aim to fill that gap between, where you want ground truth data on a national or maybe even international scale.”
To achieve this, FreeUP has rethought water sampling with lower-cost components, allowing 10 or 100 times more sensors to be deployed, McNamara says. He describes this low-cost approach as “actually quite difficult to do”.
How it works
FreeUP has two versions of its product. One can be attached to something heavy like a weight or a brick to sink to the bottom of the water, or hung beneath a buoy. The data it collects is then sent, McNamara says, in real-time to a cloud dashboard where it can be viewed or synced with the customer’s own systems.
The second version is intended for the potable water network, and clips onto pipes. This can be fitted by any plumber. “Not only has the price point been reduced, but it really can be deployed in a very simple way without needing a deep understanding of the technology or the approach,” says McNamara.
The devices collect data on turbidity, temperature, and the colour of water. McNamara says they will soon also measure tryptophan “a proxy measurement of sewage or microbes”.
The primary data can then be analysed in the cloud to provide additional information tailored to specific use cases the hardware itself doesn’t support. For example, it can highlight probable cases of poor water quality in potable water distribution networks, helping engineers fix issues more efficiently.
McNamara says its boxes communicate with FreeUP’s cloud service via an attached antenna, which needs to be above water. It’s eight metres long for outdoor applications, and one metre long indoors.
“The connection, communications, provisioning, costs etc are all dealt with by us… For marine applications, we are looking into a significantly longer antenna so that the sensors can be placed to a good depth. For far greater depths of greater than 100 metres we have a roadmap of what we'll do, but we're focusing on rolling out the tech in the order of interest we receive. Difficult problems are welcome though,” explains McNamara.
FreeUP sees utility companies and other water suppliers as its main customers. McNamara sees use cases from initial abstraction through to water reaching homes and other end users. For example, ensuring water quality is good before chemicals are added (to save money on treatment), to spotting problems in the pipe network before they become a serious issue.
Water regulation and beach safety monitoring are two other potential markets. McNamara even sees potential in offering the tech to consumers.
“10 to 15 years ago, we saw air quality become a metric that the average person could measure. Whilst there's no intrinsic monetary value to that, people generally want to know for their own health what the environment around them is like and what those conditions are. At the moment, there is no water quality measurement that can be easily used by the average public, but our technology can be”.
How it started
McNamara has a background in academia, with a PhD in Biomedical Materials. He says during this time he noticed a large gap between the amount of technology created by researchers and how much actually made out to the real world. He became frustrated by the marketing sheen applied to tools that he felt weren’t very technologically advanced.
To address this, he started FreeUP and soon entered a collaboration with thestartupfactory.tech. The sweat equity deal saw them collaborate on developing technology together. Their first product was a machine vision device to help industrial equipment interface with ‘industry 4.0’.
“If a pressure gauge read 4.5 bar we could read that as 4.5 bar, and then that can be automated through our system. So the idea was, any piece of equipment could be automated in situ with no downtime.”
McNamara says progress on this previous product was going well, until the pandemic made it difficult to access industrial sites, so they decided to switch to water quality. He says FreeUP is just a team of two, but including thestartupfactor.tech there are nine people working on the startup.
How they generate revenue
Sending people out to remote locations to collect water samples (or even diving in scuba gear!) can be expensive, and FreeUP wants to replace this.
FreeUP currently charges a monthly subscription of £80 per device per month. This includes hardware, software, and connectivity. The subscription approach helps break through the barrier of customers having to get approval for capital investment. There’s a low barrier to entry on training too, as data can be fed to a customer’s existing systems or they can simply log into FreeUP’s own dashboard.
McNamara aims to reduce the subscription price over time as interest in the product grows.
Who are the competition?
So what is FreeUP competing against? McNamara says he’s come across nothing that directly competes. He says that when he first started looking at this market he assumed it would already be happening, but found nothing.
“We still can't see anyone who's done this exact method, because people keep going for serviceability, and their idea of low-cost is probably about 10 times more expensive than what we think is low-cost. We think low-cost is essentially nominally disposable. We don't actually want to be disposable because of various recycling and ecological reasons. But monetarily, that's what we're trending towards.”
McNamara sees FreeUP’s offering as complementary to other products on the market which might provide more detailed data, but are far more expansive and difficult to deploy.
“What's been historically done, and is still being done to date, is people tend to use pressure and acoustics to look at the pipe network. And those have been very useful to detect leaks and to detect flow rates. And those have typically been used in quite complex models to determine what's happening underground.
“[Our product] augments that effort because like tools in a toolbox, you don't want one tool, you want many. But what's unique to ours compared to theirs is ours doesn't require direct attachment to pipes, doesn't require direct attachment to hydrants, and I would say is more flexible in how it can be moved around to determine where problems are happening.”
How are they funded? What are their future plans?
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