Watch how Meena Sankaran started Ketos to make water cleaner. (Video credit: Sue Williams)

Growing up in India, clean water was always top of mind for entrepreneur Meena Sankaran. “My mom would boil the water three times [a day] for cooking and four times for drinking,” she says.

Sankaran, who came to the U.S. in 2002 to pursue graduate studies, is now the founder of Ketos, a 5-year-old startup in Milpitas, California, that provides real-time intelligence on water usage and safety — and aims to prevent water crises like the one a few years back in Flint, Michigan.

The venture raised about $15 million by 2019 and now counts the Southern Nevada Water Authority and Las Vegas Valley Water District among its clients.

Especially in the U.S., “we take water for granted,” Sankaran says. Many people are unaware of research that has found that over 170 million Americans are exposed to radioactive elements and carcinogens in their drinking water. “And I don’t think people realize, if we don’t take care of such a very precious resource like water, we are not going to leave much for the generations ahead.”

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How She Started

An electrical engineer by training, Sankaran learned about big data management while working at a software startup in the San Francisco Bay area. By 2013, she felt “pretty confident” she wanted to launch her own venture. “It was just not very clear exactly what,” she says.

Knowing that she wanted to make an impact, Sankaran shortlisted three ideas. “It had to be either the air we breathe, the food we eat or the water we drink,” she says. It had to be meaningful, “otherwise I could just remain working for another company.”

Before diving into a startup, Sankaran — who had basically worked nonstop since graduating in 2004 — took a few months off to backpack in the Himalayas. There, a day before hitting base camp, an earthquake hit. Sankaran was trapped for a week before being airlifted out. “It was very reflective because for six days you are stranded there and you’re boiling snow and drinking water,” she says. “And water just became more and more and more top of mind at that instant.”

And that was it. Coming back to the U.S., Sankaran decided: ” I’m going to focus on water monitoring and how can I derive the intelligence and data for people to make limitless decisions and revolutionize the way people think about water.”

[Related: Saving Our Oceans, One Load of Laundry at a Time]

Where She Is Now

Nobody, with the exception of her parents, thought her idea of “digitizing” water was a good one. “The water industry is one of the oldest legacy industries, that is slowest in terms of innovation,” she says. Big potential customers — like agricultural operations and municipalities — would need serious convincing, as would investors.

Initially, Sankaran bootstrapped her startup, developing sensors to measure water quality and building a smart system to gather data and send it to a communication platform. But Ketos would need capital in order to scale, especially since it’s developing its own proprietary patented hardware and software. Sankaran knew she had numerous strikes against her: She hadn’t run a startup before, she hadn’t worked at Amazon or Google, she hadn’t attended MIT or Yale, and she was a solo female founder. “I got a lot of, ‘Such a noble cause, you’re so passionate about it,'” she says.

Finally, an investor took a chance: Heidi Patel, from Rethink Impact, a venture capital firm that specifically invests in women using technology to tackle the world’s biggest problems. After that, more investors signed on — and Ketos closed a Series A round of $9.3 million in February 2019.

Today, Ketos is now a 40-person startup that is getting ready to close a Series B round. It’s also weathering the Covid crisis, though Sankaran admits that pay cuts were needed to avoid layoffs. Fortunately, she says, “I am not someone who panics. We’re definitely surviving.”

And Sankaran continues to look ahead, to all that she hopes Ketos will accomplish. The company has already collected more than 13 million data points that cities, government agencies, developers, consumers and even other startups might use to identify future water problems, such as groundwater contamination, leaks or exposure to climate change. “Water is a human right,” she says. “The opportunity is enormous.”

[Related: Because ‘There’s Not a Lot of Time Here.’ 8 Reasons Why Women Ecopreneurs Want to Save the Earth]

Read Full Transcript

Meena: We take water for granted. In the privileged society here, people can't even imagine not getting water from their tap.

SOT: What do you want?
-Low water rates!
-When do you want it?

TEXT: Across the world, billions of people don’t have access to safe drinking water.

Meena: I think people tend to think if you're working in water, you're working in a third world country, and they don't realize that the problems exist right here in our backyard, in the United States.

TEXT: Meena Sankaran – Founder + CEO, Ketos – San Jose, California

Meena: KETOS is a water analytics company that can essentially provide real time water efficiency and water quality metrics, so that end users and operators can make insight-driven decisions about water.

Meena SOT: So this is our Keto Shield Solution. It can be indoor for just sampling water coming out of either city water; it could be water coming from a river or sitting in a rivershed, and just pumping water.

Sue SOT: So the water actually goes through this device?

Meena SOT: You see on the other side here, there’s an inlet and there’s an outlet. So water is just continuously coming through in a continuous sampling mechanism going on.

TEXT: Meena grew up in Mumbai, India.

Meena: Water was very top of mind for me growing up. We would get water in the tanker once a day and my mom would boil the water three times for cooking and four times for drinking.

TEXT: In 2002 Meena came to the US to study electrical engineering at University of Texas.

TEXT: After earning her MSc, she worked for small tech startups.

TEXT: But she wanted to start her own mission driven company.

Meena: The water industry is one of the oldest and legacy industries that is the slowest in terms of innovation. The adoption of new technologies in the water sector has been extremely slow. The ultimate holy grail for anybody coming in the water industry is really understanding the heavy metals in a continuous basis and completely unmanned. So how can you build a solution that is going to give you real time water quality metrics?

TEXT: In 2015 Meena used her savings to start KETOS.

Meena: We built devices, one for water efficiency, one for water safety. Both are real time devices, collecting data real time, transmitting it. And then all the analysis happens in the backend. If I'm a farmer, I'm looking at the app, I'm seeing, “Oh, how much boron is in my water?” I'm helping him or her do nutrient management of what to add to their crops so that they get the optimum yield. Or if it's city water, I can see if there's an anomaly in the water that's coming from the river. So I know how much chemical treatment to add. If I look at water efficiency, how is it that 14% of our treated water is lost in leaks? I can explain to someone through their mobile phone, “Hey, there’s probably a leak detected here, and now you can go shut it off.” The end user, they’re just looking at the data on their phone, and they’re taking their decisions based on what they need to do.

TEXT: In 2017 Keots began deploying devices in schools and businesses in Mexico, in 25 villages in India, and in regional water districts in the U.S.

Meena: We would have been able to prevent something like a Flint, Michigan. With the amount of data and what we have built, we could someday even prevent a disease outbreak.

TEXT: Ketos now has more than 40 employees and substantial investor funding.

TEXT: Meena has raised nearly $12 million in funding.

Meena: There’s only so much fresh water in the world. Water efficiency and water quality are like the yin and yang. If you address both water efficiency with the quality of water, we truly can have substantial water for our generations to come.