Future Forward Full Interview: Most People Want to Help You
Erin Rothman is the founder of StormSensor and a former environmental consultant.
V1 Media: Please provide a brief background of your education and career before StormSensor.
Rothman: I received my undergraduate degree at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in environmental science, and technical and scientific communication. I received my master’s degree in natural resources and wetland ecology at The Ohio State University, and then I spent about 15 years as an environmental consultant. I was vice president of a consulting company here in Seattle, and managing principal of another one, and then I also founded my own consulting company. I started StormSensor in 2015.
V1 Media: Can you describe what StormSensor does, how it was developed and why you felt there was an opening for it in the market?
Rothman: When I was an environmental consultant at a local consulting company, we had a stormwater group that we brought in because here in Seattle we have the Duwamish waterway. It was going into a Superfund around 2010. Everyone along the lower Duwamish waterway was notified that they would be considered sources of pollution to the Superfund project and liable for part of the cleanup if they could not demonstrate that their stormwater runoff was compliant with state regulations.
So the environmental consultants hired stormwater people to support them and promptly began losing money. Our company, in particular, had an executive team that couldn’t figure out what was going on. We were a highly profitable company, we brought in a stormwater group, and then all of a sudden we’re losing money. It didn’t make any sense, especially since we were so busy.
So I talked to my guys out in the field, and I asked them what was going on, because they were so busy. We had really big clients, and they said that, every time it rained at the office, they had to go to their sites to sample, but just because it was raining here doesn’t mean it was raining there. On average, they would go out four times before they can grab the sample. So they couldn’t bill their hours, and if they did bill them, they had to write them off, which is not conducive to consulting. And I said, “Why don’t we just have a rain gauge that texts us when it rains?” And they said, “Why don’t you go invent that?” And I said, “I will. I’m going to call it StormSensor.”
So that’s how it started as a joke around 2010. I didn’t think much of it, because my background is science and business, not software and hardware. Years later I was in San Francisco in 2014, and just about everyone I met said they were in a startup, so I wanted to be cool, and I said, “Well, I’m in a startup, too. It’s called StormSensor.” And then I started talking to people about what a startup is. I started talking to accelerators in the Bay area, and accelerators here in Seattle to understand what startups are, what accelerators look for in startups going into these programs, what they look for in companies coming out of them.
I took a product management class through General Assembly, and I used StormSensor as my product, and I won the little “Shark Tank” thing at the end, and that was in 2015. And then I decided to found it and build–in my mind at the time–a sensor that monitors flow, temperature, pH, turbidity, and a whole number of parameters focusing on the stormwater needs of industrial and construction properties and projects.
But what I learned as I started talking to cities is that, while the environmental consulting and associated market is a good market, it wasn’t the area with the highest need. I realized cities don’t even know how much water moves through their systems. City reps told me that they didn’t need all the parameters. All they wanted to know is flow and maybe temperature to start. That meant we could address a much larger market with a much greater need with a much broader and more valuable vision as far as building resilient and sustainable communities, and we could do that at a much lower cost with sensors that didn’t have as much power draw and that we could distribute over a wide area.
So we went from a sensor that monitored a number of parameters that require a great deal of maintenance, a great deal of power and was very expensive to manufacture to smaller, much-lower-cost sensors that we can manufacture ourselves and deploy as networks, and begin working with cities to solve the sustainability issue with all the climate change and other things we’re dealing with. So that’s how it started and how it moved and transformed to where we are now. As far as actually developing the sensors and the product itself, StormSensor was lucky to have an opportunity to sponsor a senior engineering capstone at the University of Washington.
We had six engineering students–this was in 2016–and I posed the problem to them of how do we get as much data from as wide an area underground as possible, and that’s how we came up with our LoRa network of sensors. And then, of course, we had to make the things work. We built our first prototype in 2016. It was about two feet long and eight inches tall, which is insane. Now it fits in the palm of your hand, but it was quite an iterative process to get to where we are now as far as the hardware. And then, of course, the software is taking on a glorious life of its own now that we have all this data.
V1 Media: How did you accumulate the hardware? How did you know which sensors you would need? And how did you acquire them? How do you put sensors and software in one package?
Rothman: We asked customers what they wanted, and when we were talking to cities they said, “We just need to know volume or flow.” So to get volume and flow, we had to measure depth and velocity, which meant that we needed a depth sensor, and we needed a velocity sensor. Off-the-shelf sensors were very expensive, like thousands of dollars, which did not meet our objective of a low-cost network and also would not meet our objective of getting as much data over as large an area as possible. So we designed our own.
V1 Media: How does the StormSensor help understand and prepare for changing climate patterns, and how are these patterns affecting the customers you serve?
Rothman: The problem we’re solving is an interesting one in that we have almost no data from our sewer and stormwater systems. Everything we have, for the most part, everything we understand about how they operate, is modeled. With infrastructure that’s aging–infrastructure has a lifespan between 60 and 100 years, but there are hundreds of cities in the United States with wastewater infrastructure that’s more than 100 years old. So, they’re aging. They were also built at a time when cities were much smaller, so far fewer people were utilizing their wastewater infrastructure. So the amount of sewage going into these was way less, and there also was less pavement. So a lot of the stormwater and rainfall was infiltrating into the ground. Now with more pavement and more people, pipes are too small, and they’re falling apart.
We first need to understand what’s happening within these systems. Adding climate change to that, we’re seeing heavier and more frequent rain events. So even the models we generate are based on old rainfall paradigms that are no longer relevant. So being able to monitor this in real time, get actually to how different storms are impacting the systems themselves is highly valuable, because then cities can use that information when they have to do retrofits and upgrades, whether it’s long-term control plans to separate the storm systems or start building up or implementing best-management practices to capture sea level rise or heavier rainfall. We can provide the data they need to understand how much capacity is within their system, where the highest-risk areas are as far as capacity, where the most frequent flooding occurs, and also how that happens throughout their community on a socioeconomic level, because lower-income communities can’t bounce back from these catastrophes, and they’re much more susceptible. Knowing where those locations are and how flooding impacts them as well as the rest of the city is highly valuable.
V1 Media: Can you describe one of your favorite StormSensor customers and their use case?
Rothman: My favorite StormSensor customer is Jersey City, New Jersey. They are a delight. We are deploying a network of 36 sensors with them. They were our very first customer, when our sensors were 3D printed and epoxied and screwed together and held together with a ribbon cable. It was awful and so embarrassing, and they worked with us, and then they bought more, and now we’re deploying this network across the city. The reason they contacted us in the first place was because they had a Year of Water, and I think that was 2017, and they had a Bloomberg Grant that funds their innovation program. They were identifying companies that could participate, and that’s how they found us.
Sea level rise is affecting the East Coast pretty significantly, and combined with heavier rains, they’re in a bit of a pickle. So we monitor the combined sewer outfalls. We can monitor how much raw sewage is being discharged into the Hackensack and Hudson rivers. They’re separating their combined system and installing new storm drains. So we’re monitoring how much water is moving through the storm drains and stormwater outfalls, so we can take that and demonstrate how much water has been pulled out of the treatment plant, pulled out of the combined system, and that’s incredibly important. They have a $700 million plan to separate the system.
If we can target the highest-need areas, document how much impact each of the changes has, they can significantly reduce the cost of implementing long-term control plans while increasing the benefit to the community by reducing flooding, and monitoring and assessing the effectiveness of the new green infrastructure projects. They’re doing everything: urban flooding, green infrastructure, combined sewer overflows, sewer separations, general maintenance. It’s a very broad project that covers most of our use cases.
Another story is with the city of Memphis. We have a small network deployed with them right now, and they’re mapping, modeling and monitoring how much water is moving through their sewer subbasins. They’re doing this because they are dealing with a great deal of flooding on a much more regular basis. And they don’t have a ton of money to deal with it, so they want to understand where the source of the problem is. We installed our sensors, and we’re presenting the data on our dashboard. They’re downloading that, and the data we’re generating are not matching their model, and it doesn’t make any sense. All our sensors were reading pretty deep water within the storm drain system, and it was not raining. It was a sunny day.
So they called us because they thought our sensors were broken. We called the city and asked if they could check to see what was going on, because we had deep water moving backward in the storm drain. It turns out that when the Mississippi River reaches a certain level, gates open that allow the river to flow into a storm system and use the storm system as storage. But if you have a 10-foot-high pipe, and it has 6 feet of water in it, and then you have a storm, those pipes are designed to handle 10 feet of water. If it’s already more than halfway full, and the city doesn’t know that, then capacity is dramatically reduced, and of course they’re going to have flooding problems.
So we found that the Mississippi River was significantly reducing the capacity of their storm system when it was at higher stages. Now they’re able to monitor the stage of the river, close the gates when they have a storm coming–you can watch them close the gates and watch the water levels rise and the pipes during storm events, and see how much of that water would have actually flooded the city had they not known that.
V1 Media: Can the sensors determine whether water in the system is stormwater or sewage water, or is it just based on where the sensor is located?
Rothman: We have temperature sensors on our sensors, and raw sewage and stormwater have specific temperature signatures. Stormwater’s temperature signature changes seasonally, but raw sewage has a temperature of around 60 degrees, and it’s pretty consistent. So that’s one way we can tell whether it’s sewage. For the most part, nothing happens unless there’s an overflow; if there’s an overflow, that’s when raw sewage is mixing with stormwater that goes directly into the waterway.
V1 Media: Your company received some investor funding from Sofia Fund. Can you describe what Sofia Fund is and does, and how the funding will help your company grow?
Rothman: Sofia Fund is an investment group based out of Minnesota. They focus on women-led and women-founded tech companies. They’ve been amazing to work with–very involved on some of our strategy on upcoming fundraising, introducing us to clients and customers, and it’s just been a delight working with them. I feel very lucky.
V1 Media: How do you think that funding is going to help you grow?
Rothman: We’re focusing primarily on a couple of things: obviously sales, working with additional cities and getting additional deployments out. We are reducing manufacturing costs. So some R&D goes into cost reduction, also allowing us to scale up for sales, and then some of it’s also going into software development and analytics development.
We’re releasing a new software platform later in 2020. Terrapin-Basic is what we offer now; we’re releasing Terrapin-Advanced Insights, or AI, and that provides some additional algorithms and some predictive analytics for our customers to use for planning purposes and emergency response. And we’re also building a new platform called DynamicFlow that is a 3D model of a community, and as storms come through, you can watch the intensity of the rain falling. Our sensors provide data on the water in the pipes rising, where they have capacity issues in real time, and where that surface-water flooding is coming from, whether from rising waters or from wind direction or high tides. And then we’re also adding property-value layers and socioeconomic layers onto that.
V1 Media: As a woman in engineering, what are the major obstacles you’ve seen, and are conditions getting better or worse?
Rothman: I think there can be a tendency to underestimate women in engineering just because of our culture and the history of the way the country and humans often and generally operate. So I think it often can be more difficult to prove yourself as a capable human being. I felt that it was a much stronger bias when I was a little bit younger. In the environmental consulting industry, doing what I do and working with the cities and communities and field teams, I don’t feel I’ve been treated any differently necessarily. But I think there’s definitely a moment of proving yourself, and women do have to be a little bit better than men in some cases to prove they’re competent, intelligent humans. Stupid as that sounds, it’s true.
I think it makes us better at our jobs. When I’m raising money, and I’m the woman in front of all these men and all the other entrepreneurs are men, I have to have my stuff together. It has to be solid, because there’s the automatic assumption that I’m not as good, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, it’s just the way it is. So I have to be on top of it; totally 100 percent on it. There’s less forgiveness.
V1 Media: Can you give some advice to women engineers starting their career as well as any engineer or women starting their own business, since you have experience in both? What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned?
Rothman: I don’t necessarily look at what I do from a “being a woman” perspective. It’s just what I do, but obviously it comes up a lot. As far as starting a business, talking to anyone and everyone who will listen to you about your idea and about your questions, and asking for introductions to more people who will listen to you about your idea and your questions, and not being shy about that. It doesn’t have to be networking events. I’m an incredibly, overwhelmingly shy person, and if you put me in a group of people, I will go sit in the corner and check my watch until I can leave; but one-on-one, it’s wonderful.
So doing that first outreach makes you realize people do want to help you, and they will have coffee with you, and they will listen to you, and they will introduce you to other people. On one hand, I’m a very determined person, but on the other hand, my success is because of a huge network of people who’ve introduced me to other people, who’ve introduced me to my team, who introduced me to mentors and investors and customers and everyone else. It’s just talking to people. Don’t let yourself be alone.
V1 Media: Is there anything specific you did to reach out and make those first introductions that worked for you?
Rothman: When I moved back to Seattle after I was in San Francisco, I had just gotten divorced. I was starting my life over, and all the friends went to the husband. So I didn’t have a lot of people to talk to, and, like I said, I’m a very shy person. So because we’re building a startup, I went to every startup event I could think of, and because I am shy, I made myself goals, and the goals would be things like “I want to meet two other people who’ve founded companies, and ask if they will have coffee with me.” And as long as I do that, I’m successful. So I would set very small but reasonable goals, and then as I started talking to more people, I would have goals for how many meetings I would have in a week, and then how many meetings I would have in a day to achieve specific objectives as far as growing my company and finding investors and finding team members.
I push myself way outside my comfort zone constantly. I am pretty much always uncomfortable, and it works out really well, I hope. Getting out there instead of saying, “I wish I could do that.” I just go do it.
When I started my career, I got myself involved in every possible project I could. It has nothing to do with me being a woman, so much as the fact that I am curious, and I want to be really good at my job. And the only way I could satisfy my curiosity and also get very good was to understand how every one of our projects works, and how our clients worked, and how our company works, and how it all fits together. So again, talking to people, asking for help, not being afraid to ask questions ever, and if someone refuses to answer, then you don’t want to talk to them anyway and that’s fine, because most people really do want to help you.