When the Flint, Michigan water crisis hit, data scientist Doll Avant was at Harvard researching the relationship between clean water and well-being. Despite all the media attention surrounding Flint, Avant was shocked to learn there are around 3,000 such tainted communities in the U.S.
“The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence now ranks water scarcity as a major threat to national security alongside terrorism,” says Avant. “Water scarcity is exacerbated by water contamination.”
Dismayed by the numbers and motivated by her own father’s diabetes diagnosis — of which arsenic-heavy water can be a contributing factor towards — Avant dug into the research behind complications of contaminated water.
“Many people may have seen the Oscar-winning movie Erin Brockovich about water causing cancer in a California town. But most people don’t know that some water systems in all 50 states have been found to have unsafe levels of the ‘Erin Brockovich’ carcinogen chromium-6,” explains Avant. “This problem impacts 233 million Americans. It makes you wonder: how many cases of cancer, diabetes, or other chronic illnesses may be a result of our water?”
And according to Avant, government bodies may not be providing full information. Certain chemicals are regulated by the EPA, but not necessarily all, and some only at specific levels.
“People can’t make better decisions until they get better information,” says Avant, who was named a Global Impact Fellow at NASA’s Research Park in Silicon Valley for her water research.
The entrepreneur began to develop Aquagenuity, a blockchain-based platform that would pull hyperlocal water data from sources like the EPA, NASA, public utilities, municipalities and research institutions. The idea was simple at first: generate a user’s water forecast just like they get their weather forecast.
Aquagenuity’s consumer app, which will be released this spring, lets a user enter their zip code and, for free, search a heat map for any unsafe contaminants in their area. The user can then upgrade to gain access to artificial intelligence-driven explanations of what those contaminants mean for you — for example, that high levels of arsenic could lead to diabetes.
“The app’s health recommendations help you know what to do if you or your children have been exposed to certain contaminants,” says Avant. It even contains a feature that lets homebuyers search for houses in good water quality neighborhoods, just as many conduct searches for good schools.
Avant has devised a B2B solution as well — corporations can pay to access a dashboard that provides the same geo-located water quality information so they know what to do about it.
For example, restaurants may need to purchase certain filtration systems in certain areas. Consumers can then see that restaurant’s designated “water score”, similarly to a health score.
“So corporations who use our app to achieve high water quality standards will ultimately drive sales and increase brand loyalty,” says Avant. “Soon, product labels will start to bear the Aquagenuity seal to increase consumer confidence that the water in their favorite products has been tested and certified.”
She’s also building options for municipalities, where cities can use the technology to execute smart contracts for water payments. Avant says they’re already developing a blockchain solution for a major municipality in the Northeast.
“Instead of taking water for granted until there’s a crisis, we can manage and maximize water like the valuable asset that it is, using the blockchain,” she says. “With Aquagenuity and blockchain, overall water quality improves, cities have a new revenue stream, costs go down and everybody wins.”
Avant emphasizes that it’s ultimately about putting power back in the hands of the consumer.
“I named my company Aquagenuity (think “genuine water”) because, since Flint hit the headlines, dozens of cities have hidden or fudged poor water quality test results because they don’t want to deal with the fallout. But now with Aquagenuity, citizens don’t have to trust that the data they’re receiving is accurate — the data now sits on the blockchain so they’ll have confidence that it has not been tampered with for political reasons,” she says.
Now that the research is robust and the structure of the platform have been put into place, Avant is turning her eyes to other hurdles. Aquagenuity has been self-funded by the entrepreneur thus far, but Avant is seeking a $1.5 million seed round to fund the national app launch, build out the blockchain platform, and complete R&D for a proprietary smart water test kit that will let consumers test their own water.
She has started making the rounds at pitch competitions, taking first place and $5,000 in last week’s Jack Daniels Pitch Distilled competition. She’s also been accepted into the VC Pathways program in Atlanta, which prepares high-growth entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups to raise capital.
The team will also need to grow to see their ambitious plans through.
“Our goal is to build the most comprehensive water quality database in the world,” says Avant.
Photos provided by Aquagenuity