The city of Charlotte had a problem: Blockages in the 4,000 miles of sewer pipelines were causing overflows – about one a day – which were hard to predict, difficult to clean up and often paired with costly penalties from the Environmental Protection Agency.
So in 2005, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities Division leaders met with a group they believed might have ideas for a solution: UNC Charlotte’s Electrical and Computer Engineering department.
Eight years later, a device developed by one of those professors and its corresponding company known as InfoSense are revolutionizing the way a number of municipal sewer pipelines, including those in Charlotte, Gastonia and Virginia Beach, are managed.
Until now, CMUD tries to clean 20 to 25 percent of all sewer pipes every year, on a rotating schedule, in hopes of preventing blockages.
Rather than cleaning all pipes in hopes of preventing blockages, the InfoSense technology uses acoustics (sound waves) to detect and target the pipes that need to be cleaned, saving time and resources.
And the founders believe the technology could eventually be used on millions of miles of pipelines, across a number of industries, including oil and natural gas.
Former Mayor Anthony Foxx and city leaders have pointed to InfoSense as an example of the type of successful innovative businesses that can launch in Charlotte, at the intersection of academia, the public sector and private enterprise.
The company has sales reps in 37 states and devices in use in Australia.
And in June, the Charlotte City Council agreed to purchase 12 devices a year – about $20,000 a piece – for the next four years.
“In an industry where sewer ... overflow is the norm, this is proactive,” said InfoSense founder Ivan Howitt.
Tryouts at manholes
Developing the current device took Howitt countless hours of research, grant-writing and many failed attempts.
John Fishburne, senior engineer in CMUD’s field operations division, remembers periodically meeting with Howitt in parking lots and by manholes to test out different prototypes.
“There was a lot of geek factor involved,” Fishburne said. “It’s just been tremendous to watch a man’s scientific thought turn into a product.”
In 2009, four years after he started his research, Howitt had technology that worked. He had a transmitter that fit down one manhole and “spoke,” paired with a receiver down another manhole that listened.
Based on the strength of the signal, the device could tell whether the pipeline was dirty – and how dirty.
But to sell it, Howitt needed to form a company. And to run a company, he needed a team with know-how, “to balance my ignorance about business aptitude,” Howitt said.
He turned to Ventureprise. Led by seasoned entrepreneur Paul Wetenhall, Ventureprise is a nonprofit business incubator supported by UNC Charlotte that rents out space and offers free consulting services to resident startups. Wetenhall, who still has an inches-thick InfoSense file on hand, worked with Howitt to negotiate a license with the university.
Because Howitt’s research was done at UNCC, they had the right to the patent. After negotiations, InfoSense became the exclusive licensee.
Then Howitt built a team. He knew the technology, but not how to commercialize it.
So a colleague introduced him to serial entrepreneur George Selembo, who – in his late 30s – had retired to Charlotte, where he was an adjunct professor at UNCC. The pair then recruited Alex Churchill, a former vice president of Allied Waste Industries. He became chief operation officer.
‘More efficient and more effective’
Tapping existing resources has been key to the InfoSense sales strategy, Selembo said.
Rather than approach every utility in the country themselves, the team of three has tapped into the network of sales reps who already work with sewage pipeline systems.
InfoSense was invaluable while the city was preparing the Central Business District (the area inside Interstate 277) for the Democratic National Convention last fall, said Jonathan Beam, an environmental program inspector with CMUD.
After using InfoSense, the city determined that only about 30 percent of the uptown sewer pipes needed to be cleaned. Previously, Beam said, they would have had to clean all of them.
The process of getting a reading through the device takes three to four minutes. Cleaning a pipe can take from 15 to 30 minutes, Beam said.
The amount of time and energy saved was well more than $100,000 Fishburne said.
“Cleaning sewers is not a cheap undertaking for a city,” Fishburne said. The InfoSense device “takes something that has to be done and makes it more efficient and more effective. ... It improves the efficiency of government.”
Howitt’s life now is drastically different than it was pre-2005, when he divided his time among research, teaching and working with students.
Now on leave from his job as an associate professor at UNC Charlotte, Howitt is used to the entrepreneurial competition scene: With the help of Selembo and Churchill, InfoSense has won thousands of dollars through last year’s N.C. Idea competition, Charlotte Chamber Power-up Challenge, and the Charlotte Venture Challenge – all of which recognize some of the region’s most promising startups.
These days, Howitt has ditched the suit and tie for a T-shirt and jeans.
He’s traded the imposing glass buildings and extensive staff of UNCC’s engineering department for a team of three and a nondescript one-story office suite off Tremont Avenue in South End, where they manufacture the devices.
It’s incredibly gratifying, he said.
As a professor, he and colleagues would present their research at academic conferences. Howitt said he’d get the same polite applause as the professor who presented before him and the one who presented afterward.
With InfoSense, he said, the feedback is powerful.
“The first time I went to give a presentation in this area, people came up and actively thanked me,” Howitt said. “And not because they had to. It was because we’d provided a solution to a problem they have.”
McMillan: 704-358-6045 Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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