It’s a dirty, but important, issue. And it’s complicated.
Wastewater management across Buffalo Niagara involves 42 local governments and 42 independent sewer systems or districts, each managing their own wastewater infrastructure and discharge reports.
A Buffalo-based startup is developing technology aimed at decentralizing storm water and wastewater data collection. The project is called the WNY Wastewater Warehouse, and it was developed by Cazenovia West, a company formed last year by Aaron Krolikowski and John O’Brien.
The Wastewater Warehouse helps municipalities overcome data silos in storm-water management, while increasing public awareness of wastewater discharges and prioritizing infrastructure repair and maintenance.
“The goal of the project is to use data in ways that reduce the amount of untreated sewage and polluted runoff ending up in our local waterways,” said Krolikowski, Cazenovia West’s managing director.
Part of the startup is a consulting business that creates chatbots and interactive dashboards for social and environmental organizations. On a larger scale, the company also developed the WNY Wastewater Warehouse toolkit, which they plan to expand across the Great Lakes.
Both Krolikowski and O’Brien have a vested interest in the community. The University at Buffalo graduates (Krolikowski in 2009, O’Brien in 2015) each made a point of returning to Western New York after completing graduate school in England.
They first met in spring 2014 during an Honors Seminar at UB. O’Brien was a student in Krolikowski’s Global Cities in the 21st Century class and was interested in participating in community projects.
As a volunteer at the University Heights Tool Library, O’Brien worked with Krolikowski on developing automated text messaging tools to support ReTree the District, an initiative aimed at restoring the urban tree canopy. The two reconnected upon O’Brien’s return from England for graduate school and formed Cazenovia West last year.
“The recent uptick over the last decade in the community’s focus on entrepreneurship has been great,” Krolikowski says, adding that he and O’Brien have utilized some of the business-focused resources at UB to get feedback on product design and development, and have participated in some of the Ignite Buffalo workshops.
“Buffalo--and Western New York more broadly--makes a great location for us to conduct most of our R&D and product development. It is a region that has many challenges, and it’s not a super-rich place like New York City, San Francisco, or D.C.,” said Krolikowski.
The duo bootstrapped to raise the capital necessary to get the business running. The consulting arm of the startup achieved a few early milestones that helped raise additional capital.
Krolikowski and O’Brien worked closely with PUSH Buffalo to develop a social enterprise business model for workforce training. They conducted a needs assessment with Heart, Love & Soul in Niagara Falls, and evaluated Social Impact Fellows, a UB program presented in collaboration with Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars.
Cazenovia West enjoyed a breakout moment of sorts this spring through its participation in Erie Hack 2.0, a competition that united coders, developers, engineers, creatives, and water experts to generate solutions to Lake Erie’s biggest challenges. The event, organized by the Cleveland Water Alliance, was first held in 2017.
After winning the Buffalo regional finals in April, Cazenovia West won the semifinals in Detroit in early June as part of the Innovation Expo at the Sustainable Brands Conference. They were one of nine teams in the June 20 finals in Cleveland.
The team custom built the WNY Wastewater Warehouse for the WNY Stormwater Coalition and the Erie County Department of Geographic Information Services as part of Erie Hack.
Success in Erie Hack has helped get the startup’s name out there. Visibility was among the early challenges Cazenovia West encountered.
“Truth be told, I think we underestimated the time and energy that actually goes into marketing anything,” said Krolikowski. “A big chunk of the concept of ‘doing business’ boils down to convincing other people that you can make some aspect of their lives better or easier than their current process does. It didn’t take us long to learn that lesson, however.”
“It’s taken a year, but I think we’re just starting to hit our stride,” added O’Brien. “CazWest is working on an out-of-the-box solution that we can offer, but we’ve only recently started to fully understand the real needs that lie at the heart of the issues we first set off to solve.”
While additional work is needed to develop some of the interactive dashboards Cazenovia West is creating for clients, the teams sees a lot of promise in the Wastewater Warehouse tool.
“It took some time and a lot of learning, but we believe we have a clear, scalable solution to a quantifiable problem,” Krolikowski said.
Fresh off of Erie Hack, the team is taking steps to bolster the toolkit.
“We are working on building out the Wastewater Warehouse as a social enterprise, one that bridges the gap between research, policy, and practice in the area of storm-water management,” Krolikowski said.
Cazenovia West has been developing a roadmap for product development and is working on a business plan that will help keep this type of data analysis available to local decision-makers.
“We believe this has the potential to become a profitable social enterprise that can both reduce negative environmental impacts and expand economic development,” O’Brien said.
Over the next few months, they’ll continue refining the Wastewater Warehouse structure and expand the regions they’re able to serve.
“Once we are happy with how the product evolves in Western New York, we will start marketing to other regions in New York state,” said O’Brien. “From there, we envision a steady expansion to all eight states that border the Great Lakes and beyond.”
“Most of the country and world is actually more like Buffalo in terms of problems and budget resources,” added Krolikowski. “If our business can be successful in Western New York, then we are sure we can replicate that success elsewhere--both in the USA and internationally.”