Northern Kentucky: It's in the water

What's the key to Northern Kentucky's entrepreneurial future? As a recent deluge of developments in the environmental sector would suggest … it's in the water.

Covington-based water-technology startup CitiLogics recently received $150,000 — part of a two-phase grant worth a total of $900,000 — from Kentucky's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Matching Fund Program.

A key contributor to the success of CitiLogics is a group called Confluence, a regional water technology innovation cluster (WTIC) launched by the U.S. EPA and Small Business Administration three years ago. Confluence is comprised of business leaders, economic development professionals, federal officials, and university-level researchers from Northern Kentucky, Cincinnati, and Dayton. Their job is to galvanize major water assets in the region for increased global visibility and improved public health. (SImilar water technology clusters exist in southwestern Pennsylvania; Milwaukee, Wisc.; and Fresno, Calif.)

In just two years, the group helped push CitiLogics' Polaris predictive-analysis software to market — a process that usually takes 12 to 15 years. 

"Confluence was important in building connections to local water utilities, helping us to refine the technology and evaluate the benefits of real-time predictive analytics," said CitiLogics co-founder Jim Uber. (Both the Northern Kentucky Water District and the Greater Cincinnati Water Works are active partners in Confluence.)

Tech solutions for global water challenges

In the face of sobering statistics, companies like CitiLogics are feeling the pressure to commercialize water solutions. 

"Two-thirds of the country will be water-stressed by 2020," said Confluence Executive Director Melinda Kruyer. "When you think about spending on infrastructure, there's an urgency that's undeniable — it's right up there with finding cures for disease." 

That sense of urgency prompted Confluence to invest in Polaris, which uses collected data to make vast water systems visible aboveground. The software will help cities pinpoint leaks and ruptures in aging waterway infrastructure, thereby improving the quality of their clean water supplies.

Polaris also responds to global concerns over water scarcity and security. 

"[Water security] technology fuses together real-time operational data and predictive models, making those models useful for forecasting what is going to happen in the distribution system. It's not unlike a weather forecast," said Jim Uber. "If there were no nightly news or, then when the big snowstorm hits, you just have to deal with it — no time to prepare, move your car out of the snow plow's way, etc. Accurate forecasts of how complicated systems behave will always be valuable for efficiently managing risks and minimizing costs and damages." 

'Golden age' of water research

Alan Vicory is president of Confluence's Board of Directors. With 30-plus years with the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) and a wealth of relationships forged across the region as principal of environmental consulting firm Stantec, Vicory jokes that he has been called "the only unbiased man in town."

In this business, that's no small thing, since much of the world's water is shared between municipalities, states, and nations. In January 2013, Confluence brokered a landmark deal between state officials from Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana that would dramatically speed ideas to market by allowing permits to gain approval from all three states at once.

We're living in what Vicory calls a "golden age" of water technology. 

"There's a convergence of global warming and aging infrastructure challenges with rapidly advancing technology that can be harnessed to develop solutions," Vicory says. He sees this region as primed to bring such efforts together.

"[Confluence's] end goal is to be the go-to place for people who come here as well as an asset for the businesses that are already here, and to develop technology according to what the market needs are, and through that continuum, create economic development in Northern Kentucky, Cincinnati, and Dayton," he says.

Wealth in water

The decision to create a water-tech hub in the region took into account some obvious factors — direct access to plenty of water — as well as some assets that aren't so immediately apparent. For example, the Ohio River Valley is home to:
  • Roughly 250 companies, from large corporations like Procter & Gamble to a range of startups like CitiLogics, already doing water-related work
  • A century's worth of water research that benefits from one-of-a-kind labs installed by the federal government as early as 1913
  • One of the world's densest populations of water science and technology experts whose talent will drive the success of initiatives on a global scale

The region's universities are also getting in on the action. Water technology projects are becoming an area of focus for NKU's College of Informatics, and at Thomas More College, the Biology Field Station brings students into partnerships with Northern Kentucky Sanitation District (SD1), Duke Energy, and other local agencies to find solution to water challenges at home and abroad.
The Silicon Valley of water business

The success of CitiLogics and Polaris highlights the efforts of those who believe that Northern Kentucky will soon pose an undeniable draw for water-technology business.

"Confluence is a rallying force to enhance the opportunities for water tech development in the NKY-Cincinnati-Dayton region," says Tri-ED President and CEO Dan Tobergte. "The importance of the Federal EPA research lab is paramount to showing prospects that we have a decided advantage for the water tech industry."

Kruyer, whose continued work with CitiLogics has connected the firm with serious buyers as far away as Israel, sees potential for unprecedented growth now that the word is out. 

"We've been building these assets for over 100 years. We've got more water-tech patents than any other area of the U.S. We have a rich suite of test-beds and evaluation centers. We have over 6,000 researchers in the area," Kruyer says. "Our goal is that by creating this cluster, by showcasing successful examples like CitiLogics, and by making the whole commercialization process easier, we'll be able to attract the best and brightest—and moreover, they can rely on an established base of customers who are ready to buy their solutions."
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