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How Phyn Is Bringing The World Of High Tech To Water Conservation, With Ryan Kim

Story by Benjamin F. Kuo

 

The world of plumbing is not known for its high tech products. However, that makes it an area ripe for technology innovation. We spoke this morning with a Los Angeles startup, Phyn (www.phyn.com)--which recently spun out of Belkin in a joint venture with Uponor--to talk about the company's water monitoring devices, which apply some remarkably sophisticated research and computer technology to monitor the usage of all of a home's water--all through monitoring a single water pipe. We talked with Ryan Kim, the company's CEO, to learn more about the company, how it spun out of Belkin's WeMo efforts, and how water usage is a huge area ripe for innovation.

What's the problem you are trying to solve with Phyn?

Ryan Kim: The problem we're trying to help solve really has to do with the looming water crisis. It's getting bigger, and it's a global challenge. There's a new Michigan State University study that came out earlier this year, which says that in only five years, a third of the U.S. population may be struggling to afford water. That's pretty staggering, if you think about it. We identified this as a problem about eight or nine years ago at Belkin, just at the beginning of the WeMo efforts there. WeMo is a consumer friendly, connected home, Internet-of-Things solution and platform that we developed, to control light switches, connected outlets, plugs where you can monitor your energy, and schedule. Those devices can react and connect to applications on the Internet. While I was running engineering at Belkin, we were beginning to build out the platform and products at WeMo, and in a macro analysis we revealed there were a few different, key things happening in the world. One was climate change, which everyone is aware of, and population growth, combined with our aging infrastructure. We found that the world over, it's not just the roads and power grid, but the aqueducts and pipes that deliver water to everyone. All of that is aging at a rapid rate. That causes a lot of problems. One, is the waste of water. Water is leaking everywhere, and sometimes we don't see it for days, a week, months, or even a year. Other times, we see it, but it's too late to fix the damage. Not only is water being wasted, but there's the possibility it is causing tremendous damage to structures. That ranges from things like sinkholes, because an aqueduct is leaking underground, to an issue that home insurers have had to deal with over the last 20 years, which is dealing with year-over-year growth in water leaks inside the home. That's not to mention water quality issues, like we've seen recently in Michigan. Every country in every corner of the world has this problem. We're putting the power of computing, and sensors, and data analysis, plus Internet connected devices into the hands of homeowners, so they can understand, monitor, measure, manage, and control their environment. For Phyn, we're focusing our years of expertise in the specific area of being able to bring about intelligence to water.

Tell us the story on how Phyn spun out of Belkin?

Ryan Kim: We had started to develop this technology awhile ago, while we were developing the WeMo platform. We had a skunk works effort doing R&D in different types of areas, including water management and sensing products. After about six or seven years of that, in 2015, in the larger WeMo space at CES, we demonstrated something we had been working on. It was not ready for prime time, and we were just off in a corner, but we had a simulated bathroom sink with the WeMo water pipe. From just that, a little bit of exposure, we saw a tremendous amount of inbound inquiries and industry awards. It was really clear that we had tapped into a demand that was not really outspoken. There were a lot of people thinking there should be a solution in this area, but who were not finding any. We ended up getting a lot of inbound inquiries from the insurance industry, plumbing, and utilities, everyone asking us when this would be out and if there was an opportunity to invest in this. So, several months after that, we took a step back.

Nothing else we had ever done had garnered this much interest from the outside world, without us putting an investment into marketing and all of that. We were getting overwhelming inbound interest from lots of organizations, and who wanted to be a part of it. We decided that WeMo water could be something very, very large, in terms of its impact and potential, and because of that we felt it needed a whole lot more focus. There's lot of great work going on at WeMo, and there's an amazing group of talented people, working hard every day, but there WeMo is a platform, and has lots of different things going on. We felt that maybe, with the potential with WeMo Water to do good in the world, we needed a lot more focus. So, we looked at a handful of different organizations showing interest in what we were doing, and had an epiphany. We have the Belkin as the folks behind WeMo Water, which knows a lot about consumer electronics, Wi-Fi, and app development. All technology things. We could build routers, and Internet-connected lightswitches. However, we were getting into plumbing, which is an area where there was a whole lot we didn't know. We had companies we could do joint ventures with who could bring in things like machine learning, deeper engineering, deeper software, and other technology. But, those companies were not positioned well enough to give us the skill sets and expertise, and industry awareness we needed to understand water and plumbing. Uponor, on the other hand, is in an incredibly strong position in plumbing. They understand plumbing codes, materials, and understand plumbers, and have access to a network of plumbers. That was incredibly valuable to us.

As you mention, you have an incredibly advanced technology product, but are approaching a very old, established industry that has been doing things the same way for a very, very long time. How have you managed that challenge?

Ryan Kim: That's a super good question. That's a challenge we identified very earl on, and that's one of the reasons we're partnering with Uponor. They are the go-to-supplier for plumbers, for over 30 years. One of the first things we did, in the first 30 days after the joint venture closed, is we had Uponor reach out tot their national network of plumbers, and invited 20 some of them to Uponor in Minnesota, along with a bunch of people from Phyn. We spent days with them, discussed our challenges with them, talked about the landscape, the innovations and products they'd like to see. We introduced them to our solution, and talked to them about different go-to-market models, and what we could build for them.

When we looked at our strategy and people who want to, and who are our customers, there are two to three big categories. There is the homeowner, property manager, or building owner, who has property they'd like to protect. Then you have a big part of the business, which is the insurance companies, utilities, and those in the home security market, who are all interested in being able to monitor and help people in the water area, and protect the investment they have. Then, in order to bridge those two entities together, are the plumbers, who have to go in there and install it, maintain it, support it, and so forth. There is a growing problem, as infrastructure gets older and older, and there are more and more properties that have plumbing, is there are now fewer plumbers. Part of what we are trying to understand, is how we can help them balance that out. We're coming up with new, innovative programs, that change the way plumbing is done, and the relationship between plumbers and the homeowner. There are many other industries moving into a different business relationship model to make things work better, and we're exploring those areas, and getting lots of excitement.

Let's talk a bit about Phyn's devices. Can you talk about what you are able to monitor and a little bit about the technology?

Ryan Kim: I could talk about it for days on end. At a high level, what we do is a little different than other attempts at doing similar things. What we do, is we monitor the water pressure in your plumbing directly. We're not reading your meter, we're not waiting for water to get on your floor and detecting it. Instead, we have a solution that is in-line, and touches the water, and monitors the water pressure in your home. If you imagine, if your home is not using any water, the pressure inside your pipes builds up to a certain base level, say 65 psi. As soon as you flush a toilet, or turn on a shower, turn on the sprinklers, or any other water activity, there is a spike in that pressure. It changes very rapidly, and stabilizes at a lower pressure when you're using that water. When you stop using that water, and shut off the fixture it is flowing out of, the water stops flowing and you get what is called a hammer effect. That's the rattling you hear when a sprinkler shuts off, or your washing machine cycles. The pipes rattling are that hammer effect. It turns out that every fixture in your home has a unique fingerprint, a signature of what that vibration and pressure looks like every time it turns on and off. Our technology monitors that at a very high frequency. It's very high fidelity, and it detects minute pressure changes, many times per second, and measures that information. It analyzes that with our data algorithms, and with that, we're able to detect everything down to that it's a toilet flushing, and using 2.5 gallons. One benefit of this, is because we know the fingerprint and pressure prints, and know what fixtures you have in your house, we also know when there's a leak. The reason we do, is because it sounds like a stranger in the plumbing network. When the pressure starts rising, or goes down, from that initial spike, we're able to detect everything from a catastrophic failure or drips using those sensors.

It seems like there's quite a bit of technology innovation in what you've done here how did you develop such a sophisticated solution?

Ryan Kim: Either or nine years ago, we started to see these macro trends converge, and saw a massive problem and opportunity to help, so we search the world to see if anyone was working on a solution. We stumbled upon a small bit of research at the University of Washington, which was being developed in combination with Georgia Tech. The researchers have very recently spun out their own startup, called Zensi. We acquire the IP behind the company, which at that point was just a thesis and one, crude prototype. It took us seven years to take that research into our first, commercial, mass scale product.

Finally, what's your next big goal and what are you working on?

Ryan Kim: We want to help protect, conserve, and enhance our everyday use of water. When I saw protect, we want to protect your home from leak damage, protect your family from bad quality water, and we want to help you conserve in an intelligent way. There's a lot of conservation solutions out there, but our technology is much more capable that what is out there now. What is out there looks like a very blunt instrument, trying to solve delicate problems. Our opportunity is to provide a delicate solution to those problems, which works everyday in an effortless way, to help delivery conservation of water in a measurable and material way. Every day, our lives are behind enhanced by connected systems. Our door locks are getting smarter, our cars are getting smarter, and we believe that, in time, everything around the environment we live in is becoming smarter. Our plumbing system is ripe for getting some of that intelligence out there, and we want to lead that effort to bring intelligence into plumbing.

Thanks, and good luck!