Solving water quality issues with geospatial analytics

Image courtesy Satelytics

A collaboration at Bowling Green State University in Ohio resulted in the founding of Satelytics, a company that uses geospatial analytics to improve the environment by monitoring the world’s water supplies. Today, Satelytics has more than 12 issued patents on proprietary geospatial analytics algorithms and products.

We spoke to Jay Almlie, Satelytics’ chief marketing officer (CMO), about the company.

Tell us Satelytics’ origin story.

Almlie: Satelytics started as an academic interest. Lake Erie has had a lot of a lot of water quality issues. Every year, [the area] goes through an algal bloom, which creates poisons for fish and for humans. These blooms sometimes result in beach warnings that say you can’t swim today because of hazardous algal blooms or toxic algal bloom algae.

So a professor from Bowling Green State University in Ohio was asked to work on this solution — to see if he could find water quality issues using free satellite imagery. He found that if satellites can scan an area, then they can find certain spectral signatures. With the sun bouncing off algae and reflecting back to a sensor in orbit, it is possible to analyze those spectral signatures and determine the [location and severity of] the hazardous algal bloom.

Where did that research lead?

Almlie: The researchers then started a company called Blue Water Satellite. In 2015, our current CEO, Sean Donegan, saw the business potential in this technology and steered things in a different direction: We’ve got this great algorithm for detecting hazardous algal blooms and water quality issues. Let’s adapt those algorithms, still using that spectral signature reflected off the face of the earth, and sell it to industries that will pay for them. To date, we have created 40 other algorithms, each addressing industry’s most challenging problems.

What are some examples?

Almlie: Some examples are pipeline leak detection (both crude oil and produced water), land movement, water quality and so on. Another area is encroachment. For example, a backhoe may be ready to dig into ground where there might be a pipeline just six feet below. Companies are supposed to call 811 to understand what is underneath; however, they don’t always do that. The most frequent cause of a pipeline leak is third-party damage.

We detect these threats using those same spectral signatures processed by our artificial intelligence (AI). Then we produce 40 different types of alerts for companies to let them know when something has gone awry.

We’re also doing a lot of work in the utility space now, including helping power and electric utilities manage their utility vegetation management (UVM) programs. They may want to know if there’s a tree that is getting too close to the power lines or if it is growing into a safe zone around the power line, therefore causing a hazard in terms of forest fires or posing a threat to installed equipment.

Who is one of your customers?

Almlie: One of our current customers is South Florida Water Management, which handles all of the potable water for people in municipalities in southwest Florida. It’s more than ten million acres, and they want to watch their water to identify problems that should be remediated before they try to draw on those water sources.

Where did the company raise the capital to form the company?

Almlie: A number of our initial investors were from the local area and had learned about our capacity to help Lake Erie. Sean is our largest shareholder. He previously grew four other companies that he sold. He saw this idea and said, ‘This is my next target. I want to help these guys succeed.’ That got us to our series A investment round. Series B followed, and then we really took off in June of 2020 last year. That’s when bp (British Petroleum) saw the potential and invested $5 million in us.

Now bp is helping us expand our algorithms into greenhouse gases, methane emissions, forestry, carbon credits and so on. Very recently, Duke Energy with their partners, Accenture and Microsoft, have been promoting us and helping us expand even further.

How did you come to work at Satelytics?

Almlie: Interesting sideline: Until last year I was a Satelytics customer. I ran a pipeline consortium made up of 11 different pipeline companies that were looking to explore and promote new pipeline leak detection technologies. Satelytics won our competitive process three years in a row. (Our competition was something like ABC Television’s ‘Shark Tank’ program.) I was impressed enough with the technology that Sean headhunted me, and I came to work here.

What’s special about Toledo?

Almlie: When people think of Toledo, Ohio they don’t automatically think it’s the Silicon Valley of the Midwest. However, a number of high-tech companies are quietly succeeding here. We need to bring attention to that.

We have a beautiful location here. You can still do fascinating work and not have to put up with the rat race of New York or San Francisco. As for our business itself, there is no impediment to living and working here in Ohio because what we do is all remote sensing. We could be doing this from Mars if we wanted to!