Australian AI startup VAPAR has raised $2.5 million in seed funding, with the aim of taking its sewer-repairing AI to the UK and US markets. The raise follows its pre-seed funding round of $700,000, which was backed by Blackbird Ventures and Startmate.
The new round of funding was supported by London Stock Exchange-listed Halma Ventures, as well as Australian Sprint Ventures, Access Capital Ventures (S.E Asia) and Metagrove Ventures (Aus and US).
Speaking to SmartCompany, co-founder and CTO Michelle Aguilar says the latest round of funding reflected VAPAR’s strategic interest in entering and expanding into foreign markets.
“Our next market entry is into the US. That’s why we thought it was important to have some experience on our side for the US market as well,” she said.
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Co-founders Amanda Siqueira and Michelle Aguilar started VAPAR in 2018, inspired by Siqueira’s personal experience as a civil engineer.
“My co-founder Amanda used to watch videos of the insides of pipelines for eight hours a day,” Aguilar said.
The two went to high school and university together, and got together to build an automated process for detecting defects in pipelines, whether that’s sewage or stormwater pipes.
While Siqueira came from a civil engineering background, Aguilar’s experience is in mechatronics, allowing the duo to collate their experiences to automate pipeline maintenance using machine learning and AI.
“There’s thousands of kilometers of sewage and stormwater pipes underground, coupled with growing populations adding more strain,” Aguilar said.
“These pipelines have an expected lifetime of around 100 years, but in some places, they don’t get inspected as often, sometimes only once in 50 years.”
As important as inspections are, Aguilar contends that prevention of collapses and blockages is just as important.
“There needs to be prevention so that we don’t have flooding events and environmental overflows going into our rivers and waterways. Our vision is to shift the process of repairing and maintenance from a reactive process to a proactive one,” she said.
VAPAR’s method is simple but novel: instead of waiting for the pipelines to fail, it offers an AI-based solution that’s able to prevent and eliminate unexpected failures entirely.
The software enables VAPAR’s clients to upload footage on its platform, which will be reviewed and diagnosed within minutes. This allows the company to understand how structurally sound the pipeline is and make quick decisions on repair and maintenance activities.
VAPAR is planning on growing its small, lean team from eight to 15 staff in the coming months, and is actively hiring. While Aguilar admits that introducing technology to risk-averse traditional industries like water has been a challenge, in the last year VAPAR has seen its monthly revenue increase month on month by 20%.
Lessons from the underground
VAPAR’s technology is currently being used by a number of organisations both in the UK and Australia. In Australia, Aguilar says VAPAR works with local governments and councils, while in the UK, the company works with privately owned water utility companies and their contractors.
Clients include Greater Western Water (AU), United Utilities (UK) and Anglian Water (UK), among others. VAPAR has also worked with local councils like the City of Ryde and Blacktown City Council.
This gives it the privilege and rare insight into what goes on underfoot and how the infrastructure changes and responds to environmental pressures, particularly damaging phenomena like La Nina.
Following La Nina weather events in Australia, Aguilar says the most visible effect was potholes caused by the ground shifting and extra stress caused by water seeping into places it shouldn’t.
“What that’s doing underground is that if there are any gaps within the pipes, or cracks, or water seeping through, it can cause the soil to shift. It can cause the pipes to move around further, making it harder to service, or they won’t be able to take in as much water through them.”
This can cause the surrounding infrastructure to shift.
“If the water gets into the soil, it can cause a footpath or road to buckle,” Aguilar said.
VAPAR’s assessment is somewhat terrifying, but also crucial to helping cities plan for the future.
With climate change calling for more agile responses to planning and infrastructure, and growing populations adding to infrastructure stress, startups like VAPAR are fighting modern problems with modern technology, easing some of the stress by working with councils, organisations and governments to prevent the collapse of our invisible, underground infrastructure.
It’s what Aguilar calls a “global sewer revolution”.