Artificial intelligence and machine learning are the buzzwords behind some of the most hyped-up startups around. But, beyond the sci-fi connotations, they also have real-world applications, and no more so than in VAPAR, a Sydney startup that serves to keep sewerage off the streets.
Founded by school friends and uni classmates Amanda Siqueira and Michelle Aguilar, VAPAR uses AI and machine learning tools to find fault in sewerage and storm water pipes.
Traditionally this would involve someone strapping a camera to a remote control car to capture an image of the inside of a pipe, Aguilar explains.
Someone then has to manually watch that video back, and make a note of where any defects are inside of that pipe, “things like cracks, or roots coming through the joints, things like that”, she says.
In fact, Siqueira has first hand experience of this. Coming from a background in civil engineering, “I used to do that job for eight hours a day”, she says.
“Just watching the inside of sewer pipes.”
The VAPAR platform analyses those videos, and automatically identifies any defects councils need to know about.
Through Siqueira’s experience, the co-founders knew this was a space ripe for automation.
“It’s very repeatable, very manual, and very visual,” Aguilar explains.
Around 2017, AI image recognition and processing tools became available in a scalable way, making it possible for the co-founders to start tackling the problem they had identified, using the technology available to them.
They founded the business in 2018, and have mainly been bootstrapping ever since, while securing grant funding and small investments here and there.
Over the past financial year, they’ve been focused on the Australian market. As they enter the next, they’re setting their sights on scale.
The plan is to launch in New Zealand and the UK, to triple the startup’s headcount from three people to nine.
The founders don’t disclose the revenues they’ve seen so far. But, they plan to triple it within the next 12 months, Siqueira says.
Strange times, strange trends
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic means it’s a strange time to be scaling any business. But, VAPAR is providing an essential service, so it hasn’t been as disrupted as many other businesses have been.
“People’s toilets need flushing,” Aguilar says.
“Councils and utilities have to keep these things running.”
In fact, for a business working in the sewerage space, the pandemic has led to some interesting trends. For one, there’s an increased focus on government infrastructure spending, which the founders are “keen to capitalise on”.
But also, as people adhere to social distancing rules and stay at home, there have been changes to the way the wastewater system is working.
One of the major changes has been an increase in clogged pipes because of flushed wet wipes — a trend that can be traced back to “toiletpaper gate”, Siqueira says.
“The dearth of toilet paper in the stores has meant that people are using alternatives,” she explains.
Beyond surviving, and growing, throughout the pandemic, Siqueira and Aguilar have some lofty pipe dreams, if you’ll pardon the pun.
It’s not only Australia that uses outdated methods of pipe inspection.
“Utilities all over the world basically use this same method,” Aguilar says.
“It’s not just in Australia, it’s also in the UK, in the US … there’s a huge market for this automation, to be putting people to more thought-provoking work.”
The co-founders are very much focused on taking this tech global.
“We were the market founding technology in this space, and really pioneering this,” Aguilar says.
“We’re looking to capitalise on that and basically be the end-to-end solution in pipe inspection and remediation.”
And their motives are not only financial. This technology can make taxpayer dollars go further, and also help keep communities clean, and smelling pleasant.
“It’s one of those things that is out of sight out of mind … but it’s everywhere, it’s a global, logistical issue,” Siqueira notes.
“Not only in the Australian market but other markets, there will be less sewers overflowing into people’s backyards, there will be less people having to watch this footage, and there will be less money spent on repairs that aren’t needed,” she adds.
“There’s an overall efficiency on the utilities side. But, in terms of the community, there will be less environmental overflow, basically of poo.”