How can we protect our water for future generations? The perspective of a startup

By Nicolas St-Gelais
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The sustainable management of our water will undoubtedly be one of the most important challenges of the next century. Even in Canada, where this resource is seemingly abundant, the issues are multiple, whether we think of the high concentrations of pesticides in our rivers or access to quality drinking water, which remains an issue for many communities. 5 years ago, we launched CANN forecast with the objective of ensuring the safe use of lakes and rivers for recreational activities through the use of artificial intelligence and predictive modeling, and what an adventure it has been! We were invited to participate on a panel organized by AquaAction, and moderated by Simon Olivier,  to share our journey as a water tech startup, as part of MTL Connecte. The discussion focsed on the place of technology for improved water resilience in urban areas. Speakers included  Chantal Morissette from the Ville de Montreal, Jean-François Barsoum from IBM, Benoit Barbeau from  Polytechnique, and Simon Beauchamp, from AquaTech. 

Through our entrepreneurial journey to establish Cann Forecast,  we quickly realized that municipalities are at the center of water management.  Being responsible for the treatment of drinking water and wastewater, municipal decisions have a direct impact on the quality of our water, as members of our communities. Several solutions have emerged over recent years and were touched upon in the panel discussion such that the water tech ecosystem – from startups to large companies and universities –  can all enable cities to become more resilient. As a water tech startup, one repeatedly hears the words “long sales cycles,” “tendering,” “regulations,” or “risk-averse industry.” However, working with municipalities as potential clients also means working with people who are passionate about their work, who want to make a real difference for the public good, and who are full of ideas. In 2018, we had just developed our first artificial intelligence model, called InfoBaignade, for Verdun Beach, to predict the quality of water for swimming. Seeing the promising results, a city engineer approached us to see if a similar approach could be used to predict which drinking water pipes were most at risk of breaking. This was the beginning of our InfoBris product which is now used by several municipalities in Quebec and Ontario. It is through collaborations such as this one that we can develop innovative solutions that will have a lasting impact on water management. 

Another theme of the panel was the essential need for data in order to develop innovative digital tech-based solutions. As a startup, it is often very hard to access data, if it even exists! Fortunately, data is becoming increasingly open-sourced and local governments are often leaders in this area. The InfoBaignade tool was initially developed with open water quality data from the city of Montreal and is now used not only in multiple municipalities in Quebec but also in Ontario and France. Open data is a huge wealth of information and often it is by combining data sets that we can begin to respond to more complex issues.  That is where innovation begins.

The water sector is very dynamic and the need for innovative solutions to tackle complex challenges is high. It is true that it is a field lagging behind others in terms of technological innovations, due mostly to concerns for public health and the need to adhere to regulations. However, we are already seeing a steady increase in the use of technology in the municipal water sector and I believe this trend will only accelerate over the next few years. The water industry is therefore very fertile for start-ups, which are able to develop solutions quickly and to adapt. For solutions to be truly impactful, however, it is essential to identify real issues and this requires discussion and collaboration with other many water stakeholders from the outset. 

If you want to be an agent of change and resolve important issues related to water, do not hesitate to take the first step. The AquaHacking Challenge is one such step.  The  Atlantic Canada AquaHacking Challenge has just launched and it’s an amazing opportunity to get your ideas out there and your startup launched as we did.  If you feel the urge, I strongly recommend you register  (deadline November 21st). If, on the other hand, you are looking for solutions like ours, do not hesitate to contact us!


crédit photo : MTL CONNECTE