Amid rise in flooding, St. Louis startup Neer applies AI to water infrastructure

As Missouri begins to feel the impacts of climate change, flooding events are becoming increasingly common.

According to the National Climate Assessment, weather events with heavy rainfall increased by 37% from 1958 to 2012, contributing to flash flooding across the state. When managed improperly, flooding can contaminate drinking water, close roads, damage property and even lead to injury or death.

One St. Louis startup is looking to help small and mid-size towns manage their water infrastructure to prevent disasters from happening. Neer was founded in April 2020 and uses artificial intelligence technology to help cities predict where failures could occur.

Missouri Business Alert spoke with Neer’s founder, Elango Thevar, to hear more about how his software helps small communities manage water infrastructure, fight inequality and combat climate change.

Missouri Business Alert: Tell me how you came up with the idea for Neer.

Elango Thevar: I grew up in a very small town in India. We didn’t have running water. So literally, you know, when I was a boy, my family actually asked me to fetch water, and then keep the water for, like two, three days for cooking and cleaning. So when I came to the United States, I was pretty fascinated by the infrastructure because the water is always there for you. You flush the toilet, it just magically disappears, so it’s like, “Wow, this is amazing.”

But when you become a water engineer, and then when you understand what’s actually happening underneath the ground, you see the pain, how difficult it is to run this in a huge infrastructure. Normal human beings, they don’t see what’s happening underneath the ground. So the utility directors face tremendous challenges to make this infrastructure function.

MBA: How does Neer work?

ET: Neer helps water, sewer and stormwater utilities to make proactive, data-driven decisions about their infrastructure. Neer helps predict infrastructure failures before it happens at 90% accuracy at a fraction of the current cost of what the utilities are spending today.

Let’s think about how these guys manage water infrastructure. So if you’re a mayor, or you’re a public works director, and you have a bunch of pipes, the hundreds and hundreds of miles of pipe, you have to know which pipe to replace first. Let’s say you have $5 million. I want to replace all the pipes that are failing, right? You can rely on your operator who’s been telling you, “Hey, there’s a lot of, issues in this, and this, and this, and this pipe. Maybe we should replace all these pipes.”

Obviously, you don’t have money to replace all the issues, but you have to choose which pipe to replace among those 10 issues that you have. Or, you can go and talk to engineering companies, and then they will assess the risk, but I think what Neer does is we remove all the subjectivity. You go an operator, it’s based on his knowledge. And you go to engineering consulting companies, he’s also doing calculations to assess the risk. But there’s a better way. We believe machine learning is going to help (by) actually providing all these variables, all these problem areas, and then it will rank them. You should be replacing this pipe first, this pipe second.

MBA: What are challenges cities face when trying to maintain their water infrastructure?

ET: When you travel enough, within some small communities, you really see like, “Oh, my God, we have to bring this to this modern 21st century digital adaptation or digital transformation of the water industry.” I think Neer plays one small role in bringing this invisible infrastructure to make it visible, and help them to optimize their operations and save some dollars short term and long term.

MBA: How do you think climate change is going to impact the need to manage water infrastructure?

ET: It’s gonna play a huge role, because everything is changing. You have this climate (that) is changing, you have a population (that) is changing, you’re changing the land use for how the city is developing. That’s why this is a very, very hard infrastructure to manage. Climate affects water infrastructure, but it also affects everything we do. And it’s one of the things that motivates me every day. From a water infrastructure perspective, if you’re a city drawing water from Missouri River, or some location, you have to bake into how the climate is gonna affect you in the next 50 years. Even temperature, right, because you’re not going to have enough water to meet the population demand.

MBA: What are some of the consequences of a poorly managed water infrastructure?

ET: We all know what happened to Flint, Michigan, right? That’s the tip of the iceberg. If you look at many articles, like, who is actually worst affected by this? The population worst affected by this is economically disadvantaged communities. If you dig deeper, why is that case is because they don’t have any money, they don’t have any resources — not only money, but also human resources. Somebody has to tell them where they invest. I think Neer is kind of the game-changer. It collapses the cost, and it brings this level playing field for everybody.

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