The days of traditionally expensive, remote, and slow water monitoring approaches are numbered, or at least that’s the firm conviction of companies such as Nanolytix – a Mississauga-based startup working to advance this field.
Two-year-old Nanolytix has steadily gained recognition for its DrinkSafe Analyzer water quality technology, which can detect the presence of pathogens and other contaminants in real time.
Harjeet Bajaj, the company’s CEO, attributes the technology’s success to their proprietary Artificial Intelligence (AI) platform, which allows them to use ultra low-cost optical sensor architectures. The integration of these two aspects have resulted in Nanolytix’s growing reputation as a pioneer in advanced clean water tech innovation.
“Based on our experience in the water sector and through the insights of our initial investors, we noticed a glaring gap in the industry,” Bajaj says. “In the water quality industry, there is the need for instantaneous results at different levels of accuracy and specificity depending on the application, and it should run a feasible cost, which is not the case with lab testing.”
“The market has been in dire need for a solution,” he says. “We worked backwards from the details of this need, and started building out our technology platform.”
Why Artificial Intelligence?
While AI has actually been around for quite some time, it has not always been a viable option due to various restrictions, some of which include computing power, memory capacity and access to data. “As the focus of my master’s degree and then in the professional sphere, I have deployed AI across various sectors such as medicine, healthcare, supply chain management, marketing and even business strategy development and execution,” Bajaj says.
“I have seen the restrictions for AI disappear rapidly,” he adds. “Whereas in the past we had to use mathematical models and ‘if-then’ logic structures, we can now use complex neural networks combined with various other forms of non-supervised machine-learning algorithms. Imagine building a brain that is not only faster than a human brain, but can draw correlations at depths far exceeding what our brains can mathematically model. That opens up a whole new realm of opportunities.”
Our brain is only as good as the “experience” it collects, since we learn through our senses, Bajaj says. “An AI brain needs similar input stimuli to learn, which is where sensor-based technologies come into play as substitutes to our own.”
He admits that this explanation simplifies a complex learning curve that is not without its challenges. “AI cannot be applied by using off-the-shelf, random algorithms,” he says. “The secret is in building AI platforms. If you want to apply AI to solve real-world problems, you have to build complex platforms – much like other technologies. There is no shortcut.”
Once a platform is built, however, you can reap the benefits of its rapid ability to solve complex problems. “This is something Nanolytix has been able to effectively create and apply to a variety of water quality monitoring scenarios,” Bajaj says.
While he cannot divulge the confidential details of the behavioural patterns that Nanolytix has programmed into the DrinkSafe Analyzer, Bajaj says that the end product makes the technology both very affordable and powerful. For example, a user can identify microbials in water by sending a small, collected sample to a microbiology laboratory to process. This has the potential to be expensive and time-consuming. “If the user needs results in real time to make operational decisions, this method just is not useful,” he says. “In contrast, the Nanolytix technology is a quick, inexpensive, and reliable way to monitor water quality results in-line,” he says.
Working with WaterTAP and BREW success
Bajaj credits a great deal of Nanolytix’s success to mentorship from WaterTAP.
“On the recommendation of WaterTAP’s former CEO, Dr. Brian Mergelas, we reached out to WaterTAP about four months ago,” he says. “The experience was fantastic: WaterTAP has a keen understanding of how the water industry works, and specifically where startups, such as our own, fit into that ecosystem. In addition, they have a good grasp of resources available at our level.”
“In particular, WaterTAP tailored a 30-60-90 day plan for our company, which was business development-oriented,” Bajaj says. “The team followed up regularly throughout the cycle to move us forward to not only enhance our marketing and sales approaches, but to make connections with potential investors.”
“Furthermore, given WaterTAP’s international exposure, we received guidance through market intelligence sessions on possible next steps beyond the domestic space, where our technology can apply such as in Asia or Latin America,” he says.
One of the company’s more tangible results from working with WaterTAP was winning the BREW Corporate: Powered by A. O. Smith challenge. “WaterTAP suggested that we enter the BREW competition, which we did, and upon winning the competition, has led to a minimum investment of $50,000 from industry partner A. O. Smith, as well as a path to commercialization.”
Winning the BREW competition has allowed Nanolytix to refine its strategy. “As a startup, you try to get a grasp of viable markets for your technology. You size those markets and further assess them on penetrability,” Bajaj says. “If you choose to focus on the wrong market segment, the lifeline of your startup could be devastated.”
Navigating the path toward commercialization is extremely important, he adds. “Having A.O. Smith as an industry partner has provided us a concrete source of market understanding that will lead to robust market penetration strategies, which in turn will influence accurate product design and development. The company’s global presence is another reason for our excitement; it has a strong presence in accelerating growth markets like Asia, which opens up tremendous sales opportunities for us.
“We’re excited about this partnership, and we can thank WaterTAP for leading us down this path.”