As told to Trevor Crowe and Janet Davies
Ever dreamed of being able to tell how much water is in your well without lifting the lid and looking? No? Well read on anyway, to learn how a County father and son developed a device that is exciting homeowners, conservation groups and even the Ministry of the Environment. Russell Brookes tells us about it.
“My son Dylan and I started AquaSwift Inc. together and you can read all about it at www.aquaswift.io (“.io” is a domain extension used by many tech startups and “internet of things” companies)
We make a device that lets you monitor water levels and temperature using your mobile device or computer. The whole venture started when I moved and found myself living with a well for the first time. I was interested in keeping track of how much water was in it, so I’d go out and lift the heavy lid and peer into the darkness. I decided that was difficult and annoying and thought there must be a better way. Ideally I wanted to be able to display the water level somewhere in the house and I worked on the idea and ended up making a circuit. But by the time I’d done it I realized it didn’t have to be on display in the house, I could get it to show up on my smart phone or computer and check it from anywhere.
Dylan had been thinking about starting some kind of business. He’s our youngest son and at Queens University. He was studying Biochemistry at the time but hadn’t really decided what he wanted to do – he’s now switched to Computer Science. Well, he’d gone through ideas for a start-up business, then when I came up with this idea, we looked at the potential together. We only had to look out the window in summer to see water trucks going back and forth filling up people’s wells, cisterns or tanks to see it could be a good business idea. Dylan had worked one summer at Pro-Angler at the PEC Innovation Centre. working with great entrepreneurial people and it got him thinking about business ideas. We got a place on the Starter Plus program through Sandy Abbott at the Small Business Centre in Picton. (613-476-4240 Small Business Centre, firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Starter Plus program was an interesting experience. It takes you through online training modules for writing a business plan and you have the chance of getting funding from three to five thousand dollars when you complete it. I had done other businesses before, so I thought I wouldn’t get much out of it – but I learned a LOT! It helped us think about how to describe a business, how to position it, how to do sales forecasting and costing. Entrepreneurs sometimes focus on the product or service they’re providing and not the long term managing. I only used to learn the minimum business stuff I needed to keep something going. So I startedo start the online training thinking this won’t take long, but I found myself spending hours and hours and learning so much. I thought, Wow there’s a lot to this! When we finished I told Sandy I felt I got even more benefit from the training than from the funding – although obviously that helped. I was surprised how much I got out of it.
Our device monitors water levels. It is a small box that goes at the top of the well or tank or dock or wherever you want it and it’s solar powered so no worries about running power to it. There is a cable with a sensor on the end, you drop that into the water and it reads the water depth every five minutes as well as temperature. It sends the information up to the web server and you log onto your portal page to see your data. You will see it graphed over time and also what’s happening right now. I might be sitting somewhere thinking “Hmm hasn’t rained for a while, I wonder what the well level is like?” I send a text message to the device and it responds with the water depth and temperature. You can also set alert levels, so if it gets below or above the alert level it notifies you. I sometimes check in just because I am curious, but I could just ignore it and be confident it will let me know if it gets below my set level. It can you a text message or phone you or email you, or all three depending on what you choose on your user profile settings. A text works for me because I entered in my profile on the website the contact info for a local water provider, so I can say Order, and the app will coordinate the ordering and delivery of water. You can read about the device, and you can buy online at www.aquaswift.io There are two models. My well is within reach of my wireless router, so I just use the wi-fi connection – but if that’s not the case you’d want a cellular module. The wi-fi module is $199 and the cellular is $299. You don’t have to have an existing subscription to a cellular service, we provide that. But it’s not like a Bell or a Telus $30/month plan, we include the data access, the website access and all that depending on which package you get. With various features they range from $10 to about $25 a month.
WHO IS USING IT?
We have two kinds of clients currently using the product – homeowners/residential clients and conservation groups or municipalities. One residential client operates a B&B in The County but he lives in Toronto, so he wants to keep an eye on the water level during summer when guests are there. Quinte Conservation is a client and we have a number of monitors installed for them. AquaSwift has been a serious game changer for them. They’ve been monitoring for a long time but the size and cost of equipment didn’t allow them to monitor as many points as they would have liked. Our device is a box about four by six by three inches. They can cover many more points of interest with AquaSwift’s water monitor.
We have been lucky to obtain funding and other resources to help us. Dylan and I had the skills to do the research and development ourselves – bringing the product from an idea to a real working device. That’s when Dylan discovered how much he liked the software and programming side of things. He programmed the website himself and I did the actual device, hardware design and firmware that it runs on. Between the two of us, we put this system together. If we’d had to outsource the hardware and software it would have cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars to get our product to market. We kind of bootstrapped it and it’s worked for us.
I was born in England, youngest of four kids and came to Canada by boat in 1964. We got off the boat in Montreal, went to Toronto and stayed a couple of years before moving to Prince Edward County in 1966. So I grew up in The County, went to Athol public school in Cherry Valley, then PECI in Picton, then Queens in Kingston to do electrical engineering. I was always interested in playing with electric circuits and that kind of stuff. As a kid I knew I wanted to do something with electricity when I grew up. My “light bulb moment” was literally a light bulb moment. I took a battery, 2 wires, and a flashlight bulb and connected them together – and the light bulb came on! – in more ways than one. Back then there wasn’t a great supply of materials available to me, it wasn’t easy to get hold of parts, not many stores had the supplies I needed. Years later the Internet came along. Now I can get anything I need from anywhere in the world at a reasonable cost. From a hobby perspective it was great, I could order things and start playing around again and my interest in software design and hardware development really grew. My wife Anne Marie Lambert came to The County from Toronto in the late 1960s, but she went to a different school so we didn’t meet until later – which always surprises us considering the small community. Now we have three grown children, the oldest is a pilot in the Air Force in Moose Jaw. The middle one works in Picton for PELA CFDC. He lived and worked in Ottawa but wanted a better job so he found it here and came home. Dylan is the youngest.
Currently we’re scaling up. We’ve hired 2 university students for the summer to help. As we’ve gone through the process we’ve also identified other opportunities that will be interesting to pursue.
ADVICE FOR ENTREPRENEURS IN THE COUNTY … AND ANYWHERE
I guess the biggest thing is the aspect of DOING. Lots of people have ideas, they talk about their ideas and spin them around for a long time. If you want to start a business, to be an entrepreneur you just have to start doing. You definitely won’t know all the answers – but just get started. I’d encourage you to learn the business thinking and planning that I learned from the Starter Plus Program. And having your own business is nice! It’s a good feeling. When you build a business from something you like doing then you end up doing work that you like. If you can build a business in the place you want to be – that’s even better.
For startups or businesses looking to expand or re-locate to The County, you can fill out this Business Inquiry Questionnaire, and the Community Development Department will respond in 48 hours.