You use water every day, switching on the tap as a natural gesture. But did you know that behind this daily common use, here in Luxembourg, many communes first negotiate how much water they can use each day, and, in case of over-use, they may end up paying a high penalty. Thanks to RTC4Water, a startup incubated in the Technoport, an advanced way to optimize water distribution and waste-water collection has been developed. Having just moved in a new office located in Roeser, we sat down with the co- founder, Georges Schutz, and Don Martin, responsible for International Business Development, to discuss the always sexy topics of water network management, sewage overflows into rivers, and reducing pumping costs, all around a glass of… water!
(Featured Image: RTC4Water’s team / Image Credit © RTC4Water)
An autonomous and predictive software
In simplest terms, RTC4Water’s software removes some of the complex and tedious daily tasks that water engineers need to perform so that we always receive the highest quality of water in our homes. The software acts like a brain with predictive capabilities which optimizes when and how water is distributed or sewage is sent to a wastewater treatment plant.
The software does not require advanced computers and relies on data that is already available in most modern water distribution or sewer collection networks. Information from past consumption patterns is used to predict where water should be stored and for how long. The system then decides whether to open or close valves, start pumps, or operate water disinfection systems based on real-time activity in the network.
While the system can be described as Artificial Intelligence in the broadest sense, it is not a system that “learns by doing”. “We could put our software into the frame of an AI, as it replaces human work, although we prefer to talk about the continuous solution of a mathematical model. AI is more a black box’s approach where we don’t really know what is happening behind the scenes, whereas here we know exactly what it is doing,” clarified the startup’s co-founder, Georges Schutz.
“Many wastewater treatment operators are less concerned with network operations and more concerned with the actual treatment process.”
The software, once installed on the clients’ network, automatically manages the storage and distribution of the water. “We cannot make water, obviously, but our software is present to constantly fight to utilize existing water supplies in such a way as to avoid paying any fines,” explained the co-founder.
Clients can set their distribution and storage goals in advance and, if a problem occurs, the software will automatically adapt, giving engineers time to find a better solution. “We cannot automatically reduce the consumption of water! But our technology constantly monitors and adapts to the level of demand, always taking into account the high-level goals set out by the client, to set the best way to provide water,” said Don Martin.
While the software has been predominately used in water networks, it also has an important application for the operators of sewer collection networks. “Many waste-water treatment plants are not built to take the very high volumes of waste-water which occur during heavy rains, and overflow basins located in the sewer network are there to let that wastewater flow into our lakes and streams. Our system is designed to minimize this overflow. If there is storage space available somewhere in the network, our system will automatically optimize its use and help homogenize the flow of sewage into the treatment plant,” continued Don. “This helps makes our rivers and lakes cleaner.”
While in operation here in Luxembourg for over 6 years, the wastewater software is still not selling abroad. “From a European point of view, few organizations are seriously looking at optimizing the sewer system. Although awareness in sewage overflows in slowly increasing, many wastewater treatment operators are less concerned with network operations and more concerned with the actual treatment process. However, as this attitude changes, our product will be well positioned in the marketplace thanks to the foresight of our partners here in Luxembourg!” said Georges Schutz.
“In Luxembourg, there is one central supplier of water for approximately 50% of the volume and the rest comes from more local – communal or syndicate – sources of water.”
A Luxembourg success story
This adventure started 10 years ago in Luxembourg as Dr. Georges Schutz and Dr. Alex Cornelissen, the two co-founders, were working on a university research project specific to waste-water management. As part of this project, they then developed prototypes to increase efficiency related to the distribution of water.
“We saw the interest of some clients for this new technology, but we only had prototypes based on our research. We then knew that we needed to leave our research world to jump into the commercial one and develop a real product,” explained the co-founder. Not an easy decision to take, but necessary when you want to change the way the world consumes and manages water!
Starting off the business in Luxembourg was quite a challenge too, as the situation in Luxembourg, in terms of water management is quite unique. Basically, it is controlled either at the level of each individual commune or by a syndicate operating networks on behalf of a group of communes. “In Luxembourg, there is one central supplier of water for approximately 50% of the volume and the rest comes from more local- communal or syndicate- sources of water. Therefore, there is a mix of water quality, which can also be controlled by our software. Our clients can use the software to meet specific quality requirements,” described Georges.
But developing the company in Luxembourg was also a great advantage for the team, as Luxembourg cares deeply about the quality of its natural resources. “We had the chance to benefit greatly from many early adopters and people concerned with the future. Now, ironically, we are in a position of waiting for other countries to begin to adopt new attitudes and demand a higher level of water quality as well!” Don Martin told us.
“By combining our water and wastewater technologies all clients will benefit from a global optimization. As you know: the drinking water we use now, soon becomes wastewater!”
Still a long road ahead
Four full-time employees are currently working in the startup, but the company is always looking for fresh insights from young minds. “We also welcome students interested in advanced programming each year from Epitech to work with us for 6 months. We are lucky enough to have many students that want to intern with us because they like our technology!” said Georges proudly.
Even though the startup has been commercially active for 5years, the road ahead is still long due to the slow adoption rate within the industry. “The consumer is not yet used to buy something like this, and the water industry is both conservative and slow to adapt to new tech,” Don Martin.
While only working (for now!) with clients located in Luxembourg, the startup is constantly improving the software, adding new functionalities based on clients’ requests. “We are now also thinking about developing a completely integrated optimization approach, taking into account the full cycle of water and wastewater. By combining our water and wastewater technologies all clients will benefit from a global optimization. As you know: the drinking water we use now, soon becomes wastewater!” explains the co-founder.
The team has international ambitions, mainly targeting Belgium and France as a first step. “We have one competitor in the UK, which is a country quite advanced in this field but that’s about it. In a few years from now, when the market will be more open to this approach, we will certainly be in a strong position given our expertise, data and clients,” the team concluded positively.