In the second installment of the GFSA Spotlight Series The Water Council talked with McGee Young, Founder of H2Oscore, a company that was inspired by research on water policy and a desire to impact the water crisis more directly.
Congratulations McGee on receiving one of the grants provided by the Global Freshwater Seed Accelerator program. Would you briefly describe to our audience the concept behind H2Oscore?
H2Oscore helps communities manage their water supplies. We take data that utilities collect on water use, and transfer that data to online dashboards, after homeowners or business owners have created an account on H2Oscore.com. They can then view their information, track usage, and understand the data in a much easier to read, relatable format, and finally take steps to be more water-efficient.
Do you provide recommendations on how to curb their water consumption?
Once a month we send out an email newsletter to our account holders. That newsletter includes their updated monthly data, but also has a general theme for the month, for instance, this month might be Water Conservation in the Bathroom, so we might talk about the advantages of installing high-efficiency water fixtures.
Online, we also link to the Alliance for Water Efficiency, which is a national organization that does tremendous work in promoting sustainable water practices.
Essentially, you are interpreting the data into information that is user-friendly?
The utility already bills you for this water that you use, so when you get your bill, the information is very difficult to understand. Typically, in Milwaukee, the bill comes once every quarter and your consumption is measured in hundreds of cubic feet, so you might be billed for 18 CCF of water in a quarter. Unless you work at a water utility, most people have no idea what this means. You don’t know if it’s high or low, you have no frame of reference. We make that information more accessible to people and give them points of comparison, like similar-sized homes nearby, that they can use to determine how their water consumption measures up.
Tell me about your background, has water conservation always been a topic you were interested in?
I was born in Carmel, California and lived on the banks of the Carmel River. In the late 70s there were huge droughts occurring in California. The river dried up, our personal well would run dry occasionally. My parents were environmentalists so from an early age we were taught not to waste water because it was such an invaluable resource.
When I started in political science, as a PhD candidate and eventually as a profession, my research was on environmental organizations. I looked at the difference between the ways in which environmentalists organized themselves compared to small-business owners. I was really interested in this question of, to what extent does the way in which you get organized, affect the types of politics you advocate for? In my book I asked why modern day environmentalists struggle to address big ecological challenges, like climate change, compared to the environmental advocacy that was carried out 50 years ago. As I returned to water policy, it struck me that this is the biggest public policy challenge of our lifetime and that big, national environmental organizations were ill-equipped to solve problems related to water policy or sustainability. They’re nearly absent from this debate.
Cut to me realizing, I’m familiar with, interested in and care about this issue, why not start developing solutions myself, using lessons from political science. You accomplish very little if you just complain about an issue, or sit in the university and cast criticism on others. I saw a chance to be part of the solution, and the opportunity to think of innovative ways of solving the problem, and that’s how H2Oscore was born. It was a desire to get out of the classroom and start doing something with a broader impact.
That leads into my next question, what were the steps that you took to start H2Oscore? Would you say it started from you observing that too little was currently being done to curb the situation, so you wanted to take on a more active role?
I taught an Environmental Politics class, and I challenged myself and the students to think about a way to solve the water crisis that was actionable, in a sense that we could actually do it, transcended the University, so it had to be something more than just how to save water in the dorms, and that it could persist beyond the scope of the class.
When I teach it’s more about learning than teaching, so in that process I discovered that this data was already being collected and not being put to use. I then took data to a local technology event run by a startup organization and we kind of launched the website from there. The idea behind H2Oscore was inspired by the work we were doing in the classroom, but taken to the next level.
Many times what happens is, you go into a situation thinking you already know everything, especially with water, it seems pretty simple, just use less. As you get into it more and more, you realize that it’s complicated and if it was easy, somebody would have figured it out by now. There’s quite a bit of education that has to go on, and motivation, in order to achieve sustained change. People understand that our resources are under significant pressure; they just don’t know how they can make a difference. The goal is to get people to start asking themselves two things: how does what I do, matter? If it does matter, how can I do more of the things that make a difference?
What steps are you taking to gain more clients and get people to start being more aware of their consumption?
Anyone that receives a water bill can sign up for our service. We’ve been working with various water utilities in the area, who then send out notices in the bill and publicizing our service. Unfortunately, there are still some municipalities that are not as enthusiastic or cooperative, which has been a challenge for us.
Being an entrepreneur involves taking risks, facing challenges, and you’ve obviously experienced that firsthand, what other experiences have you had?
To some degree, you are, or you are not an entrepreneur, it just manifests itself in certain career choices. My colleagues at Marquette are happy for me that I’m pursuing the idea behind H2Oscore, but are baffled that I would go through the tenure process, just to start all over doing something else. For me, it’s a desire to have a greater impact on the world; as a professor, there’s a ceiling to what you can accomplish, no matter how professionally successful you become, it’s very rare that you have substantial impact on the world. I went into Political Science because I was interested in solving problems; becoming an entrepreneur was a direct way to engage in problem solving rather than just teaching or writing about problems.
The hardest part has been building a team. As an academic you don’t have to build a team; I wrote my own book, I taught my own classes, occasionally I would have a teaching or research assistant, but it was a different setup. Now I have 5 people that are counting on a paycheck this month and it’s up to me to deliver that, while also motivating and directing them to success.
What lessons have you learned or what would you have done differently?
Really, you want to do everything differently, because at first you’re so clueless. The first thing you would do differently is you wouldn’t do it in the first place. If you knew what you were getting yourself into, entrepreneurship is the most irrational thing that you could ever do; on the other hand, it’s been one of the most rewarding choices I’ve made.
There really is no use second-guessing yourself or your choices, everything seems clearer in hindsight, the most important takeaway is not to make the same mistake twice.
Having a presence in the Global Water Center affords you many opportunities to interact and have access to countless resources, what are you hoping to gain?
I am most excited about the business development program through UW-Whitewater’s Institute for Water Business. All entrepreneurs benefit from the accountability and structure of this type of program. We are expected to go out and talk to potential customers and collect feedback from them, which we then share with the group.
The distinction between the Global Water Center and other accelerators is that we only have a few start-ups on site; the majority of the building is filled with support services and established water companies. Unlike other incubators, we don’t have to fight against each other for anything, there is plenty of attention to go around, plenty of mentoring and support, so we can do the job we need to do and connect with the people we need to connect with in order to grow our businesses. Any aspiring water entrepreneur should want to be here.
Looking to the future, what milestones have you set for H2Oscore?
For us it’s about growing the number of cities that utilize H2Oscore dashboards, finding capital investors, and continued innovation. We have innovative projects in the works, based on the general public’s shift toward mobile technology.
A big milestone will be when we finally bring the product people, like A.O. Smith, Pentair, Rexnord, etc., into the conversation with the customers, the end users. Most people are not familiar with these companies; and these are billion dollar companies, many with substantial local operations. If we’re serious about water sustainability, that has to change because those companies are critical to the success of our efforts. We hope to connect those brands to the people who will be buying their products in a way that has never been done before. So when the first resident calls up Paul Jones and orders a high-efficiency hot water heater that they saw on H2Oscore, that will be a big day for us, I’m not sure if Paul will take the call or not, but you get the idea.
Do you have any parting words of wisdom, or thoughts you’d like to leave us with?
What I think about everyday I come to the Global Water Center is, out of our team of 7, only one of us is from Milwaukee, the rest are from outside of the area. The reason they are here is because of H2Oscore. They have all chosen to be here, to work in an innovative, water technology start-up, and be a part of this environment. It’s a huge deal because it speaks to the promise of the building, and the Water Council initiative that if we create an environment in which new technologies and new companies can flourish and grow, we can attract and retain talent here.
McGee is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Marquette University. He received his Ph.D. from Syracuse University in 2004, and in 2010, he published Developing Interests: Organizational Change and the Politics of Advocacy. McGee will participate in the 2013 Municipal Water Resources Management Webinar Series hosted by Water Star Wisconsin, October 9, entitled “Water Conservation: Are you ready to H2Oscore?” For additional information about H2OScore, or to contact McGee, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.