A big data, crowdfunded, connected device: Zuvo’s water filter tackles all three buzz words

By Richard Nieva , written on January 15, 2013

From The News Desk

Every once in a while, I come back to a famous Bruce Lee quote: “Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless – like water,” the legendary martial artist said. “Be water, my friend,” he concludes. It is about being mighty and adaptable, and probably not about crowdfunding.

But I keep thinking about the quote because lately water keeps coming up in my reporting, and in a way that’s not entirely unlike the way Lee mentions it – with a pure, flowing 70-percent-of-our-bodies type of reverence.

A few weeks ago, the San Francisco-based company Soma raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter in nine days for its water purifying filter, carafe and software. Today, another water purifying company is kicking off its crowdfunding efforts. Zuvo, a Reno, Nevada-based company launched on Indegogo, with the intent of raising $50,000 in 60 days. The company has created a set of water filters called Stratus specifically designed for a user’s local water system, coupled with an ambitious software component.

It’s not exactly the same as Bruce Lee’s sagely philosophical advice. But the spirit of the project is similar: Water is pure and formless. By extension, it should be untainted.

Instead of offering the same general-purpose filter like Brita or Pur, Zuvo gives customers a filter that is tailor-made for the tap water that flows out of their particular municipality. For example, if you live in an area where there is heavy mining, you’re not concerned primarily with bacteria in your tap, but metals. The company sends you a filter that accounts specifically for that.

The company already has its standalone filters on the market, but the launch today pairs it with the software. That’s the really geeky/intriguing part. The company is trying to build a database of every known water source on the planet, founder and CEO Andy Butler says. Zuvo is piecing the database together one municipality at a time using publically available reports from the Environmental Protection Agency that analyzes each sites water system and water source. Then, users can access the software to see what contaminants are in the water, and based on the specifics of their water system, can keep track of when they need to change their filter. For example, in the Bay Area, a filter might need a replacement after 600 gallons, while in San Diego it’s closer to 350, says Butler.

Zuvo plans to fill out its database by offering a free water sample analysis for customers. A win-win, says Butler, given each water test costs about $150. The problem with that is the company has to convince customers it’s worthwhile to participate. He admits not everyone will go for it.

The company still has its work cut out for it building the database. As a journalist, I’ll say it’s admirable for the company to take on a project so reliant on EPA reports; any reporter who has scoured through government documents knows how nightmarish, inconsistent and tedious that can be. Butler says it will have about 90 percent of the United States water sources accounted for by the end of this year – which should factor into shipping periods should the company meet its crowdfunding goal.

As far as connected products go, this seems useful and intuitive, unlike others where the Web element feels tacked on, like Samsung’s infamous Evernote-enabled fridge. We’ve been talking about the Internet of Things for quite some time, but it officially had its coming out party at CES last week, and increasingly, manufacturers are slapping the Web on products just because they can.

At least Zuvo and Soma have socially conscious technology behind their offerings. (The difference between the two products’ hardware, by the way, is that Soma is a glass carafe, Zuvo connects to the faucet with a nozzle.)

Zuvo’s software is also much more expansive. The question is: How much do people need to know about their water? Are the general solutions on the market good enough? Sure, customers will save money on buying less bottled water, but they can do that with any old filter. They know that some kind of filter will strip away some kind of bad thing in the water, and that’s probably good enough.

Butler says part of the way people can cut down on bottled water and all the waste it produces is changing the culture around water consumption and getting people to understand what’s in it at the source. But those profound changes don’t come overnight. And the effort around building a database seems so painstaking that it borderlines on quixotic. Almost something so hipster you'd see in an episode of Portlandia:

"Tap or bottled water?"

"Slow down! Can we see how much mineral content is in your water and how much your filters are grabbing?"

While a compelling use of technology, the company might have a marketing problem on its hands, and will probably have to be more adaptable. Like water, my friend.

[Image courtesy: John 'K']