Pablo is the CEO at GoAigua Inc, the US subsidiary of the water utility Group Global Omnium headquartered in Valencia (Spain). We had a unique opportunity to interview Pablo and discuss the exciting technology developed by his company which can provide significant value in the ongoing fight against COVID-19, which have received some attention on US media. See the complete interview.
Pablo is the CEO at GoAigua Inc, the US subsidiary of the water utility Group Global Omnium headquartered in Valencia (Spain). He graduated in Civil and Environmental Engineer at the Polytechnic University of Valencia and UC Berkeley, and after working in Valencia’s utility as an Engineer he did his MBA at IESE Business School. He then joined the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where he served the Madrid, Mexico City and New York Offices. After six years, he recently rejoined his family business to lead its digital expansion in North America.
We had a unique opportunity to interview Pablo and discuss the exciting technology developed by his company which can provide significant value in the ongoing fight against COVID-19, which has received some attention on US media like in this article from Yahoo Finance.
1) Go-Aigua has been in the news recently because it has developed a method with The Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) to analyze the spread of coronavirus in a community through wastewater tests. Your company is using its data platform to measure the spread of Covid-19 across city districts. Can you elaborate on how this technology was developed originally?
Everything started in 2017, when our laboratory facilities in Valencia started a research project with CSIC to create a surveillance system to detect different viruses (Hepatitis A amongst others) in the sewer system. After two years of research and integrating the results in our digital platform, we successfully concluded the contract in 2019. And what a timing! Two months later we realized that the methodology could be adapted to detect remains of SARS-CoC-2 (coronavirus) DNA in sewer water. In a matter of weeks we integrated the laboratory results into our smart water platform, which integrates many other data sources of the utility, and started providing near real time pictures on how the virus was spreading in the different neighborhoods of Valencia.
2) What role can this technology play in providing public officials with ways to monitor the evolution of the pandemic in a neighborhood, city, or region and what would the cost be compared to other methods?
This methodology can help health officials in three key ways. First, it can help them have an early warning of potential spikes as it detects the virus between 10 and 15 days before official cases are reported. We analyzed refrigerated samples from mid-February (before having developed the methodology) and realized that the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 DNA in the water was quite enough to start taking measures. Second, it is helping the authorities direct resources to those areas where they are most needed. As everyone knows, testing everyone is just not a possibility, but this can give a good approximation of what neighborhoods these PCR testing should be directed at. And third, it is helping us detect even the asymptomatic population. The results are just an approximation, but one that includes those people that do not present symptoms. In sum, this method is the most effective way of performing massive testing on an entire population over a period of time, and can certainly help economize resources that are limited.
3) Obviously the interest around the world in finding ways to obtain an early warning of an outbreak of COVID-19 is immense, in particular this will be key as restrictions are lifted in countries that have been able to bend the curve. How can Go-Aigua help in that process?
We are already talking to different cities and states about how to implement this program. Many of them were already taking isolated efforts in measuring this in their treatment plants, but we are helping them scaling this up and making it a tool to help their communities. By connecting the laboratory results with real time data from the rest of the water utility, we are providing true insights. For example, we are starting to quantify the effect of dilution (when it rains and sewer systems are combined, this can be a problem), other chemical components (e.g., chlorine or nitrates), and even track individual water consumption to see what types of customers are dumping water in each point (industrial vs. domestic)
4) GoAigua opened its US office earlier this year in New York City, just as the COVID-19 crisis was starting. What strategy is Go-Aigua following to develop its business in the US and what is the status of these efforts?
We are the result of Global Omnium’s digital transformation. As one of the most innovative water utilities in Europe, we developed cutting edge technologies to help water utilities navigate their digital transformation journeys. And this is what we are bringing to the U.S.: an already proven Smart Water Platform and set of solutions, as well as analytical capabilities, to help utilities improve their asset management, optimize operations, become more resilient, and improve customer centricity.
5) Prior to leading Go-Aigua’s US office as CEO you had a long career in management consulting with McKinsey in Spain and the US. What do you think are the main challenges for companies like GoAigua trying to enter the US market and what would you say are the factors that can lead to success?
Contracting with the public administration in the US can be very time consuming. The selling cycle is much longer than what we are used to, and the first projects are typically very small (pilots, or small deployments). At the end you need to prove your clients very clearly why they should take the risk and try your technology vs. others that have many local references. My advice here would be to have a very clear value proposition on key benefits and risk mitigation, and try to hire people locally as soon as possible.
6) Are USA water utilities receptive to the management innovation proposed by Go-Aigua? How are you navigating to introduce your product into a very closed market such as water utilities?
You are totally right when you say that the sector is very conservative. In general, the water sector (not only in the US) has been years behind other industries such us telecom, electrical, or B2C, but this is precisely what we are trying to change. So far we have been successful in communicating our message, they see us as a water utility that went through the same problems they are going through themselves, and that helps.
7) How do you foresee the interaction between Go-Aigua and high education centers?
We also have a startup incubator, GoHub, with locations in Valencia, Barcelona, Sevilla, and the Basc County, where we invest 15 to 20 M Eur every year to bring the best innovation into reality. Our portfolio of startups focus on AI, IoT, robotics, 5G, and other technologies, and while they are mostly focused on the European market we are also looking to expand GoHub’s influence in the U.S. Universities are key here, that’s where innovation happens.
8) Can you talk about the inception of GoAigua? And how is GoAigua moving from being a small company in Valencia to be Global player?
We may have started as a small company, but we always had the backup of one of Europe’s largest water utilities behind. This, while being a very small company, gave us the stability, know-how, and way of doing things that startups typically don’t have. In just one year we became a 150 people company, with presence in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the U.S. Being under the leadership of Jaime Barba, its Global CEO, has been key to become what we are today.