SecureWaters driven by CEO’s concern for safe water

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Two seemingly unrelated concerns – one about idle time and another about drinking water safety – led Ray Slatton of Soddy Daisy to found Secure Waters, Inc., nearly two years ago. In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, Slatton, who serves as Chief Executive Officer of Secure Waters, described the two concerns that provided the impetus to found the company. He was joined in the interview by Robert Clark, Secure Waters’ Chief Financial Officer.

By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

“I had just sold a company and did not want to be idle,” Slatton said. His home was also located near a water intake on Chickamauga Lake, and Slatton said that he started wondering about his family’s safety, as well as the safety of others, if someone tried to contaminate the community’s drinking water supply.

Slatton’s dual interests led him to The Enterprise Center (EC) in Chattanooga and the non-profit’s Chris Daly, who serves as Director of Technology Development and Transfer. They worked together to identify and evaluate technologies at both Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the Y-12 National Security Complex that would be good candidates for licensing.

Slatton found a technology that met his two goals. It was ORNL’s AquaSentinel, a patented bio-sensor technology that can monitor and protect water utilities. After extended negotiations, Slatton and his company executed a license with ORNL in October 2010. During the negotiation process, Clark, who has a strong financial and engineering background, met Slatton through Daly and joined the company on a part-time basis. He is now full-time.

Fast forward through the ensuing 18 months, and the duo summarizes the period as one of chasing funding, lining-up customers, developing a third generation version of the AquaSentinel, and making presentations to potential customers across the country.

They’ve presented at events like the annual “World’s Best Technologies” conference in Arlington, TX, Technology Ventures Corporation’s “Deal Stream Summit” in Albuquerque, NM, and Austin Technology Incubator’s “Clean Energy Venture Summit.”

Secure Waters’ greatest breakthrough may have occurred when the team presented at IBM’s “SmartCamp” last May in Austin. The company won the national event and was one of nine finalists for designation as the IBM Global Entrepreneur of the Year earlier this year. Secure Waters did not win the international competition, but might have secured something almost as important.

“We are now officially an IBM partner and one of eight sensor technology companies in IBM’s Smart Cities Program,” Clark said. IBM’s initiative is focused both domestically and globally, footprints that mirror Secure Waters short-term and long-range strategies. The IBM designation is expected to connect Secure Waters with many new customers.

For now, however, both Slatton and Clark say that their focus is building a base with local utilities in Tennessee and other states. So, they were active at the Tennessee Association of Utility Districts annual meeting in March in Gatlinburg, and they will exhibit at the American Water Works Association “Annual Conference and Exposition” in Dallas in June.

The company’s first commercial installation was in November as part of the Chattanooga Mesh Wireless Network. The company’s recently completed third generation device has just been installed for the Consolidated Utility District of Rutherford County (Murfreesboro) which plans to purchase three additional units if the initial trial meets expectations. And, its planned third commercial installation will be for the Soddy-Daisy/Falling Water Utility District in Soddy Daisy at the intake structure near Slatton’s home.

Slatton says that the newest version of the AquaSentinel is about half the size of the initial unit, in large part because of a fluorometer customized for Secure Waters’ device. “We need to get enough deployments domestically so that we can go global,” Slatton said, noting that “we’ve had a couple of trips to China, and they’re interested in the AquaSentinel.”

He admits that “we are a one product company,” but quickly adds that “we’re looking at other products and partnerships for global support,” particularly in sales and distribution. Both Slatton and Clark say that raising capital has been their biggest challenge. “It’s harder to raise money than it appears,” Clark said. “It takes longer than expected,” Slatton admitted, adding that “it’s frustrating” to be a pre-revenue company.

The two have followed a fairly typical path for start-ups – friends and family, angels, and venture monies via the TNInvestco program through NEST-TN, LLC, in Tullahoma. Next up is a Series A that Slatton says will be “soon.” In spite of launching the company in a challenging market, both men seem upbeat about where they are and the likelihood of success. “We’ve accomplished a lot,” Clark says. Slatton says he would definitely do it again.