Eyeing the Storm
Erin Rothman helps cities navigate choppy waters
Erin Rothman (Business Growth Collaborative, 2017) has some simple but important advice for anyone living in an urban area—don’t take a shower during a rainstorm.
“Everyone taking a shower during a storm increases the volume of water moving though the sanitary system. That pushes sewage into the waterways,” explains the co-founder and CEO of StormSensor, a Seattle startup assisting municipalities manage stormwater. “So don’t take a shower during storms. It is a shockingly huge benefit.”
StormSensor’s other solutions are decidedly more high-tech. The company deploys proprietary sensors throughout a city’s sewer system, gathering and analyzing data on volume, temperature and pollutant levels. StormSensor then helps cities apply this data to manage their sewer systems, an increasingly challenging task in an era of climate change.
“What we do relates to the quantity of water moving through systems.” Rothman says. “We (provide) combined sewer overflow notifications and quantifications, so cities can reduce the raw sewage going into their systems and implement longer-term control plans.”
Simple hardware, cutting-edge software
StormSensor is a subscription-based, for-profit business. But its services provide an environmental benefit and save cities money. “Cities will design a monster capital improvement program that costs hundreds of millions of dollars,” Rothman explains. “But they design those programs based on models that are often incorrect. And if (the program) wasn’t sized properly, they still have to spend millions more to actually solve the problem. Our data can help with that.”
What makes this possible is an innovative combination of inexpensive, scalable hardware and cutting-edge custom software. The sensors themselves, which StormSensor manufacturers in-house, are rugged and require little maintenance. Once in place, the sensors provide 24/7, real-time data to cloud-based servers, where a team of engineers parse the results.
StormSensor was co-founded by Rothman in 2017. In her previous role as an environmental consultant, she was confronted with what seemed to her an obvious inefficiency.
“At (my previous) company, despite our best efforts, the stormwater group was not profitable, even though they were so busy,” Rothman recalls. “Because every time it rained at the office, we had to go out and sample other sites. But just because it was raining here doesn’t mean it was raining there.
“And we were going out (as many as) four times before we could collect a sample and bill our time. I said, ‘That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard! Why don’t we just have a rain gauge that texts us when it rains?’ ”
Her team challenged her to create such an invention. Rothman saw an opportunity. “I will,” she declared. “I am going to call it StormSensor!”
While a founder’s journey often starts with such a revelation, it requires a very different skillset to launch a successful business. Rothman’s background was in science. To learn how to lead a company, she enrolled in the Business Growth Collaborative, provided by the Foster School’s Consulting and Business Development Center, and mastered the skills to lead a startup.
“What was particularly helpful for me was understanding the importance of financial projections,” she says. “At the time I thought that ‘I can’t do that, because I have no history on which to base the forecast.’ ”
Foster taught her a different approach: “But that is not what financial projections are. It is a story that you are telling about how you will achieve the different objectives that you set out.”
The Business Growth Collaborative was renamed Ascend Seattle in 2018. The program’s mission remains unchanged: accelerating growth of minority-, woman-, and veteran-owned companies and others operating in underserved communities.
“Our Ascend Seattle Program has grown a reputation of being a vehicle that helps firms like StormSensor scale to that next level,” says Wil Tutol, Sr., associate director of the center.
Through a corporate partnership with JPMorgan Chase, the center has been able to help partners in 15 cities across the county develop similar programs that help companies in their areas through the Ascend program.
“Thus, the impact of Ascend Seattle has affected communities far beyond our local region,” Tutol adds. “And we couldn’t have done this without witnessing the success of our graduates like StormSensor!”
The relationships Rothman forged at Foster also proved to be invaluable. She says talking to fellow entrepreneurs about how they overcame the same challenges she was facing, including hiring, fundraising and scaling, was instrumental to her success.
As CEO, Rothman utilizes both her science and leadership talents. “I am typically on between 10 and 15 calls a day,” she says. “Today I’ve done two job interviews, I’ve spoken with a recruiter, a group that works with start-ups, and two different investors.”
And she is still involved in day-to-day operations: “I’m providing field support for the installation in Anaheim, CA, making sure everything’s OK. If something goes wrong, it is my job to triage with our hardware and software teams.”
That hard work is paying off. StormSensor is operating in 16 cities nationwide, including Boston, MA, Boulder, CO, and Albuquerque, NM, and growing.
Operating in a changing climate
Global warming is a factor in the increased need for StormSensor’s services. “We learned early on marketing towards different parts of country when we can and can’t mention climate change.” Rothman says. “Now that the East Cost is dealing with heavier storms, and seeing more rain in the winter than snow, they are managing a lot more water. Even in the last 10 years it has become so much more significant.”
Rothman doesn’t shy away from the frightening reality of climate change: “Seawater rise is happening. It is going to encroach upon land… I probably wouldn’t buy or build a house on the coast.”
But she is confident the right engineering projects can help.
And Rothman has assembled what she considers to be a remarkable team. She credits the advice on avoiding showers during a storm to the PhD thesis of a StormSensor product manager.
“What makes what we do so extraordinary is the enthusiasm that my team brings to solving these problems, regardless of their background,” Rothman says with pride. “And the excitement (of our customers) when they see the solutions that we have delivered—it is just amazing.”