December 04, 2018
Mathematician Entrepreneur Dives into the Start-Up World
Alumnus Mark Kovscek developed a smart water technology through his company Conservation Labs
By Emily PayneMedia Inquiries
Mark Kovscek (S 1992) built his career on solving other people’s problems, using his skills in mathematics and analytics to address multi-billion-dollar challenges. But when it came to a problem in his own home — a leaky heating system — a few drops of lost water became an unexpected wave of entrepreneurship.
Kovscek is the founder and CEO of Conservation Labs, a company whose mission is grounded in both economic and environmental conservation. He’s gearing up to bring the company’s first product, H2know, to market next year. H2know is a low-cost, smart water monitor that aims to save consumers money by detecting water leaks in the home and helping them manage their water use.
It all started in late summer 2014 when the Kovscek household began having higher than normal water bills. A leak in the family’s heating system was causing water to go right down the overflow drain before even knowing there was an issue. These kind of every day leaks — a dripping faucet, a bad water value, a leaky toilet — aren’t uncommon and can easily go unnoticed at the owner’s expense.
“H2know and Conservation Labs started as an intellectual curiosity — is this a problem I can solve?” Kovscek said. When looking for a solution to prevent future leaks, the products on the market were incredibly expensive, well over $1,500. “I thought there has to be a better way to do this.”
Inspired by his family’s favorite television show, Shark Tank, Kovscek pitched his children an idea — a device that could attach to your water pipe to prevent leaks and tell you about your water consumption for only $100.
Over the course of the next three years, Kovscek devoted much of his time to researching sensor technologies to develop a noninvasive device that could fit over the outside of a water pipe while measuring the water flow inside the pipe. To reach the price point he wanted, Kovscek invested his energy in using machine learning to translate sound signatures to accurate water flow estimates, leak alerts and water insights. Customers can access the data and information through an app to save money and have peace of mind.
“H2know can tell you how long your showers are, how many times the toilet was flushed, how many times the washing machine was used. We can tell you about the whole house from that device, and we can detect micro leaks down to a drop or two a second.”
The strength of H2know lies in its algorithms and analytic capabilities, a strength that comes from Kovscek’s background in mathematics. He earned his bachelor of science in mathematics from Carnegie Mellon University in 1992, and he says he’s used math every day since.
"I get to use my degree every day; it was an investment well made for me."
“A lot of what I do is problem solving with mathematics. Whether it’s building an algorithm through machine learning or building financial models, math has stuck with me every day of my career in some way shape or form. I get to use my degree every day; it was an investment well made for me.
“My courses not only taught me the mathematics, they taught me how to think and problem solve, and so there was always an added complexity that I really liked at CMU.”
In January 2018, Conservation Labs and H2know were officially unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and garnered widespread attention. Conservation Labs was one of six companies to receive the Innovation Award, which is sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Computer Technology Association, for their potential to reduce energy use and carbon emissions.
The company also caught the eye of a representative from the Alexa-Techstars Accelerator, a 12-week immersive program in Seattle, Washington, funded by Amazon and managed by seed accelerator Techstars. Conservation Labs was one of nine start-ups selected from among hundreds of applications. As part of the program, companies receive funding from the Alexa Fund and access to business strategy, the investor community and Alexa-enabled devices to incorporate in their products and services.
Conservation Labs has reached a number of milestones this year, from debuting at CES to conducting field tests and moving from prototypes to beta units. While Kovscek is excited for what’s to come, he won’t forget where everything started — in his basement, working as a team of one and holding company meetings at the dinner table before leaving his job as president of software marketing firm Velocidi to follow his dream.
“It’s been a healthy dose of fear. The level of risk is really high for someone with a mortgage and a family of six to take care of, but it’s the excitement, the adrenaline rush of taking a risk on this, on what I believe in, that is worth it,” Kovscek said.
H2know is only the beginning for Conservation Labs. The next step will focus on creating a shut off device that can turn your water off automatically in the case of a catastrophic situation in the home.
“We remain passionate about conservation and what this combination of sensor technology, machine learning and analytics can do for conservation,” Kovscek said. “If you think about those three things and how they come together, the ideas are limitless.”