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Getting Their Feet Wet

Paul Vanslette '84 and Steve Rubin '74 tour the Littleon, Mass. water facility, where their patent-pending technology safeguards the municipality's supply of water.

Through their patent-pending technology, two alumni are on the ground floor of a new venture to protect the nation’s water supply.

As research and development was under way for start-up company Longwatch Inc., its sales operation was having its own success, albeit in an unconventional, though convenient, office space: the neighborhood Starbucks. There, nursing a cup of coffee for several hours, the sales team took advantage of the coffee shop’s Wi-Fi connection.

Now, three years after its founding fathers came together, this start-up has developed technology to help protect the water that flows out of household faucets—and even into the cups of freshly brewed coffee—one municipality at a time.

“The issue of security is something that will be with the country and with the world for a long time,” says Paul Vanslette ’84, who, along with WPI trustee Steve Rubin ’74, are two of Longwatch’s founding partners. “I think our technology ’has legs,’ as they say.”

The company’s patent-pending technology, which recently won an Editor’s Choice Award from Control Engineering, offers local cities and towns a way to monitor their water pumps, wells, and tanks using remote video surveillance. The market outlook appears promising, especially following recent federal legislation that puts added pressure on communities to provide safe and reliable water to residents.

In 2002, Congress passed the Bioterrorism Act, which requires municipalities serving more than 3,300 customers to assess the vulnerability of their water facilities, based on a possible terrorist attack or other incident that could disrupt the supply of clean, drinkable water. The results of these mandated assessments are leading local officials to Longwatch in search of a cost-effective way to securely monitor their facilities.

How it works
The technology includes a device—fundamentally, an embedded computer with four video channels—that is placed at a remote water site. The device monitors and collects video signals that are then archived and transmitted to a central computer, using the town’s existing low-bandwidth infrastructure.

The remote video is then transmitted to a video control center—a software application that can be installed on existing computers—where the information is processed, archived, and integrated into the control room operator’s computer screen.

When Longwatch’s system detects an alarm, a control room operator is paged; he or she can then view a video clip of the recorded event on a cell phone or home computer to determine what, if any, course of action is taken. Typically, security systems at water facilities show when an alarm occurred, but Longwatch’s technology also shows how and what was happening before and after that alarm went off. And because cities and towns are required to investigate any and all possible security violations, this technology “is a much more effective use of everybody’s time and money,” Vanslette says.

Video surveillance isn’t new, nor are wireless networks. However, most water treatment systems have their critical assets (such as pumping stations, wells, and water towers) located far from typical networks such as broadband cable. Many wireless technologies are limited in speed, capacity, availability, or security. Because Longwatch addresses these issues by using the utility’s existing low-speed, high-security telemetry network, it currently has no known competition. “All the clients we speak with ask, ’Where have you been?’” Rubin explains. “This kind of product is long overdue.”

Vanslette adds, “Most municipalities don’t have 24-hour security monitoring. They don’t have the people or the budget. And, they don’t have the bandwidth in terms of a communication system.”

The system works well for cities and towns where control room engineers find themselves fixing problems in the field, rather than solely monitoring the water facility’s security system. Longwatch is the military term for overnight guard patrol, much like this technology’s function at the remote sites.

While this particular venture is new to the Longwatch management team, their knowledge of the water industry is not. Many were already familiar with it, for they had worked at Intellution, a company that Rubin started in 1981 to develop and supply process automation and control software to various industries, including the water sector. [Emerson Electric Company acquired Intellution in 1995.] “We understood the existing protocols and how Longwatch could integrate with those systems,” says Vanslette, who was at Intellution for 18 years.

Longwatch was incorporated in September 2005, but unofficially, the company came into being a couple of years earlier, when two of its founders, familiar with the new federal requirements, asked themselves: How do we integrate video over low-bandwidth radio infrastructure?

Shortly thereafter, Vanslette was called in as vice president of software engineering. “I knew we had a really strong team and a compelling business opportunity,” he says.

Six months later, Rubin became involved as chairman of the board. While he was immediately intrigued by Longwatch, he says it was the market research that really piqued his interest. “I realized that [this company] could be a lot larger than any of us first thought.”

In the foreseeable future, Rubin says he expects the growing company to become a leader in video surveillance for water facilities, as well as for remote infrastructure in other industries, including oil and gas. But, he notes, what will ultimately determine the success of the company goes beyond its technology.

“The technology is certainly important. But even more critical is having a great team of people who understand what products and services will sell,” he says. “Just having a clever idea isn’t enough anymore. You need a clever idea, the right market, and a team that knows how to implement your services to satisfy a real need.” —CW

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Last modified: Apr 19, 2006, 22:46 EDT
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