Be watching for WatchMan

Saturday, March 04, 2006 - Written by LAURA URSENY - Business Editor
March 4, 2006
Section: Business
Article ID: 3570580

Be watching for WatchMan: Backyard-grown entrepreneurs hoping for investment help
LAURA URSENY - Business Editor

It was a huge 10 minutes for Jack Coots and Norm Nielsen on Thursday. Within that bite of time, Coots had two goals: first to intrigue with a PowerPoint presentation, then to hope someone's curiosity was aroused to make a connection.

He hoped to impress just one in a handful of people, although several hundred stared intently at him in the Big Room of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Two would be fantastic.

Partner Nielsen shared the same hopes.

These were different hats for Coots , general manager of Durham Pump, and Nielsen, president of Chico Electric, both long-time local businesses.

Both astute businessmen and acquaintances, Coots and Nielsen stepped into a new position -- promoters of a new product. Their own product.

Within the sea of faces looking at Coots were a handful of investors at Thursday's North State Venture Forum. As a presenting company, Coots and Nielsen hoped one of those investors might give the product, WatchMan, and the company, Iris Connection Inc., the time of day, and then maybe talk money.

Their fingers were crossed for about $2 million.

They didn't really expect to walk away with a check, but had gotten feedback from an earlier "practice" investor that their invention was promising, and to sit down and present their plans was all they asked.

They had gotten confirmation from Jon Gregory of Golden Capital Network, one of the forum's organizers, that this audience might be interested.

It was a consultant who had brought Coots , Nielsen and Bay Area-based IP Solutions -- "a couple of software guys," according to Nielsen -- together over a water-related problem.

What developed was WatchMan, a product that monitors and controls water used by small community water districts.

Such districts -- with fewer than 10,000 connections -- can't afford the mechanical or computerized means to monitor and test the water that their big metro brothers can. Most small district testing is literally done by hand -- drawing out water, running the tests, and then recording the information.

WatchMan does the same work automatically, several times a second, rather than once or twice a day with human intervention, said Coots . And there are some different twists.

Rather than visiting the pump station connected to WatchMan, the human overseer checks via the Internet -- at their convenience. If there are problems, the system contacts a human via a cell phone alert. Problems in small community water districts may have taken hours or days to detect previously, Coots noted.

And it's easy to pull historic charts together for final reports.

Why Coots and Nielsen think there's promise in this innovation is that there are roughly 164,000 small water districts throughout the country that struggle with government-mandated testing, from checking water pressure and flow, to chlorine levels and pump operations.

There are 109 water districts in Butte County alone.

Each small water district might use three or more units.

All told, the sales to those water districts is estimated at $7.4 billion, according to Coots .

The two men say there is no direct competition to WatchMan, although there are less sophisticated systems that do a few of the same things.

Mostly, they were grateful for the opportunity to talk to investors, business executives and other business people about their company at the Thursday venture forum.

"What's great (about the forum) is that this is a chance for a Chico-based company to get funding," said Coots .

Saying he is a big believer in economic development, Nielsen said this is an entrepreneurial opportunity for job development and economic growth occurring inside Chico.

"It would be based here, so the jobs would be here," said Nielsen.

WatchMan is sold through Iris Connection Inc., owned by Durham Pump and Chico Electric; IP Solutions of the Bay Area; the consultant, Ed Wilcox, and Francis Siu, both of San Jose; and Coots . Nielsen is not an individual owner.

Already two systems have been sold: the beta system to Butte Creek Estates Service Co., and to Gran Mutual Water District that covers the Rocky Bluffs, Spanish Gardens and Skansen developments off the lower Skyway.

Like Butte Creek, which has about 130 connections, small water districts have been built outside the infrastructure loop by developers, and cannot physically or financially access one of the community's prime water districts.

Because they are so small, generally the water districts are run by an association of homeowners in which board members take turns with the testing responsibilities.

What makes this unique, according to the local men, is that it would be a pump dealer who sells the product and then takes on more responsibility, developing a relationship with the water district.

In addition to money, the Chico men are hoping Thursday's forum also might lead to their landing of a chief executive officer and sales manager for Iris Connection. Neither are interested in leaving their existing positions.

Its second sale -- to home associations off the lower Skyway -- occurred about six months ago, and Iris Connection is now talking to other water districts.

And talk about one local company supporting another: The Internet connection for the system comes via Internet provider Digital Path, another Chico-grown company.

"We've had lots of positive interest," said Coots .

The local men are also researching creating financing packages to help the water districts afford the product.

Business editor Laura Urseny can be reached at 896-7756 or lurseny@chicoer.com.

(c) 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc