Helping Cities Go With the Flow

Excavator helps to eliminate the problem of breaking a pipe in the street on a hot summer day

Water utilities lose $14 billion every year from leaks, faulty meters, and water theft. These challenges, coupled with a lack of government infrastructure investment, have kept water and sewer costs rising at a rate beyond average income growth and inflation. Increasing costs and public pushback are forcing utilities to move beyond traditional practices to keep pace and open the door for private-sector solutions — like those springing forth from Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship.

For Mitch Gainer, WG’18, who once worked to engage mayors, governors, and other stakeholders as director of intergovernmental relations for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the impetus for change began with a question: How do we help cities gain the tools they need to function more effectively?

“Before coming to Wharton, I worked with mayors across the country,” he says. “I loved working with mayors. They were close enough to a community to really understand the needs and powerful enough to do something about them. But time and again, they told me they lacked the analytical toolbox to tackle some of their most pressing problems. This was especially true of water utilities, a fundamental service the city provides.”

In response to this void, together with classmates Marc Giesener, WG’18, and Christophe Williams, WG’18, Gainer formed CitySense Technologies, a startup that provides analytics services to local governments in order to help make infrastructure more efficient. CitySense won third prize in the Penn Wharton Startup Challenge, a program that offers student entrepreneurs from across Penn the chance to participate in the Startup Showcase — to present live pitches in front of alumni entrepreneurs and compete for funding and services to help launch their startups. Thanks to the Startup Challenge, CitySense already has partner cities across the United States piloting its technology and refining their analytical tools.

Through participation in the Startup Challenge and other Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship programs, student founders have access to:

  • Structured, milestone-driven accountability;
  • Feedback from industry experts designed to bring their ideas to life;
  • Teambuilding through Founder Finder mixers;
  • Community co-working sessions, group advising, and workshops with practical advice for how to found and build a company through Penn’s VIP-C

The startups that progress furthest over the academic year join the Startup Showcase and become part of the most exciting annual entrepreneurial event at Penn.

The CitySense founders are especially grateful for their chance to participate because they believe that access to reliable, clean drinking water is a basic human right. “Right now, water utilities are facing increased pressure from tightening margins,” says Gainer. “Water line breaks have disrupted schools, dislocated families, and destroyed homes. Our passion is to help cities run these utilities more effectively and prevent catastrophe.”