From his early childhood, growing up in northern Virginia, Chris Spain loved the outdoors. In high school, he ran track, but some of the most important lessons he learned in his youth was when he was a Boy Scout. He loved hiking in the mountains and camping out with the Scouts, but more importantly, he developed a discipline that has carried him forward through his entire life.
While attending the University of Colorado at Boulder, Spain’s love for the outdoors grew even stronger. He loved whitewater rafting, kayaking, and hiking in Boulder, a city tucked in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. So when he graduated in 1982, he decided to stay in Colorado. His plan was to focus on his passion for outdoor sports. He supported himself by freelancing in the film production industry, working on documentaries and commercials.
By the time he was 30 years old, he had worked his way up from production assistant to gaffer, to assistant cameraman, to cameraman and finally, to director and producer. But then Spain decided to quit freelancing and get a ‘real job’.
In 1990, he interviewed with Chronicle Broadcasting in San Francisco, California. During the interview, the executive producer asked him where he thought he would be in ten years. “I have no clue,” Spain answered. “I can’t even tell you where television will be in five years; all I know is that we’re headed for a real technology shift that’s going to change everything we do and sell.” The producer liked his answer, so he was hired as a special projects producer.
Working out of the San Francisco Bay area, Spain produced a host of local and national live television shows. “While doing live TV, I was frustrated by my inability to organize all the information in a cohesive fashion without losing a lot of different elements,” he said. “So I developed software and wrote a database program that would basically allow us to change locations very quickly and keep our satellite, audio and camera feeds all together. And that’s what got me into computer science.”
Spain stayed at Chronicle Broadcasting for about six years. He was then hired as a producer/director for a science TV series for the Discovery Channel with Soledad O’Brien, for which they won several Emmys. It was on this show that Spain developed a software application to help the studio avoid system crashes due to old software.
When the TV series was over, he started a software company with two partners, Chris Manchuck and Peter Carlson. It was a software solution that fingerprinted every piece of software, automatically identified the version (which was no small feat), and any current bugs, and then installed the correct update. They sold the company in 2000, right before the dot.com crash.
After selling the company, Spain, Manchuck and Carlson wanted to continue to work together, since they had a good relationship and respected as well as enjoyed each other’s work. “We looked at five sectors in the business world and focused on the environmental issue, feeling it was significant and meaningful,” said Spain.
After looking into the categories of environmental resource management, they discovered that water was a huge issue. So they began analyzing the water market and were amazed to see how much waste there was, especially in output irrigation.
“We thought we’d start with irrigation, because of the ubiquity of controllers. And you can take out one piece and put in another and fix it, right? If only it was that simple,” remarked Spain. “That’s where we made our first of many mistakes. Fortunately, it’s worked out, with lots of lessons learned. We learned that if you are honest with your customers, address issues quickly, and do not make the same mistake twice, your customers will stick with you.”
At this point, the three partners started a company they called Hydro- Point Data Systems. They acquired key technology and patents for sending ET wirelessly to smart controllers, as well as an irrigation scheduling algorithm.
“The key missing ingredient was site-specific ET information weather data. ET weather stations are very expensive, and require regular maintenance and calibration. We decided there had to be a better way to get accurate ET data to the controllers.”
This is what led them to build a highperformance, Climate IQ and Climate Center that processes more than eight million weather data points each day and provides site-specific, high-resolution local weather data to determine true water-resource requirements.
But Spain believes the real asset of the company has nothing to do with technology. “Our biggest asset is our customers. We’ve been able to build relationships with our customers, who honor us with the ultimate sign of trust: they give us access to their sites. We entered these businesses talking about saving water, by showing how irrigation was the big lowhanging fruit,” said Spain. “And now we’re doing asset management, compliance management and water budgeting.”
This year, many of their customers faced extreme water scarcity; in response, HydroPoint introduced Drought Manager and Compliance Manager. Both applications make it possible for customers to easily determine and correct which controllers are out of compliance with local ordinances and in danger of fines.
Spain believes they’re in an incredible position right now. “What smart irrigation means is dramatically expanding for us. We’ve built this rich, smart-water management platform that allows us to quickly extend our features. When we started the company, it was all about making sure the right amount of water got to the right place at the right time. Now, as our customers face an ever-increasing list of responsibilities to manage irrigation restrictions, water budgets and avoid compliance fines, it’s about getting the right piece of data to the right person at the right time. It’s about making water management as easy and as powerful as possible.”
Spain and his wife, Anne, live in Petaluma, California, with their two children, son Zachary, 12, and daughter Skylar, 8. What do they do in their spare time, you might ask? You guessed it: the entire family loves backpacking and camping, and Zachary is a Boy Scout. “Scouting is very different than when I grew up. I don’t think my parents were very involved; now, you go with the kids; it’s a family adventure,” Spain says.
It took ten years for Chris Spain and his management team to figure it out, but after a lot of hard-learned lessons, he thinks they’ve finally got it.
When asked what he sees for the future, Spain got very excited. “Smartwater management truly requires accurate flow data at an affordable price. The next generation of flowsensor solutions will be high resolution and low in price. Once you have real-time flow data from the site sent to the cloud, the things you can do will be truly amazing.”