Ed Richards has always been in the solutions business, a skill that’s come naturally since the local was 10 and playing a small role in his father’s Goleta construction company.
He fondly remembers helping install sewage equipment during the area’s building boom and the pride of eventually stepping in and serving as CEO of R.P. Richards for 20 years. Shortly after his father, Bob Richards, passed away, his family decided to liquidate the business.
In need of a project, and armed with engineering degrees from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Richards started his own business, Richards-Zeta, in 1999 and developed technology to remotely monitor energy and other aspects of infrastructure inside buildings.
Networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. liked the idea so much that it paid big bucks to buy his company’s software in 2009.
Not three years passed before Richards was on to the next project, one someone specifically sought him out to fix.
A struggling New Zealand company had a cool concept, but an inefficient business plan. Rob Hughes, managing director and principal of Santa Barbara’s Commerce Capital Group, posed the problem to Richards.
Sure enough, Richards resolved the bugs into what’s now called t4 Spatial, a cloud-based technology that remotely monitors underground pipelines. He’s served as CEO since 2012, managing a small staff out of a downtown Commerce Capital Group building.
“Out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “You just do not know what’s going on with that pipe.”
Richards likened t4 Spatial to a colonoscopy procedure, realizing most can’t comprehend millions of miles of old pipelines directing wastewater, natural gas and other essentials.
“There’s no way to detect cancer in your colon without doing an inspection,” he said.
The business doesn’t operate the camera working its way down the tunnel, but its software does allow municipal agencies to remotely access that live stream to detect cracks or roots that could cause ruptures in sewers or water mains.
Although the technology sounds about as glamorous as the medical procedure, it could help save governments — and taxpayers — millions of dollars by preventing sanitary sewer overflows, which can draw fines or lawsuits.
Richards calls it proactive infrastructure management, an “underground cloud” embracing a Netflix on-demand model making data available at everyone’s fingertips.
The business is in uncharted territory, since the wastewater industry has been keeping video streams on DVDs or VHS tapes on shelves in county or city buildings.
“We’re not in the camera business,” Richards told Noozhawk. “We’re in the data business. Web is pretty new for our industry. How do you solve the problem? You can prioritize the workflow.
“I grew up in that industry. It’s all about the value of data.”
Santa Barbara alone has 180 miles of pipeline, Richards said, and is currently trying out the software with nearly a dozen other municipalities. Lompoc, Palm Desert, Santa Cruz County, among others, have already signed on to pay a monthly subscription for the service.
Richards is identifying more agencies, and hopes to zero in on the more than 1,000 potential clients statewide and beyond. The company recently received a shout-out when the CIO Review named it one of the 20 most promising Geographic Information Systems.
Outside of work, Richards said he tries to keep a low profile.
His business hosted a Wastewater Technology Forum earlier this year, and another one could be in the works.
“He’s a workaholic,” his daughter, Brooke Raffeto, said, smiling.
That may be one problem Richards doesn’t have a solution for, but it means he’ll have time to continue crafting these sought-after technologies.