With soft blond bangs peeking out from underneath her beret, Esther Altura describes herself as a petite woman who does not take up much space in the world.
But anyone who meets the Israeli software engineer, mathematician, real estate property investor and modern-orthodox grandmother in her late 60s soon realizes that while she may be softspoken and short in stature, she is certainly not diminutive in her drive and determination, and in the space she fills with her work.
After years of a successful career as a project manager overseeing the development and design of sophisticated computer systems for some of the largest companies in California—where she lived for almost two decades with her American husband and four children—and at an age when most people are thinking of slowing down and enjoying retirement, Altura is working 18-hour days expanding the water conservation startup she launched with her son, Ariel.
Nowadays the first thing she does in the morning is to scroll through all her work messages and emails.
“I don’t think I have the right to live and not do something that I think [can successfully solve a problem],” she tells ISRAEL21c.
For years she had her sights on the issue of water consumption and conservation in multifamily properties in the United States.
Because of the way the plumbing infrastructure is installed, property owners never know how much water each individual unit is using. Tenants don’t know the true cost of their water
consumption because their water bills are included as part of the rent or equally divided among the tenants regardless of usage.
The result is that there is no incentive for tenants to conserve water, and no one takes notice of leaks or overuse of water, Altura said.
She and her son combined his knowledge as a hardware specialist and her expertise in real estate and as a software specialist, and after numerous home tests of different models came up with their design for a smart localized water meter device.
“My son is a product designer and has a very creative mind; he thinks outside of the box. He understood we needed something that was inexpensive,” said Altura.
Existing smart water meters do not fit the very different needs of multifamily building owners and managers, she said.
Just before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, they launched a pilot program for the meter developed through their DrizzleX startup.
Placed at individual usage points within residential units, the smart meter provides transparency on water usage in real time, she said.
The individual water usage data it collects and stores also speeds up the process of pinpointing and alerting for leaks and identifies possible misuse. It also enables billing tenants for the water they actually use, since it is a smart sub-metering solution, she said.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, almost 13 percent of water waste is due to leaks, she said. Altura also asserts that about 30% of water usage in multifamily properties is waste due to the indifference of tenants, adding up to $8 billion per year.
Americans’ daily rate of water consumption of between 80 and 100 gallons per person is three times that in Israel, she added.
As a property owner while her family lived in Los Angeles, she began to manually monitor the weekly water usage in their properties to detect water leaks early on.
But because the meter did not measure water usage of individual units, she could not pinpoint the location of the leak unless she sent a plumber to each unit.
“I couldn’t stand seeing the water just dripping. It is against my DNA as an Israeli,” she said. “The world is drying out on us, then and now, and we should keep an eye on every drop. I saw a problem and I knew the solution was to have a meter which is inside every apartment and I needed smart technology. I spoke a lot about this problem. It is not easy to get people to change their way of thinking.”
Being a trailblazer is not new for Altura, who grew up in a religious home in Bnai Brak and was educated in the conservative Beit Ya’akov religious educational system for girls.
In the mid-1970s she went against the norm and was among the few women studying in the first class of the newly formed computer science department at Bar Ilan University, with the full support of her family. She also studied mathematics.
Later, as the Yom Kippur War broke out and she was unable to continue her studies for a higher degree, she traveled almost reluctantly to the US at the behest of a family member, planning for a short stay. But then she met her husband, married and remained there longer than she had envisioned. As their children got older, they decided to raise them in Israel.
Throughout most of her career Altura was often among the few female managers, and a religious Jewish woman at that, but never felt discrimination.
“I am very confident in what I do. In many places I was the only woman and also a religious woman. I was good at what I was doing and people appreciated that,” she said.
The youngest of four children of Holocaust refugees who fled separately from Poland to Russia and eventually to Kazakhstan where they met and married, Altura was the first of her family to earn a college degree. But all the members of the third generation have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, engineers and “lots of rabbis,” she said.
“My parents were refugees so that affected us and how we were raised. I am always strong. Sometimes I don’t know where the strength comes from but I have a terrific sense of responsibility,” she said. “If I know something has to be done, I can’t let go until it gets done.”
And for Altura one of those things that needs to get done is sustainable water consumption in multifamily homes in the United States.
The device can be adapted for use in office buildings and institutions such as hospitals and homes for senior citizens, Altura said. She also envisions the DrizzleX meter being used in countries such as Chile, India and Brazil.
The technology is not as relevant for residential buildings in Israel as every apartment already has a separate water meter. However, it could be used for office buildings, army bases, hospitals, or college or high school dormitories, she added.
Raising money for startups is not easy, and right now DrizzleX is working on scaling up and expanding, working with the PAX Momentum accelerator.
“I didn’t know how much work it was going to be. Maybe if I had known, I wouldn’t have gotten started,” she chuckled.
Altura and her son have has also managed to navigate the complexity of finding an equilibrium as business partners while maintaining the mother-son relationship on good terms.
“I have four kids and I couldn’t have done this work with the others,” she said. “With Ariel from the beginning we were able to bridge the mother-son relationship. I am the one who gets more tense and he calms me down. I can give him constructive criticism and he doesn’t get insulted.”
3,000 devices installed
In the beginning of 2020, after two years of discussions with a property owner, they were able to install the electronic meters in the apartment units of two buildings in Los Angeles. Then Covid-19 broke out full-force and they had to switch gears for a while.
In the meantime they continued to develop the hardware for their system.
Now they have 3,000 devices installed in 700 apartments and have processed over 9 million gallons of water on their system, with 3.7 million records of water usage, she said.
In her Jerusalem home-office, Altura opens the DrizzleX app on her computer, scrolls down through the data of a few properties, and notices alerts pinpointing which apartment has unusual water usage in its kitchen sink.
“We can check per person per day and this helps with behavior change. When tenants know what is happening, they change their behavior. It actually does work,” she said pointing to a graph mapping the improved usage of water in several apartment units. “Most people understand the importance of water conservation.”
On older entrepreneurship
Though startups are considered the realm of the young, Altura begs to differ.
“I don’t have any children at home. I have a lot of energy and experience, why shouldn’t I be capable? I see how difficult it is for my son [to balance his family with his work],” she said.
“Although there is a lot of stress I am breaking ground for something important. You are seeing more and more older people with means to support themselves, and a lot of experience, and this willingness to dive in.”
She has learned step-by-step the skillset required for managing everything from hiring employees, to legal issues, to product sales and accounting.
“I make rational decisions and when my emotions kick in, I talk to myself and remind myself that I made my decision rationally,” she said. “I am good at learning; it comes easy to me. I am amazed at how much more there is to learn out there.”
As Altura focuses her energies on building DrizzleX, she and her husband have put aside their twice yearly solo adventures to countries like Cuba, South Africa and China, where they ventured pre-Covid with their suitcases full of kosher food and sometimes even cooking equipment.
“I like to see and talk to other people to understand how their life is like,” she said. “I hear Uganda is very beautiful and I would like to see Thailand, Tibet, maybe Mongolia.”
An occasional indulgence she does allow herself are detective novels, but normally her reading material is business-related.
Her eight grandchildren, ranging in age from 15 years to three months old, have become her best cheerleaders.
“Whenever they see a faucet leaking, they point it out to me and say “Look, Savta, it’s dripping,” said Altura. “They are my greatest joy in life, without a doubt.”