Investment Note

Canva for chemical engineers: why we invested in Lewi Software

Written by
Tom Smalley
On behalf of the Skalata Investment Team
“Chemical engineering software was all developed in the 90s, using toolbars with 50 plus buttons and a Microsoft Paint-style interface. It’s convoluted and difficult to use. It needed to be fixed.”
Geraldine Terada-Bellis
Lewi Software

The global chemicals industry is a $4 trillion dollar market. Around 22 utility companies service around $100 billion of assets in Australian wastewater, alone.

It’s a highly collaborative industry with a shared interest in doing things better, more sustainably, and in a way that serves society.

And yet, it’s still running on software built in the 90s.

Data is plotted in Excel spreadsheets. Interns are forced to manually trawl through them to check calculations. Often, when asked to find answers, they end up with more questions.

It turns out wastewater is a surprisingly blue ocean.

In oil and gas, thanks to the deep customer pockets, the development of cutting-edge SaaS is a saturated space. In wastewater, there’s still a huge opportunity to do things better.

Lewi is developing a software solution that's designed for water and waste engineers, affordable for their employers, and has incredible potential to be adapted across those more lucrative engineering sectors and adjacent markets like biofuels and mineral sourcing.

A bit of background

Lewi Software founders Vishnu Avudainayagam and Geraldine Terada-Bellis met in the process team at the wastewater plant Urban Utilities.

Vishnu was firmly industry-native, having studied Chemical Engineering at the University of Queensland, extending his studies to an industry placement which converted to a Master’s degree.

Before co-founding Lewi, he also did rounds of placements in software roles, including as part of industry-leading engineering firm, BMT.

Geraldine also studied Chemical and Environmental Engineering at UQ, and began her working life as a consultant at a small business in water management. She consulted on sites up and down the East Coast, before moving on to sewage treatment at Urban Utilities. She also established Urban Pride, a pride initiative for water professionals.

Together, they participated in the University of Queensland ilab accelerator, and have been working out of the UQ Ventures space (Long Pocket) ever since. Along the way, Lewi went through UQ Validate and won.

When they met, Geraldine was a few years ahead of Vishnu, and acted initially as his mentor. Both were preoccupied with industry problems, especially on the software side. Both wanted to do good for the industry and to build something larger than themselves.

The inspiration

According to Vishnu:

“The chemical engineering software we used as students and while working in the industry was all developed in the 90s or 2000s.”

Vishnu knew first-hand the frustrations of toolbars with 50-plus buttons and software packages with ludicrous limitations.

Inspired by software like Figma and Canva that interrogated norms and revolutionised the user experience, Vishnu and Geraldine asked: why was engineering software so behind in terms of product lead and user-centric experiences?

To give a technical description: Lewi’s product and its algorithms enable engineers to build a flowsheet using a drag-and-drop interface. It works with the data they enter to continually generate a list of underpinning material balance calculations.

The benefit is that, compared to old-school programming scripts or spreadsheet modelling techniques, users no longer have to enter calculations themselves, or manually ensure model equations align with their flowsheet.

The software also continuously auto-fills material balance as the user enters values, following their thought process to maximise their decision-making capability.

In older programs, simulations can only run once all inputs are provided, which then requires time-intensive debugging to comb through the inputs to identify the cause of failure.

Lewi’s product applies a solver function to each input made by the engineer, meaning erroneous inputs are immediately rejected.

The problem

On top of all these inefficiencies, the founders noticed a delta between decision-making and calculation models.

In traditional software, the calculation side and the visualisation side were siloed.

Geraldine says:

“You’d have your flow sheets, diagrams, graphs, and plots done in one program, then your actual engineering work done in another.”

It often fell to a grad or intern to plough through the numbers, making sure they lined up manually. Lewi was founded to tackle that lack of integration and free professional chemical engineers from “spending their time copying-pasting data between diagrams and excel tables when they could be doing so much more”.

Lewi Software enables engineers to build a flowsheet using a drag-and-drop interface.

The potential

In Vishnu’s words, the software can theoretically apply to “any process engineer or chemical engineer, working in everything from bulk chemical production, to biofuels, to food and beverage production, to drinking water”.

Essentially: anything that has a production facility.

But what’s really different about Lewi is that it supports engineers to build models themselves, as opposed to the status quo of inflexible pre-built models that try to take the work off the engineer, and make them call a helpline if they hit a blocker.

Lewi’s software is what you’d call “helpful”. It takes inputs and assists engineers to progressively look at the way their system is built. It helps you check your work as you go, altering you if your inputs are impossible, and helping you fix it.

It’s a time and money saver for the customer and supports the learning and growth of the individual engineer.

The team

Vishnu is something of a unique proposition in himself. It's rare for a chemical engineer to also have skills and an interest in programming. During time abroad in Denmark, he has also forged strong relationships with business and engineering leaders in both Europe and Australia.

Geraldine shares Vishnu’s interests and programming skills while adding know-how in the way small businesses, councils, and utility companies operate and interact. She has an eagle eye for deficiencies and opportunities across those spaces. And she knows how to build and maintain client relationships.

Their background and connections with Urban Utilities are an impressive feather in their cap for such a small team. And they’ve already proven their prowess with another big client, Rio Tinto. As part of its water remediation challenge, the company has put out a call for technology solutions for mineral recovery from wastewater streams. They selected Lewi Software to support them in assessing the feasibility of multiple submitted ideas.

Linking the diagram with the data, and the data with the calculations is an intuitive concept. The key to Lewi’s success will lie in the execution.

It’s the type of work Skalata is excited to get stuck into. Currently, design tools are priced per engineer, and asset optimisation tools are priced per site, with the software running on an annual licence fee per year. We’ll be working closely with Lewi to build on their pricing models and maximise their profit potential.

Now that they’re ready to start scaling, we’ll also be helping the founders grow their team, build their customer base, and boost their sales (as opposed to, in Vishnu’s words, getting “product obsessed”).

On working with us, Geraldine says:

“A lot of funds focus on whether or not you can build the software. We’re quite confident in building it, but engineering is traditionally a very slow decision-making loop in terms of the client side and closing sales. We really felt a synergy when we talked to the Venture Partners at Skalata, because a lot of them have had similar experiences. That's why we felt a connection immediately.”

With a wealth of first-hand industry experience between them and true empathy for the daily software struggles chemical engineers face, we believe Vishnu and Geraldine’s hearts (and brains) are in the right place to do something great for water management (and beyond).

Inspired by Lewi Software's story?