It was 2009 when Keri Waters decided she couldn’t do it anymore. She was pregnant with her second child, and racing down the coast to avoid a wildfire on Highway 17 and get back to her young son. She was on Highway 92 that afternoon when she decided it was time to create her own opportunity at home in Santa Cruz.
“I just thought, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore,’” says Waters, 41, who is now on her third local startup with water tech provider Buoy. “If I’m going to live here, I need to work here.”
A native of the Boston area who studied mechanical engineering at MIT, Waters first moved to Mountain View for a job at dot-com-era powerhouse Silicon Graphics. She’d been driving over the hill off and on since 2000, when she moved to Santa Cruz with her now-husband to escape the constant feeling of living “between an office park and a Safeway” in Silicon Valley.
Today, Waters’ three-year-old company Buoy is wading into conservation issues that are front and center for Santa Cruz, and other customers in more than 20 states. The startup sells a $17.99-a-month subscription system, plus a $299 plumber installation fee, that fuses an in-home water sensor with a mobile app that allows homeowners to monitor their usage and intervene when there’s a suspected leak.
The idea, says Waters, was obvious given recent extreme water supply issues in Santa Cruz that have pushed local agencies to consider measures like water swaps, desalination and other potentially risky or costly options.
“At the time, it was the height of the drought,” remembers Waters, who says the irony of her aquatic last name isn’t lost on her. “I feel like water is the defining issue of our generation.”
If the ambitious goal of shoring up the water supply was clear, the path to making Buoy a reality was much murkier. The startup is currently courting investors for a Series A funding round to help grow its 14-person team based on the Westside of Santa Cruz.
It’s a big shift from Chopwood, the first company she founded in 2009, which took full advantage of Santa Cruz’s longstanding symbiotic relationship with neighboring Silicon Valley. The company specialized in providing digital services to companies in social networking and other fields centered over the hill. Waters got her first taste of vaunted tech startup success when she sold her second Santa Cruz-based company, a business-to-business data analytics provider called Arqetype, to a customer in Europe.
By early 2015, she was seeking a new challenge.
“I’d learned a bunch from my first two startups,” Waters says. “I wanted to really make the big swing with this one.”
Along the way, Waters credits the tight-knit Santa Cruz community—and, in particular, her older son’s preschool class—with providing the connections she needed to get viable businesses off the ground. In her son’s 10-student preschool class at Coastal Community Preschool, Waters met soon-to-be Santa Cruz Mayor Hilary Bryant, NextSpace Cofounder Jeremy Neuner, Stripe Design Services Founder Suna Lock, and former Netflix executive-turned-Buoy marketing director Carrie Kingsley.
Those connections had an impact.
“That’s how I met a bunch of these people, which I just love,” says Bryant, who went on to become one of Waters’ two co-founders at Buoy, along with longtime business partner Joel Boutros. “There’s about 1 degree of separation.”
The timing, during the depths of the recession in 2009, felt pivotal to Waters and Bryant. In the coming years, those interested in technology would band together with a wave of new business groups like Santa Cruz Works, where Waters is now a board member.
“It really is an exciting moment in tech,” Bryant says. “We’ve been building toward this, but we’re making breakthroughs in all kinds of areas.”
The rapid growth of deep-pocketed tech companies, among them Looker and a local Amazon outpost, has added high-paying jobs to a local economy heavily reliant on government work and seasonal hospitality. The area’s housing market, however, has not kept pace with new jobs and population gains, including a new generation of Silicon Valley transplants. After Santa Cruz median home prices plummeted below $500,000 during the housing crisis, they have skyrocketed to historic highs approaching $1 million this year, according to real estate data provider Zillow.
Amid broader economic tide changes, Waters, for her part, plans to dive deeper into water policy. Buoy is currently negotiating with several water agencies and homebuilders in the Santa Cruz area and beyond to evaluate incentives like rebates toward the installation of the water-saving system, she says.
In the meantime, the company finds itself at the center of the increasingly crowded “smart home” space. Buoy is already designed to work in tandem with Google-owned Nest’s smart thermostats and Amazon’s voice-controlled Echo, Waters says. She has also personally taken an interest in related data privacy and security groups like the Center for Humane Technology, which advocates for transparent and consensual use of consumer data.
The goal, Waters says: “technology working for humans, instead of vice versa.”