As the climate emergency impacts weather patterns across the globe, Brisbane-based FloodMapp has the potential to change the lives of millions of people living in flood-prone areas through its forecasting technology, which as of recently has been integrated into Google-owned Waze.
Already available across large parts of Australia and covering 90 per cent of the continental USA, the company has been overflowing with milestones since its $1.3 million funding round in 2019 that drew support from Shark Tank’s Steve Baxter’s Transition Level Investments (now rebranded as TEN13), Allectus Capital, Jelix Ventures and Mercurian.
Juliette Murphy, who founded the business with Ryan Prosser in 2017, tells Business News Australia about plans for the future as inquiry levels continue to rise across five continents.
Murphy can’t pinpoint where her fascination with weather and flooding started, but traces it back to growing up in rural Queensland and experiencing flooding first-hand every wet season. But it took two ‘once-in-a-century’ climate catastrophe events to steer her towards what would become her passion and obsession – building software to better communicate flood risk.
The software has been brought to the world through FloodMapp, a Brisbane-based technology that is currently being integrated with the navigation app Waze through a pilot program in Norfolk, Virginia.
By mixing tidal, riverine and rainfall data, the company’s forecasting technology allows drivers using Waze to receive pop-up icons and audio alerts, warning them about flooded streets along their route to help avoid property- and life-threatening hazards.
After finishing university where Murphy studied environmental engineering specialising in water resources, Murphy started consulting, which helped school her in the germane practicalities of water supply flow modelling, simulation, dam-break assessments, and flood studies.
“I love working with amazing companies, but at the end of the day, as a consultant, you’re working on other people’s problems based on what they perceive them to be,” Murphy tells Business News Australia.
“But in starting your own company, you’re getting to solve a problem that you care deeply about and really push the boundaries to bring something new to life.”
Murphy was living in Brisbane in early 2011 during the Queensland floods, and observing first-hand the irreparable damage caused throughout large swathes of the city and the broader Ipswich region.
She wondered if the warnings issued concerning the weather event were practicable for the average person, especially after witnessing a house belonging to a close friend being severely impacted.
“Honestly, it was just the most horrific thing I’d ever seen, the devastation, and she didn’t really have much warning that her particular home would be impacted or how it would be impacted,” Murphy explains.
After relocating to Calgary, Alberta in Canada with her consultancy firm in 2012, Murphy was again caught up in another event of similar magnitude.
Severe flooding, caused by 100 millimetres of rain, led to more than $6 billion in financial losses and property damage with 110,000 evacuating their homes between June and July 2013.
“It was experiencing flooding first-hand and seeing it through the eyes of the community and sort of seeing a disaster unfold that motivated me to come up with an idea,” Murphy explains.
“It just struck me, whilst government agencies are doing an incredible job, there was a real lack of hydraulic forecasting.
“Hydraulic modelling could give intelligence to people at a property level and provide warning of what critical infrastructure would be impacted so that people could have that knowledge to make targeted decisions and make moves to take their valuable belongings or save their lives in some cases.”
At the time, modelling and forecasting the risk of flooding concentrated on two outputs; meteorology (understanding where the rains are going to fall) and hydrology (understanding how that rain will infiltrate in the catchment and flow down, which impacts how high the rivers will peak).
The self-confessed “huge nerd” set about adding a new third layer, trying to understand which houses or assets would be impacted, by taking elements like river flow and boundary conditions to forecast how water spreads out over the land and what area will be covered by the flood.
What began as a hobby, Murphy initially taught herself how to code in the early days learning some Java and XML; an interest that eventually morphed into a business.
While living in Canada Murphy met co-founder Ryan Prosser, who comes from a mechanical engineering background but was looking to diversify his career during an oil downturn in 2016 when the opportunity of FloodMapp arose. He now concentrates on the software side of the business.
As a founder, Murphy believes she has remained pretty stubborn and resolute in trying to achieve what she initially set out to accomplish.
“But then, to turn that into a business, it’s not just about the technology; you need to validate that there are customers out there that would pay for this product to make it sustainable,” Murphy explains.
Murphy undertook customer validation exercises with the insurance market sector, critical infrastructure asset owners, transport agencies, and local and state governments.
The value proposition of improving safety has remained steadfast throughout.
“So overall, from day dot, I’d say the vision has remained the same,” Murphy confirms.
“The production delivery and the architecture has changed a little bit, but we have stuck to our guns as we knew that this was a problem that needed to be solved.
“And now we’re fortunate to be doing that and actually seeing that impact on the ground.”
The East Coast of the United States is currently the most significant focus considering it is the hardest hit by hurricane-related flooding each year.
According to the US National Weather Service, flooding and flash flooding is a leading cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S., and 58 per cent of the 997 fatalities blamed on flooding from 2011 to 2020 has happened in vehicles.
In Hurricane Harvey alone, one million cars were destroyed by flooding, resulting in up to $4.9 billion in auto insurance losses.
As more people become aware of FloodMapp, the business has started to receive inquiries from Brazil, the Philippines, India, Europe and the UK over the past few months.
FloodMapp sees itself as a climate-tech company looking to make a global impact and, although potentially relatively capital intensive, the company’s technology can be rolled out across other jurisdictions.
“We wish we could scale it quickly, but it’s not a file-sharing app that is inherently scalable,” Murphy says.
“From day one, we are dealing with physical data here, we need information about the terrain, seeing the topography of the land, we need information about all the hardware installations for flood sensors and rainfall sensors, and that kind of thing, which does sometimes take time.”
Murphy is passionate about building the right culture at FloodMapp and was careful about bringing people on board who cared about the problem as deeply as she did.
“Something about being a founder is that, maybe this is fair to say, no employee will care about the problem as deeply as you do and go through the sacrifice that you did,” Murphy explains.
“There was a couple of years when you set out; you don’t pay yourself a salary, you’re just doing everything you can to get this company off the ground.
“But in saying that, honestly, our team is just the most liberal group of really talented, really passionate individuals and a lot of them we found had connected with the problem in some way themselves personally.”
As an example, Murphy cited software lead Daniel Knott, who grew up in Gympie in the Wide Bay Region of Queensland and calculated that he spent 10 weeks canoeing to school to avoid floodwaters.
In hindsight, if Murphy could do anything differently she wouldn’t have spent as long concentrating on building out the first version of the format, a mobile app.
Although she regrets the time invested in pursuing the stand-alone app feature, what she learned from the experience was immeasurable.
The experience set the business on the path of building the current API product, which any spatial platform can now integrate, and led to the integration with Waze – something that was previously not possible in this space.
“We’re now seeing the impact of our live tours updating every 15 minutes, pushing live flood hazards, based on our predictive modelling, to drivers on the road that can then avoid those hazards in real-time,” Murphy says.
“It is just massive that we are improving the safety and the livelihoods of the citizens that are having to deal with flooding, on a monthly basis, because of sea-level rises.
“And our team have done that, and I think there’s just nothing more rewarding, and it gives me goosebumps.”
By Neil Dorgan21 January 2022