Shower Startup Nebia Drips In Silicon Valley Money and Influence

The way Nebia developed its shower drips with a Silicon Valley approach to innovation.

A startup named Nebia, dripping with a Silicon Valley approach to innovation, has developed a revolutionary new product: a shower head.

Nebia, whose Kickstarter fundraising campaign is due to end Thursday, aims to alter the daily bathing experience by substituting a stream of water with a misty cloud. Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook and the Schmidt Family Foundation, co-founded by Google Inc.’s Eric Schmidt, have already poured money into it.

Nebia uses 70% less water than a normal shower, claims Nebia CEO and co-founder Philip Winter. “It’s where people are least willing to use less water and to make a change,” said Mr. Winter at Nebia’s headquarters in San Francisco.

Nebia isn’t a connected consumer product, such as toothbrushes, light bulbs and body thermometers that are part of the “Internet of things”. it is part of a wave of new hardware coming out of Silicon Valley.

Mr. Winter drew from automobile and aerospace technology, prototyped a dozen shower heads and tested their invention on the campuses of Apple Inc., Google Inc., Stanford University and Equinox Holdings Inc.’s gyms. Startup incubator Y Combinator chose Nebia for its summer accelerator program and invested in June. The shower is made with the same anodized aluminum Apple uses for its laptops.

Nebia began reengineering the shower before California’s record drought. In 2010, Carlos Gomez Andonaegui, who managed a chain of gyms in Mexico, wanted to decrease his water expenses. Two years ago, he teamed up with Mr. Winter, who had been working in Mexico on a Princeton University fellowship in international development. Nebia moved its headquarters to San Francisco last year.

Mr. Winter, 25, got his feet wet by studying nozzle technology previously used in jet engines and in agriculture to understand how different nozzle types disperse water. He adapted that technology to the shower by designing nozzles that atomize water into tiny droplets that are a fraction of a millimeter. It creates a high-density mist, covering a greater surface area with less water. Nebia has patented its nozzle configuration for showers, Mr. Winter said.

Wondering if Nebia can get the shampoo out of your hair? Watch our reporter test it:

The drought is forcing consumers to evaluate their water use, and ideas about how to save water are flooding the market. Showers account for 17 percent of residential indoor water use according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA attributes its “water sense” label to low-flow shower heads, some of which sell for as little as $3. Software companies such as San Francisco-based Water Smart Inc. offer leak detection services to water utilities and their customers.

Others are trying to reduce water consumption through behavior, not technology. Last month, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California introduced the “Water Lover’s Station”, a channel on the Pandora website and app that encourages users to get out of the shower before songs like Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” are over. Residents of Santa Cruz, Calif. receive a free shower timer set for 5 minutes.

Nebia could parch some pockets. The company plans to sell the shower for $400 once it becomes available next May. Mr. Winter says a one-person household in the Bay Area could save that much in water bills in one year, since his shower claims to use only 0.75 gallons of water a minute, compared with 2.5 gallons a minute for a regular shower.

Reinventing the technology behind the nozzle proved more difficult than Mr. Winter had anticipated. The tiny droplets were losing heat, so the Nebia team used the computer simulation software Ansys, normally applied in the aerospace and automotive industries, to test different droplet sizes. Nebia also hired thermafluid experts, including a former patent agent. Nebia is still dealing with challenges such as preventing the nozzles from clogging.

When the product was ready for testing, Mr. Winter took it to Apple, Google and Stanford. That also helped Nebia float its invention among investors.

“In all the initiatives Eric and I lead or fund, we look for inventive solutions,” says Wendy Schmidt, president of The Schmidt Family Foundation and wife of Mr. Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman. “We’re excited to see Nebia’s product enter the market to address the importance of water conservation.”

Michael Birch, founder of San Francisco’s member-only club The Battery, also invested. He, Mr. Cook and Y Combinator did not respond to requests for comment.

One month ago, Nebia kicked-off a crowdfunding campaign for $100,000. It was quickly drenched with funds, and has now raised over $3 million. More than 8,000 customers have so far ordered the shower-head ahead of production, according to Nebia’s kickstarter page.

Nebia’s early fundraising success has opened the floodgate to more innovation around water. Water-saving toilets, laundry machines and faucets are on tap, Mr. Winter says – as long as its funds don’t dry up.