By Dan Shingler
Akron's got another software startup that appears to be gaining traction, although treading water — in a good way — might be a better way to put it. Fontus Blue, which moved into the downtown Bounce Innovation Hub in June, doesn't make the sort of app most people will ever use, though millions may taste its results.
The company's offering, Decision Blue, is a subscription-based software as-a-service product that helps water-treatment plants address issues and produce water that consistently exceeds testing requirements by providing treatment formulas and regimens based on real-time modeling. "For a little while, Fontus was a hobby. It's no longer a hobby, with employees and payroll and all that," said Chris Miller, a University of Akron associate professor who started the company in 2011. A civil engineer by background and with a family history of small business ownership in his native Iowa, Miller has five employees helping him. He also contracts outside help with some of his software's interface coding. He and his staff do all of the coding for the parts of the system that handle water and chemistry technology. Miller's customer count is rising fairly fast and broadly. Fontus Blue counts 25 cities or their water suppliers among its clients, including Akron and St. Louis.
"We're actually in nine states and Canada, and soon to be also officially in Brazil," Miller said. Revenue is on the rise, too. Revenue was $300,000 in 2018, but already has topped $400,000 this year, Miller said. He's projecting more growth through 2019 and beyond. "Our goal this year is a million dollars … and I'm fairly confident we'll get there," he said. The growth so far has come without focused marketing efforts, he noted. Contracts with big water companies that work for cities have helped spread his software across the U.S., while treatment equipment makers and academics familiar with Fontus Blue have introduced the company to customers in Nova Scotia, Canada and Sao Paolo, Brazil. There are also some big trends that Miller thinks will increase demand for the system. Recent water issues such as the lead poisoning in Flint, Mich., and the shutdown of Toledo's entire system due to algae-related toxins have made people hyperaware of water-quality issues, he said.
Those issues aren't going away either, as pollution and other factors continue to make algae a major concern and aging infrastructure and plumbing systems continue to present risk, he said. All of that, plus increasingly stringent testing requirements, make life challenging for treatment plants, Miller said. Many water plants, especially in smaller cities, don't employ their own chemists or maintain their own labs. They treat by formula and estimates, often unsure what result they'll get from a certain chemical application, Miller said, and at least one plant operator agreed. "It would be like me trying to figure out Chicago without my mobile phone now and no map," Miller said. "I'd have almost no chance."
Miller said Decision Blue takes the guesswork out of the equation by telling operators exactly what will happen to their water quality if they apply certain chemicals in specific amounts.
It also allows them to use fewer chemicals because they aren't overtreating the water. Miller is counting on that as a big selling point, and it's something that will increase margins. For example, he said, St. Louis pays about $20,000 a year for the service. The subscriptions are priced based on the size of the facility. St. Louis is the largest city using Decision Blue so far. But Miller estimates the city has reduced its chemical costs by $300,000 to $400,000 a year since it began using the software. He thinks that will carry significant weight when he raises subscription prices, something Fontus is planning but not announcing yet, he said.
George Ginnis, production manager for Aqua Ohio's Struthers Division, said his team is using Decision Blue to treat water more economically in Poland, Ohio, just southeast of Youngstown. The software provides modeling that shows how a treatment regimen will work in advance. He used to have to wait a day for test results after a chemical application to judge its effectiveness, he said. Ginnis and Aqua Ohio have to stay on top of a lot of things, but harmful algae blooms are his biggest concern recently. He said Decision Blue allows him to decrease the use of expensive carbon to treat toxins from algae blooms. The system can treat and deliver as much as 5.7 million gallons of water per day to customers in the surrounding area, which it gets from a nearby lake, and has never had to issue a do-not-drink order, he said.
A 29-year industry veteran, Ginnis said he was "extremely skeptical" when Decision Blue was installed.
"It's been accurate with regards to where we're at with everything. When you work with something, it takes a while to build the trust up. … But the software is pretty accurate, and now it gives me a level of comfort," Ginnis said. Miller said Fontus Blue is ready to begin marketing in earnest, and he'll likely try to raise some capital this year. So far, he's gotten by with only a $50,000 loan from the Great Lakes Innovation and Development Enterprise at Lorain County Community College and about $100,000 from angel investors, including via the University of Akron Research Foundation's (UARF) ARCHAngels group. "We've used those to do what we need and bootstrapped so far," he said.
He might not have much trouble raising the money. His current investors seem happy. "Everybody at UARF has been excited to see all the progress they've made over the past few years and has high hopes for his continued success," said Elyse Ball, assistant counsel and project manager at UARF. "To see them gaining all this traction and getting some much-deserved recognition is exciting."