How the Akron startup is fixing old methods with new tech
After decades of technological advances, you would assume the tech used to clean our drinking water has kept up with other industries. But that’s not necessarily true — just ask Fontus Blue President, CEO and founder Chris Miller. The Akron startup has developed a product that accomplishes a simple but difficult goal: making your drinking water safer and more consistent. The water experts’ platform helps treatment facilities maintain the right chemistry in drinking water while improving efficiency and reducing costs, a much-needed trip into the 21st century for humanity’s most important resource.
“We created a platform that helps monitor and recommend treatment decisions at drinking-water and wastewater facilities,” said Miller. “What makes me feel good is helping these operators who are faced with this complex chemistry and stressful job. Our secret weapon is supporting those operators. We’re not trying to drive the entire treatment plant with software that’s flipping levers for them. It’s collaborative because it helps us work with them with technology at the core.”
Managing drinking water isn’t easy, and Miller and his team are well aware. It takes extremely specific methods and preparation to avoid unwanted substances in water and every geographic location comes with its own specific challenges, from local algae to trace amounts of lead. Miller compares older methods of regulation to driving a manual car — sure, it’s doable, but it’s much easier and more reliable with an automatic transmission, especially when the risks are so great.
“If you’re in a swimming pool that has chlorine in the water, you don’t worry about drinking it or having it on your skin, and if you have a glass that contains dissolved organic materials, you would drink that water and think nothing of it,” said Miller. “But when you mix the two together and allow them time, they form these harmful byproducts. There’s a lot of complex chemistry that happens and there’s still a lot of research to be done. That’s where we come in. Our software isn’t just this powerful calculator; it allows facilities to deal with all the water-quality issues they have to manage.”
Miller was no stranger to water treatment before launching Fontus Blue. He’s been a civil engineering professor at the University of Akron since 1995, teaching courses focused on drinking-water quality. But several years ago, his work became more personal. Miller’s wife experienced multiple miscarriages around the same time his dog was diagnosed with cancer, two occurrences known to increase from exposure to carcinogens in drinking water. With solutions on his mind, Miller went in search of an answer.
“I started digging into the issue and found that it’s not if carcinogens are in your drinking water, but how many,” said Miller. “I was surprised. I’ve been doing drinking-water research for 25-plus years, and I realized that a lot of the research and technical advancements haven’t translated into real progress. So I decided to create the platform to try and facilitate that progress by translating the research into something drinking water utilities could use.”
Fontus Blue works with both public and private clients, helping to ensure a better quality of drinking water for a variety of populations. With the help of organizations like JumpStart and Bounce Hub, the company now has a presence in eight states and counting. And for a company with growth and innovation on its mind, Fontus Blue’s home in Akron provides what they need to attract talent, improve their product and continue to evolve.
“I’ve been in Ohio for almost 25 years, and the entrepreneurial support network has never been better,” said Miller. “It really helps to be living in this environment. Any time we’ve needed anything, we’ve never had trouble finding someone to support us. Whether they’re here because they went to school here or they’ve always been here, I think we have access to the talent and the affordability to build a team that can execute what we need. It’s almost comical how much more affordable it is to try and do things here in Ohio versus somewhere else.”