Zero Mass will sell all of the water to SolAir Water Inc., a company Quarles founded in June. Quarles said he has been an entrepreneur for as long as he can remember, going back to his days as an 8-year-old paperboy for the Flint Journal. „It’s always been in my DNA,“ he said. He started with a small route, kept adding to it over the years and eventually had upwards of 300 customers, he said.
Quarles founded the BTL Group in 2003, and its website lists among current and past clients Comcast, the Hylant Group, Coca-Cola, Covisint, Comcast, the NAACP and the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. It also has an office in Atlanta.
The BTL Group includes BTL Ventures, which invests in health care, technology and real-estate development companies. Quarles said it currently has two out-of-state companies in its portfolio, has had two successful exits in the last two years and is doing diligence on two more deals, one a Detroit-based company. He said he invests his own money and syndicates individual deals to other investors.
Quarles said he is also an avid angel investor and has started and grown more than 10 businesses, including a custom-design T-shirt company and a printing company.
Quarles‘ LinkedIn page lists executive positions since 2001 including Detroit-based Lochbridge; Detroit-based Covisint LLC; Detroit-based Tower Defense & Aerospace LLC; the Detroit Economic Growth Corp.; the City of Detroit, as senior adviser to Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick from 2006-2008; and the Tavis Smiley Group.
Late in 2017, Friesen, Zero Mass‘ founder, contacted Flint Mayor Karen Weaver to tell her about his company and suggest they might work together. In 2018, she flew to Scottsdale to visit the company, and in January this year she visited company officials at their booth at the Consumers Electronic Show in Las Vegas, where she posted a video about the hydropanel technology and announced a partnership between the city and the company.
In February, Weaver signed a nonbinding memorandum of understanding between Zero Mass, the Community Foundation and the city of Flint, which called for the company to operate a hydropanel operation at the city’s water treatment plant for five years with the option of renewing the lease for another five years.
In June, the City Council approved a contract that would lease the plant land to Zero Mass for $7,500 a month, but it was later determined that the land at the plant wouldn’t support the weight of the panels.
Zero Mass then considered installing the array at the city’s closed Pierce Park Golf Course but dropped the plans in August after neighbors expressed concerns about giving over public green space to a private business.
Meanwhile, Zero Mass hired the BTL Group as a consultant, to help the company reach out to Flint area communities, civic groups and community leaders. Quarles wanted to do more than consulting, and eventually he and officials at Zero Mass agreed that he would launch a company that would buy and sell the water produced by the hydropanels. Quarles said 10 percent of sales will be donated to the Flint Water Fund.
„He was doing some consulting work for us, and it seemed like a good fit. We are a tech provider. Any time we are working on a big project, we need to work with community leaders, and J.Q. is well integrated into the community. He’s from Flint and his vision aligns with ours,“ said Kaitlyn Fitzgerald, the director of brand at Zero Mass.
She said the name „Zero Mass,“ reflects the culture of the company. „We are very data driven. We have zero inertia, zero mass. When we need to pivot, we do it instantly.“
„I’m an angel investor and originally I was going to find a Flint entrepreneur to invest in, but I couldn’t find the right guy and I said, ‚I’ll start it off and eventually hand it off to someone else,'“ said Quarles.
Quarles said that after the Pierce Park site fell through, he was offered a 7.5-acre site on the south side of Flint that was controlled by the city’s land bank. But he said an environment review showed the land too contaminated to put in a water facility and he is looking at other sites.
Quarles said he hopes to raise $200,000 to $300,000 from friends and family, from a Kickstarter campaign and from accredited investors. On Nov. 14, he will be pitching at the Ferris Wheel 10K pitch competition at the business incubator downtown, with a first-place prize of $10,000.
He said the money will be used to buy two bottling machines, find some space in Flint to house them and ramp up a marketing campaign. Short-term, the water will be bottled at a facility in Detroit. He said sales would be through a number of channels, to retail stores and hospitality operations.
He said he has been talking to would-be customers and signed a purchase order with an NGO in October to buy water when it becomes available.
„I want Flint to be the next water capital of the world,“ said Quarles, whose big picture includes eventually getting the federal government to locate water R&D facilities on vacant property in Flint. SolAir employs three now, including Quarles. A 1,000-panel site isn’t the end goal. „We could go to 3,000 panels eventually,“ he said.
He said he has started talks with officials in Newark, N.J., which discovered its water had excessive levels of lead because of old, leaching lead water lines, and would like to expand SolAir operations to other cities.
„Jonathan Quarles is the quintessential serial entrepreneur. He is taking on some of the most important challenges we face. Clean water is essential to life and because of that, may be one of the most impactful startups not only in Flint or Michigan but in the world,“ said David Ollila, the president and chief innovation officer of Skypoint Ventures, a Flint-based investment firm and real-estate development firm that oversaw the $7.5 million renovation of the Ferris Wheel building in downtown Flint that now serves as a business incubator and home to the 100K Ideas program, a nonprofit Ollila founded to offer support to would-be entrepreneurs.
Quarles is also applying for grants, and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. is helping him find suppliers and assisting with site selection through Pure Michigan Business Connect, MEDC’s B2B connection platform.
„Pure Michigan Business Connect is excited to collaborate with SolAir, an innovative startup. Building partnerships with SolAir and Michigan suppliers will continue to help deliver on SolAir’s mission of providing clean water to Flint,“ said Natalie Chmiko, the vice president of Pure Michigan Business Connect. „Our PMBC team is proud to work alongside SolAir as they grow and create real change here in Michigan,“ she said.