It was one of the worst water contamination scandals in the recent history of the UNITED states. In 2015, the children who live in Flint, Michigan, began suffering from rashes and mysterious illnesses.
Independent testing found dangerous levels of lead in the homes and in the schools, caused by chemicals in the water supply that has corroded the pipes.
Officials declared an emergency, and residents were told to stop using tap water. They were given a bottle of water and filters, but Eric Roy, a chemist living in Washington DC, I don’t think regular filters, able to deal with such high levels of lead.
“They do not solve the problem,” the 35-year-old says. “So I started building high capacity lead filters only as a charity. I need to do something.”
At the time he was working for a Boston company to lead the chemical research for the US military, but he put on a GoFundMe page for donations, and started to assemble the water filters with a friend in the room of his apartment.
“It was a very popular, very organic,” says Roy. “We have been buying material retail, packaging and shipping to the house of the people.”
Two years later, he has turned his charitable #FiltersForFlint in a rapidly growing company called Hydroviv with 11 employees and ambitious growth plans.
“After Flint hit the news, people have started to take a closer look at their water and discovered that the lead is a widespread problem in the USA,” he says.
In the last couple of years, there have been numerous contamination scares. In 2014 there were 18 cities in Pennsylvania, where experts said childhood exposure to lead-contaminated water has been worse than Flint.
And in 2015, in Jackson, Mississippi, one in five homes exceeded government limits for lead in water.
Replacement of tubes can cost millions of dollars that many cities can’t afford. Even where this is the case, the older houses can still bring indoor plumbing.
Roy evaluates the type and level of contamination by analysis of publicly available data.
“Once you have identified the problem that we have to create a filter that is optimized for the water,” he says. “Then, if you are in an area that has very high levels of Chromium-6 [carcinogenic chemical compound], we will make sure that the filter has extra capacity for Chromium-6.
“If you live in a new house where there is no advantage, but you have high levels of arsenic, we will promote the arsenic, when we are the design and development of that filter.”
Filters the cost is about $225 (Â£172), and replacement of the cartridges, which are required every six months, for a cost of $65.
“We are able to test the water if there is a discrepancy between the municipal data and the Environmental Protection Agency, but we trust that the scientists have, for the most part, they are doing the right thing,” says Roy.
“But the water quality regulations in the US are very relaxed, and the public does not understand. We bridge this gap with technology and information.”
Roy has a Phd in chemistry from the University of Maine, and started his first company, a consulting company, while he was still studying.
“I’m a bit of an anomaly that I have a Phd in science and I’m an entrepreneur,” he says. “The majority of scientists are not exposed to anything outside of the academic world, while they are in grad school because their consultants are likely to have only worked in academia.
“There are universities and colleges right now trying to pierce that bubble, but many of these programs are not driven by entrepreneurs. They are led by people who study entrepreneurs, and that is a very different thing.”
But Roy says that there are similarities between scientific research and the running of a business. Both involve a leap into the unknown, and can lead to discovery and learning.
His first big lesson in business is to learn to delegate.
“I failed in my first patent application,” he says. “Then I went to a patent attorney because the intellectual property is a big part of what we do, not the right.
“The core part of the business you need to work with people who know what they’re talking about.”
Give the gift of a few hundreds of water filters to the people in Flint, Hydroviv hours ago thousands of units in a small warehouse in Washington, DC, and is close to turning over a million dollars a year.
“As a company, we are 100% sure of the support and of which I am most proud that we never missed a payroll,” Mr Roy says.
Even so, it does not take a salary themselves, and instead live on savings and do consulting work. This enables him to invest Hydroviv profits in research and development.
He remains the only shareholder, but to speak with potential investors.
“The math is pretty straight forward. On average, each customer refers to three people.” They are also repeat customers because they need to replace the filter cartridges.
“I think this will be an eight-figure business in five years,” says Roy. “If not, then we have done something wrong.”