Pitch competition winner hopes to expand company, bring jobs to Flint

Jonathan Quarles, founder of SolAir, poses next to the hydropanels outside of Berston Field House in Flint.
Jonathan Quarles, founder of SolAir, poses next to the hydropanels outside of Berston Field House in Flint. Photo: Sarah Schuch

Jonathan Quarles, born and raised in Flint, knew when the water crisis hit his hometown that he wanted to give back. His goals were clear. He wanted to bring clean water to the city, provide jobs and strengthen a sense of community.

That’s when Quarles created his business, SolAir, which harvests water using sunlight and fresh air. No electricity or pipes are needed, he said.

“When the Flint water crisis happened, my friends and I talked about what we could do,” Quarles said. “I wanted to do something more than send pallets of water and do something that was more sustainable. How can I help empower the city that raised me?”

Jonathan Quarles was one of seven entrepreneurs to pitch his business or product idea to the community at Berston Field House on Nov. 14.
Photo: Sarah Schuch

The SolAir process uses solar panels as the power source. Condensation is taken from the air, and the water goes through a distillation process in the machine attached. The filtered water goes through plant-based tubes that send it to the release point.

Quarles won the $10,000 first-place prize at 100K Ideas’ Pitch For $K competition on Nov. 14 to help him grow his business, which he hopes to officially launch early in 2020.

“This was my first time participating in a pitch competition. Everyone there had very good businesses, ideas and pitches. I was surprised, but very grateful,” he said. “The water business is huge. To really do it right you have to make sure your business is lean.”

Quarles won the second of three pitch competitions hosted by 100K Ideas and funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The third Pitch For $K will take place at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 13, at Genesee Valley Center, located at 3341 S. Linden Road in Flint. Submissions are being accepted through Dec. 14.

Jonathan Quarles, founder of SolAir, earned first place and $10,000 at the Nov. 14 Pitch For $K. Jonathan Blanchard, CEO of Stemletics, captured second place and $5,000, and Dr. David Stone, owner of Sublux Office, took third place and $2,500.
Photo: Sarah Schuch

As with the first two competition, the first-place winner on Feb. 13 will receive $10,000, second place will receive $5,000, and third place will receive $2,500. The community is invited to attend the pitch competition and participate in live voting to help choose the top five innovators. Competition judges will select the top three winners.

“We were beyond pleased with how the second Pitch For $K competition went. We not only witnessed another set of ideas being introduced to the community, but we saw the community come to support these innovators and entrepreneurs,” said Brandee Cooke-Brown, director of operations at 100K Ideas. “We’re excited to see the number of submissions increase and the audience that comes to see the competition grow as well. We’re beginning to see the imprint this competition is making, and we’re very proud of that.

“For anyone thinking about applying, I say, ‘Go for it!’ This competition is for anyone who has an idea, and if the third competition is anything like the others, we know it will help move those ideas forward.”

The Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce partners with 100K Ideas for all of the pitch competitions to help participants be as successful as possible. Chamber staff identify mentors for each of the entrepreneurs presenting and help choose the judges. University of Michigan-Flint Outreach also facilitates a pitch clinic for the seven entrepreneurs presenting their ideas.

Now that he is a Pitch For $K winner, Quarles said he hopes to expand SolAir and bring more options to the city of Flint. He already has two demonstration projects in operation — one at Berston Field House and the other at Flint City Hall. The sites include multiple hydropanels outside the buildings that bring clean water inside the buildings.

SolAir has two demonstration sites in Flint — Berston Field House and City Hall — where hydropanels harvest water using sunlight and fresh air. There are 15 hydropanels at each location.
Photo: Sarah Schuch

Bryant Nolden, executive director at Berston, said having the water filtration system at the facility is a great thing for the community. Residents drink the water while they are at Berston, and also fill jugs and other containers to take home.

“We have had the hydropanels at Berston for a little over a year. The community has been very responsive to the use and actively comes to the fieldhouse to get water,” Nolden said. “Berston is already a place where the community gathers, and now we are able to offer clean and safe water to them for free.”

The demonstration projects are a small part of SolAir. Quarles will have up to 1,000 hydropanels on several acres of land in Flint to produce water that will be bottled.

“We are creating water now. I have been pitching companies, restaurants and grocery stores, looking for investment and capital,” Quarles said. “We are going to start off slow until we reach our demand.”

Quarles will have a reservoir on site. Once the reservoir fills up with the filtered water, a water tank truck will take it to a bottling facility. His eventual goal is to have a bottling facility in Flint.

Quarles doesn’t just want to bring clean water to Flint. He also wants to bring job opportunities and education to Flint and other communities. His long-term goal is to bring on more entrepreneurs to create demonstration projects and job opportunities for communities all over the country.

“I hope to be able to create a healthy story. The whole idea is to create a movement and get more young people I grew up with to get back to Flint and give back in some way. Collaborating with all local businesses in everything we do is so important,” Quarles said. “The goal of SolAir is to create this movement, connect Flint residents and change the narrative.”

A portion of all revenue from SolAir water sales will be given to the Flint Kids Fund at the Community Foundation of Greater Flint.

Quarles said he is thankful for the opportunity to work with 100K Ideas and participate in Pitch For $K. He added that the work he did with 100K Ideas and the prize money will help with marketing and could bring more investors to his company.

“100K Ideas does a great job helping us with coaching and mentors. I have never felt so supported,” he said. “I felt very comfortable leading up to the event. I strongly encourage people to participate. It was a lot of fun, and I feel more prepared moving forward with my business.”