Engineer creates software to facilitate water treatment

HUSBAND-WIFE TEAM SEIZES ENTREPRENEURIAL CHANCE

January 13, 1992|By John J. Fried | John J. Fried,Knight-Ridder News Service

MALVERN, Pa. -- In a world littered with failed computer programs, only the incredibly optimistic would believe building a business around a new piece of software holds the key to financial independence and familial stability.

But in Rob and Janet Ferguson's case, optimism was not the motivator. Desperation was.

Every time one of their children was born, every time they had just settled into a new house, something seemed to happen in Mr. Ferguson's career as a chemical engineer. A multiyear wage freeze would be imposed. A corporate raider would buy a company and sell off the division he was working for. His employer would move to a place such as Houston and threaten to take Mr. Ferguson's job along, with or without him.

"In one five-year period, four cities, four houses, three babies," he says. "Enough was enough."

Taking a deep breath and $70,000, which included savings and money his wife had inherited, the Fergusons launched French Creek Software Inc., a Malvern company dedicated to creating software that would allow users of large amounts of water to do so in an environmentally responsible and economically efficient manner. Which is not easy.

Machinery in nuclear power plants, oil refineries, chemical manufacturing companies, steel mills and 50-story office buildings, use water as a coolant or as a medium through which energy is transferred to produce steam.

But water can't just be used willy-nilly; it comes laden with natural minerals that, in time, plug up pipes or coat machinery walls, diminishing the flow of water or reducing the efficiency with which heat is transferred.

Industrial chemicals, manufactured by more than 600 different companies, are added to water to prevent the untoward collection of crud, but if they are used in the wrong quantities or wrong combinations, they also can leave deposits and, worse, threaten the environment once the water is flushed.

And when treated water is discharged, the dissolved materials can pollute the environment.

Enter Mr. Ferguson, a 42-year-old whose cherubic face, topped by graying hair and surrounded by a sea captain's beard, gives him the look of a church elder -- a role he fills at First Presbyterian Church in Phoenixville, Pa.

He had spent the better part of 20 years working for manufacturers of water-treatment chemicals. The firms not only make the products, but take active roles in advising purchasers how to use them in water systems.

The monitoring systems used by the chemical makers are sound, but often simplistic, Mr. Ferguson says. In many cases, the systems measure only one chemical at a time.

"That does not allow [water technicians] to run [tests] at the ragged edge where" improper use of chemicals "could shut down a refinery or reduce the capability of a power plant," Mr. Ferguson says.

In 1988, he decided that his expertise, combined with the rapidly expanding power of personal computers, could lead him to develop and distribute a computer program that would make water-chemical monitoring a snap.

"I would come home at 6 o'clock, eat dinner, work at the computer till 2 a.m., get up at 5 or 6 a.m., work another hour and then go to the office," Mr. Ferguson says. "And I worked Saturday and Sunday as well."

The grueling program-writing marathon, which Mr. Ferguson estimates ran to 6,500 hours, and the stress it imposed on his family lasted well into 1990.

But almost from the moment he finally staggered from his computer, he suspected he had a winner -- a software program that would translate reams of complicated data from water-monitoring systems into simple multicolored charts, graphs and formulas.

The program, moreover, was so simple that a technician with a high school education could interpret the data on dozens of chemicals and help keep them from doing damage.

Finally, the program would allow water-chemical users to apply the chemicals sparingly, which in turn meant that water could be recycled within a plant and, ultimately, discharged with minimal impact on the environment.

In the fall of 1990, Mr. Ferguson took a week's vacation and went to the meeting of the Association of Water Technologies, which represents about 300 small manufacturers of water-treatment chemicals.

The little guys, Mr. Ferguson was convinced, would be the best customers for his program, now named WaterCycle and bearing a $1,295 price tag, because they could use it to give advice to the purchasers of their chemicals, thus allowing the chemical-makers to compete with the half-dozen big companies in the field.

Like most software, WaterCycle technically is not sold but licensed to the user. Within 10 minutes of opening his booth, Mr. Ferguson says, he had issued his first license. "The guy who filled out the order form was actually thanking me," he says.

Last February, Mr. Ferguson said goodbye to his last employer and incorporated French Creek, named not after a California boutique winery but after the town where the Fergusons live.

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