Fish-Tank Chemistry 101, Now On Your Phone


Gabriel Ruttner can thank his father for killing his fish – it became the inspiration for a business that’s landing some impressive bites.

The president and CEO of ChromaFISH, along with partners Ravi Patel and Christy Au, is building apps that identify the correct chemical balances needed for fish tanks, pools and spas, simply by taking a picture of the color from a chemistry test.

Gabriel Ruttner: Dead fish, live idea.

Gabriel Ruttner: Dead fish, live idea.

The team won the $25,000 first prize at this spring’s Stony Brook Entrepreneurs Challenge, part of the New York State Business Plan Competition, then earned the $1,000 second-place award in the biotechnology/healthcare category of the competition’s regional round at Farmingdale State College. They also won undergraduate achievement recognition at the state competition, held in Albany in April.

All that was before the trio graduated last month from Stony Brook University: Ruttner with dual degrees in biomedical engineering and applied math; Patel, the chief mechanical engineer, with a bachelor’s in biomedical engineering; and Au, ChromaFISH’s chief chemist, with a bachelor’s in biochemistry.

“I had fish for almost all of my life,” said Ruttner, who grew up in Roslyn, where the company is based. “When I left for school, my dad took over the tank and he didn’t know the chemistry. And now the fish tank doesn’t exist.”

Ruttner was talking to his father about all the “cool stuff” he had learned during college regarding computer vision and measuring, when the subject of the Stony Brook competition came up. That’s when his father recalled, “Hey, I’m the one that killed your fish!”

That spawned ChromaFISH.

“So we entered the business plan competition with the idea for the fish market. Quickly it evolved into … there’s way more going on than just fish,” said Ruttner, who invested $2,000 of his own money in startup costs. The company also recently raised $16,000 in a friends-and-family round.

“What we do is replace the challenging and annoying part of trying to measure with the eyeball” using a color reference card, Ruttner said. “No one really likes to do that. It’s really not an accurate way to measure. So we replace a piece of paper with an electronic device that everyone has around with them. And then we give the actionable information: how to correct the chemistry problem.”

For fish tanks, those chemistry values include Ph levels, ammonia, nitrates, phosphates and magnesium.

“You need to maintain the proper levels of those chemistry values and to do so you have to either replace water or add in some chemistry out of a bottle,” Ruttner said. “Currently, in fish tanks, it’s very difficult, because there are many of these and you need to know exactly how much to add and nobody knows how because that’s hard chemistry math.”

With a pool, there’s chlorine, Ph, even salt, especially considering saltwater pools have become trendy.

“It’s the same problem,” Ruttner said. “How much of this additive do I add to make it safe so that I don’t have irritation? And what we would do is take the chemistry value you just measured, automatically crunch the numbers and output: You need to take this action.”

ChromaFISH is working to standardize and “make sense out of the noise” that comes into play with taking photos with smartphones – from lighting to device type to distance from the source.

“All these different factors will change what color the photo looks like in the computer,” Ruttner noted.

That technology will take the company beyond pools and fish.

“We’re looking to develop a platform that can be utilized by anyone who is utilizing these colormetrics tests,” said Ruttner, who sees opportunities for licensing partners and applications in drinking water quality, agriculture, food production, biological samples and the medical industry.

The plan is to build a “strong internal core color engine,” the CEO noted, and then “marry” color-matching with strong chemistry, a potential benefit for “a variety of partners in different spaces.”

Ruttner will soon be off to study master’s-level engineering at Cornell Tech in New York City, during which time he’ll play a supporting role in ChromaFISH’s development. But he will be back on the Island after that, he said.

Because, after all, “I’m a Long Islander.”


What’s It? Mobile apps to monitor and correct chemistry in fish tanks, pools and spas

Brought To You By: SBU grads Gabriel Ruttner, Ravi Patel and Christy Au

All In: $2,000, self-invested by Ruttner, for startup costs

Status: Making chemistry easier, one tank at a time

1 Comment on "Fish-Tank Chemistry 101, Now On Your Phone"

  1. That’s a fantastic idea. I wonder if they are going to take it to the next level and add a device that is always attached to the aquarium/pool and you can monitor the levels at any given day/time.

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