Ian Robinson (MBA/MS ’17) is President and COO of BlueConduit, a company co-founded by Michigan Ross faculty member Eric Schwartz, with development help from the +Impact Studio. BlueConduit uses machine learning to bring clarity to lead service line inventory and replacement efforts in municipalities. Ian has strong ties to U-M: he was summer studio manager with the Center for Socially Engaged Design, an Erb dual degree student of Business and Sustainability (MBA/MS), and received his BBA from Michigan Ross. We caught up with Ian after BlueConduit recently received a $3 million grant from Google.org to develop software for identifying lead service lines.
For our readers, can you describe what Blue Conduit does? If you can, describe how you got your current job.
BlueConduit’s machine learning software enables cities to affordably and quickly find and replace hazardous infrastructure. We got our start using these methods with water service lines, the pipes that connect water mains to individual homes. 6 to 10 million homes in America receive drinking water through lead service lines. There is a lot of uncertainty around which pipes are made of lead and which ones are not. Our predictive models help cities reduce the number of days citizens may live with the risk of lead exposure. The entire business emerged from work done by U-M professors in Flint, dating back to 2016, to use data to help with the remediation efforts there.
I met Eric Schwartz, BlueConduit co-founder and professor of marketing at Ross, in the summer of 2019 when I was managing an innovation studio at the Center for Socially Engaged Design at the College of Engineering. He described his team’s work in Flint and their visions for scaling that impact across the country. I was looking for an opportunity to be part of a mission-driven social enterprise, and it was an ideal match.
Describe some of the recognition Blue Conduit has received from Google, Time and Wired, and what the result of that is. How might the new infrastructure bill affect the work of Blue Conduit?
The continued presence of lead service lines in under-resourced communities presents an environmental justice issue. It is very costly to remove lead service lines. If a city doesn’t know where those pipes are located, it increases the cost of remediation and, more importantly, delays the time that residents live with lead. Our tools help communities make decisions in the face of uncertainty. Those decisions have direct impacts on the well-being of community members. We were recently honored by TIME as one of the best inventions of 2021. It is really humbling to receive such an honor and very exciting to raise awareness about the potential impact of our work.
We are committed to finding ways to make our technology accessible to all communities. We recently received a $3 million grant from Google.org to develop open source software that will allow any community to get started in using statistical methods to locate their lead service lines. The grant also provides funding for BlueConduit to work with the Natural Resources Defense Council and WE ACT for Environmental Justice to fund local community groups in three cities to facilitate increased outreach and education around service line replacement. A recent article in WIRED magazine described how we are leveraging a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency to use AI to reduce lead exposure in environmental justice communities there.
In what way did the work of the +Impact Studio aid Blue Conduit at that point in the venture’s growth?
For the last two years, +Impact Studio teams have worked with BlueConduit to develop solutions that better connect utilities with their customers. The collaboration between +Impact Studio and BlueConduit has led to the development of a mapping platform that allows utilities to share information about pipe materials in ways that empower residents to reduce their risk of lead exposure, meeting the needs for public communication and compliance. That mapping technology is an integral part of the solution we provide to cities and communities.
How have you leveraged your Ross MBA and SEAS experience as COO and President at Blue Conduit? Is there any part of your education that has surprised you by taking center stage in your work?
My Ross MBA and SEAS education was the ideal training for this role. In the early days of the business, a typical day could include writing policy papers, building a financial model, meeting with environmental justice communities. and pitching to a potential new customer. As we grow, engaging in those activities is commonplace across our organization and demonstrates the mission-driven nature of the organization we are building.
Do you have any advice for current students aiming to make a career in the social sector?
I would encourage current students interested in the social sector to use their time on campus to explore these fields and the ways that they could make an impact. Whether they go directly into the social sector out of school or a little later in their career, this is a great time to learn and refine your skills.
In particular, I would encourage students to reach out to alumni. There are U-M alumni in just about every field, and it is never too early to tap into that network.
I would also suggest that they look around campus for different opportunities to engage with groups and organizations developing solutions to society’s challenges. I found some of my most transformative experiences to be an internship I did at the School of Public Health’s Innovation Studio.