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This water bottle knows how much you’ve had to drink — and it tells your phone

Jonathon Perrelli created LifeFuels, an electronic smart bottle that syncs with a phone to track hydration.The target customer is an urban, eco-observant, health-minded consumer.
Jonathon Perrelli created LifeFuels, an electronic smart bottle that syncs with a phone to track hydration.The target customer is an urban, eco-observant, health-minded consumer. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

If I’d told a buddy to hydrate (even if I knew what that meant, which I didn’t) when I was growing up in Syracuse, N.Y., in the 1960s, he would have thought I was mocking him.

A water break on the outdoor basketball court where we all hung out meant running to the fire station next to the playground and using the fountain. Better yet, if you had a dime or 15 cents, you could buy a Royal Palm soda.

Soda is a dirty word today — both diet and sugared. So is plastic.

Hydration is everything. And now, everyone knows what it means.

So why the obsession with water? Entrepreneur Jonathon Perrelli is introducing an electronic smart bottle called LifeFuels that he hopes will do for hydration what Fitbit has done for walking.

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LifeFuels, based in Reston, Va., uses cartridges to shoot peach, citrus or blackberry-acai flavoring, as well as vitamins and minerals, into its smart water bottle. The bottle syncs to an iPhone app to enable you to record your intake of fluids and nutrients such as potassium and sodium.

“People like data,” Perrelli said. “They want customization, portability and the ability to understand why they feel the way they do. And they want to track it all.”

Perrelli has bet $1 million of his own cash and spent the better part of a decade on LifeFuels. After raising $25 million, the company is launching this month in league with its partner, Massachusetts-based beverage giant Keurig Dr Pepper. They hope the apparatus creates a new coolness vibe around healthful sports drinks.

A week from turning 64, I am not the LifeFuels target audience.

Why do I need some motorized water bottle with its R2-D2 blinking lights and its spritzes? Why surrender the one-liter plastic bottle of Dasani water that I drink at my cubicle each day?

“Are you able to infuse vitamins into your Dasani bottle?” Perrelli asked me. “Do you know how many electrolytes you are taking? Are you aware of how many drinks you took yesterday?”

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Point taken. Though I do remember how many glasses of Macallan 18 I drank the other day.

I don’t know if anyone is going to get rich off this, but the spirited Perrelli thinks he is onto something.

“We supply you with actionable insights,” the 47-year-old entrepreneur said.

He has checked several boxes of importance to LifeFuels’ target customer — an urban, eco-observant, health-minded consumer.

First is hydration. Dehydration is a major cause of emergency room visits in the United States, Perrelli said. Drinking about two liters, or half a gallon, of water a day is a common recommendation.

Next is data. LifeFuels works with smartphones, which gives millennials yet another reason to tap into their iPhones.

Then there’s sustainability. At $179 a bottle, you aren’t going to cast the LifeFuels vessel into the trash. It should last for years and appeal to anyone who is against single-use plastic stuff.

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LifeFuels comes nicely packaged in a box that includes the 16.9-ounce bottle, a rechargeable base, an electric charger and an initial supply of three flavored fuel pods. There’s also a series of slick online videos with instructions.

LifeFuels is a direct-to-consumer product that goes on sale online Monday. The key to its success will be selling subscriptions to people so that they buy the pods on autopilot — at $9.99 a pod, or about 33 cents a serving — thus creating a stream of recurring revenue.

“Fuel pod usage is important to our long-term success,” Perrelli said.

The bottles are manufactured in China, and everything else is made in the United States, including the flavored fuel pods. The user screws a fuel pod into the base of the bottle and pushes a button to squirt enough concentrate for one serving.

Perrelli has been a student of supply and demand, and of the psychology of marketing, since he was a youth growing up in Northern Virginia, where he first sold candy to fellow students and then graduated to fireworks. He pocketed $7,000 one summer on a $400 fireworks investment.

“Fireworks had insane margins,” Perrelli said. “Entrepreneurship has always been part of who I am.”

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He used the cash to buy his first stocks, in General Motors and Coca-Cola. (I own Coca-Cola shares.)

Perrelli graduated from Virginia Tech in 1995 with a degree in finance, and he has had several hits and a few misses in a quarter-century of investing.

The first home run came after four years at Northern Virginia-based UUNet, an early Internet service provider where Perrelli was employee No. 238 in a workforce that grew to more than 12,000.

He made $1 million from its stock in a few years, and he used the cash to dabble in real estate and buy stakes in several start-ups, including eTantrum, Plesk, Shadow Group and Social Tables.

In eight years or so, Perrelli has made more than 35 investments through Fortify, a small-seed venture capital firm begun in 2011. Perrelli said 20 of those start-ups failed, nine broke even or made a profit for investors, and 10 are still active investments awaiting an outcome.

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Investing success often comes down to timing.

“A brilliant idea at the wrong time is destined to fail,” Perrelli said.

He thinks he has the timing — and the target customer — just right for LifeFuels. The idea came to him in 2006, when Perrelli’s then-wife was pregnant with their third child.

“She was having a challenging time staying hydrated and consuming the recommended nutrients and vitamins,” Perrelli said.

He began monitoring her water consumption, first with Post-it notes and then with a computer spreadsheet. Sensing a business there, he started noodling with ideas and arrived at an early concept of the LifeFuels bottle.

It took eight years to turn the idea into reality as he began researching the beverage, health, consumer-electronics and app-development industries.

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“I picked up the idea again in 2014 when smartphones had become commonplace and all things fitness were ripe for tracking,” Perrelli said.

By January 2016, he had developed the prototype for a smart nutrition bottle and headed to Las Vegas for the annual CES.

“We were definitely onto something,” he said, but he continued to refine the bottle with a British design firm that had decades of experience with consumer products. He found talented engineers and beverage scientists, including a Pepsi expert, who also helped develop the bottle and fuel pods.

By January 2018, Perrelli had enough working nutrition bottles to return to the CES and audition before investors. Keurig’s executive team followed up with a visit to Reston, and the two sides developed a strategic partnership, including funding and patents.

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LifeFuels now has a full-scale bottle-manufacturing line in China. It recently finished a pilot program that tested the product with more than 300 investors, friends and family members.

I asked some of my 20- and 30-something colleagues what they thought. The results were mixed. Some didn’t like the taste. One colleague said the $179 bottle was too expensive. Another said he was going to buy a LifeFuels bottle for his mother, who pays close attention to her water intake.

As for me, I still quaff my daily liter of Dasani. And I am not swearing off my occasional indulgence in a 20-ounce sugary Coke or Mountain Dew.

What’s the point of life if you can’t kick back with a soda pop. I wish I could relax with a Royal Palm orange, but I haven’t seen the brand in decades.