Q: What is Microbe Detectives?

A: Through proprietary DNA analysis, Microbe Detectives created a new technology to identify 100 percent of the microorganisms present in water. The technology can be applied to any kind of water sample, from surface water to wastewater to drinking water. Since its inception in 2013, the company has grown rapidly; it now sells to more than 100 customers, including both public utilities and private companies. Also, Microbe Detectives recently signed a licensing agreement with Canada-based LuminUltra, which specializes in real-time assessment of microbial activity. The partnership fits naturally: as soon as LuminUltra’s technology detects microbial activity in a sample, Microbe Detectives’ methods are implemented to determine the nature of the microbes to see if they pose any risk. Since LuminUltra has customers around the globe, this partnership represents a major expansion of Microbe Detectives’ reach.

Q: How was the idea for the technology developed?

A: The microorganism analysis technology was developed by Trevor Ghylin during his Ph.D. studies in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He founded the company a short while later, after enrolling in The Water Council’s first “Business. Research. Entrepreneurship. In Wisconsin.” (BREW) accelerator class. Ghylin has continued to lead the company and is now the acting CTO.

Q: Why is this technology important?

A: Ensuring that drinking water is safe for everyone is of paramount importance, especially in light of recent water quality crises, like the case of Flint, Michigan. More than 840,000 people die each year from water-related diseases, and 750 million people lack access to clean drinking water, according to Microbe Detectives. These are concerning statistics that Microbe Detectives seeks to play a role in solving.

Q: What Wisconsin resources has Microbe Detectives utilized?

A: The Water Council’s BREW Accelerator program helped Microbe Detectives get its footing by providing funds, as well as access to mentorship and cutting-edge lab space and equipment. Additionally, the company was recognized as a finalist in the 2014 Governor’s Business Plan Contest among nearly 300 entries. The contest encourages growth of early-stage tech startups by connecting up-and-coming entrepreneurs with a statewide network of community resources, expert advice, high-quality education, management talent and possible sources of capital. That same year, Ghylin and his team continued the pattern of success by winning a Wisconsin Innovation Award, from a pool of nearly 150 applications.

Q: How has Microbe Detectives benefitted from the state’s water technology industry cluster?

A: From the BREW participation to the company’s office location in the Global Water Center—and the technology’s genesis at UW-Madison—“we have benefited immensely from being located in Wisconsin,” says John Tillotson, CEO of Microbe Detectives. The company has also taken advantage of its proximity to UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, and has received computational science support from the Milwaukee Institute.