“The availability of water that is both fresh and pure is one of the major issues facing the world today.” That’s according to a briefing paper from the United Nations and the Milwaukee 7 Water Council Global Compact Project. One entrepreneurial environmental engineer in Wisconsin is responding to the water crisis with his exclusive testing technology that detects the quantity and identity of bacteria in water.

Trevor Ghylin makes his business home in Milwaukee’s Global Water Center, a facility designed to accelerate growth for water-related industries. His company, Microbe Detectives, applies DNA sequencing to analyze samples of wastewater, well water and drinking water. His clients, such as municipal water utilities, laud his services for the role they’ve played in protecting public health, averting crisis and minimizing risk – all efficiently and comprehensively.

Below, Ghylin shares his story of growing his business in one of the world’s most significant hubs for water research and industry. For more information on Microbe Detectives, please visit: http://microbedetectives.com/.


What is your background?

I’ve been working in the water/wastewater industry for about a decade as a process engineer. In August of this year, I earned a Ph.D. in environmental engineering with a focus on Biotechnology, Microbiology and Genetics from UW-Madison.

Where did the idea for Microbe Detectives come from? 

I learned and applied some of the latest DNA technologies during my Ph.D. research, and I couldn’t help but think there were problems to be solved in the water industry that could benefit from DNA technologies. I also was looking for ways to make some extra money on the side to support myself during graduate school, so I launched Microbe Detectives and started with small projects involving people I knew in the water industry.

When did you form Microbe Detectives and what resources did you use to get it going? 

I formed Microbe Detectives in 2012 and used a small amount of my own money to set up a website. I started networking with people I thought might be clients. I applied for the Global Freshwater Technology Seed Accelerator program in Milwaukee in 2013 and won $50,000 and office space in the Global Water Center in Milwaukee. I then spent the next year working much more substantially on the business.

What is your favorite part about starting your own business? 

Starting an innovative business is quite fun and rewarding as you can feel like you are working to change the world and to offer something that doesn’t currently exist. You also have complete control over the business and your workday.

How do your services differ from your competitors’?

We have no direct competitors that offer DNA sequencing services commercially to the water industry. This is very new technology and the competitive landscape will likely change. Existing labs typically offer culture-based testing of water. This technology is somewhat limited as the vast majority of organisms in water will not grow in culture and can’t be detected with this method. DNA sequencing can detect nearly everything in the water. It also promises to be more rapid than culturing, which can require days to weeks, depending on the growth rate of the organisms in the sample.

Why do you think your business model will be successful in the water industry?

We have a recurring service model, which promises never-ending new business. This isn’t something that a client does just one time and never does again. Also, after we have built up an understanding of a client’s system, it would be difficult for anyone to compete with us. The value of our service grows with each new sample analyzed.

Who are your key customers and where do you see growth opportunities?

Key customers include water and wastewater utilities and engineering consulting firms. We are currently working to grow in the oil and gas sector.

What has the response to your offerings been?

We have had much positive response and have served nearly 100 satisfied clients thus far.

Where do you envision your company in 10 years?

Ideally, Microbe Detectives will become the go-to company for water quality testing nationwide.