Global Freshwater Seed Accelerator Spotlight: Microbe Detectives

The Global Freshwater Seed Accelerator Spotlight is a blog series developed to highlight and introduce the winners of the Global Freshwater Seed Accelerator program to our members, tenants, friends and general public. Each week we will feature the Entrepreneur/President/CEO of each respective company. Be sure to visit our blog weekly to learn more about the start-ups housed within the Global Water Center and the exciting work they are carrying out.

The Water Council sat down with Trevor Ghylin, President and CEO of Microbe Detectives, one of the 4 inaugural winners of the Global Freshwater Seed Accelerator program, which is sponsored through a grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. Trevor describes his career journey, the development of Microbe Detectives, and the cutting-edge technology they utilize daily at their new office located inside the recently opened Global Water Center.

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Congratulations on being chosen for the Global Freshwater Seed Accelerator program, would you please give a brief description of what Microbe Detectives does. 

We provide DNA-based microbial analysis for water, wastewater, food & beverage, and environmental remediation.

DNA-based microbial analysis is the core of Microbe Detectives, would you please describe this in more detail. 

Traditionally, if you test food or water for microbes it’s done in a petri dish with a microscope, it’s a rudimentary, basic process. Essentially you’re putting a sample of water into a petri dish to observe if anything grows, if there’s nothing, then the water is considered clean. The problem is that 99% of microbes will not grow in a petri dish, so you may not observe any growth, but still have a whole mess of things going on in the sample. Therein lies the problem, the water quality test can be negative, and you think the water is clean, when in fact it is not and may pose a health hazard. The methods that have been used are extremely limiting, even if you do get bacterial growth, it won’t tell you what it is or where it came from, you know almost nothing.

The testing we provide is based on DNA. We extract the microbial DNA from a sample, read the DNA sequences, and compare it to databases of known microbial DNA to determine what’s in the sample. It doesn’t matter if it will grow in a petri dish or not, if it’s there, we will see it, identify it, and figure out the original source. 

Depending on the client’s needs, based on our data, I give a recommendation on how to proceed with fixing the problem. That usually involves a third party service; my service is strictly analytical and consulting, for the time being.

Excellent, tell me about your career journey, such as education, background, has water always been an interest of yours?

It has been for at least 10 years. My journey started in college, I decided to become a Civil Engineer, mostly because I wanted to work outside and be connected to nature somehow. I grew up on the Missouri River in Bismarck, North Dakota; I’ve spent my whole life around it, so I guess I’ve had a lifelong love of water.

After entering the Civil Engineering program I kept finding myself drawn toward the environmental focus, which is a sub-discipline in Civil Engineering. I completed my Bachelors 10 years ago, then attended UW-Madison for a Master’s in Environmental Engineering, with an emphasis on wastewater treatment.

I worked for 5 years as a consultant in wastewater treatment, and now am completing a Ph.D. at UW-Madison, which is focused less on engineering, and more on freshwater science, studying freshwater microbes using genetics.

So would you say your interest in water developed as you continued on your path as a civil engineer? 

I started broadly as an engineering student thinking, maybe electrical, maybe mechanical, I didn’t really know what area I wanted to focus on so I took classes in multiple disciplines, but I hated almost all of them. I steered toward civil, because I always wanted to work outside and civil engineers mostly build structures and systems outdoors. I felt like there was an opportunity there, and once I got into civil I discovered that part of that discipline was environmental engineering, focused on water, so that seemed like a really good fit for me.

How did you become committed to the idea behind Microbe Detectives, specifically using DNA testing of microbes for identification purposes? 

I would say through my Ph.D. research I have learned about the latest advancements in DNA technology and identified significant potential for application of the technology in the water industry. With DNA technology now, we can identify and quantify all microbes in a sample of water, that’s the technology I’ve been using in my Ph.D.

This sounds like some very cutting-edge work that you perform. 

It’s definitely brand new technology. I felt like there has to be an application for this in the water industry, so I was interested in identifying what those applications are and providing practitioners access to this type of tool. At the moment, nobody is providing this service, and I believe many people would like access to this information.

Would you describe the steps you took to start Microbe Detectives?

I didn’t set out with the goal of starting my own company, I really just started talking to people, people in the water industry, friends of mine, acquaintances and other consultants. I would talk to people I knew were doing water consulting and I’d ask them if they have a need for really good microbial analysis services based on DNA. The initial feedback I received was extremely positive, the people I spoke with were very enthusiastic about the work I was describing, and said they would be interested, and willing to pay me to perform this work. That’s how the idea of Microbe Detectives came to be, in a nutshell, it was basically a couple of side-projects for friends that were consultants, and it has grown from that. It seemed like there was demand, so I continued to do it and then applied for the Global Freshwater Seed Accelerator grant, was selected, and we are continuing to grow with that help.

That’s wonderful! Tell me about your experience as an entrepreneur. 

As an entrepreneur you have control over everything, which is nice. I wouldn’t say that I ever set out to be an entrepreneur necessarily, it’s a role I have taken on, but initially it was a way to make extra income during graduate school. Now, I like the idea of being able to change things and make things better, I see a huge need for this service that nobody is providing. I see it as an opportunity to be a leader and change things for the better.

What challenges have your experienced while starting and growing Microbe Detectives? 

The biggest challenge I have encountered is time management. There is so much to do, managing one’s time and being organized are the biggest challenges for me. Also, finding people that can help you, I didn’t have much help before the GFSA grant, it is becoming less of a challenge now as I have added staff, which has definitely improved my situation. Having quality people to help you is absolutely critical. I’m fortunate to have two very talented people working for me. Thanks Kayla and Annie!

So you have already added staff to your company, how many, and what amount of hours are they working? 

Microbe Detectives has tripled in staff. We are also looking to recruit interns as well, that would be part-time, unpaid, but potentially receive college credit, in the near future. Both new hires happened in the last few weeks, around the time of Milwaukee Water Week and the grand opening of the Global Water Center, one is part-time, and the other is full-time.

What has been most fulfilling so far in your journey?

It’s fulfilling for me to provide a service that’s not available, I feel like I’m helping people access information that they’ve never had before. It’s exciting to be on the leading edge of science, paving the way for how to do this type of analysis, it’s very interesting and we’re learning along the way, which is rewarding in itself.

Looking back over your journey, is there anything that you would do differently or advice you would give to other entrepreneurs looking to get their start in the water industry? 

I’m the one to take advice, I try to get as much advice as possible. That would be my advice, get as much advice from experienced people as you can, find good mentors that you can talk and meet with often, and read books. I had no business background before the past few years, my background was all technical and scientific, so I started reading books on business, and more recently speaking with business professionals, especially those in the water industry. It’s extremely invaluable; I think it’s pretty tough to start out on your own without any input from people that have done it before.

Now that you are located in the Global Water Center, you have access to a plethora of resources, what do you hope to gain?

Two things, access to clients and the resources here, specifically lab facilities, and genomic equipment. UW-Milwaukee actually has a genomic center, not in this building, but at the School of Freshwater Sciences a few blocks away. I’m working on forming a partnership with them to improve my business substantially, as far as the quality and speed of service I can offer.

That’s the delivery part of my business, the other part is clients, there are definitely clients in this building, either walking through or members of The Water Council, so it becomes a huge networking/marketing opportunity for myself and Microbe Detectives to have a presence here, and continue to grow our operations.

As part of the GFSA program you have preset markers that you need to meet as the program advances, do you have any personal milestones you’ve set for yourself or Microbe Detectives?

It’s hard to define those because things are changing so rapidly. I haven’t quite determined what those will be, I’d prefer to take my time to develop appropriate milestones, rather than hastily set goals which ultimately set me up for failure. I am constantly trying to grow the business, increase revenue and make new connections.

Do you have any words of wisdom, or message you’d like to convey to the audience?

The main message is Microbe Detectives provides a cutting edge, DNA-based service that was previously unavailable to consumers. Hopefully the consumer will recognize this value and increase our business. If anyone needs help with microbial analysis, they can stop down at our office in the Global Water Center, Suite 320, and we would be happy to talk with them, as I said, we are always open to making new connections.

Trevor Ghylin received a B.S. in Civil Engineering (Summa Cum Laude) from the University of North Dakota-Grand Forks in 2004, an M.S. in Civil & Environmental Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006, and is currently working on a Ph.D. in Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, expected completion in Summer 2014. 

Microbe Detectives is located at the Global Water Center, 247 W. Freshwater Way, Milwaukee, WI 53204, Suite 320. For additional information, or to contact Microbe Detectives, visit their website or email info@microbedetectives.com.

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About The Water Council

The Water Council, the only organization of its kind in the United States, was established in 2009 by Milwaukee-area businesses, education and government leaders. With more than 150 water technology companies in the Milwaukee area, the region’s water industry is a $10.5 billion dollar market and accounts for four percent of the world’s total water business. The non-profit organization is linking together global water technology companies, innovative water entrepreneurs, acclaimed academic research programs and, most importantly, some of the nation’s brightest and most energetic professionals. The Water Council is capturing the attention of the world and transforming the Milwaukee region into a World Water Hub for freshwater research, economic development and education. The Water Council is located in the Global Water Center at 247 W. Freshwater Way, Suite 500, Milwaukee, WI 53204.
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