A spark, a hurdle, and a pivot. Three things that led Tim Fairley one step closer to making a tangible difference in the world. 

With an undergraduate degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering, Tim’s desire to make an impact brought him to the University of Michigan for graduate school. 

“It is pretty unique for a master’s student to come in and run a research project at a university,” he said. “When I was given the opportunity to do just that, I took it.” 

Wastewater has always been at the heart of the projects Tim aspired to work on, a passion that began in high school when he job shadowed a friend’s dad who was a project manager at a civil engineering firm. 

“He took me to a wastewater treatment plant and I, as most people probably do, flush the toilet and never think about it, but seeing the very complicated processes that make it so we can flush our toilets, treat it and put it back into the water body was super interesting. That was the first spark.” 

Tim’s current project, in partnership with his advisors Steven Skerlos and Lutgarde Raskin, along with John Lee, feeds that spark. 

The project, a company called Aquora Biosystems, is developing a device called MagnaTree to improve biological wastewater treatment and filtration. The goal of MagnaTree is to remove two main pollutants from water: organics and solids. In the team’s process they produce a methane rich biogas that can be used for energy generation.  

“The design was really driven based on hurdles of current technology and how we can solve a standing hurdle,” Tim said. 

One of those main hurdles specifically for these membrane bioreactors is that the membranes foul a lot and clog. That means you have to somehow get rid of that clogging and that is very energy and capital intensive. 

Instead of using these micro- or ultrafiltration membranes, which is typical in the industry, Aquora uses what is called a dynamic membrane which is a course support structure where a filtering biofilm layer forms. In the team’s case, it’s a mesh that biofilms form on that completes the filtration and biological conversion of pollutants. This way small pores aren’t needed and the filtration rate increases and resistance decreases relative to a typical system. 

With the idea developed, the team wanted to take the next steps to launch – which led them to the Introduction to Customer Discovery course that is administered by the Midwest I-Corps Node

“I really had no idea how you would implement a technology from the lab to someone actually buying it,” Tim said. “During our time with MWIN it was very interesting to figure out how projects get funded.” 

Initially the team thought they would be marketing MagnaTree to municipalities to handle their wastewater. They quickly discovered that is a tough market to break into. 

“It was really eye opening to us to see the process of local government,” Tim said. “We realized we were going to have to make a pivot to a different market.” 

The team then moved onto the National NSF I-Corps program where they discovered their new market for MagnaTree – breweries, wineries and dairies. 

“We went through the National I-Corps program under this new hypothesis of entering the market with these small industries because they are more open to new technologies, and this has largely been true,” Tim said. 

To find the businesses that aren’t being served well, Tim hit the road and started talking to business owners to see what their drivers are. 

“The reality of it is figuring out what markets you can grow into really quickly,” Tim said. “We hope to strategically have the first installation somewhere where there is a large concentration of food and beverage industry because the word of mouth is so strong.” 

Recently graduated, Tim did not expect to be working on his own project after graduation, but he is happy it turned out that way. 

“I have always been really interested in entrepreneurship and I wanted to focus on this wastewater project – it is at my heart,” he said. “I get real personal excitement of taking something out of lab scale to a large scale.”  

He said the Center for Entrepreneurship and the Office of Technology Transfer have been the two biggest resources he used to get to where he and his team are today. 

“Through the discussions and funding opportunities it afforded me the chance to delve into entrepreneurship and make a tangible difference,” he said.