A culture of entrepreneurship: showcasing startups from Marquette’s Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering

Academic research is often viewed separately from applied engineering work, but for Marquette’s Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, there is an entrepreneurial spirit bridging laboratory exploration and real-world innovation. The Department is currently connected to five startup companies that have emerged from recent faculty-student-alumni collaborations, each tackling unique problems in the fields of construction, environmental, structural, transportation and water resources engineering.

These companies all trace their origins to the department’s research efforts, often launched by open-ended investigations into real problems facing our communities. As research projects advance and technologies become more viable, the entrepreneurial spirit of these Marquette engineers drives them to explore opportunities to commercialize their work. Simply put, the engineers are working to move their big ideas out of the lab and into action with real communities.

“Over the years we have mapped out pathways for our research projects to make the jump to being companies that can keep driving the work forward to be applied in the field,” says Dr. Daniel Zitomer, chair and professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering. “This transition is really in the spirit of what engineering is all about, to create positive impact with our new technologies. I am proud that this is a strategy and the culture among Marquette engineers.”

A successful part of the model that Zitomer and his colleagues follow is participation in the National Science Foundation I-Corps program, an immersive, entrepreneurial training program that facilitates the transformation of invention to impact. Each of the current startups credit their success to in-depth customer discovery efforts, a process they learned as part of the I-Corps program. As part of their growth, each engineering team has completed more than 100 interviews with stakeholders to understand how a potential solution aligns to customer needs.

With each startup at a different stage in their growth, there will be much to follow in the future for these Marquette engineers as each startup navigates their own long-term goals for an exit strategy or continued operation.

Rapid Radicals Technology
Dr. Paige Peters, alumna
Dr. Daniel Zitomer, chair and professor

Rapid Radicals Technology has a process that treats storm and sewage water 20 times faster than typical solutions, helping utilities prevent hazardous basement backups and overflows into surface waterways during large precipitation events.

The research and technology behind the business was initially supported in 2014 by the Water Equipment and Policy Center – a National Science Foundation Industry/University Collaborative Research Center. Collaborating with The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, NewWater (Green Bay, Wisconsin) and Zitomer, Dr. Paige Peters spent the early years of her master’s program exploring faster stormwater treatment solutions. By 2016, Peters and Zitomer reached a strong proof of concept for a novel approach to treatment, and Zitomer suggested she carry on the work through a startup company.

Peters has since completed her doctorate with Marquette University’s Opus College of Engineering and serves as CTO of her growing business. Zitomer remains connected with Rapid Radicals as a technical advisor. With a team of four employees and an advancing technology, the company has received over $1.6 million in grant awards that are helping transform the startup’s foundational technology into a viable product.

Dr. Yuhan Jiang, alumnus
Sahara Adhikari, alumna
Dr. Yong Bai, McShane Chair and Professor

Dr. Yuhan Jiang testing Scan4Facade’s drone technology outside of Engineering Hall.

Scan4Facade develops automated high-rise building façade modeling that uses drone technology and artificial intelligence. Building owners, design firms, contractors, suppliers and even financial institutions complete frequent inspection of building facades due to regulatory demands and infrastructure that continues to deteriorate. In some cases, there is no reliable original drawing of a building façade for professionals to rely on.

Scan4Facade aims to address these needs by simplifying the process of inspection through camera-equipped drones and improving the drawings available through imagery organized by artificial intelligence. This optimizes inspection and repairs and eliminates the need for humans to scale the side of skyscraper.

Scan4Facade is a collaboration between Dr. Yuhan Jiang, alumnus and current assistant professor at North Carolina A&T University; Sahara Adhikari, alumna; and Dr. Yong Bai, McShane Chair and Professor of Construction Engineering.

The Scan4Facade team is currently leading customer discovery and advancing their technology to develop an ideal solution to a growing customer base.

ThaneSource Water
Antonio Martins, doctoral student
Dr. Daniel Zitomer, chair and professor

Antonio Martins experimenting with ThaneSource’s technology in Marquette’s Water Quality Center.

ThaneSource Water aims to help municipal water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs) reduce energy use, solids production and their carbon footprint in wastewater treatment through a novel Anaerobic Membrane Bioreactor (AnMBR) – a type of biological filter with a product (methane gas) that can be used to generate energy. The hope is to showcase the potential source of energy that wastewater has to offer and to provide WRRFs with an alternative to become energy neutral/positive while guaranteeing the protection of water resources.

As their entrepreneur lead, Antonio Martins, a current doctoral student, has investigated the commercial potential and landscape surrounding the innovation and will help guide the translation of the technology into the market. Supporting this company as their technical lead is Dr. Daniel Zitomer. Also at the helm is their industry mentor, Dr. Anne Schauer-Gimenez, a Marquette Engineering alumna and co-founder and chief operations officer of Mango Materials, a San Francisco bay-area startup with technology to convert methane from wastewater into bioplastic.

Currently, the ThaneSource Water team is dedicating their time to scaling up the technology with support from the Department of Defense/Army Corps/Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) and continued customer discovery to learn the main challenges and problems in the wastewater treatment sector.

Water Intelligence LLC
Spencer Sebo, alumnus
Dr. Walter McDonald, associate professor

Water Intelligence LLC provides real-time, reliable flow data to avoid sewerage overflows and backups by using a patent-pending sensor technology that applies machine learning algorithms to analyze sewer flow. With the Environmental Protection Agency estimating in 2004 that combined sewers released 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater a year into rivers and lakes, there is a need for continuous water level and velocity data in collection systems to inform infrastructure and operations decisions. Existing technologies, however, often produce inaccurate data and cannot detect critical sewer events.

Water Intelligence team earning an award at the Water Council Tech Challenge in 2020

By using optical flow algorithms that can perceive complex visual movement, Water Intelligence LLC’s sensor technology can better measure water level, flow velocity and flow rate, which can detect blockages and illicit discharges more autonomously in a sewer system. This allows municipalities to better understand what is happening inside a pipe before a human has to crawl down a sewer hole.

The business is a collaboration between Spencer Sebo, Environmental Engineering M.S. ’20; Dr. Walter McDonald, associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering; and an associate professor at the University of Florida.

The company has received $334,000 in funding so far to develop the technology and is currently seeking additional research funding to advance the technology toward a state of commercial viability.

Potholes Nevermore
Carter Deinhammer, undergraduate student
Dr. Zhongzhe Liu, former postdoctoral researcher
Dr. Baolin Wan, associate professor

Demo of the Potholes Nevermore patch material being applied to a road.

Wastewater grit is a major byproduct from preliminary municipal wastewater treatment that is often sent to landfills, a costly and unsustainable disposal method. Potholes Nevermore offers a solution that repurposes this grit and takes advantage of its natural composition to solve a common civic problem: potholes. Potholes Nevermore has developed their own patented pothole patch material made from wastewater grit that is pathogen-free with an acceptable strength for asphalt pavement application. Lab and field tests indicate that potholes repaired with this material in the Milwaukee area worked much longer than the traditional pothole patch materials. Small scale field tests have also proven excellent performance on roads subjected to real traffic loads.

Example of patched pothole.

The business is a collaboration between Carter Deinhammer, current undergraduate student; Dr. Zhongzhe Liu, former Marquette postdoctoral researcher and current associate professor at California State University, Bakersfield; and Dr. Baolin Wan, associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering.

The Potholes Nevermore team has completed the customer discovery program through the Milwaukee I-Corps Program and is currently seeking opportunities to apply their technology in large application projects to repair potholes in Milwaukee and other areas around the country.

Interested in getting in touch with these teams?

Interested in collaborating with Marquette’s Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering?