Eric Fitch had an epiphany as he described the collaborative, trial-and-error process that led to the creation of his company’s product, an anaerobic methane digester: “It was just like Tony Patera’s fluids and thermal lab,” he says. “The whole thing—it was an industrial application of that class.”
Fitch is CEO of the renewable-energy startup PurposeEnergy, which developed and manages the biphase orbicular bioreactor, a 490,000-gallon device that turns waste at Magic Hat Brewing in Vermont into natural gas and clean effluent.
PurposeEnergy is the fourth startup Fitch has been involved with since earning his degrees in mechanical engineering at MIT, where he was the Class of 1995 Ford Engineering Internship Program Scholar and president of the MIT athletic association.
Five years ago, he was searching for a new challenge when a softball teammate who works for a beer producer told him how difficult and expensive it could be for manufacturers to dispose of spent grain from the brewing process. Fitch, who grew up in Wyoming but worked summers on the family farm in South Dakota, was familiar with anaerobic digesters, which break down organic matter, but no existing technology was powerful enough to handle the high concentration of solids in brewery waste. So he found someone with a hybrid farm digester, brought on people who build municipal wastewater treatment plants, and—as if he were in fluids and thermal lab—tweaked and modified the digester until it worked.
In July 2010, the biphase orbicular bioreactor went online at Magic Hat, where it extracts energy from the spent grains. The brewery uses the resulting natural gas to help power its plant. In fact, the device now produces 200 cubic feet of biogas per minute. The bioreactor has proved enormously efficient at treating the plant’s wastewater as well, removing 99 percent of organic matter, Fitch says. PurposeEnergy recently took on a second client, a Vermont yogurt manufacturer, and ultimately plans to expand throughout the food and beverage industry.
Fitch manages the startup from his office in Arlington, Massachusetts, where he and his wife, Filly, live with their six-year-old triplets. He is a board member of the nonprofit 484 Phi Alpha Foundation, which was established by alumni of his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon. And he’s especially honored that his fraternity brothers have supported him through his business endeavors.
“We’ve had a lot of private equity investment at PurposeEnergy, and about half of that has been from MIT alums from the fraternity house,” he says.