Penn State grads develop a new technology for breweries, and it’s being used locally

Stephen Wells of TZero Labs shows how their sensor allows brewmasters to “hear the beer” as it ferments on Thursday, August 9, 2018.
Stephen Wells of TZero Labs shows how their sensor allows brewmasters to “hear the beer” as it ferments on Thursday, August 9, 2018. adrey@centredaily.com

A new State College area company has developed technology that strives to help brew a better beer.

Three Penn State engineering grads and former Applied Research Lab employees — brothers Stephen and Nick Wells and Eli Hughes — founded TZero Labs, a sensor technology and data company.

What they’re developing now is an acoustic-based sensor to detect fluid properties, Stephen Wells said. That sensor is being used in the microbrewing industry.

It measures how fast an acoustic wave can travel in fluid so it’s like sonar, Wells said. That tech is used to see how fast the beer ferments, what the temperature is and how many bubbles are floating around. And the brewer can see that data on his phone thanks to a cloud-based platform that accumulates the data.

The sensor is in a “beta test mode” at Robin Hood Brewing Co. in Bellefonte, Hughes said. The team has a “nano brewery” in its office, Stephen Wells said, but now it’s getting tested in a real world setting with actual wear and tear.

“The main advantage of having the sound speed probe is that it lets me know if there’s a disruption in fermentation, no matter where I am or what the time is,” Robin Hood’s head brewer Chris Schell said.

Another plus, he said, is that he doesn’t have to take a physical sample of beer, which wastes less product.

“It’s a noninvasive way to track the progress of fermentation,” Wells said.

There are four of the company’s probes installed in breweries in South Carolina, because they’re distributing the sensor through a Charleston-based company.

Adjacent to beer, the sensor technology could be used in wine and distilling, but Wells said they see applications in the petrochemical market or dairy industry.

It was only in October that they decided to commit themselves full time to TZero Labs.

“Being an engineering company is tough because there’s a lot of different roles to fill but finding the right people on the right intersection of skill sets to build a team kind of out of the box is tough. TZero was that opportunity to get the right people at the right time with that right balance,” Hughes said.

They received funding and mentoring from Ben Franklin Technology Partners, which helped them figure out how to approach investors and be less technical in their communication with different audiences.

“We’re a bunch of engineers trying to learn business,” Wells said.