The People Behind MSR Global
MSR’s Global Health team is dedicated to using MSR’s expertise in engineering and manufacturing to develop innovations specifically for people in low-resource communities around the world. This small but passionate team comprises in-house engineers, scientists, directors, product developers and manufacturing leads. Though their disciplines vary, they share the desire to create solutions that can make a meaningful and lasting difference. Their technologies get a lot of press, but we wanted to shine a spotlight on a few of these world-class individuals who are making positive impacts on thousands of lives around the globe.
Ian Norris: Director of Technology
Ian Norris considers himself a big-picture guy. “That’s what I do best—create an idea and fabricate a simple concept. I put two wires on metal slides and in a year, the designers turn it into a product,” he says. “One reason I came to MSR was to get my ideas out into the world.”
As director of technology at MSR Global Health, Ian is in the perfect place. Sure, his job entails a lot of report writing (“It’s like doing a tax return every day”). But when outside partners approach MSR for a solution, he dives deep into his math and chemistry expertise. He comes up a crude concept and hands it over to MSR’s scientists and engineers to flush out. Some concepts work. Some don’t.
“In R&D, there’s a 1% success rate for commercial projects, so you have to learn how to fail,” he says. “I find it exciting—the journey—every failure is a learning experience. That’s why I came to the U.S., to research. Australia doesn’t offer the same opportunities for turning cutting-edge research into consumer products.”
Raised in Adelaide, a coastal city surrounded by Australia’s outback, Ian excelled at math and science. He earned a degree in chemical engineering and a PhD in chemistry and material sciences.
At 25, he decided America was more fertile ground for science intellects and accepted a job at the University of Pennsylvania as a post-doctoral researcher. Working under a Nobel laureate, he explored arcane technologies like advanced plastics, smart textiles and organic displays (such as flexible heads-up displays used by pilots).
After leaving academia, he took a job at tech-development firm Santa Fe Science & Technology. There, generating big ideas became his fulltime job. Among his impressive concepts was a hollow fiber membrane for seawater desalination. The U.S. Navy considered it—liked its superior performance—but ultimately deemed it too expensive to replace current methods.
Then, NASA knocked on the door. They needed something crucial—a water purification system designed specifically for the manned mission to Mars. “Everything on board gets recycled,” Ian says. “So they needed a way to turn their pee into drinkable water—because it’s really expensive to take water up into space.
“It was the Toilet-to-Tap system,” he says.
Ian proposed a successful concept to NASA—a membrane that removed the salt and contaminates from the urine, leaving the remaining fluid as drinkable water. But, he has yet to see that idea sent into space.
“There hasn’t been a manned mission to Mars,” he laments. “So the technology may be obsolete by the time we finally set foot on the planet.”
Ian came to MSR in 2008 after a chance meeting with Tim Oriard, MSR’s principal scientist. Ian’s big ideas and his ability to articulate them for others made him a perfect fit.
His interest in humanitarian efforts helped too.
In the late 1990s, Ian spent several months solo backpacking through Southeast Asia. The experience was eye-opening. “That trip taught me a lot about poverty,” he says. “Until you see people living in cardboard boxes, you don’t really understand what poverty is. It made me realize why we need to design products for these types of places.”
Today, Ian and his team are constantly working on new developments in global health innovation. Sometimes it can take years to create an actual product, but they believe it’s ultimately always worth it.
“The company’s philosophy is to take a chance on three years of research, which may or may not work out for that immediate purpose,” he says. “But the technology will likely be used somewhere; so no big idea is ever a loss.”
Zac Gleason: Microbiologist, MSR’s Water Research Lab
As a microbiologist and manager of MSR’s water research lab, Zac oversees a team of scientists who conduct research and help in the development of MSR’s clean-water technologies. He plays the lead role in ensuring the lab delivers quality, meaningful data that can be used to make critical decisions throughout the design process.
Zac joined MSR 10 years ago, when the lab was used primarily for quality assurance of MSR’s outdoor products. Since then, he’s helped expand it into an on-going research facility. Early on, he set up the lab’s ability to grow viruses for testing purposes. He also worked on the development of MSR’s first hollow fiber water filter. Recently, he was key in the creation of MSR’s Community Chlorine Maker, a breakthrough water treatment device for low-resource communities.
In his 14 years as a scientist, Zac has had hands-on experience with over 85 types of water treatment technologies—virtually every type available to modern science.
But it turns out, genetics was Zac’s first love.
“I’ve always wanted to understand how living things work,” he says. “And if you keep asking that question—and keep asking and keep asking—eventually you get all the way down to genetics.” In high school, he worked on the Human Genome Project. During college, he studied DNA extraction. But the University of Washington didn’t offer genetics as a major at the time, so he became a scientist studying other tiny biological wonders: microbes.
His knowledge of water treatment technologies makes him a valuable resource for many of the parties who rely on MSR’s water lab for its expertise. That can include NGOs and disaster relief organizations, U.S. military agencies, university professors and even DIY garage inventors. “Sometimes people call us up with ideas just because we’re MSR,” he says.
Zac grew up the bucolic Methow Valley of Washington state, at the toes of the sky-scraping North Cascades Mountain Range. “There wasn’t much to do but be outside,” he says. He spent his youth exploring, fishing, camping and mountaineering.
In high school, he found himself in Zimbabwe for a summer helping to build a village community center.
His inquisitive mind and desire to help people serves him well as a scientist. Today, his job takes him to villages in low-resource areas of Africa, where he tests local water qualities and trains community members on how to use MSR’s treatment devices.
Back home, the father of four spends his weekends conducting his own scientific experiments in the kitchen. Baking bread is one of his most committing hobbies. And why not? After all, he says, “It’s microbiology.”
Joe Incardona: Design Engineer
Joe Incardona likes to tinker. “I like to find out how things work and make them better,” he says. “I have a great curiosity.”
His job as design engineer for MSR typically keeps him in the office working on engineering calculations, CAD drawings and product design. But every once in a while his work takes him into the field, and there he gets to witness the real impacts of all that hard work and ingenuity.
For instance, a few years ago in Malawi, Africa, he and a team drove for hours to a rural village to make and deliver chlorine to be used for water treatment. The chlorine could be made on the spot by a device Joe helped design. “We talked to them about proper sanitation,” he says. “They started dancing and singing to thank us. The appreciation they show you is simply indescribable.”
Joe has been integral to the development of nearly all of MSR’s global health innovations.
His role in the process often starts the same way. The MSR team or one of our partners recognizes a need or problem, and says: “We need a solution to X.” In 2008, it was a way to make chlorine on the spot to be used as a water treatment solution in low-resource communities, like the one he visited in Malawi.
Once his larger team had settled on the technology they wanted to use—electrochlorination, which is the electrolysis of water and salt to make chlorine—Joe began the process of figuring out the specifications for the device. “What size electrodes did it need? What was the efficacy of the reactions, the temperatures? What was a reasonable size?” he says. “From those parameters, I built a crude device, and then refined it.”
He creates a product’s form to follow its function. “For the global health needs, it doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to work,” he says.
He developed two to three alpha stage prototypes, each progressively better, and then a beta prototype. Then he sent the devices into the field to let initial testers try to break it. This showed him where the vulnerabilities were so he could work to address them.
To better understand how this chlorine maker device would be used in everyday life, he built mini computers into the prototypes to constantly collect data. The mounds of information gave him an idea of how often the device was being used and under what kinds of stress and environments. All this informed the final designs of MSR’s SE200 Community Chlorine Maker.
Joe’s job is not just to make things work mechanically but to ensure they can be manufactured efficiently and cost-effectively. It helps that MSR’s manufacturing lines are just a floor beneath his office. And MSR’s water research lab is just a building over.
“I have symbiotic relationship with lab,” he says. “They know the science; I know the engineering.
I get to do CAD work, lab work, and go down stairs and actually make stuff,” he says.
Joe has worked on everything from outdoor products to military equipment, but he likes the global health side because, he says, it’s making a real difference. “I’ve been to Ghana, Malawi, the Philippines and Lebanon, and being able to see first-hand how happy these communities are and seeing the difference these products make to them, it’s amazing,” he says. “It’s fun when I’m tinkering, but this is on a whole different level.”
Leah Freed: Physical Test Lab Manager
When Leah Freed became the testing technician for MSR Global Health, one of her first tasks was to put MSR’s new Community Chlorine Maker through the wringer. “We were looking at ways of making it as robust as possible,” she says. “So I was trying different things—making up different salt solutions, testing its efficacy, putting hot water through it, cold water, dunk testing, dishwasher testing, testing the consistency of the effluent, testing the different circuitry components.
“For a year all of my clothes were stained from chlorine.”
Now MSR’s Community Chlorine Maker is on the market, and Leah’s efforts have been redirected to projects still in prototype stage. Recently she visited a Rwandan refugee camp with a larger-scale chlorine maker to see how well it would meet the needs of groups of up to 10,000 people.
“It was an incredible experience,” she says. “One of the camps had 60,000 people. It was impressive to see how they’d built up their water systems.
“I wanted to learn how many people would be using the device, how much water they treated in a day, how it could be incorporated into the water treatment process. It was cool to get back to something I loved working on.”
A similar experience is what propelled Leah into getting her Masters in Environmental Engineering in the first place.
As she was earning her BE in chemical engineering, she received a grant from the National Science Foundation to assist on a water treatment project in Ghana where fluoride concentrations had become harmful. “There was so much fluoride in the water that it was replacing necessary minerals and had an effect on people’s bones so that they couldn’t walk,” she says.
The experience taught her a lot about the “human side” of engineering. “I saw the positives and negatives of design decisions,” she says. “It was the first time I could see what the end goal was and how I could make an impact.”
That NSF-grant project in turn won an EPA grant, sending Leah to Washington D.C. to present on the project.
She’s been presenting to audiences on technical subjects ever since. In grad school, she spoke at the National Public Health Conference on exposure to air fresheners, and on epidemiology. She’s spoken to outdoor audiences about flame-retardants. Today, she’s a member of the Outdoor Industry Association’s Sustainability Management Group and Chemical Management Group. Her expertise on such various subjects helps MSR home in on specific design solutions.
Yet, there’s one thing she hasn’t spoken to many people about: the time she was arrested in Brazil. She was teaching a class studying the impact of increased biofuel production on the local waterways. She was seen drawing samples from a river. Before she knew it, she was taken into custody, and soon deported. The reason? “I was arrested for stealing DNA from the country,” she says. “I had no idea what I was doing would be perceived as wrong. I thought I was just conducting scientific research. It was definitely a cultural eye-opener.”
Tim Oriard: Principal Scientist
In the scientific community, word about new ideas spreads quickly and 1990 Tim Oriard and NASA realized they were researching the same technology with a similar goal. Tim was exploring low-cost ways to treat water in jungle villages in Vietnam. NASA was searching for a self-sufficient way to treat drinking water on spaceships. The two joined forces and in months Tim presented NASA with a prototype. Today, Tim’s concept—regenerating iodinated beads (it’s complicated)—helps astronauts maintain a clean water supply in space.
Now a 30-year veteran of water treatment science, Tim is MSR Global Health’s chief scientist. His role keeps him at the forefront of discoveries and makes him one of the country’s leading experts on water treatment. Combined with his straight-shooting style, it’s a big reason why the U.S. military, NGOs and other organizations contract MSR’s lab for R&D projects.
Earning those contracts is no easy task though. As chief, Tim spends hours crafting proposals—scientific tomes—filled with esoteric explanations on how MSR can solve a given problem. “It’s not just about grant-writing; it’s about earning their trust,” he says.
His efforts have paid off. Tim has designed revolutionary water filters for the U.S. Navy, researched magnetic osmosis techniques, and helped create a database cataloging the pros and cons of virtually all water treatment methods worldwide.
“I’ve always loved science,” he says. “Growing up, my heroes were Leonardo da Vinci and my father, who was one of the top geophysicists in the world. Every night around the dinner table my family would talk for hours about physics, chemistry, microbiology.”
In college, Tim chose to study the living sciences and earned degrees in biochemistry and cellular biology.
Then, by the course of life, he wound up in Reno, Nevada—where the only true science labs served the mining industry. He took a job at one and soon found himself exploring cutting-edge ways to make the industry eco-friendlier. “We were working on groundbreaking techniques for cleaning heavy metals out of water,” he says. “And that’s what got me into water reclamation and water treatment.”
Eventually, his lab started to get contracts for drinking water treatment. Suddenly Tim’s assignments were sending him around the world, to places like the jungles of Vietnam. As he traveled, he built connections with some of the brightest minds in water treatment, a network he maintains today.
Working in those poverty-stricken nations, Tim witnessed the power of technology in humanitarian efforts. He brought that passion with him when he came to MSR in 2000 as the brand’s first scientist.
Since then, Tim’s helped grow the lab into a full-fledged R&D facility and led its global health efforts. Here, he gets to use his expertise to help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.
It’s a job that’s truly meaningful to him.
“I like water because it’s a basic need for everybody, but it’s a complicated science and a fierce intellectual challenge,” he says. “And I like the feeling of helping people. I have that desire to make an impact on humanity. With science, you have the opportunity to do that.”