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Milwaukee Taps Water Technology's Growing Potential

Global Water Center turning our city into the 'Water Capital of the World'

Aug. 15, 2017
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In the early 20th century, Milwaukee was known as the “Machine Shop of the World,” while simultaneously enjoying a long run as the “Beer Capital of the World.” But these nicknames are long out of date, and Milwaukee has been casting about for a post-industrial identity. In the 1990s, “City of Festivals” was tried. Recently, however, Milwaukee has developed a 21st-century industrial identity as the “Water Capital of the World.” Almost overnight, it has become a go-to destination for companies and countries that want to solve their water problems.

Since 2013, delegations from 74 countries have visited the Global Water Center (GWC) at 247 W. Freshwater Way (formerly West Pittsburgh Avenue). The Water Council’s Global Water Center has been instrumental in bringing together regional companies old and new that are producing 21st-century water technologies. It also is encouraging cutting-edge water research that Marquette University and UW-Milwaukee are conducting, as well as supporting an incubator program for start-ups.

David Garman, chief technology officer for the Water Council and associate vice chancellor for water technology, research and development at UWM, says the cluster of water technology companies in Milwaukee is probably the biggest in the world. “You can go around the world, and it’s hard to find anything comparable,” he says. 

In 2014, the Wisconsin Historical Society, which has long collected history as it unfolds, opened a field office at the GWC. “In 2014, when we saw that the Water Council was gaining momentum and looked at the work that the Water Council was doing, we really felt it could be historic for the City of Milwaukee and far beyond to the state and nationally,” says Kristen Leffelman, field services representative for the society. (Leffelman is archiving documents and taking oral histories from the founders of the Water Council and from GWC tenants.) “The work of trying to build a global water hub was and continues to be something that Milwaukee hasn’t seen before,” she says. “Whether or not that effort ultimately succeeds, the City of Milwaukee has seen a lot of growth from this, particularly in Walker’s Point. The Global Water Center was one of the first buildings to be repurposed in Walker’s Point; the area is really blooming around it.”

A UWM report found that more than $211 million was invested in the new water technology district in northern Walker’s Point between 2011 and 2014. Dean Amhaus, president and CEO of the GWC, estimates that another $250 million may have been invested after 2014. Developers have taken advantage of historic tax credits to rehab old industrial buildings. Many new lofts and apartments provide living space, and small shops and restaurants have proliferated. In June, Cermak Fresh Market opened a 46,000-square-foot grocery store at South First Street and East Greenfield Avenue in a new shopping mall, Freshwater Plaza, near UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences.


A Water Cluster Discovered

In 2008, when the Water Council was forming as a loose consortium of legacy business and community leaders in Milwaukee, it was big news when Vandewalle & Associates, a consulting firm researching the business climate in Milwaukee, “discovered” that there was a cluster of water businesses in Milwaukee. “It’s not that we created a cluster; we found a cluster,” says Amhaus. “So, when people talk about us ‘becoming’ a freshwater hub or capital, we already were that because of the long history of companies which were already here. Some of them have been in operation for 120-130 years.”

The reality of the “water cluster” in Milwaukee helped the Water Council forge an identity and a mission. In 2009, it formally established itself as a non-profit, and in 2013, it opened the GWC in a fully renovated building, which had once been a box factory. The building immediately attracted tenants and became a hub for legacy and start-up water technology companies, as well as a few non-profits. Early on, the Water Council lobbied for the School of Freshwater Sciences to be built. (It opened in 2014.) Since 2013, the GWC has become a growing hub for large and small water technology companies—local, national and international—as well as a major water research center and an incubator for water start-ups. Today, Milwaukee’s water cluster includes more than 150 companies.


Global Water Center Fosters Start-ups 

Home to more than 50 companies and two university labs involved in research, development and commercialization of water technology, the GWC is also home to the BREW Accelerator (Business Research Entrepreneurship in Wisconsin)—a Water Council program that funds water technology start-ups that show promise in solving a problem or filling a need in the marketplace. Such start-ups can receive a $50,000 convertible note and greatly discounted office space at the GWC for one year.  

In the past, skeptics have not always believed the Water Council’s claim that Milwaukee is the Water Capital of the World—dismissing it as wishful puffery while pointing to a lack of noticeable accomplishments. Today, it would be hard to ignore its tangible accomplishments. In the past four years, for example, the BREW Accelerator has funded 33 water start-ups that resulted in more than 100 contracts, pilot sites and memos of understanding, raising almost $3 million in additional investment capital. The 2016 winning start-ups alone have five issued patents and seven pending patent applications. The program has resulted in 65 jobs and 38 internships.

David Garman says that a number of BREW Accelerator winners have already moved well beyond the early start-up phase. They may have succeeded in attracting venture capital for further research and development, licensed their products to other companies and/or marketed their products independently. After five years, “you normally reckon that if you get 20% of your start-ups as being very successful, you are doing very well,” Garman says. “And there’s another group of entrepreneurs—about 40%—who can make a living, but they don’t become high-fliers. We believe that it takes at least five years, maybe even seven years, before you can assess where the water start-ups are going to go,” he says. “With other companies, in other industries, you look at a three-to-five-year period of assessment.”

Garman says that because the BREW Accelerator began awarding start-up grants and office space at the GWC in 2013, the most recent winners are still in the early start-up stage and will require more time to develop. Since then, almost one third of the BREW Accelerator winners have advanced beyond the early start-up phase, he says. These companies include Milwaukee-area firms such as Corncob, Inc., Microbe Detectives, NEW Works, OptikTechnik and Radom, as well Madison-based Pellucid Water, suburban Chicago’s Nano Gas Technologies and Oxymem—a Dublin, Ireland-Milwaukee joint venture.

BREW Accelerator winners have produced a wide array of products, including water filters and membranes, biogas conversion technology, rainwater harvesting systems, water softening technology, water purification systems and green infrastructure. Other products include in-pipe hydropower systems, water sterilization devices, water leak sensors, a water conservation rebate system, DNA water sequencing technology, non-invasive pipe inspection, oil and gas industry water purification technologies, water particulate sensors and solar water treatment systems.

A BREW Accelerator winner in 2015, José Ramirez, who founded OptikTechnik with UWM research professor J. Rudi Strickler, says that their company was born in the lobby of the GWC out of a conversation they had. “You hear about the back of the napkin. It was literally like that,” says Ramirez. “OptikTechnik was born right there in the Global Water Center, and then we had the good fortune of winning the BREW contest a couple of months after. For us, the GWC has been vital.”

Ramirez and Strickler also developed a relationship with Veolia, which has an office at the GWC. Veolia manages wastewater treatment for the MMSD (Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District) and has allowed the inventors to test their sensors at the plant. Veolia also has shown interest in licensing the technology once testing is completed. OptikTechnik produces optical sensors that permit the automation of chemical conditioning of wastewater, a process that is now done manually.


University Labs Partner with Industry           

As associate vice chancellor for water technology, research and development at UWM, David Garman oversees the university’s labs on the seventh floor. Garman set up the labs in 2014 with some of the $5.2 million in funding he received from the UW system, sharing the funds with the Freshwater School. The GWC Water Technology Accelerator (WaTA) labs are designed to have close interaction with industry, he explains. The researchers all have dedicated research grants from or related to industry. Around 75 people, including faculty and UWM students, work full- or part-time in the labs over the year, and in these labs, scientists have developed technological solutions to some of the water problems that plague us most.        

In one lab, for example, a water sensor for lead (and other heavy metals) is in the final stages of development. Lead has contaminated the water in Flint, Mich., raising concerns about lead contamination in cities across the country. Distinguished professor Junhong Chen began his initial research on the sensor in 1995, originally intending to develop a sensor for air pollution. Now in the final stages of development, his device has been licensed by A.O. Smith and Badger Meter, also tenants at the GWC, for use in water tanks and meters. It can be hand-held or installed in tanks, meters or faucets to detect heavy metal contamination that may occur between a water treatment facility and a home. Garman estimates the potential market for this sensor at “several hundred million dollars per year.”       

In another lab, a solid-state pH testing device is being developed, an improvement over the fragile glass detectors currently in use. The device can detect acidic and alkaline contamination in water. Negotiations for licensing are ongoing. Down the hall, a device for testing ballast water in seagoing vessels is being developed. Such a device could help prevent pathogenic bacteria or invasive species from entering a water system (think zebra mussels); a French company is funding the research.

In yet another lab, a material that absorbs phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizer is in the final stages of development. The material captures these chemicals—preventing them from entering a water system; the nitrogen and phosphorous can then be reclaimed and reused as fertilizer. Excess phosphorus from fertilizer causes algae blooms, which can cause fish die-offs and contaminate the water supply. A variation of this novel material also can absorb such things as Atrazine, an herbicide commonly used on corn, as well as Metformin, a widely used drug for Type 2 Diabetes. These substances have been detected in significant concentrations in our water systems. The absorbent material has been licensed and negotiations for additional licenses are underway. 

In the Marquette University labs on the sixth floor, researchers collaborate with UWM as well as industry and public utilities such as MMSD. The Marquette researchers are focused on wastewater treatment, rainwater harvesting, desalination, water law and policy, as well as public art.


Tapping the Potential of Growing Markets 

Garman believes that the increased wealth of the middle class in Asia and worldwide infrastructure replacement will drive demand for water technology in the future. He says that estimates of that market are upwards of $400 billion in sales per year globally. “If that market grows at the rate of everything else, and we keep our share, Milwaukee might be able to maintain and possibly increase its percentage to somewhere around 5% of that over the next 10 years,” he says. Such estimates would put Milwaukee’s share at between $12 and $20 billion annually in revenue for its water technology companies, based upon a market share in the range of 3-5%.


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