The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Marquette University were recently awarded a $135,000 Industry/University Collaborative Research Center (I/UCRC) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create a water technology center.
Political, university and business officials hope the UWM and MU center, to be called the Center for Water Equipment and Policy, will enhance Milwaukee's efforts to become a leading region of water research and related industries. Southeastern Wisconsin is home to more than 120 water-related businesses and UWM's Great Lakes WATER Institute, the largest research center on the Great Lakes.
The universities could receive a total of $675,000 from the NSF for their initiative, over a five-year period.
Supporters of the Milwaukee water initiative believe academic training and research will play a vital role in growing the region's strengths in water technology industries.
"This program will encourage industry to work with the universities to develop commercial products," said Rich Meeusen, co-chair of the Milwaukee Water Council and president and chief executive officer of Brown Deer-based Badger Meter Inc.
The Industry/University Collaborative Research Center grant is one of 40 in the nation and only one focused on water technology, Meeusen said.
There are six organizations invested in the first year of the I/UCRC partnership, including: Badger Meter, Milwaukee-based A.O. Smith Corp., Pentair Inc., Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District (MMSD), Evansville-based Baker Manufacturing Co., and the Wisconsin Water Research Corporation Inc. Each organization pledged a $50,000 investment for the first year.
The center will be led by Erik Christensen, center director and principal investigator from UWM and Michael Switzenbaum, executive associate dean at the college of engineering and principal investigator from Marquette.
The local board of directors for the grant will meet in May to decide on projects for the first year. Christensen said five to six projects out of the 10 total proposed will be executed in the first year. Project topics range from recovering waste heat and creating state of the art sensors, to direct applications on wastewater treatment.
"The history of I/UCRC programs prove to be very successful with creating patents for intellectual property and providing invaluable student education," he said.
"This is the first activity and a good start for the industry. I hope to add onto this and see the center grow and spur more growth in southeastern Wisconsin," Switzenbaum added.
Executives with the companies involved in the partnership say the research and development done with the grant funds will be invaluable to their organizations.
"Badger Meter is interested in a long-term financial contribution," Meeusen said. "We view our involvement with the I/UCRC as a long-term commitment and we are committed to work with our engineers and scientists at both UWM and Marquette to create viable commercial products."
Bernie Beemster founded the Wisconsin Water Research Corporation Inc. (WWRC) in 2009 and said that the state has lagged nationally in the fight for R&D funds. "It is time we get in the game and the awarded I/UCRC is a step in the right direction."
Beemster, who also is the president of ASA Analytics, a Waukesha-based manufacturer and distributor of instruments used to measure water and wastewater, hopes his organization can be one of several participating companies behind the WWRC, sharing a seat at the I/UCRC. As a small business owner, Beemster stressed the importance of the I/UCRC as a crucial component in their R&D efforts.
"Wisconsin is close to the bottom of the list of R&D funds secured to improve research. It is important we get more organizations involved in seeking funds," Beemster added.
Don Wesdell, president and chief executive officer of Evansville-based Baker Manufacturing Co., agreed.
"This is a way for us to optimize our R&D," he said. "Even though some of the participating companies are competitors, when we put our money together along with NFS and university funds the R&D project outcomes will be important to all."
Baker Manufacturing Co., a small to mid-size company with 200 employees nationwide, has a water systems division that focuses on industrial, environmental and residential applications. The company currently houses its R&D operations out of Evansville, Wis.
Industry connection beyond the classroom
In the last two years, some water technology firms have significantly invested in southeastern Wisconsin and relocated or expanded their operations in the booming water hub.
Crandon-based Northern Lake Service Inc., a provider of environmental analytical laboratory services, acquired Water Quality Testing Services Inc. earlier this year. The company recently opened a lab in Waukesha.
In the summer of 2008 Pentair Inc. and GE Water & Process Technologies, a unit of the General Electric Co., located the global headquarters of their drinking water quality joint venture business in the Milwaukee area.
"Industries are not going to move somewhere where they don't have a qualified labor force," said Claus Dunkelberg, water industry specialist at the Milwaukee Water Council. "It is not only about growing your industry, but also maintaining your industry as well. Once you get them here you want to keep them here."
The Milwaukee Water Council's talent and education committee has developed internship opportunities for students interested in the water industry.
"Internships have been the centerpiece between industry, the Water Council, students and institutions," said Steve Glynn, president of Milwaukee-based Spreenkler LLC and lead on the committee.
Spreenkler's talent pool ranges from students interested in marketing to engineering and they have provided internships to companies like Badger Meter, where one student was offered a full-time position according to Meeusen.
"The importance of cooperation and collaboration on schools, businesses and the Water Council is the only way to be successful," Glynn said. He also hopes to offer 30 new internships to students this year alone.
In recent months, programs have expanded beyond higher education reaching out to professionals in the industry. In March the UWM School of Continuing Education (SEC) started a Water Technology certificate. The certificate includes a series of non-credit courses as part of continuing education courses.
"Our mission is to teach people what's going on in the industry, were it's going and how to develop and make a career within it," said Dr. Murali Vedula, engineering program director at the UWM SEC.
According to Vedula, course topics cover a broad range of issues including laws, policies and practices related to storm, waste and drinking water. Participants in the program must complete nine courses within a year. Scheduled courses include topics on stormwater best management practices, theory of phosphorus removal, wetland sustainability and water law. Some course will be taught by industry experts.
Educating the future
"It is all about relationships. If we can get industry and research scientists talking together then we have accomplished a lot. This is a continuation of work done the last year and a half," said Dunkelberg, citing the awarded I/UCRC as one of the key accomplishments.
Dunkelberg noted that this is just the beginning of university and industry collaboration. "The Milwaukee Water Council is here to help connect the dots," he said.
Kirsten Crossgrove, program coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater's Integrated Science Business Major with water emphasis, credits the council for its support in creating the program.
The program, ending its first year, will graduate its first student in May. According to Crossgrove, the program currently has only four other students enrolled, but interest is growing.
"Students have both an interest in water as an area of business and research, and this program allows that with the science and business focus," she said.
Marquette University Law School added a curriculum in water law to its course offerings this school year. Matt Parlow, associate professor of law, also credits the program's success to industry support. According to Parlow, the program is two-fold and incorporates both the curricular side, offering advanced courses to students, and a programmatic side.
"It is not only important for students to engage with policy makers but to engage the community in the discussion," Parlow said.
According to Dunkelberg, the push in higher education is one of many educational components crucial to sustaining talent in the area.
He talked about the importance of creating a K-12 curriculum to mentor the future workforce.
"We need to educate the young kids on how they impact water and how water impacts them so they begin to have an appreciation for it," he said.
According to Dunkelberg there are ongoing discussions within the council to create a curriculum for K-12 schools.
"There are a lot of opportunities in potential jobs in the water industry, you just need to get the kids trained for them and let these kids get their hands wet," he said.
Dave Marsh, co-founder of WWRC, said he believes that the I/UCRC is the symbiotic relationship needed to push the water hub forward.
"Hopefully we can see research grants like the I/UCRC to be able to fund research that results in marketable technology and possibly technology that can be spun into local companies," he said.