Last updated on May 14th, 2019 at 12:03 am
If you don’t follow the water industry, it can be difficult to see some of the progress being made by The Water Council in positioning Milwaukee as a freshwater technology hub.
The organization just dropped plans to develop the second Global Water Center, no other projects have broken ground between the new Zurn Industries LLC headquarters and the original Global Water Center, and the 25 startups that have gone through the BREW Accelerator have created just 65 jobs.
On the other hand, the Global Water Center is full, The Water Council is partnering with national labs to commercialize research, corporations are signing on for their own accelerators, there’s plenty of international interest, and this year’s Water Leaders Summit will feature two of the best-known water authors, Charles Fishman and Seth Siegel.
“I would have never expected it to be what it is today,” said Rich Meeusen, a co-founder of The Water Council and current co-chair. “I didn’t expect to be around to see it.”
Meeusen, who is also chairman, president and chief executive officer of Brown Deer-based Badger Meter Inc., said it’s frustrating, at times, that even as The Water Council has plenty of other initiatives that are doing well, setbacks receive more attention.
“Milwaukee never believes we can be great at anything,” Meeusen said, noting Global Water Center II wasn’t even in the plans a few years ago.
The second building was challenged by a lack of tenants seeking large spaces. Lee Swindall, a Water Council board member, said the Water Council now is looking at a $600,000 investment to re-engineer the Global Water Center I space to accommodate those who were interested in the new facility, and both he and Dean Amhaus said the council might buy the building.
“Right now, we’re turning people away from the first building,” said Amhaus, president and chief executive officer of The Water Council.
Matthew Bednarski, a team leader for Milwaukee-based engineering firm Graef’s water business, said he makes it a point to be in the building at least once or twice a week and the company has four or five people who rotate through its GWC office on a regular basis.
“I do think just being there, because of the collaborative nature of the building itself and the tenant makeup, there’s always a conversation going on that you can be a part of,” Bednarski said.
He added the Global Water Center also provides a chance to learn about the latest technology and take that knowledge to customers. It also doesn’t hurt that he often sees Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District executive director Kevin Shafer, one of Graef’s larger clients.
The Water Council also is becoming an international organization, partnering with the German Water Partnership and regularly hosting international delegations.
“It seems that in every country we go to, water creates the greatest amount of excitement,” said Katy Sinnott, vice president of international business development at WEDC, suggesting there’s almost too much interest in The Water Council at times. “The minute they hear about it, Dean has delegations at his door.”
The Water Council recently sought to concentrate its international efforts,
Amhaus said. The plan was to focus on opportunities in Israel and India, but it didn’t take long for other countries to come back into the picture. Amhaus ended up joining a WEDC trade mission to China, where Sinnott said Wisconsin companies could deliver systems for China’s national project to capture 75 percent of storm runoff in dozens of “sponge cities.”
“Solutions that are developed here locally are the ones that are going to be applied globally,” Amhaus said. “If we can indeed grow the opportunities for our companies here, that has a translation back to growth in the economy.”
In addition to the partnership with Germany and the opportunity in China, there’s interest from India, Israel, the Netherlands and France.
“We can’t handle all of the demands that are coming in,” Amhaus said. “I worry about burnout … As we start to work globally … it just changes the dynamics of things.”
Finding the staff to support the next chapter for not only The Water Council, but also the region’s water-related companies, will require continued talent development, which Amhaus said needs to start at an early age.
Meeusen said there are already a good number of young professionals coming out of schools like the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Institute for Water Business, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences and engineering programs at the region’s universities.
“The link between the companies in town and those graduates has been key to our success,” Meeusen said, noting Badger Meter moved about 20 jobs from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Milwaukee because he felt future available talent would meet the company’s needs.
Marian Singer, co-founder and chief executive officer of Wellntel, a startup that makes connected groundwater monitors, said the UWM Freshwater school is doing great work. But her company’s needs, which include engineers from a variety of disciplines, industrial designers and marketing and sales staff, go beyond what the school produces.
“We’d like to see more emphasis just on the technology aspect and I don’t know that Milwaukee as a whole has really embraced what’s needed in terms of web-based businesses,” she said.
Wellntel is a graduate of the BREW, The Water Council’s startup accelerator, and currently has five employees, plus another half dozen people doing work on a contract basis. Its product monitors groundwater in private wells using a radio on the wellhead, and a gateway sends the data to the cloud.
Part of the challenge water startups face is their markets often are focused on a specific issue. Many involve producing a physical product, leading to a longer, more complex sales cycle, Singer said.
The need for solutions to water-related problems is clear, whether it’s in Flint, Michigan or Milwaukee, California or China. The specific nature of the challenges sometimes means the job growth doesn’t follow the pattern of other industries.
“I think that what you see is long-term, very good, steady job growth, but the hockey stick that you think of when you think of tech startups and Silicon Valley is probably not something that’s available to the water market, just because it’s a different animal,” Singer said.
Swindall, who is vice president of sector strategy development at the WEDC, noted BREW companies have created jobs from basically nothing and, perhaps more importantly, 14 of them have been granted patents on their technology or have patents pending.
Meeusen said at the beginning of The Water Council, the big targets were either the development of groundbreaking technology or attracting a major water technology company to the city, a goal checked off with the new Zurn headquarters.
“I think we are near some breakthrough technologies,” he said, predicting a breakthrough would come in the next three years as the region’s large companies continue to invest in those efforts.
The Water Council already has helped Badger Meter, providing exposure to two companies Badger Meter eventually acquired, Racine Federated Inc. and Aquacue Inc.
“We view this as an opportunity for us to find opportunities,” Meeusen said, noting he could spend months flying around the country to get a look at startups, but the BREW program provides a good look at six new technologies every year. He compared the situation to a beekeeper building an apiary not just to keep bees, but to get honey.
“We’re not using our shareholder money out of the generosity of our hearts; We want the honey,” he said.