‘Field of dreams’ in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley?
An air of electricity pervades Milwaukee’s Global Water Center, a nervous excitement that feels exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. It’s an adrenaline-fueled rush that won’t stop, tinged with a hint of anxiety – a vexing “how do we keep up this pace?”
Considering that just the bare light bulb of an idea of promoting Milwaukee as the water technology hub of the world was switched on less than a decade ago, the pace of bringing that ambitious dream to reality has been a windmill in a hurricane. The stakes are high: the monetized global water industry and surrounding trade is estimated at half a trillion dollars annually.
“It is in some ways frightening,” said Dean Amhaus, CEO of the Water Council, the membership organization that directs the many moving parts of the water initiative.
“The saying goes, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ Well, excuse me for putting it this way, but Holy (expletive)! They’re coming!
“In that movie, Field of Dreams, there’s that parting shot of this endless stream of cars coming down the road. And you’re thinking, ‘Where are we going to park all those cars?’”
From 44 business, community and institutional leaders who gathered in 2007 to talk about Milwaukee’s future as a freshwater technology hub, to the 60-some members who had officially coalesced around the Water Council by 2010, things have grown. Water Council membership now numbers more than 180. It includes businesses ranging from major corporations (A.O. Smith, Badger Meter, Rexnord) to seed startups like Hanging Gardens (green roofs) and Stonehouse Water Technologies (portable water filtration systems). Research institutions include the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, UW-Whitewater, Marquette, Concordia and Mount Mary. A host of established small businesses and nonprofits round out the roster.
The Global Water Center, a refurbished seven-story, 98,000-square-foot warehouse at South 3rd Street and Freshwater Way (formerly East Pittsburgh Avenue), opened in 2013 and is filled with tenants. Among them is the BREW – “Business. Research. Entrepreneurship. In Wisconsin.” The Water Council-sponsored accelerator program funds startups that show a potential for commercialization. In 2015, the BREW named its third annual round of seed startups, six more companies that will benefit from $100,000 in initial investment, a suite in the Water Center, and access to state-of-the-art labs and research and development partners’ knowledge. Foremost among those is University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Science, the only graduate school in the nation focused solely on freshwater research. But University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, with a new minor in water business, and Marquette, now with a program in water law, also figure prominently.
Two new buildings are being developed in the adjacent Reed Street Yards. Dubbed Water Tech I and II, they are the first of as many as nine buildings totaling over one million square feet planned for the Yards.
Water Tech I is already leasing, but the biggest news in 2015 came when Rexnord Corp. decided to move the headquarters of its affiliate, Zurn Industries, from Pennsylvania to Milwaukee, along with 120 jobs. Zurn, which manufactures a wide range of plumbing fixtures, will occupy Water Tech II as the first global headquarters landed by the Water Council.
For Amhaus, there are other accomplishments every bit as promising. One is that early adopters of the global water hub concept are spawning their own offshoots.
“Veolia was first,” he said, referring to the French-founded multinational that manages Milwaukee’s sewer and water treatment systems. “Now they’re bringing in their own startups, three new initiatives. So we’re already seeing a second generation of growth.
“In a few short years, we’ve seen six new companies grow to nine, to 12, to 16 – that number is unheard of. And I look out my window and see that new building going up, and another on the way… We’re just getting started.”
Yet another headline moment in 2015 was the release of a study showing the economic impact the Water Center has already had on its own neighborhood. From 2010 to 2014, the audit concluded, water hub investment and development surrounding it amounted to $211.6 million. That adds 16 percent to the property tax base for the city’s Fifth Ward, an area that previously had been only slowly recovering from a long post-industrial decay.
Making the unthinkable, drinkable
2016 will see the first deployment of a Water Center-incubated technology outside the Menomonee Valley, which is, after all, the purpose of this grand plan.
“That’s the next evolution – expansion – moving things out of the lab into the real world,” Amhaus said.
Stonehouse Water Technologies has developed the Water POD (Potable On Demand), a portable water filtration system. It can be transported to practically any site, set up in next to no time and, while consuming a very small amount of energy, produce 3,000 gallons per day, per unit, of safe, clean drinking water from even a highly polluted source.
“You can hook it up to solar, you could even pedal-power it if you needed to, it takes that little power,” said Anne Wick, director of communications. “You can draw from a polluted river or lake and make it safe. And at the same time, it does not remove healthy minerals that we need in our bodies.”
Wick is also a registered nurse, and has seen appalling conditions in the worst slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Her background in human biology tells her what is happening.
“I couldn’t help thinking how many of those people were going to die,” she said. “Children who will not grow up but will die of water-borne diseases. We have a way to prevent that.”
Stonehouse has plans to place Water PODs in Kenya, Tanzania and the Dominican Republic, possibly this year.
But none of those sites will be the first.
“We were looking at Kenya as our first customer,” Wick said. “But it’s actually going to be much closer to home. We have Third World conditions right here in our own state.
“Some 36 percent of the wells in Kewaunee County are contaminated, mostly with nitrates from agricultural runoff,” Wick said. “There are 900,000 cows in Kewaunee County.
“So our first Water POD will be set up at Algoma High School. The parents, the community, have just been so eager to work with us. They are so concerned for their children – and who wouldn’t be?”
Rich Meeusen, the CEO of Badger Meter and godfather of the Water Center – it was he who convened the first meeting in 2007 – sees the Water POD as a better response to disaster relief, in the United States or anywhere.
“In a Katrina-like situation, the Water POD could be a real solution,” Meeusen said. “FEMA has depots set up all over the country, stocked with bottled water, and they truck it in. But water is heavy. You can’t compress it.”
It’s a challenge to transport and distribute water, and you have to keep on bringing it as long as the disaster lasts.
“But the Water POD, you can deliver it on the back of a truck. Getting it down to that size is key. You set it up once and use the water you have.”
Wick cites an even more timely example.
“I think of what we could do to help Flint, Michigan, if we were further along. But we weren’t scaled up to send 100 units up there.
“It’s just such a sad, sad situation, but it’s also a wake-up call to the United States. Our infrastructure is old, it’s failing. There are still lead pipes everywhere. It makes me so angry to think that maybe hundreds of kids are going to suffer lifelong developmental problems.
“I would like to say to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, ‘Call us, come and see us, because we’re having trouble getting hold of you. Come see what we can do.
I will bake you cookies.”