Project Milwaukee: Developing An Energy Tech Niche

Mar 17, 2016

The Mid-West Energy Research Consortium, or M-WERC, is working to add Milwaukee to the energy tech landscape.

The group sprouted out of the interest of three universities and four industrial companies in 2009.

With over 80 members, M-WERC made two giant leaps last year. First, it opened its headquarters at 27th and Capitol, the former home to Eaton Corporation’s R&D facility in Milwaukee’s 30th Street Corridor. And the consortium launched a program to nurtured startups, called WERCBench Labs.

Randal Mueller never thought he'd be an energy innovator. Mueller and his buddies decided to create a simple, little turbine to fuel a hydropower system. Ultimately the startup would be named Cadens, but it would be a while before they had anything more to show for it than its name and a dream.

“Fast forward to 2007, renewable energy was hot. We decided, we needed to move forward,” Mueller says. They learned then-Governor Doyle had established an energy independence fund. They applied and were awarded a grant.

Credit S Bence

In early 2009, they secured a lease on a more than century-old building in the small town of Sullivan, located in rural Jefferson County. That’s where they would test their invention.

Mueller says the old mill had been languishing, untouched except by the occasional mischief-maker, since 1978.

He says after major cleaning and basic building repair they built three identical turbine sets, because the idea was to connect them.

"We started out testing one, and it didn’t work,” he says. The team re-calibrated, and set out to secure small, old turbines.

“The idea was to take a design that was built in the 1920s or '30s, fairly efficient for the time, and 3D scan it and install it,” Mueller says.

He reached out to the world of academia, looking for support. He says he was starting from ground zero...

“I saw an article in the newspaper on idea advance out of UW- Madison. They were starting an accelerator for UW faculty and students. I called up and explained what we were doing – clean technology using 3D printing to make turbines. And I said I was thinking of going back to school so I would qualify,” Mueller says.

Mueller holds 3D-printing generated turbine.
Credit S Bence

UW encouraged him to take a different approach. Mueller reached out to UW-Whitewater’s Linda Reid, who headed the school’s Institute for Water Business.

“And she encouraged me to sign up for the BREW,” he says.

That’s the Water Council’s yearlong intensive startup accelerator. Cadens was accepted and Mueller says that’s when the startup began to gain traction.

Mueller’s team began to pull in experts, including UWM mechanical engineering professor Ryoichi Amano.

They also connected with a software expert allowing them to design for any small system setting.

Mueller says a Department of Energy grant provided Cadens with much needed financial fuel, but also encouragement.

“The DOE has identified over 49,000 non-powered low head dams that are suitable for hydropower and the average per site dam is less than 100 kilowatts. That’ micro hydro and that’s where we’re trying to break that barrier for entry,” he says.

But there’s more to Mueller’s plan. “I want to make these so cheap we can give them away and just get our revenue as power is generated,” hesays.

He admits Cadens faces daunting competition. “The two biggest companies in hydropower combined have over three hundreds experience. We’re a startup so there’s a big learning curve going on,” Mueller adds, "We have a long way to go."

He says being accepted into M-WERC’s start-up program added wind to Cadens’ sails.

Yet Mueller is hopeful they can take their product to market next year, if they score another Department of Energy grant. “We have to write a commercialization plan. The M-WERC program is perfect for us. It’s going to help us write this plan that should be really strong,” he says.

Greg Meier (standing) working with M-WERC's inaugural WERCBench Labs group.
Credit M-WERC

Greg Meier co-founded M-WERC’s startup program.

“It needs more support to continue building the level of sustained engagement we have, both at the universities and in the community. So that guys like Randy from Cadens has continuous support throughout the early stages of his business,” Meier says.

The bulk of M-WERC’s members represent companies from throughout the region.

Jeff Anthony at M-WERC's headquarters.

Jeff Anthony, who coordinates startup programming with Greg Meier, says those members are in “wait-and-see” mode on how the startup initiative could benefit them.

“A lot of this is about recreating the engineering commons, the industrial commons that existed when so many of our member companies got their start last century on the north side where we are located,” Anthony says.

He calls it the Silicon Valley of that time period.

“One of the underlying concepts that we ultimately feel the WERKBench Labs program will bring to what we’re trying to do in M-WERC overall is reestablish the engineering community,” Anthony says.

He says worldwide technology advancements are moving quickly on so many fronts, “companies need every tool they can get their hands on to make sure they stay on top of what’s changing and what’s the next big thing."

Back at his mill in rural Jefferson County, Randal Mueller hopes to prove he’s part of the next big energy thing.