Historically, water was key to Milwaukee’s booming innovative and industrial successes. Now there’s a concerted push to position Milwaukee as a water technology hub.
Hensley Foster is part of the action. His career as an industrial engineer stretched across four decades, but he says when it ended, his creative juices were far from tapped out.
It has since morphed into a mini water utility. “When we started out, we were looking at capturing water using cisterns and things like that and we knew once we captured it we would have to filter it….but we had this revelation that what we really needed to do was concentrate on a core module to purify,” Foster says.
With a mantra of low energy / low flow, Foster’s water pod took shape. He says what the public will see is a sleek 5-foot tall water dispenser.
“We have completely redesigned it because like our guy says this looks like coffee maker,” Foster says.
Yet behind the scenes, the mini-utility is cleansing the water. “This is the water coming in over here, goes through these series of filters and UV treatment and then it comes back,” Foster says.
Foster’s creation is gaining momentum. His crew installed a system in Algoma, Wisconsin, and next week, one will go on line at an El Rey grocery store on Milwaukee’s south side.
Later this year Foster expects to launch projects in the Dominican Republic and Africa.
He considers himself one of the lucky few. Foster's was among first start ups to move into the Global Water Center as it launched its BREW Accelerator.
It brings together established businesses, researchers and entrepreneurs at the Global Water Center to collaborate.
Foster has garnered $300,000 in grants and services to push his product forward.
Yet he worries that others with promising water tech ideas will fall through the cracks due to short incubation time and scarce funding.
“What this whole thing kind of encourages is the very young that are still in college and can afford to work on some cool ideas and then on the other end you have people like me who should be retired. What we’re missing that middle … somebody saying, hey I’ve got a kid and I can’t afford to do that. I’d love to take my idea, but it’s going to take a couple more years,” Foster adds, “And that’s the one thing I’ve learned about being here for two years, money is it!”
Dean Amhaus doesn’t disagree. He heads The Water Council.
It has exploded with growth. Six years ago, Amhaus was a staff of one.
In 2013, the group transformed a century old warehouse into the Global Water Center and rolled out its BREW accelerator program. It has nurtured 19 startups and facilitated a dozen products/patents.
Yet, Amhaus says increasing the funding pool to support more than a few entrepreneurs at a time, and for longer than a year, remains a nagging challenge.
“There are not a lot of seed funds, angel funds, investors who are saying ‘boy, I’m going to put my money into water because of the fact that it’s a long return, some of these investors want to put it in an app where you can make a billion dollars in a few years. That’s just not the nature of this.,'" he says.
Some resources are flowing in, including from the National Science Foundation.
Its funding coupled with industry money has created The Water Equipment and Policy Center.
Marquette University engineering professor Dan Zitomer says the Center has cultivated collaboration among Marquette, UW-Milwaukee and water industries. That collaboration has resulted in technology to instantly monitor water quality.
“Now we have 14 industry members and have been very successful - multiple licensing agreements and technologies that are being developed,” Zitomer says.
To be exact, 10 licensing agreements and four patent applications, and Zitomer is confident the center will continue to succeed, because its members have established “an infrastructure for communication.”
“It’s getting people to talk that don’t usually talk and that really fosters new ideas and new products for the market place,” Zitomer says.
Scott Royer oversees R&D for the international company Veolia.
It recently handpicked three start-ups that will spend the next year at the Global Water Center to benefit from its ecosystem.
“I mean we could have a little office somewhere off by ourselves and do the same thing. The fact that there are other companies here, there are other entrepreneurs here, there’s a BREW class to teach people to be better entrepreneurs – all this networking available, and all these ideas getting thrown around. It’s a catalyst for helping us develop these opportunities,” Royer says.
He thinks Milwaukee is on track to become a hub of water technology innovation.
But challenges exist.
Linda Reid led UW-Whitewater’s Institute for Water Business.
It opened an office in the Global Water Center and funneled students into Milwaukee’s water scene.
“I do have the sense that young people who are really interested in working in water might not be able to find their place because of budget cuts to state institutions,” Reid says.
A steady stream of financial support is vital to keeping innovators here, according to Greg Meier. He’s a software guy who’s helped mentor a number of start-ups.
“We’re competing with other states and every place around the world for this talent base. This is the most highly sought after talents base in the world. Innovative people and in particular people who have technology skills – engineering, software - everyone in the world wants these people,” Meier says.
He says water innovation talent is percolating here, but the city will have to compete aggressively to create the Milwaukee of the future.