Inciting Inspiration: Milwaukee Global Water Center Provides Research, Accelerator Platform for Existing, Emerging Companies

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By Art Haddaway, WaterWorld Editor

The water and wastewater sector is inciting more creativity and innovation than ever before, especially when it comes to driving groundbreaking research and discovering new companies and technologies. In fact, the industry has begun to invest additional money and resources toward developing advanced programs that capitalize on these opportunities, and The Water Council's newly launched Global Water Center (GWC) in Milwaukee, Wis., is a prime example.

Center's café
The Center's café along with its cutting-edge flow lab, provided by Badger Meter. The lab allows groups to conduct accurate, real-time testing of water samples.

A state-of-the-art water research and business-startup facility, the GWC provides a unique platform for both established and emerging water-related companies to network with other organizations, research and develop new programs and technologies, and advance their businesses forward - the first of its kind in the United States. Further, the exclusive venue is focused on freshwater technologies and merges collaboration with commercialization to better address important water issues pertaining to quality, technology and policy.

"The main goal of the Global Water Center is to coalesce large established international water businesses with university researchers/students and technology entrepreneurs," said Meghan Jensen, Director of Marketing and Membership. Designated as a World Water Hub for its freshwater science efforts, the city of Milwaukee is expanding its position with the Center's many offerings. "We are an economic development entity," Jensen said. "Our vision is to be the globally-connected epicenter of freshwater research, education and business development."

Opened on September 12, 2013, the GWC is located in a renovated seven-story, 98,000-square-foot former warehouse in Walker's Point Neighborhood. The venue houses 31 different established and startup organizations comprising a combination of industry, academia and government sources that contribute to the ongoing advancement of the city as a Global Water Hub. Ultimately, the progressive research conducted at the facility provides groundbreaking solutions that could significantly benefit the water and wastewater industry as a whole.

The location features a 44-person lecture auditorium, large exhibition space for new prototypes and special events, a board room with global video conferencing technology, and a cutting-edge flow lab, provided by Badger Meter, that allows groups to conduct accurate, real-time testing of water samples. Along with The Water Council, the Center contains a number of high-tech facilities for its several tenants who comprise universities, businesses, economic agencies, and philanthropic organizations.

Water-related technology facilities are available for education-focused occupants, such as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) School of Freshwater Sciences and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (UWW) Institute for Water Business, to progress their projects and endeavors. Likewise, development facilities are offered for existing water-related tenants, including Grundfos, Sloan Valve, A.O. Smith Corporation, and Veolia Water North America, to advance their impact in the water sector. The GWC also provides leading-edge accelerator space for new and emerging water-technology companies, such as Envolus Inc., Alga Bionics LLC and Hanging Gardens LLC, to help cultivate their ideas and propel them forward.

"When you walk in, it is truly amazing to have all these people in the building - it's a solid water technology network of experts," said Elizabeth Thelen, Director of Entrepreneurship and Talent. "We're not all working on the same thing, but we're all in alignment with the same goal: improving [water] quality, having more access to it, refining it, using it in more efficient ways, etc. Here, you're one person away from finding the person you might need."

drop counts

The accelerator space, called The BREW (Business. Research. Entrepreneurship. In Wisconsin) - formerly the Global Freshwater Seed Accelerator (GFSA) - is one of the first mentor-driven seed accelerators in the world that serves as an incubator for startups concentrated on addressing freshwater challenges. Founded by The Water Council and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), The BREW enables these companies to thrive in the current market through a three-pronged philosophy: unleashing innovation by bolstering the start-up process; accelerating results by linking them with a strong and vibrant water network; and inspiring action by providing an engaging and interactive workplace.

The accelerator initiative began on Sept. 2, 2013, and featured five startup companies - H2Oscore, Vegetal i.D., Microbe Detectives, Rice Technologies, and NEW Works - to participate in its pilot program. The Water Council and a separate panel of global expert judges nominated these entities as inaugural winners based on their potential of commercialization, compatibility with existing companies, and long-term interest in expanding their efforts throughout Milwaukee. The five companies will graduate on Thursday, June 19.

"Entrepreneurship is big in the U.S. and globally, so it's interesting that there's this big push for innovation and new technology, and there are a lot of people out there sitting on ideas," said Thelen. "Whether it's the person in the garage or it's the person who's been on a job for 25 years, or it's the professor that's tinkering with something in the lab, it's important to truly accelerate those ideas and [bring them] not only to commercialization but to adoption."

In a series of blog columns, The Water Council provided additional insight on the graduating companies, including interviews with their management teams.

McGee Young, founder of H2Oscore, said that the company helps communities better manage their water supplies by presenting data collected by local utilities about customers' water use in various real-time online dashboards that relay consumption rates in a relatable, user-friendly and easy-to-read format. Further, the technology serves as a tool to educate the public about the correlation between water usage and water supply and helps customers better understand the value of water.

Vegetal i.D. provides modular, living green roofs that are designed to revitalize a city's natural elements and improve overall stormwater management. The company has developed the Hydropack system - an "all-in-one" pre-vegetated green-roof tray module containing grown vegetation, filter fabric, mineral drainage, and water reservoirs - which helps control runoff with a constant and minimal flow rate. The company has also developed a model to calculate this runoff on a monthly basis using precipitation and evapotranspiration data.

Microbe Detectives provides DNA-based microbial analysis for water and wastewater remediation, as well as for food and beverage and environmental applications. The analysis utilizes DNA sequencing systems and comprehensive genetic databases to better identify and quantify nearly all bacteria in microbial communities and solve water problems - unlike other microbial-investigative services that solely rely on microscopic observation, culturing or chemical analysis.

Rice Technologies developed the Leak Shark, a large-area water leak detection technology that alerts property owners of particular leak incidents by sending text and email notifications. Once a leak has been detected, a coded wireless signal is sent to a receiver to close the main water valve. The system can shut down a home's or business's water supply to prevent major damage. Whereas traditional systems utilize the same twin metal probe method to detect leaks, the Leak Shark generates an electromagnetic field over a certain area and determines the amount and presence of water based on the returning signal.

Lastly, NEW Works provides an advanced laboratory offering practical learning courses and hands-on water management training encompassing the entire water cycle, including purification, water supply, wastewater transport, wastewater treatment, monitoring and controlling operations, and energy optimization in water treatment plants. President Shajan John said the purpose of these efforts centers on accelerating technology transfer and transforming communities through the use of proper water management technologies.

The WEDC is allotting a $50,000 start-up grant to program participants. They will also receive affordable space in the GWC, business model and operations training, access to UWM and UWW faculty, and access to investment capital funding sources. The five winning companies have extended their leases for another six months and will continue to contribute their services toward the advancement of water innovation. Further, The BREW is launching Round II of the accelerator program in September 2014 and will choose up to six winners by mid-June.

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