Why Milwaukee's Water Business is Booming

Water technology is exploding in Milwaukee. A second Global Water Center will soon be built, and businesses are flocking to this “great place on a Great Lake.” Here’s why.

Many people know Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as a “great place on a Great Lake.” But not many people know it’s also a UN Global Compact City, a recognition that stems from its innovation in the water sector. Pair that with a history of high-water-use industries — such as tanning and brewing — and the fact that Milwaukee is a hub for more than 200 major water companies, and Wisconsin’s largest city becomes a force to be reckoned with when it comes to water expertise.

The Water Council
Milwaukee’s Water Council, which is housed at the Global Water Center, is at the heart of it all. The Water Council is a nonprofit with more than 170 member companies that focus on water preservation, research, technology, environmental protection and more.

According to Meghan Jensen, director of marketing and membership for The Water Council, people have started referring to the area in downtown Milwaukee — where the Global Water Center, Reed Street Yards Water Technology Park and UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences are located — as the Water Technology District.

“What is occurring in Milwaukee is much more than one building or one organization,” she says, “and this reference makes it easy for visitors to visually understand how much water technology research is taking place within a specific part of the city. We were receiving interest from so many businesses and startups that wanted to be part of our ecosystem in the Global Water Center.”

That interest prompted expansion to a second nearby building, which was purchased for $950,000. The new 46,000-square-foot facility will house small businesses and startups — mainly those developing and commercializing new water-related technologies. Jensen estimates total investment for Global Water Center II will be $10 million; construction is expected to begin in early 2016.

“Our goal is to support the growth and development of our local water technology companies while supporting alliances with global partners,” Jensen adds.

Engineering and education
The Global Water Center opened in 2013 with the intention of bringing together water engineering and equipment companies, universities, students and others involved in the multibillion water management market. In addition to businesses located on site, the center also houses the UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, UW-Whitewater Institute for Water Business, and space is under construction for Marquette University.

Global Water Center also collaborates with Milwaukee Area Technical College on a water technician certificate, which requires 17 to 19 credits in courses that also apply toward the school’s environmental health and water quality technology associate degrees. The program was developed through a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

“The secret sauce is the people,” Jensen says. “It’s the unique spirit of collaboration.”

She adds that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett — who sits on The Water Council’s board — and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation have been “incredibly supportive of the programs and initiatives The Water Council is doing.”

The Water Council staff works with startups, large water users, companies who work on sustainability, and those who help with global connections to match water innovation with capital.

Grant success
The Water Council has seen notable funding success thanks to some recent grants. In August, the organization announced a partnership with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and the Fund for Lake Michigan  — backed by We Energies — for a $600,000 two-year funding venture designed to advance clean-water technologies. The pilot program started earlier this year with a $100,000 grant from Wells Fargo.

The Pilot Deployment Program will seed water research projects, helping expedite the development of new technology. Its first participant was Stonehouse Water Technologies, which has launched its Water POD, a compact water filtration system that can provide potable water for up to 1,000 people.

In addition to the Wells Fargo grant, The Water Council has received support from the U.S. Department of Commerce/EDA, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and the U.S. Small Business Administration. These grants include:

  • JPMorgan Chase Small Business Forward Program. This award helps match capital with water innovation. The Water Council is identifying potential national and international investment capital for water technology entrepreneurs and companies to connect investors with startups at The Council’s first ever Water Venture Investment Conference at WEFTEC 2015.
  • U.S. Small Business Administration Regional Innovative Cluster Participant. This national partnership has established the Small Business Channel to equip small- and medium-sized water technology businesses with the resources needed to compete in a global market.
  • U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC)/Economic Development Administration (EDA) Regional Innovation Strategies Program. This award supports establishing a Water Seed Fund, which will let The Council provide seed-stage investments to the United States’ most promising water technology startups.

For more information, visit www.thewatercouncil.com.



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