MILWAUKEE — Two years ago in September the Global Water Center celebrated its grand opening, and since then the facility has attracted new businesses, corporations and startups, not to mention a handful of universities too — all of them with the same focus: water technology.
The 98,000-sq.ft. Global Water Center is truly one of a kind — it features a state-of-the-art water flow lab; global video conferencing center, lecture hall and green roof; collaborative business and academic research environment; water-related technology facilities for universities; development facilities for existing water-related companies; and accelerator space for new and emerging water technology companies.
First came The Water Council
Before the Global Water Center was built, The Water Council — a non-profit organization founded in 2009 — was created to be the central connector of all the water technology business groups and universities in the Milwaukee region. And before The Water Council was formed, the first thing Rich Meeusen, chairman, president and CEO of Badger Meter, did was find out how many water companies are located in the region.
The Water Council is the brainchild of Meeusen and Paul Jones, retired executive chairman of A.O. Smith Corporation.
Over the past 100 years we lost most of the breweries and all of the tanneries, but all the little companies that formed to service those industries grew up into larger water tech companies.
—said Rich Meeusen
“I had a university class do a research project for us to identify water technology companies in southeast Wisconsin,” said Meeusen. “I suspected we had an inordinate concentration of water companies here. In the late 1800s this region was built on “wet” industries — breweries and tanneries — all industries that needed water. Over the past 100 years we lost most of the breweries and all of the tanneries, but all the little companies that formed to service those industries grew up into larger water tech companies.”
The research done by the university class identified about 120 water technology companies, and today there are approximately 200 in Wisconsin, which is the largest concentration of water technology companies in the world, according to Meeusen.
“We realized that we have something special — we just never thought about water technology as an industry,” said Meeusen. “Once we got this information we invited these companies to a meeting and we proposed the idea of creating an industry group — The Water Council — where we would all work together.
“We bring these groups together and help businesses make connections and grow,” said Meghan Jensen, director of marketing and membership at The Water Council. “At our core is economic development, we also focus on technology and talent development, and recently announced our designation as the North American headquarters for the Alliance for Water Stewardship.”
According to The Water Council’s website, the Council is made up of leaders in both business and education — these leaders are bringing together the region’s existing water companies and research clusters, developing education programs to train talent, and building partnerships that cut across all sectors and geographic boundaries.
Creating the Global Water Center
Out of The Water Council, the Global Water Center was created thanks to Meeusen’s vision of a water accelerator in the United States, specifically in the Milwaukee region.
After the Israel visit I approached The Water Council Board about this — a water accelerator building in Milwaukee, and I thought we could do this better than anyone else.
—said Rich Meeusen
“About three years ago I started visiting water incubators around the world,” said Meeusen. “I visited one in Singapore, the Netherlands and Israel. And after the Israel visit I approached The Water Council Board about this — a water accelerator building in Milwaukee, and I thought we could do this better than anyone else.
“We need a water accelerator building with a lot of entrepreneurs in it,” said Meeusen. “But so much more… A water accelerator on steroids — something that makes people come out of their offices to mingle and network and work together.”
According to Meeusen, The Water Council envisioned a building that houses entrepreneurs, a research center of 100-year-old water companies, classrooms, labs for universities and support organizations too, like law firms and accounting firms.
“This came together quickly and now we have a 98,000-sq.ft building,” said Meeusen. “We have A.O. Smith and Badger Meter research facilities. We have suites for entrepreneurs, law offices, accounting offices, etc. This building has achieved a co-mingling of people. This is unique — no one else has done this.
“When I give tours of the Global Water Center, I end up by the coffee shop and tell people these are the most important tables in the entire building — sitting at these tables you will find an entrepreneur sitting next to a professor, sitting next to an engineer from a corporation, sitting next to a patent lawyer,” added Meeusen. “These are the conversations that will get us the technologies that will help serve the world’s water problems. That is really what the building is about — networking, synergy and bringing together all these water technology people into one place.
“Also in the building is a flow lab where people can test new products, and in the basement we put in equipment to provide ultrapure water in the building,” continued Meeusen. “We thought of everything water technology development might need.”
Water technology research
Water technology research is the name of the game at the Global Water Center. At Badger Meter, the largest maker of water meters in North America, research and development is being done on radio technology and the software to transmit meter information.
And having your meter talk to you — this is IoT — and let you know something is wrong helps you identify leaks and helps you use water more wisely.
—said Rich Meeusen
“One thing we developed is the radio technology and software required to allow us to transmit meter information not only to water utilities, but into the Cloud, so homeowners can punch in a code and see their water usage,” said Meeusen. “We have gone a step beyond this. The second version is so they can compare their water usage to like households.
“Think about vacationing in Florida in February, and your cell phone gets a text message from the water meter alerting you to an unusual amount of water usage in your home,” explained Meeusen. “There is a good chance you burst a pipe. And having your meter talk to you — this is IoT — and let you know something is wrong helps you identify leaks and helps you use water more wisely. Those are the type of things we are developing here.”
At the Global Water Center, A.O. Smith is focusing their research on different filtration projects, specifically in the Chinese Market.
“We work with Dr. Junhong Chen on his sensor technology of measuring heavy metal contamination and biological contamination in water,” said Bob Heideman, A. O. Smith’s senior vice president and chief technology officer. “We see this as a big need for the industry, so we have invested in his company and aided him in funding to help further develop his technology in the hope that it will turn into a product we can commercialize and this is all being done at the Global Water Center.”
“There are so many amazing start-ups in the Global Water Center working on water quality,” said Kirk Allen, president and CEO of Sloan Valve Company — a Water Council member. “One in particular, Mikroflot uses tiny bubbles to remove much of the impurity from waste water before it goes to the general sewer. I met with Dr. Jose Ramirez, the founder of Mikroflot, and was very impressed with his value proposition to manufacturing operations like Sloan that watch the cost of waste-water treatment very closely.”
Sloan provided the plumbing fixtures for the Global Water Center project, and has an office in the completed building.