“We take scientists and engineers and turn them into businessmen and businesswomen,” explains Bill Dougan, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater professor of management and advisor to the BREW, a startup accelerator program hosted by The Water Council in Milwaukee. Now in its fourth year, the program featured prominently in the Innovation Pavilion at the 2016 Water Environment Federation Technological Exposition and Conference, the world’s largest annual water quality exhibition that took place in New Orleans September 26 through 28. All 10 members of the latest batch of BREW participants made Shark Tank-style pitches to investors and other audience members in an effort to attract interest, investment, collaboration and support for their ventures as part of the sometimes frenetic journey from idea to sustainable business.
Attendance at WEFTEC and participation in the BREW Tank event is one of the requirements of the six-month BREW program, which also involves weekly lean business management sessions hosted by Dougan, water science and business expert John Tillotson and other industry partners.
“We hold them accountable to completing the process,” says The Water Council’s director of entrepreneurship and talent Elizabeth Thelen. “We also help them validate their technology and find potential customers.”
The business development requirements of entrepreneurship do not come naturally to many of the BREW participants. “The BREW applies force to our back to make us go out and talk to customers,” says Arsalan Lodi, founder and CEO of WISRAN, a California-based water metering and resource management company and current BREW participant.
Successful applicants to the BREW program receive a $50,000 convertible note funded by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation along with the following benefits:
- A one-year low cost lease in a shared suite in the Global Water Center, including complimentary use of all Center facilities;
- Access to the Global Water Center’s flow lab and wet lab space;
- Introductions to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Marquette University lab staff as appropriate throughout the program;
- Marketing of the company’s technology, including inclusion in The Water Council/Wisconsin Innovation booth at WEFTEC; and
- Assistance finding interns and employees.
In addition, BREW participants receive a complimentary one-year membership in The Water Council, which provides numerous networking and business development opportunities.
According to Thelen, The Water Council received applications to this year’s BREW program from eight countries. “We open our program to a wide range of company types,” says Thelen, “so that participants can learn from each other.” For the most part, companies participating in the BREW are not yet at the revenue stage of development.
Getting Smart about Water Reuse
Smart Waters, a current BREW company based in Vancouver, designs strategic water reserve systems for the construction industry. One use of the company’s retention system involves capturing large quantities of rainwater in underground containers in order to prevent municipal storm water systems from being overwhelmed. These water reserves can then be used for such things as irrigation and firefighting, for example. Smart Waters’ storage systems are also used by heavily water-dependent industries such as hydraulic fracturing and paper and pulp production.
Smart Waters Founder and CEO Jamie Gordy believes his company’s technology holds great promise for creating water self-sufficiency for many types of buildings, which will help developers in Canada comply with the nation’s strict building codes while also creating value differentiation. “By harvesting rainwater and storing ‘gray water’ under the building for reuse, developers effectively turn a utility into an asset,” explains Gordy, who is marketing his solution to developers in Vancouver where building permits are issued conditionally upon storm water containment. “By taking their buildings off ‘the grid,’ developers not only meet the building code, they take their projects to the next level in terms of sustainability,” Gordy adds.
Smart Waters was invited to apply to the BREW accelerator program and was motivated by the opportunity to introduce its technology to the U.S. market. “The Water Council bends over backwards to connect you to partners and investors,” Gordy enthuses.
Smart Waters is taking advantage of its BREW participation to develop and implement a new pathogen sensor package that will identify bacteria in its containment vessels. “So you no longer have to send a sample to the lab and wait four days to see what’s going on in the water,” Gordy explains.
The company also is working with The Water Council on a project to recycle water at The Global Water Center, a project that could be completed as early as mid-2017.
Among the goals of the BREW program is attracting new companies to Milwaukee in order to enhance the already strong cluster of water technology companies operating in the state, adding new capabilities to Wisconsin’s water technology industry and creating jobs in the process. In this regard, Smart Waters is a success story. Gordy admits he knew very little about Milwaukee before arriving in September 2015. What he now knows about the city’s burgeoning freshwater ecosystem fueled a commitment to expand his company here. “We’re setting up shop here in Wisconsin,” he says.
Gordy predicts that Smart Waters Milwaukee operations will employ five to 10 people in its first year, and he is very encouraged by the talent being developed in the area to support the water industry. “Construction is the easy part,” he says. “Advanced systems require more skills.”
WatrHub, an alumnus of the second BREW crew in 2014, has also established an office in Milwaukee following its positive experience in the program. The company uses data analytics to help water technology companies pinpoint opportunities at prospective water utilities and municipalities, increasing marketing and sales effectiveness and ROI. Since completing the BREW program, WatrHub has doubled in size to 12 full-time employees and maintains its original office in Toronto as well as a presence in the Global Water Center. “Milwaukee has the best water cluster in North America,” says WatrHub Chief Product Officer Sunit Mohindroo, who now also serves as a BREW advisor.
WatrHub’s BREW experience helped the company narrow its target market. “We thought we had a product for everybody, but realized we had to get more focused.” The company has since developed a subscription model that it uses to share market intelligence with its customers. It also has expanded its database to include 32 million data points that help its clients identify optimum sales opportunities within their markets.
These capabilities helped FATHOM, a fast-growing water utility operations solution provider, better qualify its targets and shorten its sales cycle. FATHOM gave WatrHub specific ideal client criteria, which the company used as the basis for data-mining 15,000 documents and 70,000 web pages to produce prospect information that cut FATHOM’s sales cycle in half. “We had more intelligent conversations with target utilities and closed $7 million in sales as a result of this program,” said FATHOM CEO Trevor Hill.
Mohindroo acknowledges that his company’s solution could just as well be applied to other industries, including transportation and construction, but WatrHub, as its name suggests, is committed to the water sector. “The world faces serious challenges related to water sustainability, and the situation is only going to get worse with limited budgets and strained resources,” he says. “Technology is the only solution, and data can help bridge the challenge.”