Wisconsin’s presence at the U.S.’s largest water industry trade show this week highlighted the fast-paced growth and evolving sophistication of the sector.

With several dozen Wisconsin companies exhibiting, as well as a booth representing Wisconsin’s entire water cluster of more than 200 companies, the state’s presence was strong on both numbers and substance: several educational sessions highlighted Wisconsin’s industry leadership and the innovation taking place here.

The Water Environment Federation’s Annual Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC), which draws about 20,000 attendees and 1,000 exhibitors, was held this week in Chicago, with The Water Council and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation partnering to showcase the state’s water sector with the Wisconsin Water Pavilion, a booth on the show floor.

The booth highlighted the continued development of Milwaukee’s Water Technology District, where more than $211 million public and private investment took place from 2010 to 2015, according to a UW-Milwaukee economic investment analysis of development in the neighborhood.

Among the latest new developments in the district: Zurn Industries opened its headquarters in Reed Street Yards. A subsidiary of Rexnord Corp., Zurn is occupying a 52,000-square-foot building expected to create 120 jobs.

While Wisconsin has many larger water technology companies, the state really shines when it comes to its efforts to facilitate the growth of smaller companies and startups, Dean Amhaus, The Water Council’s president and CEO, said during a WEFTEC panel on water clusters.  “We have become experts in attracting small business” and helping those small businesses get connected to research, resources and larger companies within the industry, he said.

The Water Council’s BREW (Business. Research. Entrepreneurship. In Wisconsin) accelerator is one of its major vehicles for helping water technology startups. As part of the BREW Accelerator, companies move to Milwaukee for one year. They receive office space in the Global Water Center, where they benefit from networking with other companies and researchers in the building and in Milwaukee’s water cluster. Each BREW participant also receives up to a $50,000 equity investment, business training through the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Institute for Water Business, among other benefits. Read about the current class of companies participating in The BREW, which is now in its fifth year.

The BREW has been a springboard to success for many of its participants, including these BREW alumni outcomes reported in 2016:

  • Nano Gas Technologies raised $385,600 from a combination of angel investors, an equity fund and advisors, and is focusing next on raising a Series A round;
  • OxyMem secured a substantial investment from DOW Chemical Company;
  • Wellntel expanded by opening the Global Groundwater Center in Milwaukee to accelerate and expand production, customer service and new product development; and
  • Microbe Detectives signed six new alliance partnerships with value-added resellers in industrial and municipal wastewater, food and beverage, and paper industries covering the U.S. and Canada.

During the past year, The Water Council also expanded its BREW Corporate accelerator program, in which a larger water company invites applications from startups whose technologies have the potential to solve a problem the larger company is facing. This model falls under the concept of “open innovation,” in which corporations look beyond their in-house talent on the presumption that wider and freer sharing of ideas will result in accelerated innovation, and ultimately benefit the company—and the public. Elizabeth Thelen, director of entrepreneurship and talent at The Water Council, delivered a talk on open innovation as part of WEFTEC.

The Water Council is embarking on a similar innovation challenge cosponsored not by a private company but by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Glenn Research Center. In this case, NASA is seeking water technology startups that can benefit from the expertise of NASA mentors in helping the companies solve technical challenges they are facing. In addition to commercializing innovations that will further develop water technology as it relates to aerospace, the selected startups are expected to create jobs and contribute to U.S. economic growth more broadly.

And The Water Council announced the third round of its Pilot Program, which is designed to transfer research and prototypes from the lab to application in demonstration sites located in Wisconsin. Sponsored by the Fund for Lake Michigan, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Wells Fargo, the program focuses on the areas of intelligent stormwater green infrastructure; stormwater quality; stormwater quantity; and plant process technology, but is also open to other technology areas not listed.

The Wisconsin delegation also focused on the international connections it has forged, including collaborations with water cluster organizations in Germany, France, the Netherlands, South Korea and China—and an agreement they are currently in talks on with a potential partner organization in Israel, and hope to finalize during a global trade mission later this month.

Over the past year, team members from The Water Council spoke at conferences in Australia, Denmark, Germany, Spain, China, Canada and throughout the U.S., and welcomed delegations representing 21 countries to Milwaukee. The Water Council recently unveiled a package of “soft landing” services to help companies from abroad find their footing in the U.S. market—including the new Oasis Co-working Community, which offers flexible, short-term office space at the Global Water Center.

During WEFTEC, The Water Council and WEDC also announced they would be hosting conferences on water issues in two Chinese cities this November. As part of China’s “sponge cities” initiative, the organizations are hoping to connect Chinese customers with Wisconsin companies that have the technology to help China’s cities better control stormwater to rein in flooding and ensure an adequate supply of clean water for China’s residents and businesses.

Making connections is a central part of The Water Council’s core mission, and its research and commercialization (R&C) initiative was developed for this purpose. The Water Council unveiled the new initiative last year at WEFTEC and has spent the past year developing and implementing it, revamping its entire membership structure to be based on the level of engagement a company desires to have, rather than company size—and including participation in the R&C initiative at the highest level of membership.

The R&C initiative aggregates, evaluates and connects emerging technologies that address water issues across a wide range of industries, including utilities, agriculture and manufacturing. Working with the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer, the initiative offers its members technology scouting, screening and delivery of the best options for commercialization. Founding members include A. O. Smith, Badger Meter, Rexnord, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Also toward the goal of facilitating connections, The Water Council has made upgrades to the Global Water Port online research tool it debuted at WEFTEC 2015. The tool combines a powerful search engine with a social networking model similar to LinkedIn, so businesspeople and researchers can easily contact one another if they are interested in collaborating. In 2016, The Water Council partnered with Federal Laboratory Consortium and the U.S. Water Partnership to make data from federal labs more accessible through the Global Water Port, adding to the database’s potential to connect scientific discoveries with companies that can bring them to market.

The Water Council is also focusing on forging connections in its work at the energy-water nexus, which David Garman—chief technology officer at The Water Council and associate vice chancellor for water technology research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences—presented and moderated a panel about during WEFTEC. By bringing together companies from the water and energy sectors, Garman and others involved with this initiative hope the two groups of companies will be able to cross-pollinate technological solutions to solve challenges facing both industries.

In recent years, Wisconsin’s water sector has also been solidifying its leadership position on the national and international stage—for example, participating in the White House Roundtable on Water Innovation in 2015, and receiving recognition from the White House in 2016 for its contributions to advancing water innovation.

The Water Council was designated in 2015 as the North America headquarters of the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS), and in 2016, the Global Water Center became the first commercial office building in the world to implement the Alliance’s standards. Today, more than 50 sites in North America are working on implementing these standards.

In addition to the presence of The Water Council, AWS, academic research facilities and the offices of multiple leading companies in water technology, Global Water Center tenants benefit from the presence of the Water Equipment and Policy Research Center, a collaborative nonprofit organization of research universities and members including corporations and government agencies whose annual membership fees fund pre-competitive research in the areas of materials, sensors and devices, systems and policy.

The Water Council and Wisconsin’s water cluster have also earned several awards and distinctions in the past year, including:

  • CoreNet Global Economic Development Leadership Award for water technology cluster leadership;
  • Gold Award for entrepreneurship from the International Economic Development Council;
  • UW-Milwaukee Alumni Association Corporate Partnership Award; and
  • Business Marketing Association Bell’s Award for The Water Council website.

Find more updates from WEFTEC 2017 on the WEDC Events Blog.