By: Carl Engelking
If you want to understand Milwaukee’s past and its future, stand on the shores of Lake Michigan and look east. Hissing waves crash and whitecaps flutter as far as the eye can see.
Milwaukee also happens to sit at the confluence of three rivers – so it’s hard to walk more than a few blocks without a waterfront view. This abundance of water provided a steady supply of fowl, fish and wild rice for tribal populations 13,000 years before Europeans appeared. When Solomon Laurent Juneau permanently settled the area in 1818, the lake and rivers served as vital trade arteries that fed the embryonic settlement. As it grew, storied Milwaukee companies like A.O. Smith, Miller Brewing, Badger Meter and Harley Davidson planted roots and expanded around the world – all, to varying degrees, owing their success to water.
Many of Milwaukee’s historic industries left the city long ago, but its economic DNA continues evolving. Today, in place of tanneries and steel rolling mills, Milwaukee is fast-emerging as a global freshwater hub where essential research and investment is solving the world’s vexing water problems – of which there are many. Within an hour’s drive of downtown, you could visit some 200 water technology businesses. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences is unlike any other institution in the nation, perhaps the world.
At the center of it all, forming a network of connective tissue between public, private and academic circles, is The Water Council, a non-profit organization focused on water-driven economic development. Every year, The Water Council invites water-tech startups from around the world to the city through its BREW Accelerator program. For 3-1/2 months, startups work with industry insiders and startup mentors to refine, scale and build their businesses. But it’s equally an opportunity for city leaders to sell Milwaukee to these upstart enterprises.
“Water was at the center of so many of our early industries, but many of those companies have left,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett recently told water entrepreneurs at a BREW Accelerator kickoff event. “We have a lot of work to do in this city, but we are fighting back. We’re fighting back, and this has become a great place to start a business.”
Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is
Jared Cacciatore was one of those entrepreneurs in attendance. He’s a founder of Rockford, Illinois-based Latitude Power, a company that designs micro-hydroelectric generators that harvest energy from water flowing through the massive pipes used in wastewater treatment plants, decommissioned dams and other industrial systems.
A Latitude Power device, for simplicity’s sake, is a turbine that connects to existing pipes and spins when water flows through it, generating electricity. Cacciatore says a single unit can produce enough energy to power five homes for a year or charge 3.9 million cellphones. Sure, one unit isn’t going to power a city, but it taps into an energy source that would otherwise have gone wasted. But retrofit a public water utility with a fleet of these, and the impact becomes tangible.
“I’ve always had a soft spot for any technologies that help the environment and people,” says Cacciatore, who earned a degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Wisconsin. “This was a chance to do both, and we think the market potential could be huge.”
When it comes to the business side of things, Latitude Power’s backstory is emblematic of Barrett’s and the rest of the state’s “fight back” mentality. Not long ago, Latitude Power reached out to the governors of Illinois and Wisconsin to get connected to resources to grow their business. Within three days the office of then-Gov. Scott Walker sent a response and connected them to the Water Council. That interaction, ultimately, led to them earning a spot in the BREW Accelerator.
“The positivity and energy among the Water Council staff, the other startups and the established companies that are here showed us this city is really putting their money where their mouth is,” says Cacciatore. “This city, through its actions, is showing they really care about water as a resource. They care about making Milwaukee an example to follow in this industry.”
I asked if he had heard back from the Illinois governor. To his knowledge, they haven’t. He is, however, open to locating in Milwaukee. Of course, so long as it’s the best thing for the business.
A Crucial Task Ahead
Latitude Power joins five other startups in this year’s BREW Accelerator program. Two Milwaukee-based companies, P4 Infrastructure and Rapid Radicals Technology, are among the cohort. P4 uses advanced computing, engineering and connected devices to monitor risk in water infrastructure systems. Rapid Radicals has developed a high-rate wastewater treatment technology to monitor sewerage overflows.
“I’ve been working within the start-up community for over a decade and I’ve never seen anything attract entrepreneurs like water in Milwaukee,” says Steve Glynn, director of innovation at The Water Council.
A thriving freshwater technology hub will certainly provide a lift for Milwaukee, but what happens here will ripple across the planet. In many ways, the world is watching Milwaukee. Last year in Cape Town, South Africa, severe drought pushed residents uncomfortably close to “Day Zero” – the point when most of the city’s taps would, literally, be shut off. On the flipside, farmers in America’s heartland are contending with vicious flooding this year. We’re all familiar with what happened in Flint, Michigan. By 2025, it’s estimated that 52 percent of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas – that is, places where demand for water outstrips its availability.
That’s the trouble with water; it doesn’t behave. You get more than you ever asked for or none at all. An island in the ocean is surrounded by water – not a drop of it is drinkable. As ubiquitous as water seems, it’s extremely rare. Roughly 70 percent of the planet is covered in water, only about 2.5 percent of it is drinkable. Of that 2.5 percent, perhaps 1 percent of it is easily accessible and useable. The rest is frozen, floating in the sky as clouds or trapped deep underground.
As the world’s population pushes global demand for water ever higher, Milwaukee, a city adjacent to a system of lakes that accounts for 20 percent of the world’s freshwater supply, will be doing its best to ensure water plays by our rules.