In Water Council programs, competition and collaboration meet to advance innovation

Posted by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) on September 24, 2019

Launching a startup or pursuing a research question in the lab can be lonely pursuit, involving long hours and late nights of solitary work—but innovation thrives through collaboration. To that end, The Water Council organizes a series of competitions that connect water sector startups and innovators with potential investors, with established companies that may be able to use the new technologies, and with one another.

These programs were highlighted this week at WEFTEC—the Water Environment Federation’s Technical Exhibition and Conference—in Chicago, where The Water Council and WEDC are working to raise awareness of Wisconsin’s leadership in water technology.

Applications for all three of this year’s competitions are open now through Nov. 3, 2019.

Of the three programs, The BREW focuses specifically on water technology entrepreneurs working to bring their ideas to market. The Tech Challenge is open to anyone—not just startups, but researchers, students and individuals, with or without a university or company affiliation.

Tech Challenge focuses on sensors, artificial intelligence

For the second year, The Water Council is hosting the Tech Challenge, a global competition designed to identify cutting-edge freshwater technologies and ideas with high potential for commercialization or implementation. Finalists have an opportunity to win prize money, access to corporate R&D resources and a chance to partner with corporate sponsors on the marketing, licensing or sale of their winning technology or idea. Tech Challenges are sponsored by corporate partners from water-intensive and water technology industries, including A. O. Smith Corporation, Badger Meter and Zurn Industries, a Rexnord company.

“No question that the results from our first round earlier this year exceeded not only our expectations but, more importantly, those of our corporate sponsors,” said Dean Amhaus, president and CEO of The Water Council. “We were impressed with the quality and maturity of ideas that were submitted from across the world, and this played out by the fact that our corporate sponsors found a number of solutions that they are continuing to pursue.”

The second round of the Tech Challenge specifically seeks the following types of solutions:

Anyone with an innovative idea that addresses one of the identified topics is encouraged to apply. Prospective technologies or ideas can be submitted from entrepreneurs, university students or researchers, professionals already working in water-dependent industries, private sector and government labs or just inventive individuals from any location in the world.

“A. O. Smith is pleased to continue its support of entrepreneurs, researchers and promising startup businesses in the ever-expanding field of water technology,” said Dr. Robert Heideman, senior vice president and corporate technology officer with A. O. Smith Corp. “As a 145-year-old organization built on the premise of innovation, A. O. Smith is excited to be able share our experiences and potentially help bring proposed ideas to life in day-to-day products.”

“The first round of the Tech Challenge exceeded our expectations in discovering some very promising ideas and technologies that were not on our radar screen,” said Fred Begale, vice president of engineering at Badger Meter. “We look forward to this next round, and to being introduced to some new global innovations that will help Badger Meter as we advance our research and development program.”

“Zurn is focused on solving difficult water quality and efficiency and plumbing system issues by applying IoT technologies to commercial plumbing systems,” said Tony Wilcox, vice president of innovation and digital solutions at Zurn. “We’re excited about the Tech Challenge’s focus on sensors and artificial intelligence processes, and we welcome the opportunity to meet and work with new researchers and entrepreneurs.”

Pilot Program connects water-related businesses with pilot sites and funding

The Pilot Program, a program of The Water Council in partnership with the Fund for Lake Michigan, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) and Wells Fargo, is now open for its fifth round of applications. The program connects water-related businesses with potential sites and funding to further validate and commercialize technologies.

In this round, applications are being sought for the following areas of emphasis:

“We’re thrilled to partner with Wells Fargo, MMSD and The Water Council to support game-changing technologies that address our most urgent water quality challenges,” said Vicki Elkin, executive director of the Fund for Lake Michigan. “The challenges we are facing require new approaches and cutting-edge technologies.”

“With infrastructure as a top priority for the U.S. federal government, coupled with the amount of time it takes for a water tech product to work its way from concept to market-ready, it is crucial to provide as much support as we can right now to help businesses test, refine and validate their products,” said Dean Amhaus, president and CEO of The Water Council. “We’re pleased to work with our partners to support businesses that provide solutions for infrastructure and innovation needs.”

“Wells Fargo is honored to support The Water Council through our Clean Technology and Innovation Grant Program,” said Mary Wenzel, executive vice president and head of sustainability and corporate responsibility at Wells Fargo. “The Water Council’s platform for gathering technical data in order to scale and commercialize technologies will provide much-needed enhancements to our water infrastructure and will fill a critical gap in the clean-tech ecosystem.”

“There will always be better, more cost-effective ways to protect public health and our rivers and lakes through clean water innovations,” said MMSD Executive Director Kevin Shafer. “We fully support these local efforts that harness the potential to benefit the world.”

Next round of the BREW will focus on agricultural runoff, emerging technologies

The Water Council’s original competitive program, the BREW (Business. Research. Entrepreneurship. In Water) Accelerator, is also currently open for applications—in this case, for its seventh round. This includes both the main BREW Accelerator and the BREW Corporate Accelerator powered by A. O. Smith.

“The Water Council is excited to launch the seventh cohort opportunity with the BREW Accelerator,” said Steve Glynn, director of entrepreneurship at The Water Council. “If you’re an entrepreneur in water technology, there’s nothing like the BREW experience to connect you to the right resources and people who can help move your company forward.”

The current round of the BREW Accelerator competition will focus on two areas of interest:

The BREW Corporate Accelerator powered by A. O. Smith is focused on the following areas of interest:

“A. O. Smith is proud to once again extend our expertise and resources to help support freshwater entrepreneurs and technology startups,” said Sam Karge, president of the North America water treatment division at A. O. Smith. “We’re pleased to be in a position to help promising, early-stage water companies in bringing their innovations and ideas to life.”

Since 2013, the BREW has provided nearly 40 water technology startups with seed funding and low-cost office and research space in the Global Water Center in Milwaukee, as well as access to university R&D and mentorship to move their companies forward. The three-month, hands-on curriculum focuses on weekly business validation activities with coaches to define each company’s value proposition and understand needs.

“WEDC is a proud supporter of the BREW,” said Aaron Hagar, WEDC’s vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation. “Accelerators are a critical resource for helping startups hone their concepts and more effectively use their resources. Programs like the BREW give startups and entrepreneurs access to coaching to help build their businesses more effectively and efficiently than they ever could on their own.”

Giving companies the biggest runway for success

A panel discussion this afternoon at WEFTEC highlighted the benefits that come from the BREW’s “physical, tangible, in-person” nature, in the words of Karen Frost, vice president of economic development for The Water Council. Frost moderated the discussion among five of the 2019 BREW cohort members.

“If you feel stuck, you’re able to get a nudge to keep you going, and it’s really helpful,” said Joseph Diekfuss, cofounder of P4 Infrastructure, a Milwaukee-based company that uses advanced computing, engineering and connected devices to mitigate risk for those managing infrastructure systems.

“I think all of us can agree that this would be impossible to do from a distance,” added Paige Peters, founder and CEO of Rapid Radicals Technology, a Milwaukee-based company that developed technology for treating wastewater at the end of the pipe to prevent overflows of untreated sewage after large rainstorms.

Through the partnerships it develops and nurtures, The Water Council aims to “help give companies the biggest runway for success,” Frost said.

The introductions to investors, mentors and other companies working in the water space are transformative for a young business, said Kelvin Okamoto, founder of Gen3Bio, an Indiana-based company that developed a method of extracting cellular content from wastewater algae to create value-added specialty chemicals.

“Being part of the BREW really brings you into the water industry,” Okamoto said.

The BREW curriculum has evolved to incorporate attention to founder wellness, covering topics related to physical, mental and emotional wellness; work-life balance; and interpersonal dynamics that arise on teams that work together.

Frost noted that this addition came with the BREW’s acceptance into the Global Accelerator Network, which has certain requirements for its members. That membership also opens up a vast network of peers and fellow accelerator alumni, so that “there’s not just a cliff these companies fall off once they’re done with the accelerator,” Frost said.

In a startup environment that’s often hyper-competitive given the limited funding, the collaborative spirit of the cohort was a welcome surprise, said Jared Cacciatore, cofounder of Latitude Power, an Illinois-based company that created a micro-hydroelectric generator that recycles energy that would otherwise be lost into electricity.

“There was very little ego in this group, which I found super refreshing,” Cacciatore said.

Instead of taking time away from important tasks, the twice-weekly cohort meetings gave “time to think outside of the day-to-day” that turned out to be incredibly valuable, said John Barelli, owner and president of WaterSurplus, an Illinois-based company that developed a coating that improves reverse osmosis membrane performance in hard-to-treat water.

WaterSurplus has existed for three decades, but Barelli took part in the accelerator specifically to work on development of the new membrane coating technology.

“I would love to have been part of the BREW 30 years ago,” he said.

For entry forms, application criteria and other details for all three programs, go to watertechhub.com.

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