Wisconsin water technology makes waves on a national and global scale

By: Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation

Wisconsin’s water technology cluster, centered in Milwaukee and comprising more than 200 companies throughout the state, continues to strengthen its leadership and international connections. 

“Of the world’s leading water clusters,” says Katy Sinnott, vice president of international business development with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), “ours is the only one that’s focused on the full cycle of water,” from rainwater and groundwater, through a cycle of the water’s use by a consumer or business, to its treatment and eventual discharge into the environment or reuse. “The world is taking notice, with more companies being drawn to establish a presence in Wisconsin, and overseas partners seeking to collaborate and benefit from Wisconsin’s expertise in water.” 

One major opportunity Wisconsin is pursuing: WEDC and The Water Council will be hosting conferences on water issues in two Chinese cities next month. The conferences, taking place Nov. 27 in Beijing and Nov. 30 in Nanjing under the title “One Water, One World: The U.S.-China Conference on Water and Sponge Cities,” are being held with support from the U.S. Commercial Service at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and will feature panels of experts from Wisconsin talking about stormwater management and efficient water use. Kevin Shafer, executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, will give a keynote address on the “one water” concept and how it could be implemented as part of China’s “sponge city” initiative. 

Due to rapid urban development and widespread use of impervious materials that prevent soil from absorbing rainwater, China is dealing with flooding problems so serious that they can even become life-threatening with heavy rainfall. The sponge city initiative, which encompasses 30 cities across China, seeks to reduce the intensity of rainwater runoff by upgrading urban infrastructure to allow for better retention and drainage, as well as natural purification and filtration. 

Examples might include rooftops covered by plants; permeable pavements that store excess water runoff and allow evaporation for temperature moderation; the use of scenic wetlands for rainwater storage; the use of public spaces for water retention; and flushing systems that use collected rooftop water. Because the resulting groundwater replenishment increases the availability of water for various uses, this approach not only reduces flooding but also enhances water supply security. Another goal of the initiative is making sure agricultural users have the necessary irrigation and drainage technology to ensure that their crops have neither too much nor too little water—but just the right amount, contributing to the security of China’s food supply. 

Wisconsin’s water sector companies are well positioned to provide these technologies to customers in China, and to work collaboratively with Chinese companies to develop their own solutions. 

“We’re seeing that the water cluster is increasingly becoming an asset for companies outside the Wisconsin region,” said Dean Amhaus, president and CEO of The Water Council. “Through our established ecosystem of academic and research expertise, technological subject-matter experts and support at the regional and state level, we have a special opportunity to assist other countries on their endeavors toward developing ‘one water’ cities.” (The “one water” approach takes an integrated view of drinking water, wastewater, industrial process water, and public waterways, rather than considering these constituents independently of one another.) 

The Water Council hopes to sign an agreement with a partner organization in Israel during a trade mission later this month, and already has agreements in place with partners in Germany, France, the Netherlands, South Korea and China. With the help of these bilateral agreements, researchers and companies in one location can connect with researchers and companies in the other, sharing ideas and accelerating the pace of innovation. 

This is also a key goal of a collaboration between The Water Council and its counterpart, the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium, at the “energy-water nexus” where the two sectors overlap. With energy and water both in scarce supply around the globe, innovations at this nexus have the potential for broad impact. Wisconsin’s strength in both sectors positions the state to be a leader in this cross-sector innovation, and these two sectors have also been identified as a main focus for Wisconsin’s participation in the Brookings Institution’s Global Cities Initiative, which aims to increase global trade and economic competitiveness. 

Wisconsin’s strength in water technology was demonstrated at the Water Environment Federation’s Annual Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC), held in Chicago earlier this month. WEDC and The Water Council partnered to represent Wisconsin’s water cluster with a booth at the show, which is the largest water industry trade show in the U.S., drawing about 20,000 attendees and 1,000 exhibitors. 

Among the achievements being celebrated were the successes of companies that have taken part in The Water Council’s BREW (Business. Research. Entrepreneurship. In Wisconsin) Accelerator. Now in its fifth year, the accelerator has helped promising water technology startups commercialize their technology, attract investment and sign licensing agreements, among other positive results. 

With the expertise it has built at organizing and running innovation challenges, The Water Council has also drawn interest from corporate and government partners, leading to collaborations with large water technology companies such as Veolia and A. O. Smith, as well as a new collaboration with NASA announced during WEFTEC. 

Embracing its role as a connector, in the last year The Water Council has also revamped its entire membership structure to be based on the level of engagement a company wishes to have, rather than company size—with the highest level of membership including participation in The Water Council’s new research and commercialization (R&C) initiative, which acts like an “executive search” firm for water technology, helping companies scout technologies that may be of use for solving business challenges and developing new products. 

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