MILWAUKEE — MOE MUKIIBI has seen the world: childhood in Uganda, graduate school in Arizona, Houston after that. His water expertise has made him a global name in the field, called upon to help address the water shortage crisis in California and the BP oil spill cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico.
So what’s he doing in Milwaukee, known to many outsiders as a once-mighty industrial powerhouse that in recent decades has struggled to redefine itself after years of factory closures and resulting job losses?
“We’re going to make this the Silicon Valley of water,” he says in his baritone voice, powered by preacher-like oomph. “All the research is here. All the brainpower is here. All the money is here.”
Mukiibi’s path to Wisconsin’s biggest city, and to Stonehouse Water Technologies, where he serves as chief technology and chief operating officer, began in 2015 through a chance meeting at a U.S. Agency for International Development workshop in Frankfurt, Germany. Dean Amhaus, who helped found and serves as CEO of The Water Council in Milwaukee, gave an elevator pitch about his organization.
It went something like this: The council had built an industry cluster around water technology, and they wanted to attract researchers and entrepreneurs and funders to grow the city’s existing prowess in the field into something bigger and grander and more vital to the city’s economy and people’s quality of life worldwide.
In its near-decade of existence, the council has gone from an off-the-radar experiment in building up a region based on a single cluster of related business pursuits to a global player in water technology, with 14 staff, an annual budget of $4 million and 180 dues-paying corporate members across the globe.
Before long, Mukiibi left Houston and found himself in the council’s headquarters, located near the city’s downtown in a seven-story, 19th-century brick building that originally housed a warehouse for making cardboard boxes. Now it includes a mix of investor groups, companies and researchers devoted to everything from mitigating phosphorus runoff on farms to improving sensor technology to detect invasive species in ballast water on ships.
At Stonehouse, a startup water technology company, Mukiibi helped refine an interesting idea: creating water purifiers that would be easy to install and change the game so that purification happened to all water flowing into a residence or business, not just at the faucet.
“When they came here, they were like nothing, nothing, nothing (in terms of research ready for the marketplace),” Amhaus says of Stonehouse. “They kept on refining and changing their business model, and that’s what entrepreneurs do. They took a big unit and now it’s down to a small unit.”
As the size of the purifiers shrank, the company’s fortunes grew. It attracted $1.55 million in startup funding from an angel investor in 2017, and another $1 million in private startup funding in 2018. Production of its trademark WaterPOD 8 purifier, which costs $6,500 and purifies water for the entire house, has already begun. The company is forecast to bring in $2.25 million in revenue in 2018.
Mukiibi sees a limitless future for the company, noting the need for safe, filtered water in the U.S. and in developing countries like his native Uganda. Stonehouse is also growing its business with industrial clients, and is engaging in ongoing talks with the most Milwaukee business of all: breweries.
It’s all possible, Mukiibi says, because of the council providing office and research space within its headquarters to so many pieces of the business-growing infrastructure, from local universities and the state economic development agency to companies small and not quite so small.
“The Water Council is the glue,” he says. “The entire building is filled with water companies. Everybody is connected.”
The Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, recently echoed the findings that Mukiibi has seen firsthand. In a July report, “Rethinking cluster initiatives,” researchers pointed to Milwaukee as one of five successful industry clusters nationally.
“The approach that Milwaukee took to the water cluster has led to exactly the kinds of outcomes envisioned from the start,” write the study’s authors. “Milwaukee has positioned itself as an undisputed global water hub.”
Amhaus, previous president of Spirit of Milwaukee, a foundation aimed at improving the area’s economic conditions and image, cautions that it’s not so easy or automatic for a region to build a cluster, even if it has natural resources, such as water, that make doing so somewhat of an obvious choice. In fact, he says that Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee rivers that feed it account for only a small piece of the cluster’s success.
Another existing resource – Milwaukee’s previous status as America’s brewery, home to beers made there and swilled everywhere – played a much larger role.
“It actually goes back to the brewing industry 150 years ago,” he says. “A lot of the (secondary) companies were suppliers for the breweries: pipes, valves, meters, all of the stuff that breweries needed. Over a period of time, they kept morphing and changing. It really was about 10 years ago that we discovered there was this high concentration of water technology companies here.”
The large breweries have largely left but the ancillary pieces, and the educational infrastructure that trained engineers and others skilled in the industry, remained.
When Amhaus and other business leaders in Milwaukee started thinking about building the water technology cluster, and making formal what had already been an informal point of pride, they figured other places around the Great Lakes would have already thought of such a water-focused economic approach. But they hadn’t.
“We couldn’t find anyone else who was doing this, which surprised us,” he says. “We looked on a global scale and discovered Israel, Singapore and the Netherlands. They are different than what’s going on here, but they’re probably closest to what we’re trying to do.”
The international focus is reflected in the council’s address, which the city agreed to let it pick: 247 W. Freshwater Way. With companies based in the building from Ireland, Canada, Australia and Mexico, the facility does have a round-the-clock working schedule. The council also recently hired its first remote employee – a European representative. She previously lived and worked in Milwaukee, marketing the city before moving back to her native Ireland.
“That helps a lot because we needed someone in Europe,” says Amhaus. “She can jump over to Germany or the Netherlands with no problems.”
Despite the global offshoots, Amhaus says the council takes care to keep the focus local, partnering with multiple Wisconsin universities and tech colleges, sponsoring field research within the region and encouraging companies from elsewhere to relocate in Milwaukee.
“I will say that people want to copy and want to be bigger and better, but they lose focus of what is the cluster,” he says. “They want to be larger geographically, but that doesn’t work. We consider our core cluster to be a 90-minute drive. You have to have that close proximity. They don’t have the industry structure otherwise.”
They also strictly define who is and isn’t a water technology company and thus worthy of inclusion of membership. He mentions MillerCoors, a major brewery that helped build Milwaukee’s industrial lore and remains a major player in the city.
“They do amazing things to decrease water usage and improve water technology, but they are not a water tech company,” he says. “They are very active with us, but we don’t consider them part of our industry cluster.”
It’s just one example of where old Milwaukee and new Milwaukee merge, separate but still connected and mutually supportive.