The red-brown brick and rounded windows of the Global Water Center blend with the Walker’s Point establishments that surround it at the bend of Menomonee River. But its insides contain multitudes, from world renowned water research labs to space for more than 45 water-focused startups, small businesses and organizations to an ampitheater and conference center that have hosted guests from more than 70 countries.
The center is structured to serve the nonprofit Water Council’s three major aims: economic development, talent acquisition and technological innovation, according to its president and CEO, Dean Amhaus. When the council formed a decade ago, its members recognized an opportunity in the United States’ lack of what’s known in the industry as water clusters – organizations focused on both academic research and business development.
“We found that not only did we have 120 water-related businesses (in Milwaukee), but we also had thriving academic research,” Amhaus says. “Our combination of water industry and academia didn’t really exist anywhere else in the United States. We realized that we had something unique, and so we immediately thought of ourselves as a world water hub and looked towards other water conglomerates in Singapore and the Netherlands.”
The council did not open the Global Water Center building, however, until 2013, with a major financial assist from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. Cate Rahmlow, WEDC’s senior development manager for water technology, says her organization has seen Milwaukee’s converging water academics and industry as a way to put the city and the state on the global water scene.
Since the center opened, its entrepreneurs have raised $2.6 million in additional capital: council membership has grown to 190, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and the building has hosted delegates from dozens of water clusters wishing to learn from or collaborate with Milwaukee researchers or businesspeople. Jean-Loïc Carré, general manager of Aqua-Valley, a water cluster based in southern France, visited the Global Water Center in early December to work with Amhaus and others on new strategies for watershed management.
“As always, our meetings are about cooperation, not competition,” Carré says. “We want to be able to cross-fertilize our respective businesses and facilitate new technology that can enter the global market.”
In addition to partnering on technological innovation, the Global Water Center had previously housed two businesses in Carré’s cluster and helped them learn essential business skills, such as how to pitch to potential investors and network with influencers. Such training is an integral part of the services offered to companies at the Global Water Center. These businesses have seen overwhelmingly positive outcomes, as have the academic researchers that are associated with the council and the center. UW-Milwaukee engineering professor Junhong Chen, for example, has commercialized his groundbreaking research in water sensor technology and was recently named one of the most cited academic researchers in the world.
Local businesses that have partnered with the center have seen success as well. Stormwater Solutions Engineering founder Carrie Bristol-Groll leveraged the center’s networking and funding opportunities into growth in grants and patents. The engineering firm most recently received a pilot grant from the council and the center for its StormGUARDen technology.
All the business and visitor activity has had an impact on Walker’s Point, too, attracting water-related businesses to further boost the thriving neighborhood.
“The Global Water Center and The Water Council has been a great help to us over the years,” Bristol-Groll says. “The center has been priceless in helping network with other women-owned engineering firms, which are rare in Milwaukee.”