From Boston to Milwaukee, Lessons in Building Water Tech Clusters

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fresh water research, education, and economic development. It has assembled a broad coalition to do that, including big companies—like water heater maker A.O. Smith, water meter manufacturer Badger Meter, and water treatment company Veolia—local universities, private investors, government leaders at the local and state levels, and startups.

While it’s debatable how much impact The Water Council has had on local water tech entrepreneurship, it has masterfully marketed the Milwaukee region as a center for water technology. The council’s efforts to transform Milwaukee from “Rust Belt” city into “the Silicon Valley of water” have been featured in numerous local and national publications (including this one), and the organization is well known by industry insiders from the U.S. to Israel to Singapore.

The council has also helped spur local real estate development—since 2012, public and private entities have invested $211.6 million in a new Water Technology District in the Walker’s Point neighborhood near downtown Milwaukee, according to a recent report. That area includes The Water Council’s Global Water Center, an emerging business park for water companies, and a state-of-the-art facility for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences. Those projects, along with an influx of restaurants and apartments, are turning Walker’s Point into a bustling area to live, work, and play.

The Water Council’s path could help light the way for NEWIN, with lessons in branding, fundraising, and assembling a network of supporters.

“I think The Water Council has been a great inspiration and an example of what can be done,” says DeSantis, who attended The Water Council’s annual Water Summit in the summer. “It was just incredible to see the diverse group of people they’ve brought in and engaged around water innovation and opportunities in Milwaukee.”

Like The Water Council, NEWIN would eventually like to have its own physical space, DeSantis says. The organization has been renting space at the TechHub co-working office in Somerville, MA.

The Water Council is also starting to offer programs that help connect startups with sites where they can test their products, something MassCEC and NEWIN are working on as well.

Other NEWIN initiatives include an industry newsletter (the “Water Pitcher”) and water startup pitch events. The first of those was held in September, with more than 70 people—entrepreneurs, investors, university officials, and others—hanging out at TechHub and listening to presentations from five startups working on technology for wastewater treatment, storm water management, and inspecting wells.

Another pitch event will be held at MassCEC on Dec. 2, Golmer says.

“Stay tuned to it,” MassCEC’s Murphy says. “It’s going to continue to grow, and there’s going to be a lot of activity around it.”

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