From Silicon Valley to Romania, WI Water Accelerator a Diverse Mix
The Water Council has pulled together a broad coalition of well-established Wisconsin corporations that touch water in some way, from water meters to water heaters to water sanitation. Now, the seven-year-old Milwaukee organization is continuing its increased focus on nurturing water tech startups, an emphasis that picked up steam last year with a pilot accelerator program.
Xconomy recently visited The Water Council’s Global Water Center near downtown Milwaukee to check out the second class of The Water Council’s startup accelerator—dubbed “Business. Research. Entrepreneurship. In Wisconsin.” or the BREW. Six winners were chosen to participate, each receiving office space in the center, access to industry mentors and expertise, and a $50,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (Two runner-up companies are also collaborating with the program, but aren’t getting grant money or office space.)
The new group features a wider spectrum of companies than the pilot program, says Elizabeth Thelen, The Water Council’s director of entrepreneurship and talent. The companies are working on water data analytics, water treatment, software for designing hydroelectric power machinery, and new types of tools for biotech researchers.
None of the companies in the first class had raised significant outside capital, while this cohort features two companies that have snagged money from investors, Wellntel and WatrHub. WatrHub, with six employees, has the largest staff among this batch of companies.
The mix of earlier-stage startups with companies that have drawn more than $1 million from investors has its pros and cons, Thelen says. “The concern is you want to meet everybody’s needs,” she explains. “But it does make for a lot of learning.”
To better acquaint readers with the latest group of companies, here’s a fun fact about each one:
—Sullivan, WI-based Cadens created software for designing hydroelectric power turbines that can be manufactured with 3D printers. The company has the ideal R&D facility for such a venture: its headquarters and lab are located in a 7,000-square-foot mill adjacent to a dam on the Bark River, says co-founder Randal Mueller. “We have a real advantage with the volume of water we can tap into,” he says.
—Hydro-Lite founder Eric James got the idea for his company’s water sterilization device while working as an emergency coordinator for an American relief organization in Zimbabwe. He and his co-workers were trying to help people suffering through a cholera epidemic, an illness often traced back to contaminated water. James created a water bottle that acts as a handheld water sterilizer. It uses a hand-cranking mechanism to power itself—no batteries, filters, or chemicals needed, the Chicago-based company says.
—The origins of Pellucid Water’s technology date back to before the Berlin Wall came down, when co-founder Sorin Manolache was working at a research facility in Romania, says co-founder Mark Raabe. Manolache later took a chemical engineering research position with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he crossed paths with Raabe.
Pellucid Water has created a water treatment process that involves plasma and doesn’t require adding chemicals or using filters or ion exchangers. The technology has applications for not only cleaning water, but also for gleaning materials like iron from the aqueous mixture that can be reused, Raabe says.
“Saying ‘waste’ or ‘contaminants,’ this is really an old way of thinking,” Raabe says. “Because really they’re all these building blocks, these molecules or chemical elements that are potentially resources. We like to think of it as, our technology can better engineer the separation of fresh water from all these resources.”
—Phinding Solutions technical founder Nick Jones created the company’s first product—a system that helps automate the process for tracking pH levels—out of frustration with some of the inefficiencies of lab processes, says co-founder Zach Munns, who leads the company’s business operations.
The Phinding Solutions device combines a magnetic stir bar, an ion selective electrode, and wireless communication technology to quickly collect and analyze lab data, according to a Wisbusiness.com article. Jones got the idea while working in a Madison Area Technical College chemistry lab, and he developed the prototype at Sector67, a Madison makerspace.
“I grew up in the time of cell phones and the Internet, and most of the equipment we were using in the lab hasn’t seen a redesign since its inception,” Jones says.
—WatrHub co-founders Sunit Mohindroo and Ahmed Badruddin previously worked for Microsoft, and Mohindroo also spent time at Apple. They felt like they could accomplish more elsewhere, Mohindroo says. “We could’ve stayed with our cushy jobs,” he says. “We wanted to have more of a social impact.”
So, the pair moved back to their hometown of Toronto and started WatrHub, a data analytics firm that matches water technology companies with potential customers, like municipal water systems and industrial plants. The company’s ultimate goal is to spur the adoption of new water treatment technology to help avoid future water crises, Mohindroo says.
—Wellntel’s prototype sonar device for monitoring groundwater involved a ball-peen hammer, an iPhone, and a guitar pickup, says co-founder Marian Singer. She and co-founder Nick Hayes would connect the guitar pickup to the iPhone, place it under the well cap, tap on the top of the well cap with the hammer, and use the guitar pickup to “digitally listen/record reflection data that we’d use to calculate distance to static water level,” she says. They’d check their calculations by lowering a rope with a weight tied to it into the water. “All very low-tech—but effective,” Singer recalls.
The Milwaukee-area company has since traded up for long-distance radios, high-fidelity components, powerful microchips, and the cloud. “We’ve come a long way since summer 2012,” Singer says.