The Water Council’s Pilot Accelerator Startups See Mixed Success
Building momentum for a new startup accelerator can take time, and it’s probably too early to pass judgment on The Water Council’s water tech accelerator in Milwaukee, which launched last year. But now that the program is well into its second class, I decided to check its temperature.
The verdict? A mixed bag.
The accelerator—dubbed “Business. Research. Entrepreneurship. In Wisconsin.” or the BREW—is housed in the Global Water Center that also brings together R&D teams from big water-related companies, academic researchers, and business service providers. Each startup chosen for the accelerator receives office space in the center, access to industry mentors and expertise, and a $50,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
The program welcomed its second class of startups in the fall, and I recently visited the center to get a flavor of the new companies.
But what happened with the BREW’s first class, which I profiled early this year? I checked in with the companies and found that their progress thus far is a combination of small, but promising, early successes, along with some struggles—including one defunct company.
The CEO of MeterHero, formerly H2Oscore, has moved to California because he sees better prospects for the business there. Vegetal i.D. and New Works are moving forward with pilot projects in Milwaukee. Citing family reasons, Microbe Detectives’ founder has taken a job with a more steady income; his startup lives on, and he’s seeking a business partner to run daily operations. Meanwhile, Noah Technologies has shut down, but its local co-founder says he is cooking up multiple, stealthy businesses.
Although some of the startups might “be at different phases” and some are struggling to overcome challenges, the accelerator is headed in the right direction, says Elizabeth Thelen, The Water Council’s director of entrepreneurship and talent. The Global Water Center has lured startups that aren’t necessarily participating in the accelerator program, and she says she’s getting calls from startups as far away as California that are interested in the accelerator.
“The program has now become a magnet for more entrepreneurs and startups coming here,” Thelen says. “They know there’s this hub of activity, and people want to be part of it.”
Here are the latest updates from the accelerator’s pilot participants:
—MeterHero: The company started out partnering with municipal water utilities to help homeowners and businesses track their water use and earn virtual rewards. It has since shifted to cut utilities out of the picture, offering an app that helps users track their water consumption themselves. When they conserve water, MeterHero gives them cash rebates via PayPal, Venmo, or Bitcoin. The rebates are funded by partner companies that want to show a commitment to sustainability, MeterHero’s website says.
Founder McGee Young and his family have moved to Oakland, CA, while the company’s software developer, Miles Koller, remains in Milwaukee. Young, who flies back and forth to Milwaukee every week to teach a political science course at Marquette University, says he has found a “greater sense of urgency” about water conservation in California, along with more potential customers.
“Energy and water efficiency and conservation are more top-of-mind issues in California than in Wisconsin,” Young says in an e-mail message. “We were seeing quite a few more opportunities for pilots and partnerships, but needed to be closer in order to take full advantage.”
Young had hoped to close a funding round in early 2014, but that hasn’t happened. He says he’s making progress, but can’t share any details yet.
—Noah Technologies: The company developed a home device, the Intelli-Sensor, to detect water leaks using radio-frequency technology, electronically alert homeowners and apartment managers, and send a signal to a valve that closes off the main water pipe.
Co-founder David Rice, a Milwaukee-area electronic engineer, says he “had a falling out” with his Florida business partner, Dan Fish, and the company shut down earlier this year. Rice says the product, which he developed, worked fine, and the company had installed around 500 systems in Florida, primarily in condominium units.
“Life goes on,” Rice says.
He’s still working out of the Global Water Center and is developing “a few” new businesses, but they’re still early, and he declined to share any details.
—Microbe Detectives: This year, founder Trevor Ghylin earned a Ph.D in civil and environmental engineering from University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he focused on fresh water bacterial genetics. His startup uses DNA sequencing to help customers in a variety of sectors better monitor water quality.
During the summer, Ghylin took a job as a senior process engineer with Xylem Water Solutions in the Milwaukee area, a decision he made primarily because he and his wife had their first child in May, and he wanted a more “stable income” than the startup has provided thus far.
“I also don’t feel like the business is quite ready to raise money from investors,” Ghylin says in an e-mail message. “I would like it to continue operating as a lean startup and provide further validation of its business model.”
The company has served more than 100 customers, Ghylin says. He is running Microbe Detectives in his spare time, with two part-time employees handling most of the work. “I am actively seeking a CEO,” he says. “I do plan to remain involved and retain a substantial stake in the company.”
—Vegetal i.D.: The U.S. branch of a French “green roof” company, Vegetal has developed a cloud-based system that could allow roofs to work in concert with storm sewer systems to prevent backups during heavy rainstorms. Earlier this year, Vegetal launched a two-year pilot project that is testing the new technology on the rooftop of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s (MMSD) headquarters, Vegetal storm water management specialist Brennon Garthwait says.
“It is still early, and we have only caught a couple of rain events, but so far the results look good,” Garthwait says in a recent e-mail message, before Milwaukee dropped to wintry temperatures.
The company is monitoring things like how well the rooftop vegetation retains water and the runoff flow rates during rainstorms, Garthwait says. In 2016, the company will release a report about the technology’s performance and “the potential impact of scaling up the project.” “We hope to help the city and MMSD better understand the value of the dollars spent on [green roof] incentives and building owners better estimate the return on green roof use.”
For the time being, Garthwait is Vegetal’s lone employee in Milwaukee. Vegetal product and development manager Gaelle Berges, a France native who was working at the Global Water Center during the accelerator program, has since moved to Colorado for personal reasons, Garthwait says.
—New Works: This startup, developed by engineer Shajan John, offers courses for engineers and water management professionals that provide hands-on training using lab equipment housed at the Global Water Center. New Works is a division of John’s consulting business, Mahattil International.
John hasn’t hired any staff for New Works yet. He says he is still fine-tuning the business model and exploring financing options.
But the startup has made progress by getting its courses certified by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for professional continuing education, forming a research partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences, signing up Milwaukee-based global manufacturer Rexnord as a customer, and holding training sessions for customers like Xela Innovations and MMSD.
“Overall, we had a super year building the necessary foundation to do our work,” John says.
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