Milwaukee Energy Incubator Channels Manufacturing Past to Power Future
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biofuels, energy storage, wind power, and building energy efficiency, among other sectors. The idea is to find startups that are aligned with M-WERC’s corporate members’ industries—but can address those members’ “technology gaps,” Anthony says.
“There’s such a rich history in this part of the state and the state as a whole” in energy, power, and control technologies, Anthony says. “Part of what we’re doing here is re-establishing that industrial commons, if you will.”
But creating a thriving collaborative space isn’t easy, and it could take some time for the corporate R&D teams and startups to figure out how best to work together. M-WERC is seeking the advice of partners like Greentown Labs, a Somerville, MA-based cleantech incubator that has made efforts this year to better connect its tenant startups with big corporations.
M-WERC and Greentown are sharing best practices, with M-WERC having more experience partnering with corporations and Greentown being the startup incubator expert that knows “how to set up the ecosystem,” Anthony says.
“We’re modeling some of what we’re doing after Greentown,” Anthony says. “We’re using them to jumpstart our launch.”
M-WERC is also watching what’s happening at The Water Council’s building just south of downtown Milwaukee, an initiative that has a lot of parallels with the Energy Innovation Center. Both projects are part of a broader effort to build on Wisconsin’s historic strengths and better align big water and energy companies located here, while growing the next generation of companies in those sectors. Both projects have received public funding—in M-WERC’s case, $900,000 from two state agencies. And both projects involve renovating old industrial buildings to make a hub for startups and corporate and academic research.
“The comparisons to The Water Council make sense,” Anthony says. “I don’t think we’re in competition with them.”
M-WERC’s location has advantages and disadvantages. Thanks to its former occupant, the building is already equipped with the industrial-grade power infrastructure necessary for testing and making prototypes, such as a chamber for subjecting objects to extreme temperatures. Building that infrastructure from scratch could have doubled the project’s $9.6 million cost, Anthony says. “This is kind of a gem waiting to be polished,” he adds.
But convincing startups and other potential tenants to move into the building could present a challenge, given the stigma of the city’s north side, which has received a lot of government funds for redevelopment in recent years, but still suffers from poverty, blighted houses, and crime. That’s a barrier that the Global Water Center, located in the increasingly trendy Walker’s Point neighborhood, hasn’t faced.
“But I think the people who are investing in the area see the long-term potential,” Anthony says of M-WERC’s north side neighborhood. “This is the next Menomonee Valley for the city.”
The Menomonee Valley, once characterized by empty industrial buildings and polluted land, has been rehabbed and is now home to a number of manufacturers, a casino, and Miller Park stadium. City and corporate leaders are now trying to coax a renaissance of M-WERC’s neighborhood through a 60-acre research and industrial park.
There seems to be a growing buzz about M-WERC’s building, which is also home to a community development agency and a health and human services provider. Local businesses that have nothing to do with energy have called up M-WERC asking if they can have an office in its center, Anthony says, simply because they want to be part of what’s happening there. “People are excited about this space,” he says. “This is going to be where a lot of innovative things happen.”
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