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A Special WUWM News SeriesThe Milwaukee River allowed commerce and industry to thrive during the city's formative years and provided recreation. However, disregard for the river's health led to decades of decay.WUWM News explores recent developments to rejuvenate the Milwaukee River and their success at drawing people back to the city's historic arterial.

Start Ups Expect Great Things from Global Water Center

Thursday night, The Global Water Center officially opened in the Walkers Point neighborhood. We meet a couple of entrepreneurs who now share the third floor.

Hensley Foster launched his professional life as an “industrial engineer” more than four decades ago. He’s amassed an impressive resume, yet dozens of inventions still race through his head.

Hensley Foster's cistern will do more than collect water at Walnut Way. It serves as the starting point of a water lab for students.

I met him checking in on one idea that came to life in Milwaukee’s Walnut Way neighborhood – a green-paneled cistern.

“It’s a foam core with a mix of concrete over the cover of it and that really forms a light-weight but strong panel and then we link those panels together to form the cistern walls,” Foster says.

The tank captures rain running off a rooftop and irrigates the adjacent vegetable gardens and peach orchard. Originally, Foster saw his invention helping water-starved regions of the world but now sees applications in his backyard.

“Most of the houses and buildings in the Milwaukee area, the rain water that’s collected on the roof goes into storm water and it gets mixed with sewer and that all gets treated. And to me that doesn’t make a lot of sense. We ought to intercept it, we ought to be able to use it,” Foster says.

Foster’s vision blossomed into a small company, but it alone did not land him in the new Global Water Center. He calls the other ingredient “kismet” – a chance encounter with a fellow entrepreneur.

“A water summit last October and I didn’t know a soul so I sat down at a table all by myself and this guy comes in and sits next to me,” Foster explains.

The ‘guy’ turned out to be president of a company called AlgalXperts. It’s been experimenting with growing algae that can “eat” pollutants. Foster explains that algae thrive in nutrient-rich water, waste water being a perfect example.

He sees it holding untapped potential as a bio-fuel and fertilizer. Foster and his new algae partner believe their combined experience can capture water - rid it of pollutants - and take the resulting product to market.

“We can use it for fertilizer which would be good for Third World or for here. We could also – because it’s full of protein – we can use it for feed, like for chickens,” Foster adds.

Foster says the team’s challenge in its new home, is to perfect the process for specific regions, such as Central America.

“Being able to do it cost effectively – that’s what our goal is. It might take us a couple of years, but we’ll do it,” Foster says.

Part of Trevor Ghylin's start up business is figuring out exactly where where water contamination is coming from.

Across town, along the lakefront, I met up with one of Foster’s soon-to-be water center neighbors.

“My name is Trevor Ghylin. We’re one of four companies that received a business start up grant from the Milwaukee Water Council.”

The name of Trevor Ghylin’s company is Microbe Detectives. t deciphers the identity and quantity of bacteria in water.

“We can look at the DNA in the sample - a city water department or waste water treatment - and we can tell our clients almost everything that’s living in their water sample, which is kind of amazing really actually,” Ghylin says.

The redheaded 31-year-old says he just an environmental engineer doing what they do.

“Engineers always want to figure out how to solve problems.”

The problem he’s targeting is one “water utilities” face - keeping water supplies safe. Ghylin is building customized databases – one documenting microbial DNA in waste water treatment plants – the other, in drinking water.

”So I started talking with people that I thought might be interested in this stuff.....I said – I can tell you everything that’s living in your water if you send me a sample – and they were very excited and it’s just gone from there; it’s been about a year,” Ghylin explains.

One day, he envisions serving 100 utilities around the country and also hopes to bring aboard, a TEAM of “detectives”.

”I’m looking for 3-4 interns and some part time helpers as well. I mean, I don’t want everybody emailing me now, but I think most of the start up businesses actually need some help; so we’re actually going to group up together and figure out how to share resources,” Ghylin says.

For now, Ghylin remains his company’s lone Microbe Detective. But he says the move from his basement in Wauwatosa to the Global Water Center is propelling him in the right direction.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.