Milwaukee Progressing As Water Hub, But Needs To Tap More Venture Capital, Experts Say

Nov 6, 2019

Milwaukee needs to take some bold steps if it's going to make gains in creating jobs and scientific breakthroughs related to clean water. That was the recommendation of several experts at a forum at Marquette University on Tuesday.

The Marquette University Law School put together a conference updating one held a decade ago, as to whether Milwaukee can become a worldwide water hub — in the areas of research, innovation and job growth. Many speakers said the 10-year picture is mixed, with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett giving the effort a "solid B." 

READ: What Does It Mean For Milwaukee To Be A 'Water Hub?'

There's no shortage of ideas on how to improve. UW-Milwaukee Freshwater Sciences Dean Val Klump says the region needs about 200 more water scientists and engineers, in various sectors.

"What would that cost? Well, an endowed professorship at UWM, and I suspect at Marquette, too, is around $2.5 million. So, 200 scientists ... But they don't all need to be in academia. In fact, they probably shouldn't all be in academia. I mean the federal government, there should be a federal lab here, and we've talked about that," Klump said.

(From left) Another panel at Marquette University included moderator Mike Gousha, UWM Chancellor Mark Mone, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole, and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Klump says part of the reason Silicon Valley is a tech hub is the nearby presence of two national labs. Even if more federal dollars don't come to Milwaukee, Klump says private funders may be interested. 

"Someone said there are two kinds of people you need for a Silicon Valley-like environment — nerds and rich people.  Well, we're good at producing the nerds, right?  I'm a good one. A nerd. Ask my kids," Klump joked.

READ: Baldwin Says Cleaner Water May Come Through More Help For Water Tech Firms

As far as the investment money, Joe Kirgues, who's with the business startup accelerator Gener8tor, says Wisconsin has seen more than $1 billion in venture capital over the last decade. But Michigan has attracted twice that amount, and Minnesota four times Wisconsin's total. Plus, the Midwest typically trails both the west and east coasts.

Kirgues says too much cash from Midwest pension funds, corporations and other sources goes elsewhere.

"The Brookings Institution has amazing data that half of the venture capital commitments in the coasts come from Midwestern balance sheets. And only 12% comes home here. My question to everyone in the community is, do you like having your savings exported to move your kid in another community?" Kirgues said.

Still, there are some Milwaukee water startups. Paige Peters, of the wastewater treatment firm Rapid Radicals Technology, urges more public-private financial partnerships. But even those wouldn't eliminate what she says is her biggest hurdle.

"Not enough hours in the day. Is that relatable?" Peters said, to laughter.

It's a challenge likely faced by not only water innovation firms, but other startups, too.

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.

Do you have a question about innovation in Wisconsin that you'd like WUWM's Chuck Quirmbach to explore? Submit it below.

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