By Tom Still

BROOKFIELD – Let no one accuse Rich Meeusen, the chief executive officer of Milwaukee’s Badger Meter, of being less than passionate when he talks about the future of the region’s cluster of water technology companies and researchers.

“Our vision is that, someday, when a young entrepreneur has an idea for a water technology company, all his relatives, friends and neighbors will say, ‘Go to Milwaukee… That’s where it’s happening,” Meeusen told a recent meeting of the Wisconsin Innovation Network in Brookfield.

But how can Milwaukee get to the point where its expertise in water – 120 companies, about 20,000 workers and some of the best academic research programs in the United States – represents an identifiable brand? It took decades for people to associate Orlando with tourism or the Silicon Valley with information technology, and in a competitive world, Milwaukee doesn’t have that kind of time.

That’s why Meeusen and others involved in the region’s Water Council, organized through the Milwaukee 7 economic development coalition, speak with a sense of urgency. They want public and private leaders to place their bets – now – on water technology as a driver of economic growth, and they don’t want internal squabbles to get in the way.

Water Council chairman Meeusen was joined by Brian Thompson, president of the UW-Milwaukee Research Foundation, and Barry Grossman, a Foley & Lardner attorney experienced in water tech projects, in discussing the scope of the region’s assets and how they can help solve an emerging world problem – shortages of fresh water.

Collaboration was the bottom line. Not only collaboration between researchers and industry, but among industries within the water tech cluster and between governments that too easily get bogged down in water politics.

“I don’t compete with A.O. Smith,” noted Meeusen, whose company specializes in metering and measuring water flows. “If A.O. Smith’s engineers want to use my flow lab at night, come and use it.”

While many companies in the region are generally in the business of meters, heater, fixtures and pumps, Meeusen believes there is very little competitive overlap and a huge opportunity for innovation around products to reuse, recycle, desalinate and conserve water. Wastewater treatment, nano-filtration technologies, irrigation technologies and more will emerge as solutions for an increasingly thirsty nation and world. And all are business opportunities for Milwaukee.

Another export from Milwaukee’s water cluster may be less technical than political – a template for how communities and industries can avoid costly “water wars.” Meeusen was sharply critical of disagreements between Waukesha County and Milwaukee, which he believes could be readily solved by paying attention to science, to the long-term markets and to pricing structures that fairly assess the value of water.

Consumers themselves are part of the problem, as well, Meeusen and others noted, because of use habits that sometimes fly in the face of conservation.

For now, Milwaukee (and Wisconsin as a state) may have an edge when it comes to building new businesses around water technology. The UW-Milwaukee’s Great Lakes Water Institute is unique and the UW Board of Regents has approved the launch of a School of Freshwater Sciences, perhaps the nation’s first. Five of the world’s 11 largest water companies have ties to Milwaukee, which creates global sales pathways. Other resources exist statewide, including the UW-Madison’s limnology program and river research centers on the Mississippi border.

But there are competitors, nationally and worldwide, and Milwaukee’s cluster must unite now. A set of strategies to accomplish that goal are being pursued by Meeusen and the Water Council.

“We’ve got a running start,” he said, but winning the race will require more private and public cooperation.

 In a city that has seen its share of declining industries, it would be a costly mistake to miss a chance to build an emerging 21st century cluster around water – and to help people worldwide while doing so.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.