By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – Perhaps Wisconsin should thank the National Science Foundation for helping to pull together many of its regional science, technology and economic development players. All it took was a big challenge.

The NSF’s Regional Innovation Engines program is a departure from the agency’s traditional deep research focus because it calls for coordinated ideas that bridge the gap between science and tech to solve today’s problems while stimulating the economy and the workforce.

In short, rather than expecting academic research centers alone to translate science into practical solutions, the NSF is asking for private industry, investors, workforce agencies, key government groups and others to get their hands dirty from the start.

Competition across the United States for this multi-billion-dollar initiative will be intense, with hundreds of concept outlines across an array of topics given the go-ahead to move to the next stage. One such outline involves about 20 partners in Wisconsin and will focus on the state’s strengths in water, energy and reusing waste.

Led by The Water Council with core support from the MKE Tech Hub, the Wisconsin Technology Council, Marquette University and the Madison Region Economic Partnership, a “letter of intent” filed with NSF also lists some major companies – A.O. Smith, Rockwell Automation and Sentry Equipment Corp.

Others include the UW-Madison’s Department of Engineering Physics, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the UW-Milwaukee, the UWM Research Foundation, the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity, the BrightStar Wisconsin investment fund, STEM Forward, WEC Energy Group, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, the Urban League of Greater Madison, the Business Council, state Sen. Dale Kooyenga, R-Wis., who is tied to a U.S. Army water innovation project, and the August Brown management consulting firm.

Also on the list are the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, the statewide Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., and regional economic groups New North – representing 18 counties in northeast Wisconsin – and Milwaukee 7, which works in seven counties in southeast Wisconsin.

It’s a seemingly eclectic coalition, especially when viewed from the outside, but there is a common bond that speaks to two themes:

First, it is possible for groups that sometimes compete in Wisconsin’s research and economic spheres to work together. For example, The Water Council is based in Milwaukee, but it is known nationwide and works with companies and innovators across geographic lines.

The state’s regional economic development groups and chambers of commerce usually stick close to home, but they also fall within the larger “I-Q Corridor,” which is the Tech Council’s branding moniker for the interstate region that connects parts of Wisconsin as well as the Chicago region. The “I” stands for interstate, innovation, intellectual property and investment, and the “Q” speaks broadly to quality of research, education, workforce and living.

Second, each group has a hand on a different part of the elephant. Sometimes, both hands or a third if they had one.

Water innovation is critical, for example, to A.O. Smith, Rockwell Automation’s advanced technology and sustainability group, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and its innovation projects, Marquette’s Water Quality Center and the UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences.

Manufacturers across Wisconsin care about energy costs, producing less waste and reusing what they can, as well as smarter use of water. That includes others in the group, such as the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity. The UW-Milwaukee and its related research foundation work with industry on those fronts and more. The same goes for WARF, which holds patents across all those lines from UW-Madison researchers. WEC Energy Group, the UW-Madison engineering physics department have clear stakes in energy innovation.

Workforce needs are crucial to all economic development groups, and especially the MKE Tech Hub, the Tech Council and the Urban League of Greater Madison.

Results in terms of the NSF grant process won’t be known for a while; perhaps not until mid-2023. Other Wisconsin-based proposals may compete across a mix of tech areas.

Regardless of outcome, these efforts have already underscored the notion that Wisconsin expertise can – and does – compete on a national stage. It can also make money and create jobs by exporting those ideas to parts of the country that are grappling with sustainability issues in water, energy and waste.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at