By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – At the latest “First Look Forum” produced by three of Milwaukee’s leading research universities, three of the six presenting research teams offered solutions to cleaning water – from drinking water at home and abroad to untreated sewage discharges often triggered by storms.

It was a fitting reminder during Earth Week 2021 that some of the best remedies for environmental challenges can stem from innovative research and young companies that put ideas to work. Market forces often produce results more efficiently than “big government” regulation.

The April 21 First Look Forum involved researchers with ties to UW-Milwaukee, Marquette University and the Medical College of Wisconsin. Each researcher or team made a seven-minute presentation and took questions from a panel of early-stage experts.

Milwaukee’s reputation as a center for water research and company formation stood out during the two-hour event.

It featured one Marquette-based startup company – Rapid Radicals, which aims to quickly treat sanitary sewer overflows – and two other ideas that may soon find commercial traction. Those ideas included UW-Milwaukee water filtration research for removing lead from drinking water while maintaining healthy metal ions, and a second UWM-born plan to use a novel ceramic filter to cleanse drinking water of bacteria, virus and arsenic, which is sometimes found in drinking water.

It only makes sense that such ideas are percolating up in Milwaukee, where the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences works on solving real-world problems and Marquette’s Water Quality Center does similar work, often working in cross-disciplinary ways with engineers and chemists as well as private companies through networks such as The Water Council.

Whether it’s clean water, solar energy, eco-friendly materials, better power sources, forest management tools, improved farming methods or even consumer products, young Wisconsin companies are a part of the mix. Here are a few more examples:

  • SunPeak Solar is a Madison firm that has helped companies such as Ashley Furniture, Central Storage and many more walk through the process of installing large solar photovoltaic systems.
  • Pyran is a UW-Madison startup that is focused on making plastics and other materials renewable.
  • Blue Line Battery in Whitewater is building next-generation, lithium-ion batteries for forklifts, scissor-lifts and other types of equipment.
  • Madison-based Xylome uses metabolic engineering to develop non-conventional yeasts that are often more sustainable, such as palm oil substitutes.
  • Seedlinked, with ties to Viroqua and TitleTownTech in Green Bay, uses crowdsourced data and advanced analytics to help plant breeders, seed distributors, farmers and gardeners choose, acquire, breed and sell high-value seeds.
  • Madison-based AmebaGone uses a novel biocontrol method to destroy intractable bacterial infections in crops, such as potatoes and apples, including those that can be dormant for decades.
  • C-Motive Technologies, born in the UW-Madison College of Engineering, has built the world’s first commercially viable electrostatic motor. That means it has enough torque to function well while mitigating the use of certain materials, such as rare earth minerals.
  • Mount Horeb-based American Provenance makes hand-made personal care products, such as deodorant, soaps and products for hair and skin, by using all-natural ingredients.
  • AgroGraph, backed by a La Crosse-based investor, is an enterprise software company that delivers accurate and timely information on crop yields, land suitability, risk assessment and other data at field scales.
  • Forest Data Network was formed by group of people with backgrounds in forest land ownership, the information business and technology. It uses technology to compile, analyze and present real timber transactions to compile price indices by species, region and statewide and parts of Michigan. It helps timber owners more sustainably and profitably tend to their land.

Environmental issues facing the world won’t be solved overnight, but they can be addressed by harnessing market forces to change how people live, work and consume.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and co-author of “Hands-On Environmentalism,” a book on private sustainability practices. He can be reached at