Headquartered in the Global Water Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, next to the world’s largest freshwater system, The Water Council is a nonprofit organization that drives economic, technology, and talent development to support the global water industry. As the leading U.S. water technology cluster and one of the most powerful water technology hubs in the world, The Water Council convenes global water leaders and supports more than 180 members, including small and mid-sized businesses and large global corporations, engineers, entrepreneurs, utilities, government agencies, education programs, and nonprofits, with valuable services, programming, and networking opportunities.
As The Water Council continues on its path of fostering innovation in the water industry, the organization has committed itself to being a driving force in the access and creation of cutting-edge water technology. Irrigation Leader’s editor in chief, Kris Polly, spoke with the president and chief executive officer of The Water Council, Dean Amhaus, about his organization’s history, mission, and vision for the future of the water technology business.
Kris Polly: Please tell our readers about your background.
Dean Amhaus: I only began to work in the water field in the last 10 years. My experience actually started out in the arts and theater. After a short stint in New York City and getting my MBA, I ended up in Washington, DC, working for a law firm that worked in the nonprofit world for both the arts and employment programs for people with disabilities. Arts and cultural programs brought me back to Madison, Wisconsin, to run the Wisconsin Arts Board. That then led to running the state’s 150th anniversary celebration back in 1998, and from there into economic development and marketing, which finally led me to Milwaukee, where I grew up. My path seems to make absolutely no sense at all, but it also was a great fit for what Rich Meeusen and Paul Jones were looking for when they were searching for somebody to run The Water Council. I had experience in government relations, nonprofit management, fundraising, and organizational management, all of which are critical for running The Water Council. When it comes to water expertise, we are fortunate here in Milwaukee to have a lot of really smart and talented people who we rely on as our experts. We are lucky to have people like Kevin Schaffer, whom I can call for expert advice. My job is simply to get all the people together and to connect them.
Kris Polly: What is the history of The Water Council?
Dean Amhaus: On paper, it started about 10 years ago, but when talking about its origins, I really go back 150 years: It was the breweries in Milwaukee that sparked what today is Milwaukee's water technology industry. When Germans started brewing beer here because of the access to water and grain, they also needed suppliers for the pumps, valves, meters, and pipes to process the water and beer. The companies that supplied that technology started up, evolved, and grew, and eventually became companies like Badger Meter. We also had companies like the A.O. Smith Corporation, which started over 140 years ago in the automotive business making car frames, eventually moving into water heaters and water filters, and becoming a full water company. There was also a point about 50 years ago when Milwaukee, like lots of cities across the United States, had terrible pollution problems. The Clean Water Act really changed that. Existing manufacturers and suppliers had to change their practices, and new companies came along. It was a gradual process of growth, one that was not always apparent on the surface.
Ten years ago, two things happened simultaneously, separatly from each other, and fortunately, we were able to connect and bring them together. Rich Meeusen from Badger Meter and Paul Jones from A.O. Smith, two large water companies that didn’t think of themselves as such, toured each other’s labs and realized that they were only 15 minutes apart from each other. They began to wonder if there were any other companies like theirs in the area. Through their own research, they found around 50. At the same time, the Milwaukee region was going through an economic development effort to get the seven surrounding counties to work in a more collaborative way, and through that process, they wanted to figure out what the region’s key industries were. Most of those industries were not big surprises.
The one big surprise was that we had this water technology expertise, not only in the industry but also in academic programs. It was by great coincidence that Rich and Paul met up with Julia Taylor, who leads the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and saw their commonalities and joined forces. I was a volunteer early on in the regional development initiative, and there were a handful of us who got together and started hatching this stuff. It was all here, but we needed an entity to bring people together, whether they were from industry, technology, academia, nongovernmental organizations, or government, to all look at the incredible resource that we had and to start organizing ourselves and moving forward.
The original list of 50 companies that we had assembled ended up expanding to be closer to 120 companies after some additional research was done. As we have continued to evolve, we are looking at close to 200 companies that are based in this region. We have strong utilities, which have gone through some challenges over time and, as a result, have become experts on drinking water, wastewater, and storm water. Through those challenges, they have garnered knowledge and created innovations. There is an openness to new technologies. We also discovered some world-class water academic programs, most notably at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and Marquette University. Milwaukee is a hotbed of water technology, but for a long time, nobody realized it. All the ingredients were there, we just had to put it together and bake it. Now we have this.
Kris Polly: What is the mission of The Water Council?
Dean Amhaus: There are three principal things that we are interested in, and a fourth that has come in recently and that has enabled us to work across the United States as well as Canada. First, we want to help businesses in this region grow and expand. It is not that we are going to go and open up new markets for A. O. Smith, but what we can do is find talent and new technologies for them that may be key pieces in their larger puzzle. We also help entrepreneurs start up new companies. If we are successful in that, we will build a magnet for companies both in the United States and abroad that want to come here and grow and get plugged into a unique ecosystem.
Second, our economic and talent-development role is designed to connect the people who are coming out of the universities with companies who are looking for talent, frequently through internships. For example, we know that there are very few African-Americans in the water business, and we wanted to do something small to start to change that. This last summer, we worked with Tuskegee University to bring five junior engineering students to Milwaukee, none of whom had ever been here before, and get them plugged into internships. Two of them went with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, our water reclamation facility, and the other three with private companies for 10 weeks. It was a great experience for them; now they are looking at water as a career option. Those are the kinds of things that we are looking at in growing the talent base.
The third goal really gets into technology acceleration. We don’t do research and development ourselves, but we want to connect entrepreneurs and universities with businesses to accelerate technological advances. We look at that through the whole technology-readiness spectrum, from the early to the late stages. That late-stage support is something that we just announced a few weeks ago with the Tech Challenge. Those three principal areas of focus—business development, talent development, and tech acceleration—have to work in unison.
The fourth piece is our ongoing work with the Alliance for Water Stewardship. We are working with large industrial water users on a voluntary basis to improve their water usage, from both a quality and a quantity standpoint.
A growing number of industrial users are realizing that they have to take action themselves to improve their water usage to solve problems caused by water shortages or too much water. These voluntary water standards help them move in that direction. This allows us to work with utilities all around the country and extend our reach.
Kris Polly: What can you tell our readers about BREW?
Dean Amhaus: BREW stands for Business, Research, and Entrepreneurship in Water. We are going into our sixth year with this program. In this program, we find up to six companies per year—entrepreneurs and small businesses with a unique solution, that are at an early stage in their development and need a little bit of business training, organizational development, or help with their marketing or strategic plan. We do a competition and then we bring them into the Global Water Center for 3½ months to help them with all of that skill development and to help them pilot their new technologies. Our hope is that they grow their new businesses here and become more successful.
We make financial investments as well, but that is not what is most important to these companies—it’s the value of being part of an ecosystem. The most significant thing is that they can call us up and ask us to connect them to someone.
When we were getting started, Rich Meeusen talked about how he went to Israel and sat in a room and over the course of a day saw 13 different companies. He said that to see that in the United States, he would have to go to 13 different cities; he wanted to have a place where the companies would come to him. We have that now.
We host a wide variety of companies here, and we can put on a session where we can present 15 or 20 of them all at once: They can describe their technology, outline what they are doing to build their business, and explain how someone may be able to work with them.
Kris Polly: Please talk about the building that you are in and how that came into existence.
Dean Amhaus: That is an important part of the story. The Global Water Center literally keeps us grounded. The idea for it goes back to November 2010. The thought was that if we were going to do all the economic, talent, and technology development I mentioned before, we didn’t want it spread throughout the region. At the end of the day people want to go and see something first-hand. We may live in an age of social media, but people still want to speak face-to-face. That is why we built the Global Water Center as an anchor to bring together industry, utilities, and academia under one roof.
The building is not as much a research or office building as it is a business accelerator. There are a lot of business accelerators around the world that are focused on small businesses and entrepreneurs. In that type of accelerator, the only thing the companies based there have in common is that they are small. We wanted to do the same thing, but with an exclusive focus on water. That way, you know that the person in the elevator with you is working in the same field. We also thought that there was value in bringing in big companies, utilities, and academic programs, because those are the people entrepreneurs need to work with. The academic programs are the ones coming up with the research and development and the new talent.
We have succeeded in creating that in this building. There is a wide range of entities, but everyone is focused on water. It truly has become global: Right now, we have companies here from Mexico, Australia, Ireland, and Canada. We have had some from France in the past, and we are talking with companies from Germany and the Netherlands that are looking to come into the United States via Milwaukee.
It is an exciting time, and I think part of the reason it is happening is that there is a greater awareness in the United States of our water challenges. For way too long, we just never thought about it, and as a result, we have run into issues, whether it is too much water or too little.
I think that there is a growing awareness of the challenge. Frankly, from my perspective, water is exciting for a lot of young people. They see it as a great career option. It was great to see those five students from Tuskegee University I mentioned—really smart, bright young people—getting excited about working at the water reclamation facility. It is encouraging that the next generation sees water as a career possibility, and as a field where they can participate in solving problems. Any way we can help them or our companies is really exciting.
Kris Polly: What is your message to municipal water suppliers? How can they get involved, and what can you do for them?
Dean Amhaus: We are open to working with any and all. I think we are looking for utilities that are open to innovation. That is significant. I do not think that it is a secret that utilities are slow to adopt new technologies.
The industry and consumers want to move a lot faster. So do industrial suppliers. We do not have time; the problem is too serious. We are looking for utilities, whether they be in a desert, on a mountain, or in a flood area, that are willing to partner up, especially when it comes to growing new technologies. We had a French company here that was working on a solar water cleaning technology, and we said to them, “Milwaukee is not the best place for that from a solar standpoint, we think you should be working in Arizona.” We called up folks that we knew down there to do the pilots. The company had their offices here but was able to work elsewhere. What we are looking for are utilities, directors, and leaders who are open to those new innovations and who are also looking for solutions. Our connections and matchmaking may help find them some answers.