Water Technology talks with… Rich Meeusen

Imagine a “Silicon Valley of water technology,” where entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, educators, and manufacturers gather to do water research, develop new water products and tackle global freshwater issues.

Richard “Rich” Meeusen and his colleagues think that Milwaukee, WI, can be that place — the world’s “freshwater hub,” as they put it. Meeusen is chairman, president and CEO of Milwaukee-based Badger Meter, the largest producer of water meters in North America. He is also co-chair — with Paul Jones, president and CEO of A.O. Smith Corp., the water heater manufacturer — of the Milwaukee 7 Water Council.

The year-old, 11-member Council (the “7” refers to the seven counties in the Milwaukee region) includes many movers and shakers — such as Carlos Santiago, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Wisconsin Secretary of Commerce Dick Leinenkugel. The Council’s goal is to establish the Milwaukee region as a global hub for freshwater research, economic development and education.

In a recent phone interview with Water Technology®, Meeusen’s energy and enthusiasm for the Council’s work was infectious. A Milwaukee native with a background in accounting, he joined Badger Meter in 1995, was elected president and CEO in 2002, and was elected chairman in 2004.

Water Technology: Singapore is also taking steps to be, as they call it, a global “hydrohub.” We understand Israel has a similar effort. How would Milwaukee compare to those?

Rich Meeusen: Each has a slightly different approach. Singapore is offering 50 percent tax credits for companies to locate there, and Israel has huge tax credits for water R&D. In Milwaukee, we’re not betting all our chips on public investment. We’re also building infrastructure for water technology companies to collaborate with each other and with academia. The “freshwater” aspect of the research done here will also be somewhat unique. There are lots of schools of oceanic sciences, but few freshwater research institutes.

WT: How would the Silicon Valley concept translate to the world of water?

RM: Think about it: What makes Silicon Valley — Silicon Valley? Every young entrepreneur who wanted to start a computer company there would always rattle off five reasons for doing so.

One was that other computer companies were locating there. Two, there were universities there doing research and graduating skilled people to work in computers. Three, they had a skilled work force. Four, they had a friendly government. And five, they had venture capital.

What we’re building here for water is the same group of reasons. A recent survey found there are 120 companies in the Milwaukee area involved in the water technology sector. Also, five of the 11 largest water technology companies in the world have significant operations here — companies like Veolia, ITT, Pentair, GE Water and Siemens.

Just as important, we have academia here. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Great Lakes Water Institute is the largest research center of its kind on the Great Lakes, and the university is creating a graduate-level School of Freshwater Sciences out on the lakeshore. Milwaukee is on Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes, which hold 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.

WT: Why are there so many water-related companies in Milwaukee?

RM: In the 1800s, for various reasons, Milwaukee attracted a large number of “wet” heavy industries, like breweries and tanneries, that required a lot of water. But over the years, we lost most of our “wet” heavy industries like the breweries, just as we’ve lost some other heavy manufacturing. But in the meantime, a large number of smaller industries making water-related products had grown up here around those heavy industries.

That’s how Badger Meter got started 104 years ago. Two German immigrants made valves and filters that they sold to the breweries. Then they realized they could make a better water meter, and now that’s 85 percent of our business. We have $300 million in annual sales and 1,200 employees around the world.

The 120 water technology companies in the Milwaukee area have a total of 20,000 employees. There are now 86 key scientists and researchers working on water issues in our region, on everything from water treatment to water law to water engineering.

In 1922, someone said we were a water technology capital … but we were never a city that capitalized on water. Now, we have a great opportunity to do that, because water has taken center stage in the 21st century. Unlike oil, there’s no substitute for water. Water is the new growth industry.

WT: How did the “water hub in Milwaukee” idea get started?

RM: About two years ago, we had a “Eureka!” moment. I was at a meeting at A.O. Smith where their CEO was showing us their flow lab. As we talked, we realized that each of us had had no idea that the other company had a major flow lab. So, since we’re not really competitors, we agreed to share each other’s flow lab facilities.

And then I thought, wow, there are all these companies in the Milwaukee area involved in the water cycle, but almost none of them compete with each other. The only ones that really did compete were GE and Pentair, and even now they have their joint venture, Pentair Residential Filtration.

So I went to the Greater Milwaukee Committee and the seven counties to propose this idea, and they liked it.

WT: Tell us a little about the research part of this.

RM: We already have the university’s Great Lakes Institute, and now we will be building the first School of Freshwater Sciences, which will take that to the next level. We have $800,000 committed to academic internships in water technology, where graduate students can come in and work as interns in water technology companies. We’ve also applied to the National Science Foundation for seed money to start one of their designated “regions of research.”

We’ve already had several water technology seminars here, where company heads of technology meet and share ideas. This August, we’ll be sponsoring a water investment conference, which will attract CEOs of water technology companies.

WT: How would this “water hub” activity affect the point-of-use/point-of-entry water treatment industry?

RM: Some of the work we’re doing here involves detecting water quality in the home, and that could have a huge impact on that industry. A lot of work here is also being done on things like nanofiltration, which shows promise. Another example is that A.O. Smith is doing a lot of research into more water-efficient water heating and is considering the launch of a filtration business. And Pentair Residential Filtration decided to locate its headquarters in Milwaukee.

WT: What’s political and community support been like?

RM: The governor, the mayors, our two US senators, our various legislators — all have been very supportive. We had a press conference recently with Republican and Democratic members of the state legislature, and I’ve never seen cooperation on both sides of the aisle like I’ve seen for this issue.

Also — and this is very important — we have the environmental community represented on the Water Council, and they’ve been involved in this from the very start. We want to grow water businesses, but we want to grow them in an environmentally sustainable way. I think we’ve pulled together a very impressive cross-section of our community.

Article & interview orgianlly printed here: http://www.watertechonline.com/article.asp?IndexID=6637117


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Aneesh on May 18, 2009 at 7:06 am

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