Milwaukee Energy Incubator Channels Manufacturing Past to Power Future

Milwaukee has made efforts over the past several years to establish itself as a global hub for water technology, a push that gained momentum last year with the opening of The Water Council’s Global Water Center and the launch of a water tech startup accelerator there.

Now, a coalition of big companies, academic researchers, and government officials—spearheaded by the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium (M-WERC)—is moving ahead with a similar initiative that aims to strengthen another one of the area’s industry clusters: energy, power, automation, and control. (This broad swath of technologies, as defined by M-WERC, includes everything from fossil and renewable fuels to power transmission to “control” products like thermostats, smart energy grids, and technology that directs factory machinery.)

The heart of the effort is a $9.6 million project to fix up part of an old building on the city’s north side, previously an Eaton Corp. research and development facility, so it can house a cleantech startup incubator, corporate and academic research teams, and business service providers.

One of the goals is to provide M-WERC’s member companies—which include industry leaders that have local headquarters or major presences here, like Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI), Rockwell Automation (NYSE: ROK), and Eaton (NYSE: ETN)—with a collaborative space to tinker with skunk works projects while having access to a pipeline of innovative startups that could become product suppliers or acquisition targets, says Jeff Anthony, M-WERC’s director of business development and its planned Energy Innovation Center.

The more daunting, longer-range goal is to help the startups become successful enough to ramp up hiring and outgrow the space, ideally expanding to bigger offices nearby. That would be a boon for the surrounding neighborhood, which has struggled for decades, partly due to the exodus of manufacturing jobs to Milwaukee’s suburbs and other countries.

“Part of this is the restoration of good-paying jobs in this area,” Anthony (pictured above) says. “That’s not our mission, per se, but we can play a part.”

M-WERC was founded in 2009 as a partnership between the engineering schools at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Marquette University, and Milwaukee School of Engineering. It has since developed into an organization with more than 75 members in academia, industry, and economic development who are focused on research, work force development, and public policy initiatives.

Now, M-WERC is centralizing those efforts in a physical space. The organization is leasing 65,000 square feet on four floors of the 200,000-square-foot building at 4201 N. 27th St.

Xconomy toured the space this week to get an update on the renovation project, which will be done in phases over the next two years. The dust is flying, and one section should be finished by January: a wing with desks for nine startups, along with offices for investors and service providers like lawyers, accountants, and marketers, Anthony says.

Two startups are already renting space there: Edison DC Systems and Alliance Federated Energy. Early next year, M-WERC will solicit applications from startups interested in setting up shop there by next summer and participating in the organization’s planned incubator/accelerator.

The startup program can’t be precisely defined yet because M-WERC is still working out the details. It’s yet to be determined, for example, if the chosen startups would receive an equity or grant investment, which is typical of accelerators. Anthony expects there will be elements taken from other similar programs, such as access to mentors and business training. But unlike traditional three-month startup accelerators, he doesn’t think M-WERC’s program will have a rigid curriculum or a defined time period for each “class” of startups.

The plan is to target cleantech companies that have a prototype and previously raised seed funding, Anthony says. The companies could be developing technology in … Next Page »

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Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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  • Jesse DePinto

    Great article Jeff! I’m very excited to see how this all shakes out. This will undoubtedly draw engineers & entrepreneurs in Milwaukee to the EPC industry.

    • Thanks for reading, Jesse. It will be interesting to watch the center progress.