By Peter Chawaga
A new initiative will test the theory that some of the next great water technologies are right under our noses, without us even realizing it.
The Water Council, a center for scientific research and economic development, has announced plans to launch the ICE (Innovation. Commercialization. Exchange) Institute to find, vet, and connect emerging water technologies to those who could use them.
The institute is a partnership between The Water Council, the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, and the Alliance for Water Stewardship — North America. It will task a scouting team with identifying innovations that can help manufacturers, utilities, and agricultural operations, independently test those innovations for efficacy, and then open up a database and use product matching teams to connect potential users to the solutions.
The idea started as The Water Council sought a grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for a program that focused solely on manufacturing. As Water Council staff worked on a pre-application, they realized the program it had in mind, the ICE Institute, would be more ambitious and open-ended than they had first thought.
“It really came to the conclusion that we were trying to take this very large square peg of this funding and try to stick it into our smaller, rounder hole,” said Dean Amhaus, president and CEO of The Water Council. “We made the pre-application, we submitted it, but at the same time we were second-guessing ourselves. Our board decided to pull back and go the route of the ICE Institute because it fit us as well.”
Although the pre-proposal was accepted, The Water Council declined to move forward with NIST, finding that their idea for the ICE Institute could better serve the industry.
“We really believed that there was a need for an institute like this, to not only address manufacturing as a whole, but also to look at the biggest water users in agriculture and the inclusion of utilities,” Amhaus said. “That was what really drove this whole effort, and then obviously as we got underway we kept on discovering new things, coming up with new ideas, and that was the genesis of the institute.”
As the largest and oldest water technology cluster in the country, the Milwaukee-based technology hub was in a unique position to play matchmaker between fledgling technology and water operations.
“This is nothing that we’re necessarily creating new,” said Amhaus. “We have the capacity and the infrastructure, but also the ability to tap into a strong knowledge base in the U.S., in Milwaukee, and across the world, to be able to not only find the research that’s going on in the federal labs, but the universities across the entire country as well.”
The process will start with the scouting of potentially innovative technologies. The Water Council will recruit from a network of retired water technology professionals and send them to laboratories through its Global Water Port initiative. Eventually, it could lean on its partnership with the Federal Laboratory Consortium to open the door to 300 more facilities.
“It’s very much taking lots of experience that they have, helping to open those doors,” Amhaus said. “Our estimation is that once they get in and they start asking about these, say, five different pieces of research we’ve uncovered, that they’ll probably find 10 to 15 more, just by talking to different people.”
Once a promising technology is identified by a scout, a team of experts (currently being put together by The Water Council’s Chief Technology Officer David Garman) will review it, highlighting the most effective ones for interested end users. Free access to the database of technologies will be possible through the Global Water Port, but Water Council members will get access to more in-depth information.
“What people are going to be getting is the added benefit of the evaluation that [we’ll do],” said Amhaus. “We will actually be able to have regular conversations with members. What they’re paying for is that additional evaluation.”
Members will also be able to give The Water Council feedback about the types of technologies they are interested in finding. It has already been approached about scouting for emerging sensing technology.
“I think one of the key things we’ve been hearing a lot about, and I think is at the top of our list, is anything related around sensors,” Amhaus said. “These are some of the items that keep on popping up from lots of discussions. My bet, as we get underway with this, in terms of the action research, we’ll want to be out there looking for all types of sensors.”
This early on, it’s impossible to say what technologies the ICE Institute will end up uncovering. The only guarantee is that it will serve as a new avenue for the latest breakthroughs.
“We’re going to go out and find things from the federal labs and universities that maybe nobody’s even thought about and would have application in the water tech industry,” said Amhaus. “It’s being able to find those opportunities, to have the right people in place to evaluate them, and to see the broader picture of that technology and that research.”