University projects could reap payoffs in the form of early-warning water-monitoring products, with potential applications from California to China.
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is no exception: The school has no fewer than five research teams testing sensors inside everything from wastewater channels to lake buoys.
Now it appears one or possibly two of those UWM projects could go to the next level and reap potential payoffs in the form of early-warning water-monitoring products, with potential applications from California to China.
"These are very early-stage developments that we're willing to make a bet on," said Bob Heideman, chief technology officer at A.O. Smith Corp., a Brown Deer water technology company with global markets and operations.
A.O. Smith sees potential to install sensors in the home filtration systems the company designs and builds at its extensive Chinese operations, which in turn are shipped around China — no stranger to suspect water supplies — and other markets.
In regions with established high-powered research universities, like Boston, Palo Alto, Calif., or Madison, a handful of licensing agreements would be commonplace. In Milwaukee, however, intellectual property agreements remain rare achievements.
Milwaukee is a relative newcomer to the idea of harnessing university labs to foster investment, innovation and jobs in the broader community. It was only in 2009, for instance, that UWM inaugurated its graduate-level School of Freshwater Sciences.
"Milwaukee obviously is not Madison," which is known for technology and bioscience start-ups, said Brian Thompson, president of the UWM Research Foundation.
"If we can prove that the technology works, or is feasible, then it's a technology that we have interest in putting on our products," Heideman said of A.O. Smith's strategy to test out working prototypes.
A.O. Smith is not the only water-engineering company with an interest in UWM's water monitors. Along with Badger Meter Inc. and Baker Manufacturing LLC, A.O. Smith is one of three Wisconsin water-tech companies that just licensed sensor technology from each of two UWM-led research teams.
The first is a hand-held sensor that can meter contaminants and heavy metals at low concentrations, using just a single drop of water. The "microfluidic" sensor was developed by UWM assistant professor Woo-Jin Chang, who worked in collaboration with Sundaram Gunasekaran, an agricultural engineer at UW-Madison.
High-performance water sensors are hot technologies. Water Online, a news site for water engineers, calls them the "Holy Grail" of water tech. And Chang's application could compete with a rival sensor technology developed by UWM engineering professor Junhong Chen.
Throughout his 12 years as a UWM researcher, Chen had worked on sensors of different sorts, including ozone sensors. But when UWM adopted a strategy to develop its research into water engineering — which formally began only six years ago — Chen began to look around for water-based applications for his sensors.
What he came up with are sensors that can be immersed and continuously monitor water for even trace amounts of heavy metals or bacteria like E. coli. In addition to the three Wisconsin companies that have signed agreements with Chen and Chang, a fourth engineering company based in Pennsylvania, Gannett Fleming Inc., also licensed Chen's technology.
Both Chen and Chang have patents pending, UWM said.
Because UWM has played mainly in the minor leagues of university-driven economic development in the past, the school turned to an unusual organizational model to foster its sensor technology.
Both technologies were developed in a Milwaukee-based research consortium called the Water Equipment and Policy Center, which includes Marquette University (although Marquette's researchers were not on the teams that developed the UWM sensors).
WEP, as the consortium is called, got much of its funding from the National Science Foundation, a federal agency that allocated funds with strings attached: The NSF stipulated that private industry partners participate directly in all stages of development of new technologies — starting with the immediate needs of industry.
As early members of the consortium, founded in 2010, A.O. Smith and Badger Meter were consulted early on about their most pressing technology needs, said Chen, who serves as WEP director.
His job, he recalled, was to "probe" water-tech companies that pay an annual $50,000 fee to WEP, which helps fund the research.
"It's important to know what they are looking for," Chen said. "What are the challenges they're faced with? What I heard, for example, from A.O. Smith, was related to their big water filtration systems in China. That's because many ask, 'How clean is the water from your device? Can you tell us how much heavy metals are still in the water after the filtration?' They have no idea. So their challenge is really to have a quantification about what's in the water.
"It's an accelerated way to deliver technology to the marketplace," Chen said of the NSF model that compels industry-university cooperation.
It's hardly a surprise that A.O. Smith and Badger Meter were early WEP members. Both are leaders in the efforts to develop a regional cluster of researchers and entrepreneurs in the $500 billion-a-year global market for water engineering systems. The two companies jointly lead the Milwaukee-based Water Council, a trade group that began eight years ago with aspirations centered on metro Milwaukee but has since developed national and international membership and ambitions.
Badger Meter is commemorating its 110th anniversary as a manufacturer of water meters. It increasingly makes fewer heavy brass meters as it switches to sophisticated materials with solid-state sensors and no spinning internal parts. It is exploring the installation of water-quality sensors inside its meters.
"One of the objectives of the center is to develop technologies that will address the global concern regarding the delivery of clean water for human consumption," said Fred Begale, vice president of engineering at Badger Meter.
Baker Manufacturing, based in Evansville, midway between Madison and Janesville, produces water filtration systems and pumps. Another immediate application could involve private wells, UWM believes. The university said more than 13 million U.S. households drink water from private wells, a method that offers no assurances of the water's quality.
Dues-paying WEP membership companies — currently there are 12 — can license intellectual property for free if it's developed within the WEP framework. But when companies want to advance the research, however, UWM is open to licensing agreements, outside of WEP.
The WEP model, formally called an Industry/University Collaborative Research Center, is so new that A.O. Smith's Heideman initially doubted that it would work.
"Eighteen months ago, we were just getting started. I wasn't convinced that the professors really wanted to work on projects for industry, and I wasn't convinced that we could get the right talent working for us."
In a town where applied industrial research remains novel, UWM's Thompson says he likes the NSF model.
"We're going to grow our research programs in a way that matters to regional industries," Thompson said. "That's what's going to work in Milwaukee."
©2015 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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