We are continuing weekly blog posts of articles from the leading clean energy journal in Colorado, the 2017-18 Innovative Energy Review. This is the third article in this series. Check out the full magazine here.
By Jennifer Ramsey
We Are Two Years Old!
It’s been just two short (but busy!) years since we launched the first round of Lab-Corps training, and we’ve come a long way since that first nerve-wracking day in October of 2015. This Department of Energy program is continuing to grow and gain traction across the laboratory system, and we are excited to see what the future holds as we look towards year three.
What’s In A Name?
It’s safe to say that the biggest change we saw this year was our new name – Energy I-Corps. We are now officially branded! Earlier this year the fledgling Lab-Corps pilot program transitioned into a fullfledged Department of Energy program, and along with that change we adopted a new moniker. The new Energy I-Corps name reflects the evolution of the Lab-Corps program within DOE and national lab community. While the name has changed, the program’s mission remains the same. Whether a national lab researcher is improving advanced fuel types, developing novel techniques for environmental remediation, or creating opportunities for more energy-efficient buildings, Energy I-Corps will continue to help scientists get out of lab and develop the commercial potential of their research.
How Far We’ve Come
To date, 63 teams from 10 national labs have worked with 70 industry mentors to conduct more than 4,500 customer discovery interviews across industry while discovering the potential commercial impact of their technologies. The Customer Discovery process has led lab researchers to meetings with companies like Hitachi, Lowes, Johns Manville, Lego, Trane, Tesla, GM, Dow Chemical, Home Depot, Amazon, and more. Collectively, alumni teams have attracted nearly $10 million in follow-on funding from federal, state, and private sources to further the commercialization of their technologies. Our teams have gone on to compete in the Clean Energy Trust (CET) Challenge and other business plan competitions, participate in incubator programs like the Austin Technology Incubator (ATI), and a team from Argonne National Lab in Illinois was even selected as the winner in the Fort Collins EV Challenge in 2016. For the first time ever, an NREL-based team was selected for an Advanced Industry Grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT).
While our teams were off tackling the world’s energy challenges, our program has been seeing its own growth and development. Since the first cohort of teams graduated in December 2015, the program has expanded to include four additional labs, and we’re expecting more in the next round. We’ve also grown beyond the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) at DOE to include new teams and technologies representing the broader energy sector, including Fossil Energy, Nuclear Energy, Electricity, and Environmental Management.
NREL Leading the Way
Those 63 teams? 15 of them were from NREL; more than any other lab. It turns out our researchers have a real appetite for entrepreneurship and it’s our job to cultivate that spirit. NREL teams are doing some exciting things; here are a few you might want to keep an eye out for:
SwitchGlaze – This team is working with an innovative window coating that is capable of turning a window into a “switchable” solar panel that responds to sunlight by transforming from transparent to tinted while simultaneously converting sunlight into electricity. This potentially game-changing technology was actually discovered by accident in the lab when a sample was inadvertently subjected to heat. The challenge is now on the team to prove that the technology is durable enough for deployment on commercial and residential buildings.
EcoSnap – EcoSnap, an R&D 100 Award winning room cooling and heating solution, addresses all the major drawbacks of room air conditioners (RACs) and heat pumps by providing local space conditioning in a low-cost installation package without requiring the use of windows, virtually eliminating interior noise, improving energy efficiency, improving home security and decreasing cooling load. EcoSnap is as efficient as a mini-split heat pump but has an installed cost close to window and portable air conditioners thus removing the major barrier to improving residential air conditioning efficiency: cost.
Nitrilica – Acrylonitrile is used in the production of acrylic fibers for clothes and fabrics, and in plastics such as food containers, packaging materials, and children’s toys. Concerns over propylene price volatility and environmental sustainability have motivated a search for bio-based alternatives. This nitrilation technology provides cost-competitive production of both biomass- and traditional petro-based feedstocks in order to reduce the industry’s dependence on the volatile petroleum market and stabilize price points for the end users.
What are we really doing?
Is it a technology accelerator? Sure. A training program? You bet. This is really about the labs approaching technology transfer in a different way by taking an entrepreneurial approach to deploying our technologies. Energy I-Corps gets the researchers engaged in the commercialization process and provides them the opportunity to connect directly with industry to find out what problems need to be solved. It gives them the tools to define the limits of the gap that exists between the readiness of the technology at the lab, and the point at which the market is ready to adopt it, and then chart a course for market penetration. Then of course there’s the long game – driving future market relevant research. Teams are returning to their labs energized about the prospect of making an impact with their innovations and taking a whole new approach to beginning their next research project. Program graduates credit their Energy I-Corps experience with writing stronger proposals, feeling more confident in business meetings and negotiations, and attracting new potential partners for their technology. That is precisely the transformative change we’re hoping to foster within the laboratory system.
Jennifer Ramsey is part of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and is currently serving as the Energy I-Corps Program Director. Through her role at NREL, Jennifer has opportunity to support the clean energy ecosystem through programs that connect entrepreneurs with a wide range of support resources.