Energy I-Corps, one of several U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Technology-to-Market Programs, trains select national laboratory scientists and engineers in techniques to accelerate the commercialization of clean energy technologies they develop. The intensive training occurs in a group setting with extensive individual coaching and feedback from experienced instructors and industry experts paired to the technology teams.
To-date, 82 technology teams from 10 national labs have participated in seven trainings held between fall 2015 through summer 2018. DOE enlisted Research Into Action to compile case studies on a selection of technologies to capture early outcomes from the first two Energy I-Corps training cohorts (late 2015 and spring 2016).
What we did
We obtained information from the NREL Energy I-Corps program manager, participating lab managers, and the DOE program lead to help identify which technologies to feature in the case studies, ultimately focusing on four technologies that had progressed along the path to commercialization since the training:
- Argonne National Laboratory’s (ANL) SonicLQ – short for Sonic Leak Quantifier – is a hardware and software technology designed to identify air infiltration or leakages in buildings.
- RWEDI, or Resin Wafer Electrodeionization, also from ANL, uses electricity to remove ions from water streams.
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) WISDEM technology is an open-source, software-based framework that creates a “virtual,” vertically-integrated wind plant to optimize wind turbine and plant design, control, and operations. The acronym is short for “Wind Plant Integrated Systems Design and Engineering Model.”
- Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s STARS technology platform (aka, Solar Thermochemical Advance Reactor System) efficiently converts solar and other forms of energy and natural gas into chemicals, fuel, and power.
Our analysis revealed the following key factors that contributed to these technology teams’ successes in progressing along the commercialization continuum.
- Energy I-Corps Training: Customer discovery interviews conducted during and after training led teams to pivot and enabled them to redirect their efforts toward the most viable near-term market. Teams learned how to develop and deliver value propositions effective in enticing investors and securing follow-on funding.
- Professional and Personality Factors of Team Members: Teams comprised of both members with commercialization expertise and members with technology expertise enabled a collaborative division of labor. Team members confident in public speaking helped win follow-on funding.
- Technology Factors: Having a strong comparative advantage over existing technologies, being able to benefit multiple market actors, and having multiple potential applications contributed to the case study technologies’ successes.
- Target Market Characteristics: Our case study teams identified near- and long-term markets for their technologies and those markets were either primed for or open to adopting new technologies. Three teams also had industry partners that expressed interest in the technology soon after their Energy I-Corps training.
- Follow-on Funding: Winning funding enabled continued research and development and the demonstration of projects in operational environments.
The teams also had to be careful to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest as lab researchers worked with their respective startup. They accomplished this by invoking entrepreneurial leave policies, activity agreements, or by making it clear to investors that they were supporting either the lab or the startup company.
The Energy I-Corps business training was essential to these teams’ commercialization progress. The expertise and personality characteristics of the team members, characteristics of the technology, and market conditions appear to be equal contributors to progress. Follow-on funding is important to TRL advancement, and lab policies concerning startups and conflict of interest influence the ease of technology transfer.
Read the full report.