Accelerating global use of clean energy technologies is among the most visible challenges of our time. The international community needs to increase energy access for a world approaching 9 billion people while mitigating environmental impacts.
According to the International Energy Agency’s 2015 World Energy Outlook, global investment in energy access could exceed $54 trillion in the next 25 years. But before innovations can get to consumers, they must transcend the technological “valley of death.”
Many good ideas perish before they get to the marketplace. They don’t survive the transition from R&D through prototypes, then pilot phases. One reason potential innovations die young is that these intermediate steps require capital that can be hard to attract from risk-averse investors.
To tackle these 21st-century challenges, the labs of the future are evolving to develop more public-private partnerships that can foster rapid innovation and enhance American competitiveness.
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The Department of Energy’s national laboratory system works to help bridge the technological valley of death. In the past 18 months, the department’s renewable energy office launched three new programs to extend the bridge from both sides of the valley.
First, DOE’s Lab-Corps program helps federally funded researchers think more like entrepreneurs to better attune scientists to industry needs.
At Idaho National Laboratory, the program is run through the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, a research consortium with Idaho’s three public research universities and University of Wyoming. The universities’ entrepreneurial centers can help reveal hard-to-find doorways to industry. This “customer discovery” process helps researchers identify the gap between the current state of a technology and the point at which a commercial partner would invest and take it to market.
So far, 10 different INL teams have participated. We are always looking for industry mentors and entrepreneurial leads, especially for three teams participating in fall 2016.
Second, the Small Business Vouchers Pilot program helps start-up companies utilize national laboratory resources, building the bridge from industry’s side of the valley.
The program helps small companies access assistance from DOE’s national laboratories. Award vouchers for $50,000 to $300,000 per business help initiate research collaborations, provide technical assistance and facilitate validation of innovative products or services. Idaho businesses are encouraged to participate — the next round opens this month.
Third, the Technologist in Residence program enhances collaboration between national laboratories and larger businesses.
The program pairs a senior industry technologist with one from a national lab to strengthen relationships and facilitate collaborative R&D. Applications for the current round are being accepted now.
At INL and CAES, we’re working every day to make sure good ideas are seen and heard. But we can’t do it alone. Bridging the technological trek from bench-top to marketplace takes a team effort that requires all of us — industry, academia and government — to work together.
Through these kinds of collaborative efforts, we can resolve the big energy challenges before us and leave our children and grandchildren a cleaner, safer world.
To learn more about other partnering opportunities at INL or CAES, go to www.inl.gov/inl-initiatives/ or caesenergy.org/industry.
Steven Aumeier is director of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies and associate laboratory director for Idaho National Laboratory’s Energy & Environment Science & Technology Directorate.