Cleantech Open connects national labs with entrepreneurs

Mar. 21, 2014

Cleantech Open connects national labs with entrepreneurs

Kenneth K Ma, ma28@llnl.gov, 925-423-7602
The Cleantech Open, the world's largest accelerator for clean technology startups, hosted a regional networking event Tuesday to discuss the challenges and opportunities for investors and entrepreneurs to do business with Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories.

The event at the Livermore Valley Open Campus (LVOC), a joint initiative between both labs, drew an audience of 121 that included industry and lab researchers and economic development administrators. It consisted of networking and two panel discussions that focused on the theme of moving lab technologies to the marketplace.

Both laboratories, which cosponsored the event with i-GATE Innovation Hub, have technologies in the clean energy sector that have potential for commercial development.Cleantech Ope n, a national nonprofit, seeks to find, fund and foster entrepreneurs with big ideas that address urgent energy, environmental and economic challenges.

"This event represents the kind of networking we think is important for the future of our Laboratory," said Betsy Cantwell, Lawrence Livermore's director for Economic Development.

Congressman Eric Swalwell said clean technology is important for the region's economy, and that more partnerships should be formed between the public and private sectors.

"We can only win, I believe, if we have a true public-private partnership," he said.

However, there are challenges in achieving the partnership that both labs and LVOC are seeking to address. One of those is the time table for technology transfer and commercialization.

"Companies want to move on the scale of hours to days," said Andy McIlroy, a manager within Sandia's Transportation Energy Center and LVOC's senior manager. "And we [the labs] are used to working on a scale from months to years. Some of these cultural mismatches are real challenges when you are trying to see a technology successfully move out into the marketplace."

Brian Steel, co-director of the Cleantech to Market program at UC Berkeley's Energy Institute at the Hass School of Business, sees the challenges as a double-sided coin. There is a lot of technology being developed that is not commercially viable, he said. One the other hand, the private sector sometimes does not have a good understanding of the technologies and the trajectories of the labs.

The researcher and industry need to come together, he said, so there is market context for the technology to work.

Some of these challenges can be addressed if labs have "more flexibility on the kinds of commercialization deals they can do and less regulatory prescription," Cantwell said. Tech transfer also can be improved if federal oversight focused on it regionally, she added.

"I think regional networks are incredibly powerful, more powerful than broad country-sweeping networks," she said.

Cantwell said an opportunity for clean tech entrepreneurs to collaborate with the public sector is through the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program, which promotes and funds R&D projects for advanced energy technologies.

The agency funds high risk energy research projects that involve national labs, universities and industry. These projects have the potential to radically improve U.S. economic prosperity, national security and environmental well-being, according to its website. ARPA-E awardees have developed entirely new ways to generate, store and use energy.

"ARPA-E is a startup within government," said Cantwell, adding that its loan program has been very successful and the agency as a whole has helped tech transfer move faster.

Cool Earth Solar CEO Rob Lamkin said his company benefited from working with Sandia at LVOC. His company develops clean and renewable power plants using concentrated photovoltaic technology and traditional flat-panel photovoltaic products and technology.

One of the keys to success, he said, was finding champions at Sandia who helped get their project through.

"Without a champion inside the lab, the deal would not have gotten done," Lamkin said. "Now that we have been through it [working with a national lab], I would definitely do it again." Cantwell said Lawrence Livermore and Sandia have had a big impact on the region's economy.

"I think both of these labs, by virtue of their location near Silicon Valley, have spun out very meaningful companies over the last 30 years," she said. "There's billions of dollars that can be measured there."

Success also is measured, she said, when the labs and their employees become active participants in the regional innovation networks and when potential new employees ask about the ability to participate in those networks.

"That is very meaningful to us," she said.

Finally, Cantwell reminded the audience that a commercial collaboration with a national lab does not necessarily have to be a long process.

"Not every deal between the laboratory and a small company takes two years," she said. "We do lots of deals between four to six months."