The maxim “If you build it, they will come” worked fine in the movie “Field of Dreams” about a mythic ball yard—but it’s not a successful recipe for researchers-turned-entrepreneurs bringing technology to market.
“You need to understand where the problems are, and what the needs of the customer are, and then work backward,” says NREL engineer Derek Vardon.
Vardon, along with materials scientist Steve Christensen and molecular biologist Chris Johnson, is a member of the NREL Biolyst Renewables team. Biolyst and SolGuard—an entry from Michael Deceglie, an applied physicist, and engineer Chris Deline—are in the second round of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lab-Corps program. They are among the 14 teams selected from seven national laboratories for the intensive seven-week boot camp led by NREL.
Both NREL groups have promising concepts that impressed a panel of Lab-Corps judges. Biolyst Renewables has developed technologies to renewably produce adipic acid, a primary component of nylon, at a competitive cost and lower environmental footprint than petroleum-derived adipic acid. SolGuard is a combination of two ideas for an integrated photovoltaic (PV) safety and performance solution that will provide remote shutoff capability of solar systems while giving owners automatic alerts of potential safety and energy-production problems.
During the program, teams are paired with mentors, and benefit not only from classes taught by experts, but also from informational interviews with companies in fields related to their technologies. For the scientists and engineers, it was largely a new world. “I was mildly interested in tech-to-market activities,” says Christensen. “Derek and I had been collaborating on some work, and he expressed interest.”
After applying only a few months ago, they learned they were moving ahead—rapidly. “They really threw us into the deep water,” says Deceglie, explaining that there were 12-hour days at first after Lab-Corps launched on March 17. “It’s a change of pace from my normal day job.” Vardon calls the exposure so far “a wild, eye-opening experience that’s been awesome.”
The sessions aim to accelerate the transfer of clean energy technologies to the marketplace by training national laboratory researchers on how to transfer their discoveries to the private sector. The Lab-Corps pilot, started in 2014, is based on the National Science Foundation’s successful Innovation Corps model. Lab-Corps implements a customized version of the curriculum, and participants hope to emerge with a clear plan to successfully commercialize their technologies.
But before there’s any business, there must be promising ideas.
Getting Started with a Concept
Deline was out for a jog last year in Denver, pondering ways to provide a better way for a rooftop shutdown of PV systems, when he hit upon a concept that eventually became part of SolGuard. “I was looking at the tools I had at my disposal, and realized the frame ground wasn’t being used for anything,” he says, so he started looking at ways that could provide a signal for the system. Though the idea wasn’t fully fleshed out, he worked with NREL’s intellectual property team, getting records of invention and a provisional patent.
Separately, Deceglie was investigating ways to detect changes in the series resistance of PV modules. Initially an analysis technique for data, Deceglie says, “I realized it could be implemented with hardware as a sort of online monitoring system.” Currently, PV monitoring is reactive. “This is more diagnostic—it can tell you about what’s going wrong without rolling [service] trucks.”
Moving from analytical to a physical product is tricky. “How to do it?” is one of the questions he hopes to answer in Lab-Corps. Because both projects involve PV safety—an area that is becoming increasingly scrutinized and will be impacted by changes in national electrical safety codes—SolGuard was formed.
Vardon says their journey to Lab-Corps began about three years ago, as part of a whirlwind experience that saw him come to NREL in the Research Participant Program. He contributed catalyst development for a Laboratory Directed Research and Development project aiming to produce adipic renewably. Using fossil fuels, he says, is a “nasty process” that contributes to global warming.
The project led to a fiber produced in collaboration with the Colorado School of Mines, several publications, and a vision forward. Vardon, who earned his Ph.D. last year, partnered with Johnson—who has investigated adipic acid for three years—and Christensen to apply to Lab-Corps this round and seek to advance the concept. “I don’t want to make it sound like its turnkey and ready to go,” Vardon says, which is why Lab-Corps makes sense to all of them.
Learning the Real-World Approach via Lab-Corps
A key part of the program is gathering real-world feedback. Already, in two short weeks, team members conducted dozens of interviews—and are expected to make up to 100 such contacts during the program.
“We are talking to stakeholders in the value chain. Understanding what’s giving them trouble, and how technology can help. We’re asking questions and listening,” Deceglie says.
And while working on new technologies or inventions can be a “chicken-and-egg challenge”—because a researcher has to start somewhere—the approach of gathering stakeholder replies can feed back into the business side and shape the next technical steps. Outsiders can answer the key question: “How does it need to change to be useful?”
Johnson says this feedback loop is a lot like doing any science. “You don’t really know at the time you’re doing an experiment if your hypothesis will work out or not.” Because they don’t have business backgrounds, the new ways of thinking take some adjustment. Continues Johnson, “as we’re learning in Lab-Corps, technology isn’t a product; and a product isn’t a business. There’s a lot more that goes into bringing something to market. That’s part of what we’re learning.”
Notes Deceglie, “Lab-Corps does a good job of teaching this stuff to scientists—sort of in our own jargon. We form hypotheses as to what the value proposition is and who might be the customers. We need to gather data to support or reject” an idea. And while it is a bit more art than science—in part because of the human element of their interview subjects—patterns are appearing in answers. For example, SolGuard team members have now heard that potential customers don’t want to monitor individual modules. Such an approach is too granular, which floods users with too much information and at too great a cost.
And they’re learning to see across the wider market landscape, a view not always possible in a laboratory.
Looking Ahead to the Big Picture
Johnson sounds measured about their prospects of success. “Broadly, bio-based plastics could be very important to the future. This technology itself—you never know.” He stresses that as trained scientists, they must remain cautious. That’s why researchers say “our data suggests that…” even if they are confident it is pretty definitive. However, as team members talk to more and more people in industry, it can be hard not to get excited by positive responses.
Clearly, he and others would relish the thought of entering into a license agreement or cooperative research and development agreement, but he stops short of setting up shop. “I don’t know if any of us is ready to jump into a start-up on our own.”
Plenty of effort remains ahead. As Deline says, “we may have to spend nights and some weekends on this.” His partner, Deceglie, sees real potential for the SolGuard concept. With national electrical codes changing in several years, it’s not far-fetched to envision something of theirs coming to market. “Both are good ideas. We don’t need a miracle to happen,” he says. Perhaps one day an inverter manufacturer will integrate his technology, and a chip- or module-maker will use Deline’s concept.
Overall, the Lab-Corps participants realize that, even if their products don’t make it to market—at least not right away—they’ll get value out of the experience. “I think it would be really great if all researchers—and program managers—could have this opportunity. It’s really important,” says Christensen. Learning to have the conversations with the real world will continue to benefit them and NREL as a whole. “This can keep the broader work here relevant,” Deceglie says.
— Written by Ernie Tucker, NREL