August 16 was a day of looking into the future as the first Innovation Incubator (IN2) Summit brought 150 stakeholders to NREL to explore the direction of the program for the coming years.
“It’s our 40th birthday, and in that respect, this meeting is very exciting to me because we in the lab are in discussions about what will happen in the next 40 years,” said NREL Director Martin Keller. “Where do we go from here? How can we move U.S. clean-energy technology forward—and how can we move it faster?”
The day-long, invitation-only gathering on NREL’s campus was an opportunity for IN2companies, Channel Partners (incubators, accelerators, and universities who source applicants for IN2), investors, board members, and industry professionals to focus on challenges for transportation, food-energy-water, and residential communities, with the goal of identifying the greatest opportunities for innovation and where IN2 should focus as it grows toward the goal of fostering smart and connected communities.
Expanding a Model
Launched in 2014 with an initial $10 million commitment by the Wells Fargo Foundation, IN2 is now a $30 million program supporting innovative technologies and innovators. NREL’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center (IEC) partners with the Wells Fargo Foundation to run the IN2 program, which has focused on supporting early-stage technologies to reduce the energy impact of commercial buildings, but more recently, has expanded to support technologies and solutions for smart and connected communities. At the event, Ashley Grosh, Wells Fargo’s vice president of environmental affairs, called on participants to work with IN2 to scale the model into additional areas.
“This is an event we have not tried before, so it is an experiment,” said Richard Adams, director of IEC, which organized the event. “This is the start of some really deep thinking about how we best support our ecosystems around food, energy, water; around sustainable mobility; and around residential buildings.”
Exploring Challenges and Opportunities
Environmentalist and author Paul Hawken set the tone of the event by reminiscing about the early days of the Solar Energy Research Institute. “So many people thought that this is a fantasy” of running the country off of solar energy. Today, NREL, in partnership with the Wells Fargo Foundation, has found a “brilliant way” to help start-ups overcome “the valley of death”—the point where many fledgling enterprises fail.
The main goal for the Summit was to take a deep dive into three sectors – transportation, food energy water, and residential – to further help guide the IN2 program. During a series of breakout sessions led by subject matter experts, attendees focused on the core problems and opportunities that IN2 has the potential to address. Key questions included: What are the greatest problems driving the needs for technology solutions? Where are the greatest opportunities for innovation in this space? Themes around greatest opportunities in each vertical emerged from the discussions as reflected in live polling conducted throughout the day (see word clouds below communicating results).
Transportation and sustainable mobility-related discussions covered the entire transportation value chain, while contemplating the future of transportation in cities and rural communities. Innovations in vehicles, coupled with new paradigms and information technology, create opportunities to leverage the human role and dramatically alter how we interact with and utilize modes of transport.
Demonstrating the full value of innovative solutions will require collaboration and partnering with city and state governments in order to pilot and prove out. Perhaps most importantly, effectively sharing, integrating and utilizing data will be the key to addressing the significant challenges faced in the transportation space.Residential Buildings
Despite significant advancement of energy-efficient and home technologies and best practices, large technology and information gaps in the residential buildings sector remain. These gaps, including the ROI, prevent mainstream adoption of the high-performance home technologies and systems for both new and existing homes that are needed to achieve energy-savings. Other significant “problems” identified in the residential space include air quality issues, water consumption, cyber-security concerns in connected homes, and the growing complexity of peak demand and grid integration.
A few of the key themes to emerge as opportunities for innovation and investment included, home energy storage and systems, water management, reuse and recycling, leveraging AI to optimize energy use, and food waste systems, and working with utilities on incentives as well as demonstration opportunities.
The linkages between agriculture and food, energy and water, and systems comprised of all three, made for broad and interesting discussions. Cognizant of Paul’s earlier reference to food waste and the fact that “one third of the food raised or prepared does not make it to from farm or factory to fork”, participants grappled with how to think through solutions to manage all of this waste when nearly 800 million people go hungry worldwide each year? With resource availability and needs differing region to region, city to city, a one size fits all approach is not possible.
Greatest pain points allow for greatest opportunities for innovation and there is an abundance of activity and solutions. Food, energy, water are sectors within themselves in addition to a nexus. Opportunity lies within breaking down silos and considering technologies that can affect the broader ecosystem. Key themes in the session centered around reducing energy and water usage required in food production through systematic thinking, reducing food waste and transportation requirements, as well as leveraging data within and amongst the sectors.
Input from attendees representing the ecosystem will be used by the IN2 program management team to inform the program direction as IN2 grows to include technology solutions addressing challenges in these new verticals.
Colorado Department of Transportation Director Shailen Bhatt, who was part of a session on mobility, noted that his state agency has transformed from an old model of building roads and bridges to becoming an early adopter of technology. “Big data is the new asphalt,” he said.
The IN2 program management team will continue to gather data and input as it builds the program’s plan for 2.0. Stay tuned for future updates to learn more about the evolution of the IN2 program and path forward.