NREL Innovation & Entrepreneurship: A Brief History

As an applied research facility in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratory system, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) looks beyond fundamental research to investigate and understand how the technologies developed here impact the marketplace and serve the real world. This focus sharpened for the Lab in 2008, through the DOE’s open bid for a new lab operating contractor.  Part of this request included an entrepreneurial strategy, and when MRI Global and Battelle joined forces to establish the Alliance for Sustainable Energy as the operator of NREL they were eager to expand and run with this concept.

The Alliance’s proposal outlined an ambitious plan to reinvigorate technology transfer, create a collaborative facility for the cleantech community, and a lab-wide Program for Entrepreneurial Growth (PEG).  The PEG plan was comprised of the preexisting Industry Growth Forum, a rigorous entrepreneurial training program for lab researchers, and a leadership group to serve as a window into the investment world.  The tagline of this proposal and big picture concept was to “Create an Energy Silicon Valley.” The Alliance won the bid, and to fulfill its promise to the DOE, NREL established the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center (IEC).

Once established, IEC focused on initiating and expanding a number of innovation programs and partnerships:

CREED:

NREL and the IEC formed CREED (Colorado Renewable Energy and Economic Development) to connect the various economic, technology, academic and advocacy groups that are dedicated to “catalyzing economic development in Colorado through clean energy and energy efficiency innovation and entrepreneurship.” This community of innovators regularly convenes key players in the cleantech space, and has helped build impactful programs and powerful connections to advance energy technologies in Colorado and beyond.

NREL Industry Growth Forum:

The IEC administers the NREL Industry Growth Forum (IGF), an annual investor networking event and startup showcase to convene strategic leaders in the cleantech space and celebrate the latest and greatest in disruptive energy technologies.  The early IGF days (going back to the mid-1990s) focused heavily on renewable generation technologies, especially solar.  Today, we are seeing energy generation and efficiency technologies with applications across myriad markets. As the technologies and companies have evolved, so have the investors.  NREL Associate Lab Director and Director of Innovation Partnering & Outreach, Bill Farris, was part of the Alliance bid-proposal team, and he looks to the IGF as “a way to get a real-time snapshot of what’s happening in the cleantech investment space.”  The IGF is essentially funded by the private sector through sponsorship and admission, which begs the question: why does NREL put on this event every year?  As Farris reflects, “We do this because it’s important to fulfilling our mission. We do it because we’re at the intersection of entrepreneurs and investors.  We do it because access to capital is a critical missing ingredient in taking innovations to market.  This was true 30 years ago and is still true today.”  NREL and the IEC is hosting its 30th IGF on May 3-4, in Denver, Colorado. The IEC has also partnered with the U.S. Agency of International Development  (USAID) to create a spinoff from the IGF to address important commercialization issues facing emerging markets.  Last April introduced Emerging Markets Day, which features educational content, facilitated networking and an exciting pitch competition.

DOE’s Energy I-Corps:

Remember the proposal for a rigorous entrepreneurial training program for the lab?  This concept has been realized through the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Energy I-Corps accelerator.  The IEC organizes and runs this intensive program for DOE, and brings together teams from several national labs for each cohort.  Modeled after the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program, Energy I-Corps guides lab teams through eight demanding weeks of customer discovery, business model iteration, and pitch practice.  At the end of the program, the researchers have the tools and insights they need to propel their technology toward market readiness.  If they aren’t ready to spin out of the lab with a startup, they return with priceless perspectives that they can apply to current research and future proposals, which altogether improves technology innovation in the national lab system.  To date, the IEC has hosted 71 Energy I-Corps teams through six cohorts; Cohort 7 will kick off this spring in Denver, Colorado.

NREL Investor Advisory Board:

Also central to the original Alliance bid was the window into the investment world.  The IEC formed the NREL Investor Advisory Board (IAB) to create mutually beneficial relationships between the lab and the investment community.  It has now grown to over 35 members of venture capital, corporate strategic, family office and private investment firms and serves as NREL’s pulse on investment trends and outlooks. The IAB meets quarterly to engage in lively discussion on disruptive technologies and business models, and many of the insights gained from these meetings help shape IEC programs and events.

Continuing this mission today, the IEC designs its programs to align private sector trends and industry needs. Connecting the investment and entrepreneurial communities, fostering public and private sector collaboration, and driving technology innovation is central to the IEC’s convening role.  Challenges faced by many technology startups involve overcoming the technological and commercialization valleys of death. Significant funding gaps can impede the development of technology and the pathway to commercialization. Programs like the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN²) provide structured support and channel key resources for cleantech startups to overcome these hurdles.

IN²:

The Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN²) is a nine-year, $30 Million program tailored to incubating select energy technologies.  Through a rigorous review and selection process, the IN² program invites technology startups to participate from a pipeline of cleantech companies recommended by an extensive incubator and university network of Channel Partners.  Once selected, these companies work closely with a principal investigator from NREL to meet significant milestones that advance their technology to a commercial readiness level.  Rounds 1-3 have emphasized commercial buildings and energy efficiency technologies, and the IN² team is preparing to expand the program in Round 4 to include food systems and water technologies.

Leveraging key partnerships and lab resources has driven NREL and the IEC to achieve great progress in the mission to accelerate the commercialization of breakthrough technology and energy ventures.  The current and future IEC programs hinge on the unfailing collaboration of the cleantech community, and positioning the lab as both an applied research facility and a convening catalyst for innovation has become a true success.

To learn how you can connect and collaborate with the NREL Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center, contact entrepreneurship@nrel.gov.

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