Connection, Collaboration, and Community: Navigating the Valley of Death

Innovation and entrepreneurship are tricky things to define. Their scope ranges across a huge array of industries, fields of study, and an even larger array of people and organizations. Each of those organizations, industries, and individuals may have varying definitions of what innovation and entrepreneurship means for them.

At the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center (IEC), we have also tried relentlessly to define what those words mean (it was important, given our name). The definition that we have, slowly, come to is this: Innovation and entrepreneurship are the result of three powerful forces. The forces of connection, collaboration, and community.

When combined, these three forces- like the combination of 94 protons, 150 neutrons, and 94 electrons- can help overcome two of the deadliest areas in entrepreneurship, the technological and commercial traps that arise when first trying to prove and then commercialize a new cleantech product.

Connecting at the Industry Growth Forum

The Industry Growth Forum has been around through an unmatched era of innovation. Next week, we will be hosting the 30th Forum in Denver, Colorado. Over the course of those 30 events we have seen some amazing connections forged between investors and founders.

Take for example the case of ChargePoint (formerly Coulomb Technologies), who presented at the Forum in 2008. In attendance at that same Forum were representatives from Siemens AG. A few short years later, Siemens led a $43M Round that allowed ChargePoint to expand its operations. This is just one of the many stories of investors and founders making connections through the Industry Growth Forum and, with the record number of investors signed up to take meetings this year, we hope that that tradition of connection will continue far into the future.

The connections we make when interacting with others across industries help to build important bridges over the valleys of death. They allow us to work with others to overcome the difficulties associated with commercialization, funding, and technology. As an industry we can often think up solutions that are more comprehensive than we could alone.

Collaborating with Science and Industry

Arguably, the most important factor in the success of any new venture is finding the right collaborators. For some that is a first customer, others a lead investor, or an incubator. The Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2) is one of the ways we try and help foster collaboration in the cleantech community.

For its IN2 project, Whisker Labs requested support evaluating their technology in real applications. Following the completion of a laboratory evaluation of the sensors under real loads, Whisker Labs collaborated with Wells Fargo and in June 2016, NREL researchers installed Whisker Lab’s pilot product at a Wells Fargo Branch facility in Aurora, Colorado, this allowed Whisker and NREL to evaluate the technology’s performance and demonstrate the benefit of this less-invasive submetering technology in a commercial building.

By connecting entrepreneurs with researchers, we seek to overcome the technological valley of death, remove the barriers between a new technology and a proven one, and allow good technology, sensible business expertise, and the promise of a cleaner future to come to the fore.

Leveraging the Community

For the IEC, cleantech is about the community. Fostering resilient communities is a common inspiration for cleantech innovators, investors, and ecosystem leaders and we have made it one of the IEC’s pillars of purpose. One way we try to help bolster the cleantech community is through CREED, the Colorado Center for Renewable Energy and Economic Development. CREED is made up of leading organizations on the Colorado Front Range who work to advanced clean technologies and economic policies.

One disruptive technology that leverages the community with a peer-to-peer platform is blockchain. We’ve all heard about blockchain by this point, but the implications of this technology vary greatly between sectors. NREL is partnered with an innovative blockchain company to explore the industry impacts in the power sector, and what we can expect in the future as the sector evolves toward more transactive grids. At Emerging Markets Day and the IGF next week, there will even be two presenting companies with blockchain-based platforms.

The valleys are dangerous but, like the real Death Valley, they are not impossible to traverse. With the right preparation, some collaborators, and – most importantly, lots of water you can make it to the other side with only a light sunburn.

At the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center, we have the utter pleasure of helping brilliant startups, investors, and scientists create a brighter future. It is important to remember that we all have a duty to help where we can, because if we do not, our industry will just sit there, spinning its wheels, like a car stuck in Death Valley.


All readers are encouraged to leave comments. While all points of view are welcome on the NREL Industry Growth Forum blog, only comments that are courteous and on-topic will be posted. All comments will be reviewed, and NREL reserves the right to post comments at its discretion.

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