This week, the 7th Cohort of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Energy I-Corps accelerator celebrated graduation from the program near the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) headquarters in Golden, Colorado.
With Cohort 7 wrapping up, we talked to Team PureBeam’s Industry Mentor, Jeff Margolis of Innovation Strategies Consulting, and Entrepreneurial Lead, Brendan Kiburg of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (FNAL), about what makes the program special. For those who have not heard about Energy I-Corps, it pairs teams of national laboratory researchers with industry mentors for an intensive two-month training program where the researchers define technology value propositions, conduct customer discovery interviews, and develop viable market pathways for their technologies. We sat down with Jeff and Brendan earlier this month to hear about their Energy I-Corps experience.
For clarity: IEC – Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center. JM – Jeff Margolis. BK – Brendan Kiburg
IEC: What made you want to join the program?
JM: I have always appreciated the knowledge and technology created by the National Labs. I applaud FermiLabs’ increasing focus on leveraging basic science to combat societal problems. I was excited to bring my experience and network to support a team like PureBeam so they can advance their technology and, hopefully, bring it to a meaningful market.
BK: For me it was an interesting opportunity to develop a complementary skill set compared with my daily work. It also seemed like a unique opportunity to study scientific outreach. One of the hardest questions we get in basic research is “what does the research you’re doing do for society?” Sometimes there are very direct tangible benefits to basic research, and the hope for me was that this program would help develop the language to communicate that.
IEC: What does a typical day look like in the Energy I-Corp Program?
JM: I don’t know that there is a typical day, and that is sort of the excitement. It’s also the novelty and learning experience of it for someone coming from a research background. It’s a real crash course in the entrepreneurial mindset; it’s like envisioning, building, and redesigning an airplane while it’s in the air.
The team starts everyday with an identity check and they ask themselves: “Who are we trying to serve? What value are we going to provide? And how are we going to get there?” It’s a really interesting and dynamic way to think about developing a technology.
BK: A lot of emails and phone calls. Typically we start our week reviewing the goals for customer outreach for the coming days and going over the planned interviews. We discuss the goals of each of the interviews and do background research on the folks we’re going to speak with. We try to schedule them in blocks, and follow those up with a discussion to synthesize what we have learned and what we need to do next. Then some more emails in the evening to try to get more contacts.
IEC: What are customer discovery interviews like?
BK: Typically people are happy to speak for a little bit about what they do and how it relates to our potential market area. They also want to understand why a few guys from FermiLab want to understand water chemistry, and how we think we might help. A good fraction of the interviews result in suggestions for other potential contacts in their network.
JM: Like every day is different, every interview is also. Each interview is like a game of chess to discover what you can reasonably learn from that discussion, and what the best way to tease out that information is. It’s more of an art than a science. The Fermilab team was able to evolve their approach from a very broad perspective and set of interview goals to asking really targeted questions about their potential customers’ pain points.
IEC: What product/innovation is PureBeam trying to bring to market?
JM: PureBeam is developing a swiss-army knife way of treating wastewater. As more and more things are regulated and need to be treated, addressing the diversity of contaminants in a scalable manner is a big industry challenge. Fermilabs’ next-gen electron beam technology treats complex waste streams without many of the limitations of currently available technology. Over the course of the program the team has really honed on the message “We treat whatever wastewater headache you have.”
IEC: Given the intensity of the program, is your team in good spirits?
JM: As I mentioned, Energy I-corps is a crash course in entrepreneurship in every definition of the term. It has definitely been a learning curve and adjustment. They’ve all stepped up to lead and move the project forward. I am especially impressed with Brendan for stepping outside of his comfort zone in terms of a technology that he wasn’t very familiar with and doing a good job of defining and articulating what PureBeam is and can be.
IEC: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
BK: Time management. The program requires 75 interviews, which requires time to do outreach, background research, the interviews themselves, the followup, and the synthesis. We are a bit at the mercy of the customer’s availability, so it has led to a lot of rearranging of non [Energy] I-Corp responsibilities.
JM: I give team PureBeam a lot of credit because they all still have day jobs at the Lab that they need to maintain. The ability to make such significant progress and get up to 75 interviews while honing in on a customer segment and value proposition is no small task, particularly given everything else these team members have to work on.
IEC: What are you most proud of?
JM: A lot, is the short answer. But one thing that stands out is the evolution of their ability to approach this from the perspective of thinking about the technology’s features to a perspective of thinking about their customer’s needs. The team has progressed to be able to identify the archetype of the specific customer who would buy the technology, and the team can articulate their value proposition in the day-to-day lingo of the industry.
IEC: Reflecting back on day one of Energy I-Corp, how has your outlooked changed? Has your idea evolved? How so?
JM: The main thing that has changed has been the team’s motivation and goals. [Energy] I-Corps helped them focus in and realize that there is a viable market for their technology in military and civilian wastewater treatment. Now, instead of focusing on just how to fund the further development of this technology, they are looking at the question of how do they actually get this out into the market? Who do they need to partner with? And how do they need to align with the whole wastewater ecosystem in order for this technology to be truly transformational to the industry?
IEC: What advice would you give to someone interested in the program?
BK: Set aside the time in advance. It’s not that it takes 100% of your time, but you need to be flexible on a day-by-day basis. Getting your non [Energy] I-Corps colleagues on board to cover your responsibilities when needed really helps.
JM: Have a goal for what you want to get out of the program, and then embrace the craziness to get there. There is a method to the madness, and while it can seem different and overwhelming at times, if you engage with it and trust the framework it will lead to a really positive outcome regardless of what the end goal is.
IEC: Do you have any stories from the program?
BK: I spoke with one guy at a conference that kept going on about how great his technology was, and he just didn’t understand that they needed it. He was completely focused on his product, rather than listening to what the customers thought their problems were. It struck me that this guy could really benefit from the I-Corps program.
IEC: Can you give us your elevator pitch?
JM + BK (in unison!): Team PureBeam uses next generation particle accelerator technology to solve your wastewater issues of today and tomorrow.
The Call for Cohort 8 is out! If you know or are a lab scientist with a brilliant innovation, please direct interest to firstname.lastname@example.org and check out https://energyicorps.energy.gov/ to learn more about commercializing breakthrough technologies.