By Dana Bye
Last March, former Argonne National Laboratory researcher Jessica Linville and her colleague, scientist Seth Snyder, began a two-month entrepreneurial training program called the Department of Energy Lab-Corps. Linville, with business experience at her new bioenergy consulting firm, anticipated developing her entrepreneurial skills and gaining a better understanding of moving technologies closer to the marketplace. What she didn’t expect was to be launching a new clean energy startup only nine months later with an ANL invention she explored during DOE Lab-Corps.
“To license a technology, to have a $250,000 investment in nine months is absolutely mind-blowing,” Linville said. “I would not be here without DOE Lab-Corps.”
Successes similar to Linville’s are rapidly taking shape in national labs across the country thanks to DOE Lab-Corps. Participating researchers are embracing the intense and often challenging industry engagements that are the foundation of this entrepreneurial training.
“We’re used to sitting in the lab doing our experiments,” Linville said. “Although the program is set up like the scientific method, talking to people is hard, and really listening and learning fast is difficult. But as long as you embrace the lessons learned quickly, other national lab researchers can do really well.”
Since DOE Lab-Corps launched in fall 2015, more than 50 national lab research teams have completed the training, and 12 more are slated to start this month. From this group, a number of new industry partnerships, licensing agreements, and startups have formed. Teams from the first and second classes have received more than $7 million in follow-on funding for their innovative technologies.
“When DOE’s Lab Impact team approached the national lab community with a program idea focused on training researchers on concepts like product-market fit to explore how their inventions can best meet market needs, we weren’t sure if the model would work in the lab system,” said program manager Jennifer Ramsey with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “We thought perhaps that many of the scientists weren’t interested in entrepreneurship, and that they just wanted to stay in a lab. Thankfully, we were wrong.”
NREL currently manages the DOE program. Before launching its first class, NREL worked with a team of partner labs and organizations to develop a customized curriculum. The lab created the curriculum based upon the Lean LaunchPad Methodology and made sure that it addressed the many nuances associated with commercializing federally-funded technologies. After four rounds of training, the curriculum is still a work in progress, and NREL continuously improves it with feedback from graduates, instructors, and industry mentors.
Peter Fiske, CEO of California-based PAX Water Technologies and former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) scientist who launched a startup, served on the DOE Lab-Corps faculty twice last year. Fiske has not only helped the program grow and respond to new challenges, but his insights as a national lab researcher turned entrepreneur are invaluable.
“I see DOE Lab-Corps as an important part of empowering the laboratory scientific community to better recognize that the work the scientists do at the lab has both commercial and practical applications, and that there are tools researchers can use to explore and better define what those value propositions are,” Fiske said.
In studying the curriculum, Fiske immediately recognized that DOE Lab-Corps presented a set of practical tools with many benefits. Lessons regarding building business models, conducting customer interviews, and learning what the market actually needs inspired Fiske to become an instructor.
“If this program had been around when I started my company, I’m sure I would have saved about two and a half years,” he said. Fiske is one of 11 instructors and more than 50 industry mentors guiding scientists throughout the training.
Colorado Cleantech Industries Association (CCIA) also promotes the program. The state-wide organization leverages a broad network of energy industry professionals and organizations to support the training. Through a collaboration with NREL, CCIA developed “Industry Night”—widely cited as the teams’ favorite Lab-Corps session—to give teams an opportunity to engage in 20-minute speed meetings with industry leaders early in their training. Industry Nights has drawn participation from Rocky Mountain institute, Agribotix, The 3D Printing Store, Hitachi, American Energy Assets, Rachio, Colorado School of Mines, and more.
“Industry Night has become one of the highlight sessions of the DOE Lab-Corps program,” said Shelly Curtiss, deputy director at CCIA. “It’s not just a favorite event for the teams, the industry participants really look forward to it as well. Participants are consistently impressed with how the DOE Lab-Corps process pushes the teams to think outside of the laboratory environment, and excited by the program’s potential and the broad implications this type of effort has for the system at large.”
The passion and caliber of the program’s managers, instructors, mentors, and industry partners has helped DOE Lab-Corps grow from a small pilot focused solely on renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies to a more inclusive program. DOE Lab-Corps has expanded to three other Energy Department Offices, including Fossil, Nuclear, and Environmental Management.
Dana Bye is a contractor to the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy.