Q&A with ARPA-E Deputy Director for Commercialization Cheryl Martin
Q: What is the mission of ARPA-E, and how do you work to further that mission?
ARPA-E’s mission is to develop advanced energy technologies that can reduce U.S. energy consumption, emissions, and our reliance on foreign energy sources. At the core, we are a technology funding agency, with a focus on next-generation, game-changing energy advances. We award funding for research and development, with the goal of de-risking technologies enough to make them attractive to private sector investors and development partners. With about 180 awards to date, we are funding an amazing set of projects not only at universities and national labs, but also at both large and small companies across the country, all working on enabling a more secure, competitive, and clean economy through more efficient buildings, low-cost electric vehicles, efficient alternative fuels, and beyond.
Q: What are some of the unique challenges that new companies face in commercializing an innovative energy solution?
The energy sector is enormous and offers an enormous opportunity for new technologies that disrupt the status quo. Because the energy space covers such a wide range of technologies, from global game-changers to consumer products, it is hard to generalize, but some of the common challenges include a need for large amounts of development capital beyond the lab and difficulties in selling a new technology into an established customer base that strongly emphasizes reliability.
Q: How does ARPA-E work with companies to address those challenges?
First and foremost, we employ some of the country’s most entrepreneurial scientists and engineers as program managers, so that we can offer active support to help projects prove out their technologies as they move from the laboratory. Beyond the lab work, we provide funding and resources to help project teams develop the knowledge and skills they need to prepare for deployment of their technologies. We want our projects to address issues related to product definition, market entry and manufacturing as early as possible so that they will be well-positioned for success in private-sector funding and deployment.
Q: What are some of the ARPA-E projects that are commercializing biotech innovations for energy solutions?
The most direct application of biotechnology in energy is in alternative fuels. So far, we have supported these efforts in three different programs, totaling over 25 projects. Our first broad program has projects that address both algae (for example, Arizona State) and feedstock (for example, Agrivida). There have been two subsequent focused programs, Electrofuels and PETRO.
Electrofuels, which has funded 13 projects, seeks to explore practical ways to convert reducing agents (sources of electrons) plus carbon dioxide into more valuable chemical products through non-photosynthetic biochemical pathways. This includes organisms that have found a way to use DC electricity! PETRO (for Plants Engineered To Replace Oil) is one of our most recent programs, and it seeks to explore practical ways to develop dedicated biofuel crops that reduce, or even eliminate, the need for post-harvest conversions. Projects included in PETRO are seeking to synthesize large amounts of non-oxygenated natural products (such as turpentine) through directed engineering of plants.
Q: Are there unique hurdles that are facing biotech companies?
As mentioned above, in energy, biotechnologies usually focus on production or transformation of fuels. In fuels, the hurdles are scale and cost: You have to be able to create a lot of a high-energy product, at a price that makes it cheap enough to burn. Biotechnology companies need to bridge into these markets through specialty chemicals, or identify markets that are willing to pay for fuel alternatives, in order to address the associated challenges of profitably getting to large production volumes.
Q: If additional biotech companies want to participate in the ARPA-E program, how do they go about it?
For companies and individuals seeking funding, the best advice is go to our website energy.arpa-e.gov and add your email address to our mailing list, where we send updates on all of the agency’s new funding opportunities. We also hold a flagship conference every year in late February in Washington, DC, where we review the agency’s ongoing efforts, discuss upcoming areas of interest, and showcase technologies that have applied for funding with our agency. This year, the ARPA-E Summit will be February 27-29 – more information at energyinnovationsummit.com.
Q: Tell us about the ARPA-E Summit coming up in February. How will it showcase these projects?
The ARPA-E Summit is a conference we put on to celebrate the incredible amount of innovation happening in energy technology across the United States. This year we’ll be featuring perspectives on energy by industry, academic and political titans like Bill Gates, Fred Smith and other keynote speakers, as well as conversations with top energy experts on some of the emerging issues and opportunities for energy technology today. Another highlight of our summit is the Technology Showcase, where hundreds of transformational energy technologies set up demonstration booths to showcase their technology ideas and prototypes. The showcase features not just the projects that ARPA-E is funding, but also some of the top finalists that we weren’t able to fund, as well as other exciting technologies aligned with our mission. We hope to see you there!