Energy Transition New York

ARPA-E: the High Risk - High Reward investments of the US department of energy

The ARPA-E conference was by far the biggest conference I had ever participated in. It easily encompassed 2000 people and the topics were very diverse. ARPA-E is the acronym for: Advanced Research Project Agency

The program funds projects for 36 months between 3-5 million dollar accepting a high-risk, high reward portfolio.

During the conference over 250 different research project were  showcased. Some research was very concrete,  Urban Energy Power, others are a little more out of reach, Helion Energy, but still the premiss of fusion is too cool to ignore.

Changes in the energy landscape

The energy economy and its landscape is changing, faster that some accept , not fast enough for a whole bunch of researchers and entrepeneurs. I witnessed some great discussions about the utility 2.0, a number about transportation, and 1 about voltage frequency.

However, one thing really stood out, it was said over and over again that the research done in ARPA-E has difficulty in becoming commercial. Apart from the technical difficulties this has also a lot to do that  a researcher and an entrepreneurs are only seldomnly found in one person. Therefore a lot of people stress on the team and in early stages acquiring a good mix of people that can lead the company in its development and its commercialization. However the number of people that make things commercially viable were greatly outnumbered, thus there is a big bridge to gap.

Abscence of V.C. capital, but is it bad?

Another aspect was the almost complete absence of capital at the ARPA-E conference. And I understand why, a lot of these innovations are nowhere near a price point or pratical application. So how do we bridge the gap or as it is often referred to ‘the death valley’ between early stage and commercial application. Smart money, seems to be an answer. Another answer is to limit the amount of capital into a company until it has a commercially viable application and some clients. By limiting the capital into a company, you force the company to listen to its prospective clients and develop the product into something that solves a problem. Too often an innovation is the solution for a problem that does not exist in the clients understanding. Thus by focusing or even courting the clients a company develops an application or product that serves a need. 

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