1,000,000 New Reasons to Take Advantage of NREL’s Free Assistance for Cleantech Entrepreneurs

Visualization Lab, ESIFSince 2010 the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has offered up to 40 hours of free assistance to U.S. based small businesses with fewer than 500 employees through its NREL Commercialization Assistance Program (NCAP). The Program is designed to “help emerging companies overcome technical barriers to commercializing clean energy technology”, and it does so by providing limited free access to NREL’s facilities and the technical expertise of its scientists. With the imminent opening of NREL’s new Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF), the scope of capabilities available to participants in NCAP and NREL’s other industry partnership programs is about to take a giant leap forward.

At its most basic level, ESIF is a collection of 15 laboratories covering everything from power systems integration, to electrical and thermal storage, to smart power, to materials characterization, to manufacturing, and more. You really have to see ESIF in person to fully appreciate the scale of the facility, and during my recent tour I was struck by the huge amount of space available for equipment testing and systems analysis. The only facility in the U.S. equipped with megawatt-scale (1,000,000 watts) test capabilities, the space is designed for large scale equipment and big experiments. The labs are interconnected with two AC and DC ring buses that allow experiments to expand beyond the walls of a single laboratory, and the facility has a SCADA system in place to monitor and control it all. Petascale computing at the on-site high performance computing data center and powerful data visualization tools round out the facility’s capabilities. The image above shows NREL Senior Scientists Ross Larson and Travis Kemper examining a 3D molecular model of PTMA film for battery applications in ESIF’s Insight Collaboration Laboratory.

The best news is, these laboratories are not just for NREL’s scientists: NREL actively encourages partnerships with industry that provide access to the lab’s facilities and technical experts. If you are a cleantech entrepreneur and haven’t yet familiarized yourself with NREL’s capabilities and industry partnership programs, it’s time to do so. Colorado based startups would be particularly remiss if they didn’t explore NCAP, the free commercialization assistance program mentioned above. The idea is pretty simple: if you have a technical or market related challenge in an area where NREL has some expertise, and you have a project that requires 40 or less NREL labor-hours to complete, you may be able to get support for the project for free.

According to Niccolo Aieta with NREL’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center, about 40% of companies interested in an NCAP project actually undertake one. The other companies typically find that their challenges aren’t a great match for NREL’s capabilities, or they have an issue that is too large or complex to be resolved in 40 labor-hours. However, don’t rule out a project until you’ve spoken to Dr. Aieta about the details, even if you don’t see relevant capabilities on NREL’s website (which I’ve found a bit challenging to navigate). Also keep in mind that projects are limited by the amount of time NREL employees can spend working on them, not by equipment or lab time. So if you need to leave a piece of equipment in place to test for a few weeks, then want some quick help evaluating the results, you won’t be excluded automatically due to the long test time.
If NCAP doesn’t work for you, and you are able to pay for support, NREL also works with companies through technology services agreements (TSA) and cooperative research and development agreements (CRADA). These are flexible arrangements that are customized on a project by project basis, so the best approach is simply to contact NREL and start a discussion. One nice feature about these programs is that partners pay NREL’s costs with no markup, which helps keep out of pocket expenses in line.

Besides the obvious benefits of working with a local world-class laboratory, there are additional reasons to engage with NREL that may not be apparent at first glance. Venture investors are still skittish about cleantech, thanks to the industry’s capital intensive nature and the long, risky time to market for cleantech innovations (note the recent rebranding of the Cleantech Fellows Institute to the Energy Fellows Institute). Increased emphasis is being placed on the value that large, well-established energy equipment firms can bring as strategic investors in cleantech startups. Clearly, the more visibility a startup can get with these companies the better, and NREL’s laboratories are great places to rub elbows with their technical staffs. ESIF in particular, with its unique capabilities related to megawatt-scale equipment and grid-scale integration, will be a magnet for large energy equipment companies and should present great opportunities for small local companies to engage with them.

Yes, the cleantech industry is difficult, but that only increases the value of the deep technical and market expertise that entrepreneurs can find in Colorado. Investors and entrepreneurs alike should take notice as the state’s cleantech resources experience a major expansion when ESIF comes online.

Jay Holman is Principal of Venture to Market LLC, a Boulder based consultancy providing go to market services for new ventures in the cleantech industry.

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