Raising Our Game in Clean Energy Innovation

Recently I traveled to San Francisco to participate in international efforts to meet the challenge of climate change and accelerate the global transition to clean energy. The main event was the Seventh Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM7), a meeting of 23 countries and the European Commission. Additionally, our partners in the new Mission Innovation initiative met for the first time at the ministerial level to discuss individual commitments to fund clean energy research and development. I am proud to say that the United States is leading the way, doubling our investment in clean energy R&D over the next five years, from $6.4 billion in FY16 to $12.8 billion by FY2021. Finally, I had the privilege of participating in the Clean Energy Education and  Empowerment (C3E) gathering of more than 250 women in clean energy who came together at Stanford University to strategize and collaborate on advancing our shared agenda.

The common theme across all three initiatives is that we must raise our game in the clean energy innovation space and identify effective ways to bring the new technologies we generate to market as quickly as possible. That’s why we created our Office of Technology Transitions (OTT) last year to expand the commercial impact of DOE’s portfolio of research, development, demonstration and deployment. And it’s why our office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy helped create Cyclotron Road, a new program working on exactly that challenge. 

While in California, I stopped by Cyclotron Road, an incubator for breakthrough energy technologies housed at Berkeley Lab (one of the Energy Department’s 17 National Labs). Innovators at Cyclotron Road are competitively selected and receive salaries and seed funding, access to lab and office space, mentoring and connections to commercial partners and investors. Cyclotron Road sounds like a brick-and-mortar location, but it is really an innovative new model focused on how we get talented entrepreneurs the right access to scientific facilities, skills and knowledge to deliver the dramatic results we need to counter climate change.

During my visit, I met the people making Cyclotron Road happen, and heard how this incubator fits into the innovation ecosystem, as well as about the challenges they face and successes they have had so far. I took away a few important lessons from our discussion:

  • We need to test drive novel arrangements like Cyclotron Road in conjunction with our national laboratories and research universities in order to spur rapid commercialization of new technologies. The innovators I spoke with had all faced barriers when working in government or academic settings — barriers that were the unintended consequences of designing those places with other priorities in mind.
  • Strong innovation ecosystems will be essential in building the future clean energy economy. For example, Cyclotron Road leverages the world-class scientific capabilities, technical support and laboratory facilities at our Berkeley Lab — capabilities that no startup company could likely build or afford access to. Forging interconnections between the public and private sector, including matching scientists and engineers at the labs with entrepreneurs and investors in the private sector, will be essential to push breakthrough innovations through initial testing and deployment to broader commercial success.
  • This is one element in a complex process. As we work to create Regional Innovation Partnerships, we know that each ecosystem around the country has unique strengths and different needs. Cyclotron Road is paving the way for some of this work by exploring how “disruptive” efforts can create strong symbiotic relationships within the existing system. While the innovators at Cyclotron Road rely on the laboratory, the laboratory is strengthened by their creativity.

Researchers at Cyclotron Road are hard at work on a variety of projects that may enable us to harness renewable energy sources and make more efficient use of fossil fuels. The impressive young people working there express genuine urgency — knowing that time is of the essence in getting their ideas out into the world. I share their sense of urgency in meeting the threat of climate challenge — and admire their pioneering spirit!

This article was originally published by the U.S. Department of Energy in the public domain.

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Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall currently serves as Deputy Secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy. She has been serving in this role as second in command at the Energy Department since October 2014.She joined the Obama Administration on day one, serving from 2009 to 2013 as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council and from 2013 to 2014 as White House Coordinator for Defense Policy, Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Arms Control. Before joining President Obama's team, Dr. Sherwood-Randall worked at Stanford University, at Harvard University, and at the Council on Foreign Relations. In the Clinton Administration, she served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia from 1994 to 1996.Dr. Sherwood-Randall attended college at Harvard and then went on to graduate school at Oxford University, where she was among the very early ranks of female Rhodes Scholars. After finishing her education, she began her career working for then-Senator Joe Biden as his chief advisor on foreign and defense policy.Born and raised in California, she is married to Dr. Jeff Randall, a neurosurgeon, and they have two teenaged sons.

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