Leveraging federal R&D funding in photovoltaics

The potential of solar energy to meet the world’s growing energy needs has pushed forward important innovation in photovoltaics. Even so, small businesses often do not possess the financial wherewithal to cross the new product “valley of death” between innovative early-stage technology and market-ready product.

Dionne Nickerson, Foresight Science & Technology, Providence, RI USA

The potential of solar energy to meet the world’s growing energy needs has pushed forward important innovation in photovoltaics. Even so, small businesses often do not possess the financial wherewithal to cross the new product “valley of death” between innovative early-stage technology and market-ready product.

While many small businesses lack established courses for bringing new products to the market, most large to mid-sized companies employ well-defined new product development (NPD) processes. Essential to business growth, NPD involves moving from idea to product launch through a series of activities and review points. With product launch failure rates at 50% or greater, many companies are seeking new ways to improve the NPD process (e.g., a method described by PR Leap, at prleap.com). Today, large to mid-sized companies are using open innovation to reduce the risk of NPD failure. This model allows larger companies to capitalize off of ground-breaking research stemming from small businesses, universities, and government laboratories.

The federal government has long been a champion of innovation through investment in scientific R&D. Annually, over $2 billion in federal R&D funds are available to small businesses engaged in high-tech development, primarily through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program.

The SBIR program aims to cultivate the American entrepreneurial spirit by offering small businesses the chance to compete for awards of up to $850,000 for technology development. Another program is the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Program, which focuses on collaborations between small businesses and non-profit research institutions through research grants of up to $850,000. Funding is also available for technologies developed expressly for the energy sector. One such program, the Advanced Projects Research Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), funds transformative energy technologies. In 2009, small businesses accounted for 43% of ARPA-E awardees according to a report by Roush Wade (at xconomy.com). What’s more, U. S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu announced last month that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) would be investing $12 million towards the development of solar cell technologies.

Thus, we are seeing that small businesses are benefiting from federal funding for early-stage development, while larger companies are employing open innovation to provide their organizations with a jolt of innovative R&D at reduced costs. Therefore, it appears to be a propitious time for collaborative efforts between the two. Such partnerships are win/win. For larger firms, bringing in externally-developed technology allows for reduced NPD time and R&D costs. For small businesses, once federal funding has concluded, partnering with an established company ensures that their technologies are commercialized in a timely manner, thereby successfully bridging the “valley of death.”

However, in order for small businesses to effectively leverage federal R&D funding, it is important to engage partners early in the development process. By doing so, partners are aware of technologies underdevelopment and can provide insight, allowing the technologies to be tailored to both manufacturing and customer requirements. Commercialization assistance through programs like SBIR, can aid small businesses in identifying potential commercialization partners and preparing for ensuing deals.

Photovoltaics technologies are benefiting as the DOE pushes towards its goal of photovoltaics technology reaching grid parity by 2015. Ultimate success will be measured by the commercialization of new technologies through collaboration between federally-funded small businesses and established companies committed to open innovation.

Click to Enlarge

 

Dionne Nickerson is the team leader for physical sciences assessments at Foresight Science & Technology, 430 Angell Street, Providence, RI 02906 USA; ph.: 401-273-4844; email dionne.nickerson@foresightst.com.

 

More Photovoltaics World Issue Articles

 

Previous articleKeeping pace with cost reduction as module prices continue to decline
Next articleSmart meters: Truly a cure for energy blindness?

No posts to display