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DOE Public-Private Consortia

Public-private consortia serve important roles in commercializing new energy technologies. As defined here, a consortium involves engaging in precompetitive research activities under a formal agreement that covers the work to be performed and how information will be shared. Thus, consortia enable joint research on platform technologies and early stage research in a technical field and leave participants free to build on the shared information to create proprietary outcomes of commercial utility. DOE proactively manages the consortia to maximize their impact and benefits to the overall goals of those projects—and assesses their success in terms of their contributions to the success of those projects or transitions or refocuses the consortia to more relevant trajectories

DOE solicited input from the leadership of many consortia, who provided written case studies summarizing their charters, operations, membership, successes, and lessons learned, as well as other information. Key considerations identified for effective consortia include the following:

  • Purpose: Each consortium is built around a specific vision and goal, often focused on a technology family or industry sector, and conducts defined activities with aggressive project planning and a well-defined set of milestones, with strong risk management, value management, and contingency planning, toward achieving that vision and goal. Formally documenting the purpose and intended work of a consortium, such as through a program or implementation plan, and updating the documentation to capture its evolution will help to clarify technology goals and member roles and responsibilities, as well as provide a basis for tracking progress. The purpose will also define the life-cycle of a consortium.
  • Governance model: The consortium management plan defines leadership and decision-making structures, methods for communicating among members and a sustainability model. It thus allows members to share progress and discoveries, work through roadblocks and operational challenges, fine tune R&D activities, and evolve the roadmap to address current needs. It also defines roles, responsibilities, authorities, and accountabilities of key personnel.
  • Intellectual property (IP) strategy: An IP management plan will facilitate the efficient transition of innovation to the marketplace. The plan should define and assign protection to background IP, which is generated before the collaboration by each party, as well as foreground IP, which is generated by parties in the performance of the consortium. It should also protect proprietary information and outline a process for licensing of shared IP and public dissemination.
  • Funding strategy: A funding plan that defines the allocation of resources needed to achieve the implementation plan scope and schedules can drive collaborative efforts and leverage partner infrastructure. Many consortia models leverage both public (DOE) and private funding sources into an effective portfolio with appropriate partitioning of their roles; for example, with public support focused on earlier science and technology RD3.

Consortium success will be determined by a variety of factors, many of which are intangible, including:

  • Leadership: As with all high-impact endeavors, strong empowered leadership and a clear structure with a conflict resolution and mitigation strategy for prompt decision-making are essential. Consortia can manage the complexities of working with different organizations with varying cultures and goals by crafting a clear statement of governance and decision-making processes and by taking deliberate steps to empower the appropriate leaders. These efforts will lay the groundwork for the focused and dedicated leadership needed—and help ensure member support for decisions rendered.
  • Membership: Having an engaged and diverse membership is as important as establishing the right leadership. The membership should be sufficiently diverse to cover the range of expertise needed to achieve consortium goals and represent, where possible, perspective customers, clients, and stakeholders. Members should also share mutual objectives and be willing to collaborate at the appropriate level.
  • Clear objectives and expectations: Consortia objectives often reside at the intersection of members' varied business models. Achieving individual member objectives outside that intersection but through the consortia allow each partner to effectively integrate the consortium work into their home institutional plans and technology roadmaps. Similarly, a clear articulation of the participation required from all members—including a definition of roles and responsibilities—is needed for the consortium to succeed.
  • Commitment: Commitment from all members is essential to keep work moving in the right direction and achieve the expected outcomes and benefits. Several mechanisms can help ensure that commitment, such as building the right team and scope of work, requiring a fee (even if nominal) for annual or flexible multiyear membership, ensuring open and ongoing two-way communication, and including all members in decision-making. Especially committed champions can also be helpful.
  • Communication: The consortium governance structure should include a communication plan that outlines processes for ongoing communication on progress, developments, issues, and decisions, best practices and lessons learned. Effective communication will help the consortium track progress, troubleshoot issues, and allocate resources toward ensuring overall success. Note also that strong leadership is central to effective communication.
  • Agility: As the consortium progresses, evolution of the business and technology environment inevitably necessitates tuning activities and perhaps even objectives—pointing to a need for operational agility, contingency management, and flexibility. Likewise, financial, human, facilities, and other resources may require adjustment, and membership may need to be modified to bring additional expertise to the team. The governance plan for a consortium should be adaptable to address management of such changes.
  • Trust—that essential yet elusive quality—is especially important to public-private enterprises, where built-in differences in organizational roles and goals can lead to misunderstandings. Deliberate and open attention to the factors outlined above can help build that trust, facilitating the ready collaboration and cooperation of all members in the critical activities of the consortium. Key to trust is the ability of consortium leadership to build lasting relationships across the consortium.

Consortium Metrics. To determine its performance and outcomes, the consortium needs agreed-upon metrics, along with a detailed data collection, evaluation, and analysis plan. The following considerations may help consortia select and apply the most appropriate means of tracking their progress:

  • Focus on goals: Each goal should be tied to a specific outcome quantified by metrics. Operational metrics should also be established to clarify the links between goals and the day-to-day management of the consortium.
  • Metrics types: Different types of metrics can provide valuable information on progress. Quantifiable metrics are essential to understand and communicate about results and issues. More qualitative information—which might be obtained from member feedback and regular partner reviews—may provide a perspective on more-intangible aspects. Integrated and time-dependent metrics that focus on operations (such as milestones) should be balanced with metrics centered on results and impacts (outcomes).
  • Sustainability: Consortium with a charter to provide continued technology support over time will require a sustainability plan with metrics that speak to the ability to sustain operations after an eventual discontinuation of federal support.
  • Outside review: For unbiased analysis of operations and effectiveness, consortia must actively seek independent science, technology, and management reviews as part of portfolio assessment, in-progress peer review, and stage-gate review activities

This brief section is intended to underscore the most important considerations and operational elements of consortia that bring together DOE, its national laboratories, universities, and the private sector to accelerate energy technology transfer and innovation. The factors reviewed are overarching, rather than comprehensive, and may not apply to all the different types of consortia that exist or can be envisioned. Establishing a framework to collect key data and extract important lessons learned is an important aspect of moving these activities forward as rapidly and effectively as possible.