Department of Energy

Raising Our Game in Clean Energy Innovation

June 23, 2016

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Cyclotron Road at Berkeley Lab - U.S. Department of Energy

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!