With 15 new Department of Energy (DOE) Lab-Corps teams starting their training this month, we wanted to hear from a national lab director about how this program strengthens the entrepreneurial spirit driving our some of our nation’s top scientific minds.

Idaho National Laboratory (INL) Director Mark Peters spoke with us recently about why he thinks INL researchers are so attracted to DOE’s Lab-Corps curriculum. Since the program launched in fall 2015, INL has put through more researchers than any other national laboratory participating. In this class alone, five teams signed on to learn how their innovations in vehicles, nuclear energy, advanced manufacturing, and bioenergy, can get out of the lab and make an impact on our clean energy economy.

1) INL is putting five new teams through the DOE Lab-Corps program this fall. This brings INL’s total to 10, the most out of any national lab currently participating in the program. What do you think drives INL researchers to take advantage of this entrepreneurial training?

First, there is a clear, pent-up demand at INL and our partner national laboratories for programs to help get new technologies into the market place. I commend the DOE offices that are enhancing these efforts, particularly the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Laboratory Impact team. Providing at-scale clean energy systems integration and demonstration is a strategic objective at INL, where we take pride in our applied science focus. To that end, we are dedicated to identifying researchers who are great candidates for the Lab-Corps program. We help them and their managers understand the value of participation and our follow-on efforts. This drives interest and helps ensure successful outcomes.

2) What value does DOE Lab-Corps provide to the whole INL community? Has there been a “buzz” created over the last year as more teams from INL have signed up?

Yes, there absolutely is a buzz about the program at INL. Recruiting candidates for the first round of Lab-Corps was challenging. As we’ve shared requests that participants and their managers champion the program, word has spread and recruitment has become easier. I’m particularly pleased that these efforts are bolstering the culture of innovation throughout the laboratory.

INL Lab-Corps Projects for Fall 2016

  • The Dry Cask Vital Signs team aims to enable noninvasive determination of the status and integrity of vented dry casks.
  • The Detection Systems team focuses on a computer software program that aligns digital images for nuclear facility and national security applications.
  • The Optiblend team focuses on a bioenergy conservation process allowing researchers to produce high-quality feedstock from grass, wood and other agricultural residues.
  • The E-RECOV team is working to retrieve critical and rare earth materials from devices such as computers and cellphones.
  • The CellSage team is attempting to deploy software to support battery performance and life-cycle determinations in diverse applications.

A secondary benefit is the added attention to programs that aim to boost national lab impact, such as Lab-Corps, Small Business Vouchers pilot and Small Business Innovation Research. Researchers want to find ways to work with industry and accelerate technology commercialization.

3) Do you see the skills INL researchers develop through DOE Lab-Corps influencing the lab’s economic impact in the region? If so, how?

Yes. INL puts strong emphasis on regional economic impact, and Lab-Corps adds to that effort. One portal for industry to access INL expertise is the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES) – a consortium of Idaho’s public research universities, the state of Idaho, the University of Wyoming and INL. This partnership is an established industry collaboration portal, and INL’s Lab-Corps effort is based at CAES to leverage existing relationships with staff, students, business centers, and leaders in rural economic development.

Lab-Corps also helps us further flesh out technology-based economic development and drive impact through our technology development activities. More to come in the future.

4) Are there any technologies developed by INL Lab-Corps teams that truly stand out and are on a clear trajectory to commercialization?

We have a handful of Lab-Corps technologies on a positive trajectory:

  • INL researcher Justin Coleman is in discussions with companies regarding his seismic modeling software and has spoken with venture capitalists.
  • Industry and venture capitalists are interested in research scientist Jaya Tumuluru’s bioenergy-based high-moisture pelleting process.
  • And research scientist and group lead Tedd Lister is working with a Small Business Vouchers award for the electronic waste recovery process. We are excited to see where this engagement goes.
5) How has bringing Lab-Corps to INL researchers changed the way you approach the transfer of lab-developed technologies to the marketplace?

One of my goals is to strengthen communication to the outside world about the great science and technology work we do. Programs such as Lab-Corps empower INL’s greatest assets – our researchers – to “get out of the building” and speak to the impactful work they are doing. But more importantly, I love how this program is changing how we approach technology transfer by helping researchers to co-create technology solutions with industry; Lab-Corps fosters an innovation culture that transcends the traditional “technology push” approach.

6) What do you think DOE could do to strengthen or expand the Lab-Corps program?

The core Lab-Corps team, led by DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, has done a phenomenal job pulling together a robust program and sharing best practices across the lab network. As the number of Lab-Corps graduates grows, the lab network could boost visibility by sharing these success stories internally and externally.

Mentors are always hard to find. INL is evaluating a new partnership in the Northwest region that will help ease that process. The pilot accelerator program that kicked off in October 2016, led by Roger Werne at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is a great way to give researchers an initial taste of what Lab-Corps can do for them.

A common question graduates have is, “What’s next?” A “Shark Tank” type award for which top Lab-Corps graduates compete would get researchers’ attention.

7) INL is our nation’s premier nuclear energy lab. As DOE’s Lab-Corps program expands to include technologies outside of EERE, do you anticipate more researchers focused on nuclear energy to pursue this training?

Definitely, because this effort coincides with the paradigm shift going on today within the nuclear energy industry, particularly with advanced reactor startups. We are in an era of innovation and the value proposition for U.S. nuclear has never been stronger. Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) is a new way of thinking about how to innovate in nuclear, and has focused INL on partnering with industry to innovate. We have three teams in nuclear energy so far – including this fall’s cohort – and several applying for the spring. One of the other benefits for nuclear energy researchers is that participation opens their eyes to the large number of adjacent markets that can use their technologies. 

8) What would you tell an INL researcher thinking about taking the Lab-Corps curriculum? What would you share with someone who isn’t yet aware of the opportunity but could benefit from it?

I would first ask, “Do you know Justin Coleman? If you do, talk to him. If you don’t, find him and introduce yourself.” I don’t want them to just hear about the program from me or the program organizers. I want them to talk to someone who has been through it and can help them understand how he is benefiting and how they can, too. 

To learn more about DOE’s Lab-Corps program and the other 10 teams participating this fall, check out our full list of participants here. We also welcome you to sign-up for EERE’S Technology-to-Market updates