In an effort to advance the clean energy economy, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has developed a new initiative to provide technical assistance and collaborative research and development (R&D) opportunities for small businesses in the clean energy sector. The Small Business Vouchers (SBV) Pilot, which is part of DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s larger National Laboratory Impact Initiative, aims to help small businesses bring next-generation clean energy technologies to market faster by providing access to expertise and specialized equipment at DOE’s national laboratories.

Under the SBV program, DOE will commit up to $20 million in technical and research assistance awards to help small businesses—those with fewer than 500 employees—based in the U.S. gain access to state-of-the-art facilities and experts and receive customized assistance in their specific technology area. Bioenergy is among the nine topical areas eligible for assistance and the Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) has allocated $600,000 for projects in Rounds 1 with up to $1.9 million cumulatively in subsequent rounds. There will be a total of 3 rounds focused on developing and transforming our renewable biomass resources into commercially viable, high-performance biofuels, bioproducts, and biopower. Vouchers for national laboratory expertise are available in the following opportunity areas: Algal Feedstocks R&D, Analysis and Sustainability, Conversion R&D, and Terrestrial Feedstock Logistics R&D. 

DOE selected five national laboratories to administer the SBV Pilot. Lead labs include: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), and Sandia National Laboratories. During Round 1 (September  2015–January 2016), BETO awarded vouchers to two companies focused on the area of Conversion R&D: 

  • Visolis, Inc. will work with NREL and PNNL to demonstrate the scale-up potential of their high-efficiency integrated bio-thermochemical conversion technology that utilizes a patented bioengineered microbe to convert (through fermentation) renewable lignocellulosic materials (plant sugars) into intermediates that can be catalytically upgraded into bio-based commodity products and fuels. They will focus specifically on the production of isoprene, a chemical used in rubber applications (e.g., car tires).  
  • Lygos will work with NREL and LBNL to test their patented fermentation pathway that also employs the use of engineered microbes to convert sugars to malonic acid—an intermediate in fragrances, pharmaceuticals, polyesters, and other chemicals—at a larger scale. They will also test this process using lignocellulosic sugars to validate biomass-based feedstocks for their product. These projects address BETO’s goals of examining conversion pathways based on the co-production of biofuels and bioproducts to enable cost-competitive biofuel production.

The ultimate goal of the pilot project is to foster mutually beneficial partnerships between the labs and the private sector, improve access to national laboratory capabilities, and demonstrate the value of lab-developed science and technology. Such partnerships will enable these companies to overcome critical technology and commercialization challenges and ultimately allow them to grow within the clean energy sector. DOE intends to offer businesses up to two additional opportunities to request assistance through the SBV program in 2016. Round 2 is expected to open by mid-March. Visit DOE’s SBV website for more information.