Consider these ingenious innovations that can transform our buildings:
- 3D-printed thermal energy storage that replaces toxic chemical batteries
- Decorative lattices filled with micro-algae that clean indoor air as they dynamically shade commercial office building windows
- Using drones and machine learning to scan buildings across entire neighborhoods, to fix the ones leaking conditioned air and energy
These are just a few of the many technologies getting closer to commercialization thanks to this year’s IMPEL+ cohort, a Department of Energy (DOE) technology-to-market program focused on building technologies funded by the Building Technologies Office and implemented by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. IMPEL+ helps early-stage innovators translate the premise and promise of their work into the language of business, boosting their chances of bringing their technologies to market.
IMPEL+ stands for Incubating Market-Propelled Entrepreneurial Mindsets at the Labs and Beyond. Participants from business, academia, and DOE’s national labs hail from every region of the country — from Alaska to Massachusetts. The program has trained 125 Innovators since the program began in 2019. They have ranged in age from their 20s to their 70s since the program started in 2019, and over half have been women and people of color. This underscores the IMPEL+ vision for inclusive innovation in finding new creative solutions to overcome technological, regulatory, and market challenges in the highly diverse built environment. As this year’s cohort closes, it is incredible to see all the successes these entrepreneurs have achieved.
“How we build today, sustainably, will transform the course of history. That is why we invest in our IMPEL+ Innovators, providing them coaching by top Silicon Valley professionals, and technical vetting by Berkeley Lab experts. We provide Innovators two on-ramps — one to climate tech incubators, and one to federal and state energy offices — through which participants can earn prizes, pilot-project opportunities, fellowships, funding, and other support to drive their innovations toward commercialization,” said Reshma Singh, a Harvard-trained architect and the director of IMPEL+.
Buildings are responsible for about 40% of U.S. energy use and the associated greenhouse gas emissions. If the U.S. is to meet President Biden’s commitment to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030, America’s almost 130 million homes and buildings must become dramatically more energy-efficient and sustainably powered. As Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm puts it, “America’s path to a net-zero carbon economy runs straight through our buildings.”
IMPEL+ energizes that path. This is the first national program to focus on accelerating low-carbon building innovations to market. IMPEL+ covers the entire building lifecycle, from materials, design, construction, and operations to circular technologies, as well as energy technologies that integrate with buildings, such as onsite renewables, grid integration incorporating electrification, energy storage, and electric vehicle charging. This domain has been challenging for technology-to-market development due to fragmented stakeholders, lack of private-sector funding for hard technologies for buildings, and notoriously difficult and deep "valleys of death" that pockmark the road from invention to commercialization.
“IMPEL+ provides critical commercialization training to accelerate the nation's greatest buildings entrepreneurs, researchers and scientists,” says David Nemtzow, director of the Building Technologies Office at DOE. IMPEL+ helps innovators develop the skills they need to pitch potential funders and partners successfully, positioning them to impress funders at state and federal energy offices at “Shark Tank”-style events.
Just this year, the top 17 Innovator teams have also earned opportunities to work with two new IMPEL+ partners, Greentown Labs and the Austin Technology Incubator (ATI), that are helping forge deeper collaboration between the public and private sectors.
Four IMPEL+ Innovator teams — BETTER, CBC Wind, Varea, and WeavAir — were selected as semi-finalists for the Climate Tech Prize at the 2021 EarthX E-Capital Summit in April. COI Energy, Flower Turbines, and Smart Resource Labs were chosen for ATI E-Capital Connection, a private event matching investors and start-ups in one-on-one meetings. And Energy Shrink, LovEnergy and R2M2 Microgrid-in-a-box have been selected for the ATI’s upcoming Summer Accelerator SEAL, where they will work on reaching their next market-driven milestones.
In addition, seven IMPEL+ Innovator teams were selected for Greentown Labs' highly curated Building Tech Pitch Day, where they presented their projects to top-tier climate tech investors. These include Community Energy Labs, EcoClosure InventWood, microEra Power Inc., Midflare Corp., Ultrasonic Technology Solutions, and XeroHome. This initiated exciting long-term relationships between IMPEL+ startups and private investors and corporate ventures.
IMPEL+ Innovators say the program helps bridge the chasm between developing a great idea and turning it into a thriving business that can transform the built environment. And IMPEL+ Innovators have already started to see results through winning prizes, awards, and fellowships or by kicking-off project demonstrations and collaborations with manufacturing partners.
“We have started to engage institutional investors, and being able to concisely explain our vision is coming naturally after IMPEL+,” said Tommy Gibbons of Idaho-based Hempitecture®, a member of IMPEL+’s 2021 cohort. “Not only does the salient company synopsis we developed help explain our product to investors, but we’ve also used it with our new advisors, potential hires, and lenders, as well. It's really resonating!" IMPEL+ participation helped Gibbons win a two-year Innovations Crossroads paid fellowship under DOE’s Lab Embedded Entrepreneurship Program, and funding through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Innovators also say they leverage their IMPEL+ network even after the formal program ends. And despite having to go virtual for the 2020-2021 season, this year’s IMPEL+ Innovators developed invigorating cohort camaraderie and cross-pollination between scientists and small businesses.
The program will launch the next season of IMPEL+ workshops starting in Fall 2021. To learn more and to sign up, go to IMPEL.lbl.gov.