On June 6, 2021, the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and Office of Economic Impact and Diversity issued a request for information (RFI) on inclusive innovation and entrepreneurship in climate technology.
The goal of the RFI was to obtain feedback from environmental justice and community-based organizations; incubators and accelerators; developers; investors, and funders; state, local, and tribal governments; researchers; and other stakeholders on issues related to enabling an inclusive and just entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem. As one of the largest funders of clean energy technology development, and to meet our ambitious climate goals, EERE needs to be accessible to innovators and communities of all backgrounds, fund the broadest possible range of solutions, and ensure the clean energy transition is just and equitable.
The RFI sought input on barriers to funding and support, as well as recommendations for improvement, and received 80 responses from 106 organizations (see Figure 1).
Responses addressed five thematic categories plus an open topic category:
1. INCREASING ACCESS TO, AND AWARENESS OF, DOE FUNDING THROUGH EFFECTIVE OUTREACH, ENGAGEMENT, AND APPLICATION SUPPORT
Respondents provided suggestions for increasing awareness of DOE funding opportunities, including:
- Email lists are an effective, well-utilized channel for disseminating information.
- DOE can better advertise funding opportunities by partnering with trusted institutions, providing direct access to DOE staff, and making information more accessible.
- Respondents favored creating a simplified portal with guides to the range and types of funding mechanisms and providing support services.
2. BARRIERS TO APPLYING FOR AND RECEIVING FUNDING FROM DOE
Respondents highlighted several barriers their organizations have experience to apply and receive DOE funding.
- Applications can be complicated and difficult to complete without significant experience. They can also be lengthy and require extensive capacity and resources which can discourage smaller organizations.
- Topic areas in funding opportunities are sometimes too specific, and some organizations [who responded to the RFI] feel the topics do not resonate with their work. Relatively broad and repeated topics could ameliorate this concern.
- Funds offered in FOAs are too large for small organizations to be competitive. There is a need for awards smaller in dollar value.
- Cost-share requirements can present a challenge as can securing the right partnerships, especially for first-time DOE applicants. Also, there is a perception that DOE primarily funds national labs and academia.
- The selection process for funding opportunities seems opaque, and there are concerns about lack of diversity about the reviewer pool.
3. SUPPORT FOR AN INNOVATION ECOSYSTEM AND PLACE-BASED INNOVATION
- To better support underrepresented entrepreneurs and communities, respondents recommended DOE simplify the grant process, partner more with community organizations, and allocate or set aside funds specifically for underserved groups.
- Twenty-seven of 31 respondents to this question answered that they had an affiliation with an organization that supports entrepreneurs from groups underrepresented in STEM or from underserved communities.
- Respondents identified some best practices from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other organizations that support entrepreneurs/innovators, including grant writing assistance, incubator/accelerator-style programs, partnership building, and mentorship.
- Respondents named several government grants and initiatives as effective programs for entrepreneurs who are first-time DOE funding recipients, including the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program, ARPA-E funding opportunities, SBA grants, and U.S. Department of Defense programs. SBIR grants were the most mentioned program.
4. REGIONAL AND LOCAL BARRIERS TO DOE FUNDING
- Sixteen of 24 respondents feel that their location prevents them from applying for DOE funding. And while regional and local efforts to alleviate these barriers exist, though they do not exist everywhere and are sometimes not always widely disseminated so that communities are aware.
- Fifteen of 20 respondents were not aware of place-based DOE funding initiatives, suggesting better outreach is needed for these programs.
- Respondents suggested DOE can provide better support at regional and local levels by establishing closer collaborations with regional offices, local government, and community organizations.
- In line with recommendations provided under other categories of the RFI, respondents recommend several suggestions pertaining to changes that can be made to the DOE application process. Examples of suggestions include providing more application guidance and consultation, modifying eligibility requirements, tailoring grants to fit and focus on underserved communities’ needs, enhancing the involvement of non-R1 institutions, and reducing the high cost share associated with funding programs.
5. BARRIERS TO PERFORMING WITHIN THE DOE FUNDING SYSTEM
Respondents identified multiple challenges to successful performance once selected for DOE funding, and they proposed mitigation strategies.
- Respondents highlighted issues with the programmatic and administrative conditions for maintaining a DOE award, and they suggested DOE could address this by simplifying contracting processes, streamlining reporting requirements, and more frequently communicating with first-time recipients.
- Respondents who have experience with DOE funding stated their teams have faced performance challenges, and they recommended DOE address this by providing specific accommodations for smaller entities who face unique barriers to success, assisting recipients to better incentivize student participation across socio-economic demographics, and better informing recipients and subrecipients on award processes.
- Small groups sometimes lack resources to execute awards effectively, and they suggested DOE could address these issues by providing recipients access to administrative and accounting tools, enhancing support to overcome financial challenges, and facilitating more networking opportunities.
6. OPEN TOPIC
Respondents were invited to submit feedback on topics not specifically addressed in the RFI. While most of the comments provided under the “open topic” category relate to and were summarized under the five thematic categories, two big themes arose in the comments that are distinctly different from the five thematic categories above.
- The nature of this feedback collection—an RFI—may not be ideal for reaching many of the audiences DOE hoped to engage because completing an RFI takes time and resources that small organizations might lack. Respondents suggested DOE consider additional measures to alleviate barriers to completing RFIs in the future, like accepting responses in alternative forms, such as videos. Other respondents suggested that organizations should be compensated for the time it takes to complete the RFI.
- To foster more inclusive innovation, respondents noted the importance of DOE developing and publicizing specific Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) goals. A few respondents provided feedback of specific ways to institutionalize these goals, such as requiring funding recipients to commit to a JEDI plan and making additional funding dependent on successful completion of the JEDI plan.
Download the report to read the complete summary of the feedback received.
Note: This is only a summary of information gathered by DOE. None of the information in this summary is a commitment to perform work on any specific topic area. There is no potential funding tied to this summary. DOE will use the information gathered to determine how to develop future programming.