Energy Program Innovation Clusters Success Story
New Mexico State University’s Arrowhead Center (Arrowhead) plays a critical role for the state and the region around economic development, innovation, and entrepreneurship. In October 2020, they were awarded $50,000 through the Office of Technology Transitions’ (OTT) Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC) program to launch the New Mexico Clean Energy Resilience and Growth (NM CERG) cluster (see our initial conversation with the team before they launched the program here). In 2021, NM CERG received an additional $1,000,000 prize to continue working with regional stakeholders to create new programming for an idea-to-business pipeline for startups commercializing clean energy technology. Through this funding, NM CERG successfully launched and has been in operations for over 2 years. To date, they have supported over 40 companies, with more than 70% of teams being diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA)-relevant. Additionally, NM CERG has enabled startups to create an additional 29 jobs for the region and 18 of the NM CERG companies have raised over $3M in a combination of public and private funding.
We connected with Dana Catron (DC), the Deputy Director of Arrowhead and Director of NM CERG, and Kathy Foster (KF), the Director of Strategy Operations at the Arrowhead, about how the EPIC funding has allowed the team to better support their companies.
OTT: Tell us more about Arrowhead and what pushed you to launch NM CERG.
KF: Arrowhead is the IP and tech transfer office for New Mexico State University, and in 2010 we recognized the need to provide additional entrepreneurial and technology commercialization focused support. So, we expanded our programming to start working more with startups around the state. One thing that is unique to us is that we’re the land grant institution for New Mexico, so we get to serve the entire state and we’re not restricted by regions like many other universities. Additionally, New Mexico is a majority minority state, meaning a single non-white group makes up over 50% of the population, so we work with underserved entrepreneurs every single day. New Mexico is also very rural and we have a large population of veterans. With all these elements, having inclusive programming has been at the forefront of how we design and deploy programming across the board.
DC: We applied for the EPIC award in 2020 because we had numerous clients in the energy space, but we didn’t have any energy specific programming. We try not to duplicate efforts and if one of our partners is doing something well, we’ll usually refer our clients over to them. However, we analyzed the ecosystem and saw there wasn’t other energy specific programming available in the state and nobody was focusing on the challenges that energy innovators face. So, we decided to create NM CERG.
OTT: When we last spoke in 2021, the team had not yet launched NM CERG. How did the initial launch go and how have you grown?
DC: After the first EPIC award, we were able to design and deploy our first energy Sprint Accelerator, which took startups in the energy space and introduced them to customer discovery and market validation. Then, we were able to plug them into other Arrowhead programs like the New Mexico Federal and State Technology Program (NM FAST), which is our SBIR/STTR assistance program. When we were wrapping up work with that first cohort of energy startups, the larger EPIC Round 2 call came out and we decided to take a chance applying for it since Arrowhead had not previously engaged with the DOE on an award of that size for renewable energy commercialization activities.
We also leveraged the NM Small Business Assistance Program (NMSBA), which provides startups with technical challenge access to Sandia National Labs and Los Alamos National Labs. Self-guided learning modules around investment and IP were developed so startups could explore these topics at their own pace – we wanted to ensure support for these two areas was provided because they are topics cleantech startups will have to navigate in their lifetime.
OTT: What have you seen as a result of your programming?
DC: We have seen a lot of unanticipated positive outcomes that weren’t even on our radar when we put our proposal together. For example, the region we had defined was not just New Mexico, but the surrounding area, so we work very closely with partners in surrounding states. We’ve had many clients reach out who work or are located outside of the state but have very strong ties to New Mexico. For instance, we have a client based in Florida that is now working with us to deploy and pilot their technology in New Mexico. What’s more exciting is that we’ve had participants who have told us what we’re doing is so valuable to them that they’re going to relocate and move to New Mexico so they can take advantage of some of the services as some of the modules we offer in NM CERG are only open to New Mexico companies, such as the Small Business Assistance Program, to work more closely with the National Labs.
And I would say our relationship with the labs right now is closer than ever because they were sub awardees on our EPIC grant, so this has led to a lot of opportunities that probably wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t bring them in on this.
We also are learning more about the needs of the startups we support. For CERG, we provide access to our prototyping support program. A lot of clients were excited about the prototyping and design software they had access to, but they also asked for help around things like logo design and website development. This was something we hadn’t considered a clean tech startup might want help with, but we realized having nice, polished materials could get them very far in tech commercialization, so now we’re working on incorporating services like these.
Q: Looking forward, what does your team hope to accomplish?
KF: We are working on a pitch competition at the end of next year where we’ll bring in cleantech investors from all over the country to hear pitches from our most promising startups. And we’ll continue building out all our modules – we try to think of it as a pipeline approach where regardless of TRL level or where a startup is in their commercialization journey, we’ll have something that can support them.
And lastly, we continue to think about the sustainability of our programming. This EPIC award has helped catalyze many other funding opportunities for us. For instance, we just put together a proposal around energy independence that draws very heavily from what we’ve learned with NM CERG. And it has also been great to see so many assets in the EPIC network – instead of duplicating everything, we can make connections and leverage each other’s learnings.
The Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC) Prize recognizes the nation's most innovative incubators. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Technology Transitions (OTT), the EPIC Prize awards cash prizes to regional incubator teams that submit the most creative and impactful plans, then implement those plans to develop strong clusters, connections, and support for energy startups and entrepreneurs. To learn more, visit Energy Program for Innovation Clusters | Department of Energy.
To learn more about the Arrowhead Center and NM CERG, please visit Arrowhead Center (nmsu.edu).