As graduation for Energy I-Corps Cohort 14 drew closer, Wendy Rue and Mara Schindelholz from Sandia National Laboratories focused only on the experience itself, they never expected the program instructors to award them a special prize.

"It was an amazing experience and what you think you know or feel about the program at the beginning is not how you feel about it at the end," Rue, Sandia administrative staff associate and entrepreneurial lead for the Energy I-Corps team, said. "At the start, you're intimidated by the amount of work, but by the end you just want it to continue."

That was before they learned the instructors, who voted each week during the three-month program, chose to award a $25,000 prize, the Energy I-Corps Commercialization Award, to Rue and Schindelholz for their efforts to move their technology toward commercialization. This is the first-time instructors had the opportunity to award a prize during any of the Energy I-Corps cohorts. The prize money, provided by the Department of Energy's Office of Technology Transitions, will be used to continue the team's commercialization journey.

"We were so excited. We put in a great deal of work and were honored to be recognized. We were a woman-led team, and proud of that as well," Schindelholz, principal member of technical staff at Sandia and the principal investigator for the team, said. "We demonstrated that women are equally capable of excelling at technology innovation and commercialization."

Cohort 14, which began at the end of March and graduated May 19, 2022, enjoyed the participation of the most teams with women in leadership positions since the program began, with 10 of the 16 teams with a woman in a leadership role.

A screenshot of virtual meeting participants.

Cohort 14 enjoyed the most women on the teams in the program’s history. They all graduated in May.

Rue and Schindelholz's team, called nDETECT, is a nitrogen oxides sensor technology that is being developed at Sandia for real-time monitoring of pollutant gases. The sensors, composed of platinum interdigitated electrodes with a nanoporous absorbent layer, can be tuned to selectively absorb gases of interest through judicious material selection, and the electrical response directly correlated to gas concentration.

The Energy I-Corps program pairs teams of researchers with industry mentors to create opportunities to develop and apply commercialization and entrepreneurial skills. Energy I-Corps, a two-month program, is a key initiative of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Technology Transitions (OTT). Participants learn to define technology value propositions, conduct stakeholder discovery interviews, and develop viable market pathways for their technologies. This gives them a framework for industry engagement to guide future research and informs a culture of market awareness within the labs.

Since its founding, 178 teams from 12 national laboratories have participated in the Energy I-Corps program. These teams represent a wide range of energy innovations. This includes:

  • Waterpower technologies
  • Hydrogen and fuel cell technologies
  • Bioenergy
  • Advanced manufacturing
  • Recycling
  • Energy storage

More than 175 industry mentors have helped teams facilitate more than 12,000 customer discovery interviews with companies such as Lowe's, Johns Manville, LEGO, the U.S. Army, Tesla, GM, and many more.

"Before the program, I thought I had a relatively good idea of the application space and customer needs for our sensor, but I learned through our customer discovery interview process that the problem was much more complex than I had originally envisioned. In the short-term, our insights gained will be invaluable for structuring our upcoming relevant environment and qualification testing to more closely match the customer's needs," Schindelholz said.

Before entering the program, the nDETECT team had only considered DOE and Department of Defense (DOD) applications for their technology, but participation in the Energy I-Corps program made them consider additional applications and markets in the future.

"Although we focused on going down a military application path, we were exposed to other ideas for scaling up the technology for other use cases," Rue said. "We have a better idea of these opportunities now, including the diesel engine market and air quality or environmental monitoring."

With the bonus prize, the team plans to work toward building a prototype sensor over the next several months.

"I would love to have something by the end of the year that we can start showing off to potential customers," Schindelholz said.

A short time after graduation, Schindelholz participated in a roundtable discussion with U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm to discuss the future of local innovation and technology commercialization through the DOE in New Mexico. Schindelholz discussed the Energy I-Corps program and what a valuable experience it was for her.

"I would encourage other national laboratory staff to participate in the program if they are interested in a future pathway of commercialization and product transition for their technology. Even if we decided not to pursue commercialization more broadly, it was invaluable for better understanding the problem space with our current customer," Schindelholz said. "I also felt it was valuable personally and has helped me to continue to grow professionally in an area I am very passionate about."

Rue agrees, pointing out that Energy I-Corps participants can be in any stage of technology in terms of readiness, and it teaches important skills to individuals who may not otherwise get the opportunity to learn.

"Many inventors are working away in the labs and if they have the desire to get their technology out there for the public good, they need to learn to be a salesperson and other professional skills that they don't have in the laboratory," she said. "If anyone has an inkling of getting their technology out into the market, they should participate in Energy I-Corps. They teach you everything from A to Z."

The other graduates of Cohort 14 include:

RoboDT from Argonne National Laboratory: This project focuses on robotic digital twin (RDT) technology, which allows network-distributed integration of robotic technologies—control remote sensing, real-time modeling, mixed-reality, and AI—on a digital twin platform.

MASTERRI from Idaho National Laboratory: The MASTERRI (Modeling and Simulation for Targeted Electrical Reliability and Resilience Improvement) technology allows for quantifiable failure analysis of complex systems/networks such as electrical grids.

Feedforward K9 from Idaho National Laboratory: The feedforward visualization technique leverages the capabilities of AI technologies, including machine learning (ML) and control logic (i.e., procedures), to provide decision support and alert operators to limit nuclear incidents.

Bioreactor from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: This project aims to develop high-performance solid-state bioreactors for biogas-to-liquid chemicals production by methanotrophs.

Disease Precognition from Los Alamos National Laboratory: The Global Disease Forecasting Center (GDFC) offers a robust platform to assess trends and accurately identify potential disease outbreaks within communities, employing proprietary models and machine learning approaches to analyze data streams and create actionable information.

Phase Changers from National Renewable Energy Laboratory: This team supports novel technologies that can provide large-utility-scale energy storage required for a future where renewables is the dominant form of energy generation and simultaneously capture greenhouse gases.

µnder the C from National Renewable Energy Laboratory: The technology is an in-situ river microplastic sensor platform that is networked, low-cost, self-powered, user-deployable, and capable of producing scientific-quality data.

WindEZ from National Renewable Energy Laboratory: WindEZ will make adoption and continued use of NREL's open-sourced wind-focused software a smoother experience for the general user including GUI development and comprehensive tutorials.

Real-Twin from Oak Ridge National Laboratory: The core of Real-Twin is a realistic and streamlined scenario generation capability that ingests real-world data and establishes a TWIN representation of the transportation system.

FrozEn from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory: The FrozEn battery team's so called "freeze-thaw" battery technology helps long-duration, seasonal electricity storage in a rechargeable battery without the conventional self-discharge and degradation.

ShAPE Recycling from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory: Shear assisted processing and extrusion (ShAPE) is an advanced manufacturing technology that converts bulk billet or finely divided precursors into valuable products with high efficiency.

ZAV-SNL from Sandia National Laboratory: Zero trust Application for Vehicle (ZAV) eliminates the need for Key Management Services (KMS) by dynamically generating cryptographic keys as needed, thereby reducing KMS-related risks and available attack surfaces for cyber hackers.

CAML from Sandia National Laboratory: This team aims to use computational modeling and machine learning strategies to identify new reaction pathways for chemical-based recycling solutions.

Hydrogen Ships from Sandia National Laboratory: A sailing renewable hydrogen energy ship transfers wind sail power to hydrokinetic power captured by relatively small water turbines attached to the ship's hull. The electric energy generated by this hydrokinetic turbine is used to manufacture and store pressurized or liquefied hydrogen.

GRIP from SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory: GRIP (Grid Resilience and Intelligence Platform) is designed to address extreme weather resilience using data and technology-agnostic methodology to present analytics that can be easily deployed on any electrical utility platform to help them make informed operational decisions before, during, and after an event.

For more information, please visit Energy I-Corps.