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ORNL unveils five entrepreneurs, four companies in inaugural “Innovation Crossroads” cohort

innovation-crossroads-2By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) set a goal of finding up to five of the nation’s top young energy innovators and, by all accounts, it appears the recruiting team has achieved its goal with the inaugural cohort for the “Innovation Crossroads.”

ORNL leaders publicly unveiled the four start-ups at an event yesterday in Oak Ridge attended by the innovators, researchers with whom they will be working, and two top administrators from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

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“If you look five, 10, 15 or 20 years ahead, where is the innovation going to come from to continue our nation’s economic growth,” Mark Johnson, Director of DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, asked. His answer was “programs like this.” Joining Johnson from DOE headquarters was Johanna Wolfson, Director of the Technology-to-Market Program.

In a conversation ahead of the event, Johnson described “Innovation Crossroads” and two similar programs at other DOE labs as a post-doc program. After all, the five innovators have either earned their Ph.Ds. or are in the process of completing them.

For ORNL, yesterday’s announcement was the culmination of a process that began more than six months ago with a solicitation of applications. Day-to-day responsibility for “Innovation Crossroads” is being handled by Tom Rogers, ORNL’s Director of Industrial Partnerships and Economic Development, and Beth Conerty, Program Lead for Entrepreneurial Support and Development.

As described in this September 20 article from teknovation.biz, the program is part of a DOE effort to help accelerate clean energy technologies in an era of substantially limited venture capital. The ORNL initiative is the third in DOE’s Lab-Embedded Entrepreneurship Program (LEEP). The pilot, named “Cyclotron Road,” was tested at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and a second program, named “Chain Reaction Innovations,” started last year at Argonne National Laboratory.

A quick review of the resumes of the five entrepreneurs shows impressive pedigrees. Two either have or will soon earn their doctorates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where one was Co-Director of the prestigious “MIT Clean Energy Prize,” the largest such student-led competition in the country. Another student is working on her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University while also serving as a National Science Foundation Graduate Student Fellow. Yet another, ironically from Knoxville, just finished his doctorate at Cornell University. The final selectee is a local entrepreneur – Ming Qi – who has his own start-up named Peroxygen Systems and has already achieved significant recognition, winning a seed grant under DOE’s ARPA-E program and being selected to work with DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the Departments’ “Small Business Vouchers” program.

Those credentials remind me of a frequent ad on the Golf Channel with a tagline of “These guys are really good.”

ORNL began accepting applications in mid-November and culled the initial round of more than 50 applicants to 16 semi-finalists who were brought to Oak Ridge for interviews. Nine finalists were selected for more interviews before yesterday’s announcement of the four start-ups that were eventually chosen.

The five Entrepreneurs – one team has two Co-Founders – arrived a few weeks ago to start the two-year experience. It includes a stipend that will help cover living expenses and healthcare, collaboration space at ORNL, up to $350,000 in R&D support from ORNL through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), business model development assistance, help with marketing strategies, mentorship, and introductions to other successful energy entrepreneurs as well as potential industry partners.

Local organizations are supporting the effort including PYA, the power behind teknovation.biz. In PYA’s case, the firm will be helping these bright engineers with business structure and accounting advice. Also, through the relatively new Launch Tennessee Networks initiative, “Innovation Crossroads” participants will be able to access the Energy Mentor Network operated by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council.

Click here to read the official ORNL news release.

 


Tom Ballard

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer,
Pershing Yoakley & Associates. P.C.

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