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September 20, 2016 | Tom Ballard

“Innovation Crossroads” initiative focused on energy entrepreneurs

innovation-crossroadsBy Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

The timing could not have been better for yesterday’s announcement at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) about a new initiative named “Innovation Crossroads.”

Coming on the second day of the inaugural “Innov865 Week,” the announcement further underscores the growth of this region in terms of entrepreneurship and the opportunity to more fully leverage the technology assets at ORNL.

“Innovation Crossroads” is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)-funded program focused on connecting innovative entrepreneurs with clean energy technologies at ORNL. The goal: more start-ups taking DOE inventions to market.

Thomas Zacharia, ORNL’s Deputy Director for Science and Technology, and Mark Johnson Director of Advanced Manufacturing in DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) office, made the announcement.

“There is a huge opportunity and need to develop an emerging American energy ecosystem where cleantech entrepreneurs can thrive,” Johnson said, observing that while energy is a pervasive problem facing the nation, investment capital is slow to follow it.

“What I want to see in five years (is) one of these companies get an exit,” he said. “If that occurs, you will see capital coming in. This sector urgently needs that capital.”

Tom Rogers, a long-time player in the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, will lead the new “Innovation Crossroads” initiative. He is ORNL’s Director of Industrial Partnerships and Economic Development.

“This will help put us on the map nationally and lead us to both mentors and investors,” Rogers said, referencing the impact that similar programs have garnered.

Versions of “Innovation Crossroads” are in place at two other DOE facilities – Cyclotron Road at Lawrence Berkeley National in California and Chain Reaction Innovations at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. All three are part of EERE’s Lab-Embedded Entrepreneurship Program, but “Innovation Crossroads” is the first program in the south.

As structured, up to five entrepreneurs will be selected to receive a fellowship that covers living costs, benefits, and a travel stipend for up to two years. In addition, they will each receive up to $350,000 to use on collaborative research and development at ORNL.

Rogers says ORNL hopes to open the application process early next month, select semi-finalists in mid-November, and name the first cohort by the end of the calendar year. Obviously, applicants will be the best innovators from wherever, but the fact that they will be embedded at ORNL adds another opportunity for the region to attract and retain new technology companies.

That point was reiterated by Zacharia who said “Innovation Crossroads” is yet another tool to make it easier for entrepreneurs to connect with ORNL and start new ventures. It builds on investments DOE has made in world class capabilities like ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, National Transportation Research Center, Spallation Neutron Source, and Leadership Computing Facility.

Another key part of the equation is the strong partnership that the lab has with the University of Tennessee (UT). For example, the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, a joint UT and ORNL initiative, has become the largest doctoral program at UT’s Knoxville campus. As many as a third of those students have expressed interest in starting new companies, and several attended yesterday’s announcement.

These and other regional strengths were not lost on Johnson who noted that he flew into Knoxville from Santa Clara, CA last night. Forty years ago, what we know as Silicon Valley was simply orchard fields.

He called ORNL “a hidden gem” and observed that this region should aspire to be a model for clean energy technology start-ups.

Here’s the full ORNL news release (innovation-crossroads-announcement).

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