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March 25, 2021 | Tom Ballard

TAEBC annual meeting features DOE official, Tennessee start-up

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

The last totally in-person event we attended was a year ago this month when the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council (TAEBC) held its annual meeting in Franklin. Fast forward 12 months, and the member-based organization held the 2021 event in an entirely virtual mode yesterday.

Keynote speaker was Vanessa Chan, the newly appointed Chief Commercialization Officer and Director of the Office of Technology Transitions at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). In a rapid-fire presentation, she referenced the assets that Tennessee and particularly the Knoxville region have to be a major player in ways that address the energy future of the country.

“TAEBC’s mission is so critical right now,” Chan said at the beginning, later describing the Volunteer State as a “perfect ecosystem” for innovation because of programs like “Innovation Crossroads” and the recently announced Techstars Accelerator. She also referenced the Brookings Institution report that Thomas Zacharia, Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has also cited on numerous occasions. The report suggests that the Knoxville-Oak Ridge area is ripe for becoming one of the nation’s next growth centers/innovation hubs.

“It’s really happening here in Tennessee,” Chan declared.

Drawing on a 25-year career that prepared her for the DOE role that she assumed two months ago, Chan said she saw her focus as helping the federal agency shift from a technology push to a market pull approach. She cited several tools that she said were available from DOE.

  • ARPA-E, officially known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, is focused on advancing high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment.
  • DOE’s Technology Commercialization Fund is a nearly $30 million funding opportunity that leverages the R&D funding in the applied energy programs to mature promising energy technologies with the potential for high impact.
  • DOE’s Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC) advances the economic, energy, and national security interests of the U.S. by expanding the commercial impact of DOE’s research and development portfolio. As highlighted in this recent article, the “Spark Innovation Center” at the University of Tennessee Research Park was one of 20 initiatives around the country to receive $50,000 awards in the first funding phase of this program.
  • DOE’s Energy I-Corps pairs teams of researchers with industry mentors for an intensive two-month training where the researchers define technology value propositions, conduct customer discovery interviews, and develop viable market pathways for their technologies.

Other areas Chan spotlighted included small business vouchers, more flexible Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, periodic showcases, and a new summer internship program for undergraduate students.

Following her presentation, Ryan Stanton, Senior Consultant for Strategic Energy Initiatives with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and Michael Garrabrant, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Stone Mountain Technologies Inc. (SMTI), described how the state has partnered with the Johnson City-based company to advance its thermally-driven heat pump.

We have followed SMTI for a number of years, last posting this article when Garrabrant said he could see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. That reality was underscored yesterday when the two described how the State of Tennessee secured a grant from DOE that will allow a pilot deployment of the system in one or two public buildings, most likely in Northeast Tennessee.

Garrabrant said SMTI has secured about $14 million in grants and expects to close its second seed round in four to six weeks followed by launching a $6 million Series A this summer. Within four to five years, he expects to have 500 to 700 employees. The company was the second participant in the “Energy Mentor Network” underwritten by Launch Tennessee.

“It’s been a long, wild ride,” Garrabrant said. “I’ve been at it much longer than I thought (but) trying to make a difference is very satisfying.”


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