ARPA-E Hones Its “Catalytic” Cleantech Investor Role As Funding Stands to Grow

Among the would-be winners in the White House’s 2014 proposed budget scenario is the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the agency tasked with sourcing and funding potential game-changing clean technologies. Thanks to a possible 38 percent funding increase—which would boost its 2014 fiscal-year budget to $379 million—along with a recently announced expansion of its program areas and a full funding cycle under its belt, ARPA-E is establishing its role as a key player in the early-stage cleantech investing space.

“We’re looking at ourselves in a catalytic, accelerative role,” said Cheryl Martin, ARPA-E’s deputy director for commercialization, in a keynote interview at the VERGE conference in Boston in May. “For us, the big deal is to start really outrageous projects, demonstrate that something there is possible, and get them handed off to the next step of the transformation.”

However, the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives just passed its markup of the White House’s proposed budget this week that would slash spending by the DOE and ARPA-E to just $50 million, according to Science Insider. The full House Appropriations Committee is expected to take up the DOE spending bill later this month.

ARPA-E was formed in the image of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the 50-year-old program tasked with funding and helping to develop high-risk, high-reward technologies for military application. (DARPA’s successes include the Internet and GPS.) ARPA-E was formed in 2009, with a mandate from Congress to focus on similarly disruptive technology, but in cleantech.

Four years later, ARPA-E has invested $770 million in 285 projects (12 of which have since launched as startups or something similar) across a diverse portfolio of technologies. The agency typically provides $3 million to $4 million to award recipients over a period of three years.

In her interview at VERGE, Martin said that with one full funding cycle completed, her agency is eager to incorporate what it’s learned so far—both in terms of its role as a mobilizer in the space, and in terms of what’s possible in cleantech—into its process going forward.

“I think there are areas where we’re learning things that we didn’t think were possible,” Martin says. “Some of our projects focused on the biology of fuels and things like that; the learnings have been very profound.”

In March, ARPA-E signaled that it would be expanding its program list, thereby widening its sector focus within the cleantech space. The METALS program (Modern Electro/Thermochemical Advancements for Light-metal Systems) offers $20 million in available funding to the developers of cost-efficient metal processing and recycling technologies. Also with $20 million on offer, the REMOTE program (Reducing Emissions using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportations and Energy), will focus on technologies that allow for the conversion of gas to liquids for transportation fuel.

Another takeaway for the agency since its inception is the importance of its role in facilitating innovation “ecosystems,” as Martin calls them, to bring together scientists, academics, and corporate representative, which she says strengthen technologies from their most nascent phase.

“I think it’s really imp for what ARPA-E’s trying to do that you get stakeholders together and test your ideas, and test them with people who have not looked at that problem before,” Martin said.

The agency now includes “teaming lists” with its funding opportunity announcements, Martin said, to encourage the developers of new technologies to contact people who step forward and add their names to the list as experts in a particular area.

Says Martin: “We believe that you’re going to get more traction quicker by having the right people at the table earlier.”

Tags: Policy

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