Argonne National Laboratory

Training the next generation of entrepreneurs

By Carla ReiterJune 13, 2018

Nisarg Patel didn’t want to join a startup company. He was interested in combining his nuclear engineering training with business, but with student loans from his master’s degree program to pay off, Patel needed a salary, and most startups offer only equity in the company.

Then he heard about the Applied Research Experience (ARE) program. As an ARE fellow, he could spend a year at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory working for Atlas Energy Systems, a new company developing portable nuclear power supplies for use in environments from space to the deep ocean.

“CRI is about training entrepreneurs to move technologies to market. [We] leverage the national labs to be agile and support that activity.” — John Carlisle, director of the Chain Reaction Innovations program 

The work was fun and right up his alley. And it came with a paycheck.

“This startup is great,” he said. “There’s options to join the team and have equity in the company too. So it’s a great opportunity. And it’s interesting.”

The ARE fellowship pairs predoctoral scientists with clean energy technology companies participating in the Chain Reaction Innovations (CRI) program in DOE’s U.S. national laboratory system. Sponsored by DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, CRI focuses on hardware-based energy technologies, which take much longer than software-based innovations to get to market and can require costly equipment unavailable to startups outside places like the national laboratories. 

“CRI is about training entrepreneurs to move technologies to market,” said John Carlisle, who heads the program at Argonne. “The model is to leverage the national labs to be agile and support that activity.”

Each CRI entrepreneur chooses an ARE fellow, who is funded for a year to help with the technical work required to develop the company’s product. According to Carlisle, “a lot of the innovators have viewed their fellows more as co-equals.”

That has certainly been the case for Patel’s boss Ian Hamilton, the entrepreneur behind Atlas Energy Systems. “I’ve been working on this by myself for quite some time,” he said. “It’s just amazing to have someone to bounce ideas off of.” Patel also contributes expertise in computer programming and modeling that Hamilton doesn’t have. “It would probably take me half a year to do what Nisarg can do in a week,” he said.

In addition to his scientific work, Patel is helping develop the business. He goes to innovation events to network, takes part in conference calls with potential investors and customers and has gone to a nuclear innovation summit in Washington, DC. “It really varies day to day,” he said.  “I like the combination of business and science. This is kind of the best of both worlds. I get a lot of business experience while continuing scientific research.”

Alec Houpt, the ARE fellow at the CRI startup FGC Plasma Solutions, is also as much collaborator as employee. The company is working on a “plug and play” plasma fuel injector that jet engine and turbine manufacturers can use to improve the efficiency of their engines.

Houpt, a fourth-year doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame, studies plasma-assisted supersonic combustion for use in scramjet engines, which fall somewhere between jet and rocket engines. When his group at Notre Dame applied to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for funding, DARPA suggested they get together with the FGC Plasma Solutions group at Argonne, which had a similar focus. Felipe Gomez Del Campo, who heads the company, invited Houpt to apply for the ARE fellowship.

“It worked out perfectly in that we work in very similar areas,” Houpt said. “Felipe has a lot more experience in the business area and he’s very knowledgeable in developing his company and the product. I’m getting to see the process of applying for funding and all of the business interaction, which is very interesting for me. So I’m learning a lot.”

Houpt has spent much of his time in the lab. “There’s a lot of troubleshooting when you’re getting a new test rig set up,” he said. “Now we can go two or three weeks without having anything go wrong.” New equipment will allow the group to test its technology under more realistic conditions and collect data to show to potential customers.

In addition to technical advice from Argonne scientists, CRI and ARE participants receive business mentoring from the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago and the Purdue Foundry at Purdue University. “The business-oriented environment is giving me a whole other view,” Houpt said. “It’s providing me with experience in a wider range of areas and I’m really enjoying it.”

Patel, who wasn’t interested in startups when he applied to the program, anticipates staying with Atlas after his fellowship ends. The company has proved that its power supply concept is viable and has just leased office and lab space of its own. “We’re really excited,” he said.

The ARE program is run by DOE’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education in collaboration with the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) supports early-stage research and development of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies that make energy more affordable and strengthen the reliability, resilience, and security of the U.S. electric grid.

EERE's Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) supports early-stage research to advance innovation in U.S. manufacturing and promote American economic growth and energy security.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.