Getting an invention or new breakthrough from the laboratory into the broader world requires more than just a bright idea and a little bit of luck. Since 2017, scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories around the country have come together as part of the Laboratory-Embedded Entrepreneurship Program, or LEEP, to bring their innovations into the marketplace.
Representatives from four national laboratories — Argonne National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — joined forces on Jun. 7. to hold Demo Day, a technology showcase in which 20 teams of innovators and entrepreneurs from the four labs displayed and pitched their technologies in front of an audience of venture capitalists, government officials and technology gurus.
“We need innovators more than ever before. We cannot tackle the climate crisis without bold innovators who share the belief that a single idea can change the world,” said Geraldine (Geri) Richmond, DOE Under Secretary for Science and Innovation, who delivered the Demo Day keynote. “But as we all know, having a great idea you believe in is only one piece of the puzzle — without the funding, the research facilities, the professional mentorship, great ideas can only go so far. Successfully maturing a science-based clean energy tech innovation into commercialized technology is no easy feat and requires an ecosystem to be behind it, and that’s why we’re here.”
In the seven years since LEEP incubators began, more than 150 innovators have developed their technologies through the programs, and they have attracted more than $1.5 billion in outside funding.
“We have opened the doors of the national labs to the entrepreneurs of tomorrow; these 20 game-changing innovators have all gotten their starts at national labs,” said Dick Co, who leads Argonne’s LEEP incubator, Chain Reaction Innovations (CRI). “For a whole range of technologies and approaches and target markets, the national labs provide a set of essential resources to companies looking to explore and develop new technologies.”
At Demo Day, innovators like Arsheen Allam, CEO and co-founder of GOLeafe, found themselves making the case for their revolutionary clean energy technologies in front of a receptive and eager audience.
When Allam visited India and Pakistan, where her parents are from, she was motivated by what she saw as a lack of clean water infrastructure. As an undergraduate at North Carolina State University, she developed a community-based filtration system that used a carbon nanomaterial filter that became the foundation for GOLeafe’s technology. While this was an important leap forward, it still needed to be enhanced for desalination capability. That’s where CRI came in.
“Working at Argonne, we got access to equipment that we absolutely needed and also found synergies between our research and the other innovators,” Allam said. “We also developed skills through CRI that scientists are not necessarily best at, like how to promote ourselves,” she said.
The Demo Day celebration also included a panel of three women innovator alumnae who had each participated in LEEP incubators in previous years. Moderated by Richmond, the panel’s members shared thoughts on the unique challenges and opportunities that female entrepreneurs face when trying to build women-led clean tech companies.
One of the biggest themes of Demo Day was the concept of resilience. “Resilience is one of the biggest aspects of the culture of our company and of the other companies here,” Allam said. “If you see something not working initially, you might feel like giving up, but knowing you’re working on something important gives you the energy you need to keep going.”
Dan Miller, director of Innovation Crossroads, a LEEP incubator based at Oak Ridge, also pointed to resilience as a key factor in what determines a successful company in the program. “There are successful entrepreneurs who come in at every stage of technological readiness, but what really is the common denominator of the most successful companies is the drive and leadership skills of the entrepreneurs,” he said. “The entrepreneurs have to take a leadership role at every stage, because things do go wrong; people who step up in the face of uncertainty and don’t get easily discouraged are the ones who do the best, but that’s hard to pinpoint when you’re recruiting for one of these programs.”
“The concept of perseverance is embedded deeply in both entrepreneurship and the national labs,” Co added. “To build huge machines like Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source or getting a company off the ground requires being willing to learn and try new things repeatedly in the quest for a healthier planet and a better life.”
The Advanced Photon Source is a DOE Office of Science user facility.
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 https://energy.gov/science.