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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne’s Chain Reaction Innovations program supports breakthrough technologies

Startups offer innovative potential clean energy solutions

Technology is a major weapon in the fight against climate change. Argonne’s Chain Reactions Innovations program supports innovators building the clean energy startup technologies that advance the path to decarbonization.

When Sanza Kazadi’s mother moved to a developing country, he worried the lack of cooling in her concrete, metal roof home could harm her health. As motivation, Kazadi, who holds a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology, began to create a cooling technique that doesn’t require electricity. This innovation would benefit not only his mother, but all those who need to use less energy on cooling as climate change drives increasingly high temperatures in many areas.

Climate change has raised the stakes higher. Chain Reaction Innovations (CRI), the entrepreneurship program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, offers innovators like Kazadi support to develop early-stage clean energy and climate technologies.

Our vision for the Chain Reaction Innovations program is to open Argonne’s door to deliver on our promise of a sustainable, prosperous and equitable world, one startup, one innovator at a time.” — Dick Co, Director, Argonne’s Chain Reaction Innovations program

CRI is a two-year entrepreneurship program that embeds innovators in Argonne to help them develop and de-risk their early-stage, clean energy technologies, and get them to market — and into the world — as quickly as possible.

Essentially, the CRI program acts as a bridge that connects visionary entrepreneurs with Argonne’s world-class science and research facilities to accelerate innovations that reduce greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change, said Argonne’s CRI Director, Dick Co, a scientist, educator and former startup founder.

Our vision for the Chain Reaction Innovations program is to open Argonne’s door to deliver on our promise of a sustainable, prosperous and equitable world, one startup, one innovator at a time,” said Co. Argonne provides layers of scientific scrutiny that are crucial to introducing new technology to millions of people. Good innovation is built on the foundation of good science.”

Becoming entrepreneurs  

CRI innovators enter the program with deep scientific experience but often have limited business acumen. The CRI program trains researchers to develop business strategies, conduct market research and find long-term financing and commercial partners to fund their innovations.

CRI success stories are abundant. Scientists who built their innovations at Argonne are attracting funding from major investors, expanding their companies and moving innovations to the marketplace. Many have filed one or multiple patents on their innovations. ClearFlame Engine Technologies, whose co-founders are CRI alumni, recently raised $30 million from investors to decarbonize diesel-fueled engines. Meati Foods, another program alumni, found success with an alternative protein using mushroom roots. Last year Meati secured $150 million in investor funding.

Sanza Kazadi was among startup founders who presented their clean energy technologies at the Lab-Embedded Entrepreneur Program Demo Day hosted by Argonne National Laboratory. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Kazadi is typical of CRI founders. Part of the 2021 CRI cohort, Kazadi Enterprises generated major interest in his novel technology that uses thermal energy generated by natural temperature changes to purify water, and provide heat, air conditioning and refrigeration.

Along with access to Argonne’s expertise and resources, Co attributes the success of the CRI program to the human connection it provides. Innovators work one-on-one with a principal investigator in a collaborative team environment while onsite at Argonne.

CRI innovators are pushing the boundaries of technology in creative, disruptive ways that are accelerating the path to decarbonization. CRI startups have focused on energy storage, hydrogen technologies, lithium-ion batteries, quantum computing, low-carbon diesel engines, a novel fuel injector for jet engines and many other clean energy and climate technologies.

CRI is part of DOE’s Lab-Embedded Entrepreneurship Program (LEEP) that supports promising clean tech entrepreneurs developing game-changing technologies for a clean energy future. LEEP is managed by the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and primarily sponsored by its Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office.

Startups create and capture value

In just seven years, researchers-turned-entrepreneurs like Kazadi have built their startups into market-ready businesses, making significant impact on the scientific ecosystem.

The 32 past and present startups led by 35 innovators have generated $427 million in funding for their projects. Thriving clean-tech companies pump dollars into the economy and create jobs. To date, 641 jobs have been created by CRI startups, and that number is growing. And startup companies increase U.S. competitiveness in emerging energy technologies.

Ultimately, the work of CRI innovators is bringing the U.S. closer to its goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. While the challenge is enormous, Co believes CRI entrepreneurs are uniquely equipped to develop future clean energy technologies.

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://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.