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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Inaugural Demo Day showcases entrepreneur-national laboratory relationships

Open for business

We all have ideas for new businesses or products. Intrepid scientists and entrepreneurs often have the best ones.

Sometimes, however, it’s hard for these bright ideas to hit the market because obstacles emerge along the way. Budding entrepreneurs may lack the scientific expertise, equipment or money to fully research, prove, develop or test their ideas.

Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory offers up-and-coming scientists and entrepreneurs everything they need to address these challenges. As part of a culmination of programs that match budding entrepreneurs with technical experts at the DOE national laboratories, founders of seven start-up companies recently celebrated a milestone event in their journeys to commercialize their new technologies.

Half-trade show, half-Shark Tank, this event – called Demo Day – gave these researchers an opportunity to prove the value of their products, technologies and burgeoning companies to an audience of potential investors and fellow technologists.

The teams that presented at Demo Day, held September 12 at the Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago, have spent the past two years in embedded programs at DOE’s Argonne and Oak Ridge national laboratories

Designed to accelerate scientific discovery for real-world applications, these programs are intended to give promising entrepreneurs a significant advantage in the fight to establish successful energy-related businesses.

The four teams that were part of Argonne’s program, Chain Reaction Innovations (CRI), have received start-up capital, access to state-of-the-art equipment, business mentoring and other benefits as they have worked to grow their businesses and develop their technologies. In the year and a half since they began work at Argonne, all of these companies have taken significant strides toward commercializing their technologies.

When you provide these bright, driven entrepreneurs with a sufficient tailwind of initial investment and the ability to make use of the facilities and expertise that’s found at a national laboratory, you’re really helping to seed the future of a strong and innovative economy,” said CRI Director John Carlisle.

It can be an expensive process to make technologies less risky and generate business value,” said CRI entrepreneurial program lead Adria Wilson. Argonne has a unique ability to provide world-class resources and equipment for these teams to use.”

National laboratories provide a one-of-a-kind experience, especially for small companies working under different kinds of constraints. This unique experience includes mentorship from Argonne scientists, and participants have an opportunity to learn about the laboratory’s state-of-the-art DOE Office of Science User Facilities for X-ray science (the Advanced Photon Source), nanoscience (the Center for Nanoscale Materials) and supercomputing (the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility).

There aren’t very many places around the world we could have gone to do this kind of work,” said Julie Blumreiter, Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of ClearFlame Engines, one of the CRI-affiliated start-ups. Argonne’s deep expertise in engine development means we’re able to just knock on someone’s door and pick their brain for invaluable insights. There’s a level of credibility and access that we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Blumreiter’s co-founder and ClearFlame CEO, BJ Johnson, agreed. Obviously, the hardware resources and the R&D support that we receive from CRI are extremely valuable as is,” he said. But beyond that, what’s unique about CRI is the relationships they’re able to tap into with original equipment manufacturers throughout the Midwest. Having those relationships means we’re able to tailor our research plan not as scientists but as business people to validate technology in a way that builds company value.”

All of the entrepreneurs face the challenge of developing scalable technology as they work to bring their technologies closer to market. When Atlas Energy Systems, another CRI start-up, was approached early on by a potential client who wanted 10,000 of its direct heat-to-electricity conversion units for testing, they could only offer a single prototype.

It was great that we had people reaching out to us for product, but we discovered that we had a team of nuclear engineers, not manufacturing process engineers,” said Atlas Energy Systems Founder and CEO Ian Hamilton. The CRI experience has been a great boon for the company, as it’s brought our business model, our technology and our market focus to the next level of thinking.”

At Demo Day, Hamilton described how the potential market for direct heat-to-electricity conversion was much broader than he had originally assumed. With a nuclear engineering background, Hamilton had primarily zeroed in on incorporating the technology into a nuclear reactor concept – a business model that could prove hard to validate for years, even decades.

With encouragement from business mentors at CRI, Hamilton tweaked his approach to focus on what he called the low-hanging fruit” – generating electricity from waste heat produced by flare gas stacks.

The fundamental physics behind this technology has been around for a long time,” Hamilton said. It’s really just a question of getting a manufacturing process nailed down so that we can really do this at scale.”

Hamilton’s CRI mentor, Argonne nuclear engineer Sergey Chemerisov, explained that the relatively short duration of the CRI program forced everyone to make quick and tough decisions about their research. For entrepreneurs, it can be eye-opening to see how long true research and development takes,” Chemerisov said. The pace that the marketplace outside the lab expects of you can be very different from what’s feasible.”

With that said, Chemerisov noted that several of the CRI teams were well-positioned to continue their projects. The rules of the game are very strict and business is not an easy thing to do, but it’s clear that an entrepreneurial program like this can really work,” he said.

Carlisle noted that without exception, all the teams have had to make pivots throughout the course of the CRI program, reimagining their original business ideas or their target markets. CRI and the other national lab-embedded entrepreneurial programs provide a unique environment for our members to stress-test assumptions about their technologies in a low-risk environment,” he said.

For the entrepreneurs of BTRFY, another of the CRI start-ups, these pivots have been a rich learning experience. You quickly figure out that what has gotten you to where you are looks substantially different from what you need to get where you’re going,” said Justin Whiteley, BTRFY CTO and co-founder. It’s not just about what I can do on a benchtop, it’s about what I can do at scale. That can have a big impact on the machinery you use or the infrastructure and resources you have to work with.”

Even though BTRFY’s product – an environmentally friendly snack chip – is substantially different from something like the heat-to-electricity converter of Atlas Energy Systems, similar challenges face both teams. Moving from laboratory-based validation to developing a viable pathway for commercialization represents a challenge equal to or greater than the essential technological questions. We’ve spent most of the past two years developing a lot of our science, but now it’s a whole new set of challenges,” Whiteley said.

Changing the standard frame of scientific thinking to focus on how to better market emerging technologies could redound to the benefit of both entrepreneurs and scientists alike, said Felipe Gomez del Campo, founder and CEO of FGC Plasma Solutions, another company in the cohort. It’s important to remind ourselves and remind people in the lab that what we’re doing has a real purpose, that the experiments we’re running are specifically designed to make the technology less financially risky,” he said. I think as scientists we are geared to solving problems that are interesting, but in trying to commercialize something we’re trying to solve not just what’s interesting, but primarily what removes risk and what gets you to market. That’s what CRI helps you do.”

Both ClearFlame and BTRFY also received mentorship and customer discovery training through the NSF-funded I-Corps program, led by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago, an official mentor of CRI.

View CRI Cohort 1 Demo Day Presentations

Seven teams of innovators presented their technologies and emerging companies to investors and members of the energy community during Chain Reaction Innovations’ first Demo Day, held at the Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago on September 12, 2018.

Watch Demo Day Presentations

As CRI prepares to graduate its first cohort, the program’s manager hopes for CRI to continue to develop deeper connections with the larger entrepreneurial and business community. We’ve put our flag in the sand that says we’re here now,’” Wilson said. The future of our program depends on developing our reputation and our relationships with our entrepreneurs and investors throughout the area.”

Both Chain Reaction Innovations and Oak Ridge’s innovation program, Innovation Crossroads, are supported by the Lab-Embedded Entrepreneurship Program that is run out of the Advanced Manufacturing Office within DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Three companies from Innovation Crossroads – Active Energy Systems, SkyNano and TCPoly – also participated in CRI’s Demo Day.


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.

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.

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.