The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) provides Argonne researchers the opportunity to participate in a two-month training program that teaches the basics of technology commercialization as well as skills that better position scientists and engineers to build their research programs.
The Energy I-Corps program helps participants define the value of their technology, seek out potential end-users, and develop a plan to get their technology to market — in the process, maximizing the impact of their research.
Supported by DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions, the program has helped dozens of Argonne researchers step out of their comfort zone and think more broadly about the potential applications of their research. In addition, the skills researchers gain help them better interact with sponsors and build research programs.
One of the researchers who has benefitted from the program is Yuki Hamada, a biophysical scientist who focuses on remote sensing within Argonne’s Environmental Science (EVS) division.
In 2019, DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office announced a problem with solar panels potentially causing collision fatalities of birds and sought a way to understand what was happening.
Shortly after, Hamada attended an Argonne Laboratory Directed Research and Development program talk by Adam Szymanski — a principal software engineer in Argonne’s Strategic Security Sciences (SSS) division — on his software that detected and classified flying objects, which happened to include “bird” in the classification model.
Hamada told Szymanski she found his presentation interesting and mentioned that DOE wanted to develop technology to analyze how birds move and might collide with solar panels. She suggested they partner on a solution. Their collaboration began in 2020, and they received funding through DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office.
Seeking an additional boost, they applied to Energy I-Corps and were accepted for Cohort 15, which ran from September through November 2022. They aimed to expand the camera technology they were developing and envisioned widespread use that could help to accelerate solar energy development.
Hamada and Szymanski did some preliminary work before the two-month program commenced, finding a conference at which they could meet numerous potential customers and making a contact list. They then traveled to Golden, Colorado, for the opening session of Energy I-Corps, which included a five-day training session with all members of the cohort and teaching teams. Then the teams returned to their respective labs to start their Energy I-Corps exercises.
“It was like an MBA crash course,” Hamada said.
Hamada said Energy I-Corps helped her enhance existing skills and also gain new ones, including how to interview potential customers to obtain their honest opinions about her and Adam’s technology. She learned ways to better leverage her connections with the solar industry, non-profit organizations, regulatory agencies, the Solar Energy Technologies Office, and other researchers.
Once Hamada and Szymanski’s team got into a rhythm, they completed 124 interviews in less than 10 weeks. It was all about timing and tracking what they did, she explained.
“We found customers willing to speak with us, scheduled the interviews, talked with each one, took notes and organized the notes,” she said.
By the end of the program, they could identify customers and mapped how they could bring that technology to market through multi-year expansion.
“Our original assumptions were that we would monitor the birds and work with those who own solar facilities as our customers,” Hamada said. “But we learned about different customers, including how environmental consulting firms could be the primary customer and solar facility owners could be ‘customer of customer,’ receiving monitoring service from consultants.”
Hamada encourages others to apply to Energy-I Corps.
“If you are interested even a little, say yes to Energy I-Corps, because this type of opportunity is not found elsewhere,” Hamada said. “Finding a path for commercialization is one thing, but learning how to think from the customer perspective will help your career in many ways, including writing research proposals.”