NREL's Newest Partnership Tool Increases Flexibility
The Wells Fargo Foundation and NREL are unveiling a novel $10 million, five-year agreement at NREL's annual Industry Growth Forum, taking the next step in a growing collaboration.
NREL's annual Industry Growth Forum (IGF), now in its 20th year, is the nation's premier clean energy investment forum. As such, it is the ideal venue to highlight a novel $10 million, five-year agreement between NREL and the Wells Fargo Foundation. Wells Fargo has supported the IGF for years as part of a growing collaboration with the lab—and the company is taking the next step with the agreement using the lab's newest and most flexible partnership tool.
Wells Fargo became interested in establishing a formal partnership with NREL to take advantage of the lab's experience in working with startup companies and evaluating technologies. The built environment is a key area for Wells Fargo, one of the world's largest financial institutions with nearly 100 million square feet of real estate globally.
"We wanted to engage in a collaborative way as we're looking to position ourselves as a leader in innovation, and that's why we came to NREL," said Wells Fargo Business Initiatives Manager for Environmental Affairs Ashley Grosh. "To leverage the lab's expertise is an exciting opportunity for us."
Now, under a pilot agreement type known as an Agreement for Commercializing Technology (ACT) signed earlier in 2014, NREL and other U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories will supply technical services to Wells Fargo through the new Innovation Incubator (IN2).
"Wells Fargo was looking for ways to partner with the lab," said NREL's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center Director Richard Adams. "Collectively, we hit upon the idea—a program working with NREL's buildings researchers."
The new agreement offers a unique path toward fulfilling that goal by reducing the building footprint and managing energy use and costs. "IN2 is designed to provide a framework for evaluating technologies and helping companies with business-related assistance," said Anne Miller of NREL's Technology Transfer Office, adding that it was a win-win for both partners.
And the partnership is clearly a great fit. "Wells Fargo is focused on innovation and finding ways to collaborate with key community partners and stakeholders. That translates into supporting the development of clean energy technologies, and specifically the building sector," Grosh said. Potential impacts reach beyond Wells Fargo as well. "If a technology works for us, it is likely going to work for our customers. It's going to have that trickle-down effect," she said.
The Ins and Outs
The IN2 is designed to help support clean energy buildings-related technologies and startup companies overcome market gaps by providing access to both technical assistance and business development resources. The platform provides an opportunity for strategic partnerships. The effort will also help support small businesses, another desired outcome.
The opportunity for collaboration was created because of ACT's flexibility. And while the Wells Fargo ACT is not NREL's first—others have been signed—it exemplifies a partnership where flexibility in contracting enabled a program to go forward which could significantly augment the development and deployment of new technologies.
"If we put sustainable technologies in business, what type of impact could Wells Fargo and NREL have doing that?" Adams asked. The goal is to move technology along the commercialization path, to see it tested, and then deployed.
IN2 is designed to support clean energy technologies and startups at various stages of development, including:
- Tier I: Lab Bench Scale
- Tier II: Prototype
- Tier III: Commercially Ready.
The first year will be considered a pilot year as the NREL team works on establishing a process under the ACT, as well as how to assess different levels of technology for market readiness. An independent advisory board made up of clean energy industry experts will select companies to be included in the IN2 program after the companies have been scored by technical experts. The group will focus on five to 10 companies, ranging from Tier I to III stages, and make awards of $50,000 to $250,000 per company.
IN2 will partner with NREL's buildings technology experts, who have validated technologies and strategies on behalf of agencies such as the GSA and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and utilize their comprehensive suite of tools to analyze the most appropriate technologies for the program.
"Wells Fargo's investment in the energy efficiency sector is timely and noteworthy," said Bill Livingood with NREL's Buildings & Thermal Systems Center. "Their systematic approach to maximize the impact of their investments, which leverages NREL's deep knowledge in the buildings area, will be game changing."
Why ACT Now?
ACT was created to address requests by industry for flexibility in partnership agreement terms beyond what is available under DOE's cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) or Work-For-Others (WFO) agreement. ACT is aligned with industry practice in areas such as intellectual property rights, indemnification, and payment issues. Also, while WFO arrangements and CRADAs tend to be tailored for two-party agreements between one company and a lab, an ACT "will make it easier to develop a multi-party research and development partnership," Miller said.
In addition, these new agreements also benefit the lab. "Like all partnerships, we learn from this," Miller said. "It keeps us relevant to industry and helps us understand their needs better."
However, as Adams noted, "business relations at this level are multilayered." And while having access to ACT or other new approaches is nice, they still "require a lot of effort to be successful."