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Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center Newsletter: Winter 2020

This story was originally published in the Winter 2020 edition of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Newsletter.

Three researchers work on an acoustic device.
Feasible Inc., an energy storage technology startup, is one of several cleantech companies working at NREL through an IEC incubation program.

In the Beginning: The Industry Growth Forum

Industry Growth Forum logo.

For more than 25 years, NREL has been convening innovators and investors, technology experts, and market leaders with the understanding that speeding promising clean technologies to market is key to making an energy transformation. NREL announced its cleantech market aspirations in 1995 by hosting the first NREL Industry Growth Forum (IGF). It was attended by the few pioneering cleantech investors at the time and energy entrepreneurs seeking capital. Since tracking began in 2003, IGF has provided pitch opportunities to more than 400 startups that have collectively raised more than $6.4 billion in funding post-IGF.

The success of the IGF and the notoriety of its host lab earned attention from stakeholders who were eager to leverage NREL's convening power and learn more about the best and most innovative product ideas coming from cleantech startups and national labs.

The newly formed IEC and a group of technology-interested investors next created NREL's Investor Advisory Board. Formed in 2010, the board now has more than 45 members with representatives from venture capital, corporate investment, family offices, independent investors, and other investment and financial institutions. The board meets four times/year and members are highly engaged in IGF events.

Technology Incubation Fills a Gap to Market

The IEC recognized gaps in the path to market for many cleantech companies—especially hardware companies—and, along with motivated partners, envisioned a future in which hundreds of startups could receive technology assistance and collaborate with experts to propel them forward and into the waiting arms of investment.

Wells Fargo Recognizes the Potential of Partnership

Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator logo

The first to pay attention to the market potential brewing at NREL was the Wells Fargo Foundation. Committed to speeding the path to market for promising clean technologies, in 2014 Wells Fargo and NREL created a first-of-its kind technology incubation program, the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2). The $30 million program assists cleantech and agtech startups, chosen via a comprehensive selection process, by providing $250,000 worth of non-dilutive research assistance and validation at NREL or the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (St Louis). The 40 companies that have participated in IN2 have raised a collective $262 million in outside funding since joining the program. To date, the program has supported entrepreneurs with innovations in the built environment and agtech. This spring IN2 will announce its seventh cohort.

Big Energy Looks for Alternatives

GCxN logo

Noting the success of the IN2 incubation model, the Shell GameChanger Program approached the IEC in 2018 to establish an accelerator program of its own. Now in its second year, the Shell Gamechanger AcceleratorTM Powered by NREL (GCxN) has hosted three cohorts and selected 11 cleantech start-ups in a variety of market-critical technologies: energy storage, grid integration, electric vehicle fast charging, and perovskite manufacturing. GCxN will announce its third cohort of companies this spring.

Interested in partnering with NREL to support or develop the next generation of
technology solutions through incubation programs? Contact Kate Moore.

Out of the Lab and into the Market

Energy I-Corps logo

Along the way, the affinity of the IEC for facilitating connections and managing programs with a large number and variety of technology cohorts made it well-suited to manage the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Technology Transition's Energy I-Corps Program. Savvy minds inside the IEC proposed and helped build the entrepreneurial training program for national lab researchers. Energy I-Corps now has more than 100 alumni teams and seven spinout companies. Its goal is to accelerate the transfer of national lab-developed technologies and to inform more industry-minded lab research. The program pairs teams of national laboratory researchers with industry mentors for an intensive two-month training in which the teams learn to develop viable market pathways for their technologies.

Do you know of a national lab technology ready for market discovery? Contact Energy I-Corps.

Another measure of IEC's success is the branching of its expertise due both to its reputation and access to NREL's resources. In 2019 the IEC launched the Tribal Energy Incubator to provide technical assistance for the vetting and development of utility-scale revenue-generation renewable projects on tribal land through a partnership with the Wells Fargo Foundation. For more information, email Tribal-IEC@nrel.gov.

In addition to our keystone programs, IEC staffers, recognized globally for our thought leadership, and our customers participate in events, speak at conferences, lead panels, and host industry events with partners and potential partners across the ecosystem. And, along the way, we work to keep our stakeholders informed.