Win-Win: Prize Competitions Drive U.S. Clean Energy Entrepreneurship

How American-Made Challenges Support Technology Innovation and Domestic Manufacturing

April 14, 2022 | Contact media relations

Learn More at the American-Made Earth Day Celebration on April 22

Three people work together in a laboratory connecting wires to metal boxes, preparing the equipment for testing.
Teams competing in the American-Made Challenges can win cash prizes and support, allowing them to work with NREL researchers and gain access to facilities that help them test, validate, and analyze equipment and prototypes. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL

While entrepreneurs and clean energy innovators can apply for federal funding to advance their budding climate technology solutions, there is another federal funding pathway that can move those innovations to market faster. And this pathway comes with cash prizes.

In June 2018, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) launched the $3 million American-Made Solar Prize, the first of the American-Made Challenges (AMC) in the American-Made program. The Solar Prize was designed to enable rapid technology development by supporting entrepreneurs as they transform ideas into prototypes ready for industry testing.

"Government funding is traditionally hard to get," said Debbie Brodt-Giles, the American-Made program manager. DOE funding opportunities typically result in cooperative awards, which involve meeting milestones and reporting requirements. "Prizes are unique because we reward teams for the work they have already accomplished, and there are no strings attached to the funds."

Today, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) customizes competitions for DOE technology offices—solar, water, buildings, geothermal, and others—to meet industry needs. Generally, the competitions have three phases, in which teams are down-selected from semifinalists to finalists and then winners. They are awarded increasing cash prize amounts and other incentives along the way.

Nearly four years and 30 prizes later, American-Made is a pillar of DOE's activities, incentivizing U.S. entrepreneurs to strengthen American leadership in energy innovation and domestic manufacturing. The program now comprises various types of competitions—from collegiate contests to advanced manufacturing challenges to an inclusive energy prize aiming to serve underrepresented communities.

Making Connections and Providing Resources

Competitors do not have to go it alone. As American-Made's administrator, NREL developed the American-Made Network to assist competitors with their innovations. The Network consists of more than 250 organizations nationwide that provide technical and business support and help teams make professional connections. Teams have access to a constantly expanding network of industry professionals and investors who can provide valuable feedback.

"These prize programs and the Network accelerate innovator solutions like never before," Brodt-Giles said. "Having NREL and DOE behind each prize team really helps boost their credibility in the industry, and because of the way the program is structured, we are able to provide invaluable connections that help accelerate their work."

The Network has partners, prototyping facilities, universities, incubators, accelerators, and individuals in almost all 50 states serving as mentors for the teams. This year, a Network partner, the Wood Next Fund, went above and beyond by providing a grant to support the innovations of a select group of teams competing in the Solar Desalinization Prize and the Waves to Water Prize. The contribution was made possible by a partnership with the NREL Foundation, which provides a mechanism for new partners and new sources of capital to engage with NREL to accelerate the cleantech mission.

To date, DOE has funded more than 320 teams with nearly $100 million in cash prizes and support vouchers. Since 2018, more than 1,700 teams have entered to compete in these prizes, and AMC is adding new prizes at a rapid clip.

People on stage holding large checks.
Solar Prize Round 1 finalists took home $100,000 each after their first Demo Day event in 2019, after pitching their solar solutions to a panel of industry experts.

The Benefits of Vouchers

In addition to cash prizes, competitors can win vouchers to redeem at facilities in the Network and at DOE national laboratories, providing access to world-class researchers and facilities. The voucher program, VELOCITI—Vouchers To Enable Laboratory and Organizational Collaboration for Innovation and Technology Improvements—streamlines multi-lab and Network facility connections.

"We developed the new cross-lab voucher program, VELOCITI, to help accelerate the connections between innovators and lab researchers," Brodt-Giles said. "It allows teams to work with NREL researchers and gain access to facilities that help them test, validate, and analyze equipment and prototypes. It also enables NREL experts to work with innovators to jump-start interesting new technologies."

At NREL, researcher Lance Wheeler connects researchers with teams of competitors based on needs. Senior research fellow Andy Walker has been working with teams to help develop and test technology solutions.

"One of the things I like about the voucher program is it engages industry," Walker said. "For the work NREL proposes in response to [funding opportunity announcements] and lab calls, we have the luxury of posing the question we propose to answer. With the voucher program, companies come to us with questions we might not have anticipated, and that expands our thinking."

Generating Success

BREK Electronics, a Solar Prize Round 1 finalist, is one company that spent voucher credit at NREL to advance its innovation. Because BREK's focus was small differences in big power, Walker and his team had to rethink their measurement and instrumentation specifications. Walker called it "healthy" to invite industry to view things from the teams' perspectives.

"The NREL and DOE folks are not investors," said Bill Nussey, CEO and co-founder of Solar Inventions, a winning team from the Solar Prize Round 1. "There's no push and pull like there is with normal investors. They want us—the ones they picked and the ones they couldn't pick—they want everyone to win. They have such a high level of motivation."

Nussey added that engaging with NREL and Sandia National Laboratories helped his company come up with test plans and validate and clarify its ideas. Today, Solar Inventions is a "Connector," a core member of the Network that advises new teams through the competition and innovation development process.

Joe Murtagh, a Waves to Water competitor whose team is tackling the challenge of creating a wave-powered desalination system, has found the infrastructure available as part of the competition to be crucial. "There's no doubt that thanks to the support and encouragement from DOE and NREL, considerable research will have been done by the end of this project that is invaluable," Murtagh said.

Overhead shot of a small boat in the ocean tethered to a floating piece of equipment, with a pier full of people in the background.
The Waves to Water Prize teams competed earlier this month in North Carolina for a share of the $1 million cash prize pool, testing prototypes capable of turning ocean water into drinking water using the power of wave energy. Photo by Josh Bauer, NREL

But clarifying and developing ideas also happens as teams convene and learn from each other. "Being a team in Waves to Water has been a really great opportunity for our team and company to gain some visibility and credibility," said Vincent Blanchard, complex event planning systems designer and operator at Oneka Technologies, and a member of the grand-prize-winning team. "From a technical perspective, we've learned from other competitors' great ideas, which are completely different from ours, and enjoyed sharing those ideas, information, and technological data and knowledge."

NREL's prize model is flexible and customizable enough to nurture ideas at all maturity levels. Some prizes focus on entrepreneurs building clean energy businesses, and some focus on technical solutions that are hard to figure out.

"With all the prizes, we want more people from all backgrounds to join," Brodt-Giles said. "The goal is to make the barrier to entry so low that it's easy for even a college student to say, ‘I want to try this'—to make everyone a potential innovator in these prizes."

That is why more than 500 college students from 113 schools threw their hats in the ring for the inaugural EnergyTech University Prize this year—the first collegiate competition to be part of AMC. "The prize gives people who aren't specialized in engineering or scientific topics a chance to make an impact," said one competitor. "I learned how to take an idea and turn it into a vision that could actually happen," said another. Feedback from the competition, which challenged students to create viable business plans for bringing new energy technologies to market, overwhelmingly showed the eye-opening, opportunity-creating value in the challenges, even for students.

AMC continues to open doors for teams and innovators of varying abilities, financial backings, and technology areas, always seeing ways to paint with a broader brush. For example, AMC accepted a submission from an artist who was looking at beautification options for solar panels and exploring how to integrate them into communities as art that provides access to energy. That artist became a Solar Prize Round 2 finalist and used his prize money to launch his solar startup.

Celebrating Innovation

This Earth Day, the American-Made team will come together to honor the innovation and entrepreneurship the program has spurred over the past four years. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm will deliver opening remarks at the American-Made Earth Day Celebration on April 22 and will be joined by key industry players to cheer on the clean energy champions who are defining what it means to be American-Made.

Guests will hear major announcements and updates from prize teams, network with industry peers, and honor the accomplishments of prize competitors and the Network that supports them. Register in advance to attend the event, which starts at 12 p.m. ET.

To learn more about the American-Made program, join or support a challenge, or see prize results, visit the American-Made Challenges website or reach out directly to challenge@nrel.gov.