“If we can get three home runs, that’s terrific,” announced Steven Chu, the DOE Secretary at a press conference on Monday, October 26 at Google’s campus in Mountain View, CA. Chu was at Google to deliver 37 energy technology projects funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program (ARPA-E), the DOE’s first effort at funding $151 million in experimental energy technology grants, focused on high-risk, high-payoff projects.
A 3 out of 37 home run success rate is hoping for an outcome better than Silicon Valley venture capital odds. Yet the DOE’s choice of companies and organizations is starkly different from those selected by VCs. While, 43% are small businesses, 35% went to educational institutions, and 19% to large corporations.
Grants to independent companies focused primarily on those with strong university research ties, such as MIT spinouts 1366 Technologies, SunCatalyx, FastCap Systems and FloDesign Wind Turbine. Several universities received funds such as MIT for an all liquid metal grid-scale battery low cost energy storage, Stanford for sensors, software, and controls to track and improve energy use patterns, Michigan State for a gas-fueled electric generator, and others to Arizona State, Ohio State, and more.
Large corporations were also included in the grant awards, to companies such as General Motors for an energy recovery device that converts waste heat from car engines into electricity, du Pont for the production of advanced biofuel made from seaweed, and United Technologies for Synthetic enzymes that capture CO2 from coal plant flue gas streams.
Venture capitalists typically focused on early stage companies in order to focus on the potential high growth technologies of the future. The DOE’s mandate is different, choosing technologies that will transform the way we consumer energy in the future. The ARPA-E grant is the first investment in alternative energy technologies since the US began investing in technology R&D after Sputnik. What do you think of the government’s ability to pick winners? What odds would you give the Department of Energy?