DOE Labs ‘Road Tour’ Opens Doors To Their Treasures

Attending an MITEC tea, from left, Karen Jackson, Virginia Secretary of Technology; Eli Levine, Department of Energy; Bill Donohue, Genedge (VA MEP) Director; Matt Ringer, NREL; Mary Collins, American Jobs Project; Clara Asmail, NIST MEP; Aimee McCarthy, Genedge; Kate Ringness, American Jobs Project and Terry Payne, ORNL. COurtesy/NIST



This autumn was hot for four states selected by the Department of Energy (DOE) to host bootcamps, associated with the MITEC pilot discussed in a previous blog, to learn about the DOE Labs and how small manufacturers can work with them. No haircuts at these bootcamps, though. Instead, attendees in Michigan, Ohio, Virginia and Georgia were treated by experts from Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) and National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) to a comprehensive overview of the types of technology resources available at their facilities to manufacturers.

ORNL, the largest U.S. national lab, is the world leader in advanced materials in support of energy generation, storage, and use. ORNL capabilities include many types of analytical tools and the experts to understand how to extract meaningful information from them to help industry design new materials, processes and devices. ORNL has a number of diverse user facilities and a Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, which can be game changers for small businesses.

NREL offers R&D support to renewable energy companies seeking to develop new photovoltaics, wind turbines, or other renewable energy solutions. Their cutting-edge analytical modeling, device development and characterization, and systems integration platforms allow novel clean energy technology applications to reach sensible goals for commercialization. NREL’s test and user facilities are available to industry for developing and evaluating technologies.

MEP Centers in each of the four states worked very closely with the DOE Labs to invite manufacturers that could benefit from such technical resources to help them improve their existing products/processes, or develop new ones. But because small companies often need other supports to assist them with accessing new technologies, they were also introduced to sources of capital to help them integrate the cutting edge R&D into their vision. Often, there is additional R&D needed to advance or further understand applications of a Lab’s breakthrough. The bootcamps introduced attendees to sources of funding and other assistance services.

The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program – administered by 11 federal agencies – offers eligible small businesses competitive funding for R&D through a phased approach. The first phase starts with roughly $100,000 for a six-month proof-of-concept to explore the feasibility of the R&D approach and its commercial significance. If successful, SBIR funding recipients can proceed with additional funding, up to $1M, over two years to conduct the R&D. The bootcamps provided tips on how to find appropriate SBIR solicitations and write quality proposals.

The Small Business Voucher Pilot, which just entered its third round at the DOE, invites proposals from small businesses seeking to collaborate with DOE National Labs. The DOE funds the best fit Lab through vouchers so they may work with the successful applicant on awarded projects. The vouchers to be applied toward DOE Lab work can range from $50K to $300K and provide valuable access to DOE Lab expertise that the small businesses would not otherwise be able to afford. Though the process does not require that the applicant know in advance the exact Lab resource, the small business does need to clearly state the technical challenge and how it would commercialize the R&D results. A 20% cost match is required toward which the small business can attribute its own labor, travel and other costs in carrying out the project.

To round out the program, in addition to the technical and funding resources, attendees at each event were introduced to state-based programs designed to assist their business growth. Of course the MEP trusted business advisors are available to work with the companies on identifying and prioritizing their technical challenges and to assist in sustainably integrating solutions. Additional resources such as the local PTAC, SBDC and other organizations were available to explain how to find government contracting opportunities and provide basic business consulting and training.

These bootcamps gave more than a hundred eager companies tools to know how to work with our national gems at the DOE Labs. It’s now up to their American entrepreneurial spirit to realize their dreams and connect with these vast technology resources.