Innovation, Partnership, and the Era of Overachievers: Highlights from the 2014 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit

March 04, 2014 at 8:00 AM

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Christina Briggs

Economic Development Manager

If you haven’t heard of ARPA-E (Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy), you may not be alone. Modeled after DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which is credited with inventing the Internet, this small, but mighty Department of Energy program is doing big things. ARPA-E’s mission is to develop an “all-of-the-above” national approach to energy. In its mere five years of existence, the agency has invested more than $900 million in 362 technology projects, ranging from battery chemistries to electric vehicle architecture to solar concentration techniques. It’s probably no surprise that many of its award recipients are Bay Area companies, universities and National Laboratories. Our region is literally leading the way in transforming the way we use and produce energy.

Each year, ARPA-E holds an Energy Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C., where renowned thought leaders take the stage and entrepreneurs network, pondering today’s most exciting energy technologies. The buzz is palpable. This year was no exception, and what follows are some of the dominant themes we observed. 

“Average is officially over.”

Journalist Thomas Friedman offered a keynote address focusing on how our world has so quickly transformed from a “connected” world to a “hyper-connected” world, resulting in the exponential growth of collaboration possibilities. He cited a litany of hyper-connected examples, including the availability of a 3G network at the top of Mt. Everest and the advent of software that replaces professional services, such as attorneys and accountants. He contends that the challenge of our day is that “average is officially over,” and that those who embrace this fact will succeed.

“We must invent ourselves to prosperity.”

Congressional representatives and business leaders both spoke about the continued need for innovation and the critical role that failure plays in this process. They expressed concern that partisan politics may stifle innovation if failure is used as a political football and not seen as a down payment on future success. Having lived through the Solyndra story, Fremont knows this better than most.

“There is more to solar than just the panel.”

A renewed sense of optimism about solar technology prevailed. As a solar hub, Fremont found this encouraging. Major players like Sunpower discussed how they are broadening their businesses to include not just manufacturing, but also integration, installation, and even leasing — all things that can’t be outsourced. This was a big takeaway — considering the economic benefit of the entire solar energy system, not just the production of panels.  

“Don’t underestimate the public in public/private partnerships.”

University of Sussex Economics Professor Mariana Mazzucato walked us through the thesis of her book, “The Entrepreneurial State.” Her claim is that at a time when we need public/private partnerships more than ever, we don’t talk enough about the role the public sector plays in innovation. She argues that real innovation takes time, and it’s government that can afford to wait and risk, citing the surge in “product-less IPOs” because VCs seek such quick exits. 

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Category: Fremont

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Great report on the ARPA-e Summit, Christina. (And it was great to see you there as well.). I would add that the "public" contribution of ARPA-e must be leveraged differently than DARPA's. While it is modeled after that DoD success, it differs in a critical way: ARPA-e and the DOE are not a built-in customer, which DoD is. I wholeheartedly agree that we must improve recognition of the public contribution. We must also recognize the increasingly essential relationship between the private and the public efforts to move technology to the marketplace.

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