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Energy innovation forum details needs for change

October 21, 2010

A daylong forum that took place Oct. 18 at SkySong highlighted the needs for change in how the country, and large research organizations, do business. The focus of the meeting, the Southwest Energy Innovation Forum, was on the energy sector and how new and renewable energy technologies can reform that sector.

It drew about 250 participants from industry, government and academia, and featured panel discussions on new technologies, such as advanced fuels, solar photovoltaics and energy storage. But it also was about the infrastructure changes needed to bring the technologies to market quickly. To that end, the discussion was about the need to fast-track these technologies so as to meet the needs of an increasingly energy-hungry world throttled by population and pollution concerns.

“The next 20 years are critical if we, as a country, want to get ahead of the curve,” said Arun Majumdar, director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy in the U.S. Department of Energy. Majumdar added that what is needed is compression of about 100 years of technological advances into the next 20 years. 

Going down a list of identified needs – which included solar electric at $1 per watt fully installed, a digital smart grid to deliver power, transportation fuels from sunlight, and car batteries with three times the power at one-fourth the cost of current technology – Majumdar said growing future economies without exponentially increasing carbon dioxide “is a great opportunity.” It is why DOE began ARPA-E. Patterned after a U.S. defense department agency that has pushed all types of new technologies in unexpected ways, ARPA-E is geared towards high-risk, high-reward advances that have the potential to change the way the nation generates and consumes energy. 

Majumdar added that if we don’t meet this need head on, then we will be watching from the sidelines as the most lucrative future market passes us by.

Speed also was on the mind of ASU President Michael Crow. He talked about the speed of discovery, the speed of interaction, the speed of institutional transformation and the speed of updating the public/private partnerships that make up the America model. 

Explaining that too often we get trapped in doing business as usual, Crow said today’s world demands a different tack.

“In our case, traditional structure got us into this predicament. Why hold on to it,” he asked. “All traditions need to be set aside, and you have to pick out the parts you need and move on.”

As an example, Crow talked about the United States devoting one of its national laboratories to a single mission and funding it at current levels to achieve that mission. This would be very different from today’s model of national laboratories advancing a variety of technologies for multiple purposes.

Rick Shangraw, ASU senior vice president for Knowledge Enterprise Development, talked specifically about changing the way universities address technology transfer. Shangraw ran down a list of 10 things he thinks should be changed, including treating the technology transfer office as a service to faculty, changing the reward systems of universities to include patents and business development when considering tenure; working with other universities to co-market inventions, and taking a technology and wrapping around it what is needed to make it a useful product.

He added that tech transfer offices need to be flexible and speedy, to meet the needs of faculty and changing markets.

“Taking up to 36 months to close a deal is not acceptable,” he said.

Nick Donofrio, a former IBM executive and a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation added: “Innovation is about seeing, creating and capturing value where others do not see, create or capture value.” He added that you need to do that quickly.

“Time is not our friend,” he said.

The Southwest Energy Innovation Forum was the third of three regional meetings on how to drive clean energy innovation and propel economic development and job creation. It was sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation, DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and ASU.