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High Risk, High Reward

The U.S. DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy targets the “white space” of existing energy research
By Erin Voegele | August 22, 2011

A unique development program housed under the U.S. Department of Defense has achieved a rich history of game-changing technological innovation since its inception in the 1950s. That program, now known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, played a key role in the development of invaluable technologies, including the Internet, stealth technology and global positioning systems (GPS). The agency was specifically designed to be small, flexible, flat and autonomous. In other words, the agency was able to work around many of the bureaucratic barriers and red tape that can plague less nimble research agencies, allowing it to quickly shift gears to support and expedite the development of technologies that face steep risks but overwhelmingly high rewards, if proven successful.

In recent years, federal lawmakers, spurred by a 2006 National Academies report titled “Rising above the Gathering Storm,” recognized the U.S. had a clear and vital need to channel the same type of innovation into energy research. As a result, the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology (America COMPETES) Act was signed into law in 2007, authorizing the U.S. DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). ARPA-E, modeled after the highly successful DARPA program, received $400 million in initial funding through the Recovery Act in 2009. 

The agency is ultimately focused on high risk transformational energy research that could reap dramatic national benefits. “We try to identify area of particular need that is not currently being satisfied by other governmental or industry programs,” says Jonathan Burbaum, an ARPA-E program director who focuses on advanced biotechnology applications for biofuels and biochemicals. “We ask not ‘Will it work?’ but ‘Does it matter?’ In other words, if it does work, is it really going to make a difference in the energy landscape of the United States?”

According to Burbaum, ARPA-E achieves its goals by recruiting bright, gifted people and staying distinct from other government energy research programs without, as he says, becoming an island. “You have to be connected in, but you have to look at where you can make the right kinds of connections and fill in the gaps for areas that [other programs] are maybe not looking at,” Burbaum says. He refers to those gaps as unexplored “white space.”

ARPA-E funds a wide variety of energy projects, from carbon capture to advanced battery technology and electrofuels. Regarding biomass energy, the agency currently lists five feedstock development and biorefinery projects pursued by Agrivida, Ceres Inc., E.I du Pont de Nemours and Co., RTI International and Algaeventure Systems.

“I think a lot of the technologies that we look at are what I would call pre-pilot,” Burbaum says. Biomass projects generally fall in the space between basic research and pilot-scale deployment. “If a project is already to the point where the economic analysis is telling you this is going to be a fundable opportunity, we are not going to come in and replace what would otherwise be private sector funding,” Burbaum says. “At the same time, if at the end of an ARPA-E project the main conclusion is that more research is needed, then I’d say it’s been an unsuccessful project. We really want to take it to the point where somebody can look at it and say, ‘That project looks really promising.’ It’s going to change the economics of fuels, and we are going to go out and fund that pilot plant because it is just that much different. We are trying to fit into that gap.”

Goals, Benefits, Guidelines

The first funding opportunity offered by ARPA-E was open to any innovative energy research project. Several thousand applications were eventually whittled down to roughly three dozen funded projects. Since that time, the agency has offered more targeted solicitations but Burbaum notes that program directors do look at unsolicited applications, and they are discussing whether they will enact rolling application deadlines in the future. “That’s something that is dependent on a number of things, including our budget,” he says.

One benefit of the broad initial funding opportunity is that the agency’s program directors saw firsthand what tremendous capabilities are out there. “You could really see the scope of what was possible,” Burbaum says. “We don’t currently have any immediate plans to go back to that, but I think there is a virtue in doing that. I think it’s a reasonably good idea to try to go out for broad proposals on a rolling basis, but that’s not a decision that has been made yet.”

Burbaum notes that approximately 33 percent of the research projects ARPA-E currently supports are university sponsored, and about 20 percent are projects under development by large businesses. The remaining projects are spearheaded by small businesses and research labs.

According to Burbaum, the design of ARPA-E allows a lot of things to be driven by individual program directors, as they are able to put their expertise to use and follow their noses to find applicable white spaces in the research environment. “I think one of the advantages that we have is that program directors come [to ARPA-E in] three-year terms,” Burbaum says. “I’m gone in two years. That means that I don’t particularly care about the turf or empire-building. I just want to identify a white space, and see what comes of it. It’s a lot of fun to do that, particularly when I’m concerned about what we call ‘in-reach,’ basically making sure that other parts of DOE and the government know what we are up to. But I’m not particularly concerned with whose turf that might end up being. If it’s a white space, you’ve usually got someone on the other side of that white space that is going to be tugging” for control of that area, he says. “We just go in there, plant the flag, and as the field becomes more mature,” someone will take ownership. “We really just focus on innovation.”

ARPA-E also provides a great many benefits to the projects it supports above and beyond financial support. “I think one of the hidden benefits of ARPA-E is we can provide introductions,” Burbaum says, adding that, in some cases, there are related programs where an active program director can see how different projects might complement one another. For example, one component of project A’s technology might be performing well while another component is struggling. For project B, the inverse might be true. The program director might realize the two projects could complement one another and offer to make introductions that will lead to mutual benefit.

Burbaum adds that ARPA-E features a crack commercialization team that is available to help successful projects move forward and procure funding to scale up their technology. The team can help make introductions not only to other government agencies and programs, but also to venture capital firms or companies. “It’s a pretty well-networked group, and I think that’s the sort of thing that we try to get involved in,” he says.

Industry Feedback

RTI International is a large nonprofit research agency that has a long history of securing funding from the government entities, including the DOE. The agency currently has two projects that have been funded by ARPA-E, including a biomass project, titled “Catalytic Biocrude Production in a Novel, Short-Contact Time Reactor.”

According to David Dayton, RTI’s director of biofuels in the Center for Energy Technology, his agency pursued ARPA-E funding for its biocrude technology because the project fit nicely into the program’s criteria of high-risk, high-reward research and development. “If we could find a catalyst that works very well and put it in a process that is highly efficient and successful,” Dayton says, “then we could make a fairly significant impact in a short amount of time because of the ability of utilizing existing infrastructure.”

Dayton notes that ARPA-E is different than many agencies in that it’s not focused on a specific technology type; rather, it has a focused mindset of supporting high-risk, game-changing technologies. The expectations for ARPA-E projects are also different than those supported by other DOE and USDA funding opportunities. Specifically, timescale expectations are tight. Projects are expected to proceed rapidly and achieve results. “They help you get your technology to the point where other funding opportunities become available to move it along the technology pathway,” he says. “In that sense, it is very technology focused, making sure that your results meet the criteria that are set forth so that you have successful technology development at this scale, and then have a better chance of success at the next scale.”

Alternatively, Agrivida has an ARPA-E project that focuses on expressing conditionally activated enzymes in cellulosic energy crops. Essentially, the company is working to engineer biomass feedstocks that can be triggered to produce enzymes that break down the cell wall, releasing cellulosic sugars.

Michael Raab, Agrivida’s president and one of the company’s founders, notes that the ARPA-E research focuses exclusively on expressing those enzymes in switchgrass. According to Raab, ARPA-E’s support has allowed his company to expand its scale-up and research efforts. “They’ve also helped us a little bit in contacting commercial partners that might be interested in funding this type of research,” he says. “In that regard, they don’t advocate in one way or another, but they are willing to make introductions to people.”

Raab adds that the agency has been able to provide important support throughout the project’s stages. “They are way more involved than most other grant agencies we’ve worked with in terms of project management, review and monitoring, and really helping solve various technical problems that occur during the project,” he says. “They are very involved in that regard.”

“We’ve had a really great and positive experience with [ARPA-E],” Raab adds. “I think they really understand the challenges with developing new energy technologies and how those have to go to scale, and what a huge challenge it is to develop things that can compete with the infrastructure in place, in some cases for more than 100 years. They understand all the issues that are involved in trying to develop an innovative energy technology.”
Algaeventure Systems CEO Ross Youngs agrees that ARPA-E is filling a gap in energy research. Young’s company has an ARPA-E project that focuses on reducing the costs of separating microscopic solids, such as algae, out of dilute liquid. Youngs says at first his company was worried about possible bureaucratic hurdles involved with working with a government agency, but has been pleasantly surprised. “We have been blown away by the professionalism and the quality of individuals that are involved in ARPA-E,” Youngs says. “It was just not what we were expecting. We have become huge supporters of the ARPA-E methodology.”

Those involved in the agency seem to be acutely aware of what it takes to efficiently navigate the “valley of death” often associated with the development of first-of-their-kind technologies. “I think they are showing a real sense of understanding how to do that,” Youngs adds. “I think it’s a solid program, and I think it’s going to deliver very big benefits to the future and deliver more technologies. To us, it’s a terrific thing for the whole country to have.”

Author: Erin Voegele
Associate Editor, Biorefining Magazine
(701) 540-6986
evoegele@bbiinternational.com

 

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