Students test clean energy by degrees

Moving clean energy innovations from the lab to the marketplace is one of the biggest challenges in the technology industry. But students at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business are getting a crash course on how to achieve it.

A partnership between scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and students of the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative, an organisation founded by Haas students, is working to push new technology into the private sector or into the hands of the right venture capitalist.

“The business students learn about the scientific process and the process of opportunity recognition,” says Jay Stowsky, senior assistant dean at Haas. “In business it’s very important, but it’s difficult.”

The alliance – “Cleantech to Market” – began late last year as a pilot programme. Five student teams evaluated the commercial viability of nascent technologies under development at the laboratory, such as an innovative use of ionic liquids to pre-treat biomass for conversion to biofuel. The teams included Haas students, as well as graduates in law, public policy, engineering and molecular biology.

Mr Stowsky, a former senior economist for science and technology with the White House Council of Economic Advisers, says the diverse student teams push each other in new directions.

“Everybody is looking at the same [new technology] through different lenses,” he says. “The policy students are thinking about policy and social implications, the law students are thinking about intellectual property issues and business students are thinking: can I generate a profit from this? Can I build a company around this? They all learn from each other.”

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is a national laboratory owned by the Department of Energy, but operated by the University of California. It has 3,500 employees. Each year, it puts out 120 invention disclosures and markets 40 to 50 technologies.

In the past, it has struggled to conduct thorough market research, according to Cheryl Fragiadakis, head of LBNL’s technology transfer and intellectual property management department. “We simply don’t have the resources to gather in-depth market intelligence for each and every one [of these technologies],”she says.

Last year, LBNL brought in $3.2m in new licences, a figure that typically increases by about 15 per cent a year. Ms Fragiadakis expects this collaboration could accelerate that growth.

“It has increased the engagement of scientists, and has added a lot of energy to some of the inventors who see more opportunities than they did previously,” she says.

Catherine Wolfram, Haas professor

Catherine Wolfram (pictured), a Haas professor and the director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Innovation, who helped start the programme, says they received applications from 80 students wanting to take part.

“There’s a growing interest among young people about climate change and energy issues. And there’s an understanding that to solve it, requires an innovative approach.”

Over 10 weeks, student teams conducted market research. They assessed their invention’s revenue potential, looked at profiles of target customers and investigated possible venture or industry partners.

“It’s not always about how to commercialise a product, it’s about thinking through the challenges of commercialisation – the cost, the competitiveness – and whether the technology ought to be commercialised at all,” says Prof Wolfram.

For scientists, business considerations are not usually a priority, admits Prof Wolfram. Most focus on making progress in the lab, rather than pushing their inventions into the market.

“The scientists saw their own limitations and recognised the value of talking with students interested in business and policy. They have to get together in order to make the commercialisation process work.” The teams created a technology marketing description to present to business development executives, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Their work culminated with a presentation to energy experts, from LBNL scientists to venture capitalists and clean tech company representatives.

Adam Lorimer, an MBA student, worked on a team evaluating an advanced biofuels technology developed at the US Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute in California.

Cross-disciplinary teamwork was the key to the partnership’s success, he says. “This programme pulls together people with different skill sets and interests to do something meaningful.”

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