U.S. Department of Energy program helps bridge gap between scientists and sponsors
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy I-Corps program is aimed at national laboratory researchers who wish to develop their technology commercialization and entrepreneurial skills to build and maintain stronger, more responsive relationships with potential customers for the technology and sponsors of future research. The intensive, seven-week program partners researchers with industry mentors while teaching the fundamentals of customer discovery and technology value propositions. These skills help researchers gain crucial insights into presenting and shaping their work to both garner sponsors and make their work more responsive to societal needs.
The Energy I-Corps program is a twice-yearly program that trains approximately 10-15 teams from various national laboratories. Each team brings with them a promising piece of technology and an idea for a suitable market. Over the course of the seven weeks, teams explore pathways for the commercialization of their technology and learn how to solicit feedback from potential customers along that pathway.
A major attraction of Energy I-Corps training to national laboratory personnel is that it allows them to more effectively communicate their ideas to sponsors. This has positive results for fundraising: Success rates for obtaining competitively awarded funding from other sources increase dramatically after participating in Energy I-Corps. For example, the success rate for applications to the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I program increases on average from 15% to 50%-60% after participating in the NSF-run I-Corps program, which uses identical teaching methods to Energy I-Corps.
Throughout the program, teams hone both their technology and commercialization ideas based on feedback. “While our technology itself did not change much over the course of Energy I-Corps,” said participant in the first Energy I-Corps cohort and Principal Building Scientist and Group Leader Ralph Muehleisen “Our notion of the market for our technology pivoted considerably!”
Muehleisen and his team at Argonne had been working on SonicLQ, a technology that non-intrusively utilizes sound waves to find air leaks in building envelopes and enclosures. A commercially available loudspeaker creates a low-frequency tone that moves through the building envelope, doors, windows, and wall joints, while a unique microphone array on the opposite side of the envelope collects data on the sound waves.
“SonicLQ then analyzes the sound to separate sound that comes through leaks from the sound that comes from structural vibration and creates an acoustic ‘picture’ of the leaks,” said Muehleisen. This “acoustic picture” is then overlaid on an image of the building envelope in order to pinpoint the leaks.
“We initially thought that this technology would be perfect for home energy auditors,” said Muehleisen. The traditional tools of these energy auditors are large blower doors to measure pressure differentials between the inside and outside of a structure. “You can calculate the overall leakage of a structure, but you can’t actually find the leaks themselves.”
Other methods of discovering leaks are using infrared detectors to measure heat loss, or smoke sticks to directly observe where air is escaping through a leak. “These are rather inaccurate,” said Muehleisen. “With infrared detection, you can’t use it on a sunny day when a wall has been getting direct sunlight for several hours, and it doesn’t factor in thermal bridges. With smoke sticks, any kind of air current in the building might interfere with your measurements.”
“SonicLQ seemed like the perfect tool for the tens of thousands of home energy auditors conducting hundreds of thousands of audits for small construction companies,” Muehleisen said. “Over the course of our time in Energy I-Corps, and through learning the skills of customer discovery, we found out that this was not the case.”
The process of customer discovery is about learning the needs of potential customers. This requires that the researchers ask those customers what they believe their problems are and what they see as potential solutions. “During our customer discovery process, we found out that these auditors are perfectly happy with the technology they have! They don’t need to pinpoint each individual leak; they just reseal the entire home if it needs to be resealed,” said Muehleisen.
Muehleisen continued, “We as scientists often think we know the market for our technology, but you cannot be sure until you actually talk with potential customers. Energy I-Corps teaches you how to have those conversations.”
Over the course of the rigorous program, Muehleisen and his team discovered the actual needs of the target market for their technology. “It was general contractors needing to do non-intrusive quality assurance and quality control during construction,” Muehleisen said. “Blower doors, smoke sticks, infrared detectors: None of them could be used on an active construction site without significantly interfering with the construction.”
SonicLQ’s use of sound waves meant that it could be used quickly, with minimal set up, and minimal disruption to the construction site. It also would provide concrete evidence for contractors as to the quality of their work as it was being done, eliminating the need for costly warranty claims after the structure had already been completed. “They have the proof from day one that any issues with leakage later on are not due to their work,” said Muehleisen.
It was this feedback, and the skills Muehleisen and his team learned during Energy I-Corps in order to acquire that feedback, that helped them determine where the market actually existed for SonicLQ.
These skills took time and effort to develop. In order to learn how to effectively perform customer discovery, participants in the Energy I-Corps program conduct dozens and dozens of interviews and meet frequently with their mentors.
“Your mentor is particularly useful because they help you understand that the first 20 interviews you do are going to be awful, because you don’t yet know how to effectively conduct customer discovery,” said Muehleisen. “But your mentor shows you that those first 20 are still useful. You get into this feedback loop between your interviews and your mentor’s guidance that builds towards really honing these skills and honing your technology.”
Researchers in the Energy I-Corps program then take this feedback to their technology and their customer discovery process and modify them as needed. This creates greater value for the customer and thus more accurately address what the average user of this technology would need.
The feedback directly informs the “value propositions” that researchers in Energy I-Corps create and modify throughout the course of the program. “The value propositions are the product of the customer discovery skills that you develop,” said Muehleisen. “It shows that you have identified your market, understand what that market needs from your technology, and can effectively communicate the benefit of your technology to that market.”
In developing their value propositions for their newly identified market, Muehleisen and his team discovered that the general contractors to whom they were marketing SonicLQ did not need the quantification feature of the software, merely the ability to identify air leaks.
“The customer discovery and value proposition skills that you learn in Energy I-Corps are incredibly useful for determining how your technology can come to market as well,” Muehleisen said. For example, the program helps researchers determine if their product simply needs a patent to be licensed, or if a small business or start-up could produce the product. Muehleisen said that “We determined that given that we did not need a large manufacturing capability for SonicLQ and that a start-up could effectively create the technology.”
“The customer discovery and value proposition skills are crucial to all of my work,” Muehleisen said. “Every time I write a proposal now, I can clearly articulate this information into the proposals myself.” Muehleisen continues to explain how this makes the work between scientists and tech-to-market officers more effective and efficient. “Learning these skills and this language puts the power in the hands of the researchers to bridge the gap between science and the public that uses our science to better their lives.”
Since Muehleisen’s participation in the first Energy I-Corps cohort in 2015, a network of Energy I-Corps alumni across all national laboratories has formed. The formation of this cadre of scientists who better understand technology commercialization leads to more sponsorship and to scientists learning how to garner that sponsorship and the flexibility of funding that comes with it.
“It’s all about the networking,” said Muehleisen. “While our technologies might be different, I can contact any number of researchers from the other national laboratories and ask them ‘How did you do this? How did you go about developing your value proposition? Where did you find investors?’”
For managers, Muehleisen also recommends learning about Energy I-Corps. “Going into the program, I did not understand how much work it was going to be,” Muehleisen said. “If you have staff members going through Energy I-Corps, you should be aware of how much effort they are devoting to it and of the great returns you will get because of it.”
He also recommends participating in the program itself.
“Customer discovery is incredibly similar to how one develops and grows a research program,” Muehleisen said. “As soon as my staff members have a technology ready, I encourage them all to participate in Energy I-Corps.”