Energy I-Corps program fosters partnerships between Argonne scientists and industry
The Energy I-Corps program, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Technology Transitions (OTT), is an interactive training course for scientists and engineers at national laboratories who want to accelerate the deployment of their technology to the private sector.
The program, launched in 2015, is a response to DOE’s push to expand the commercial impact of its laboratories and to foster partnerships that will move DOE innovation to the marketplace.
To date, 111 teams from 11 national laboratories, including Argonne National Laboratory, have participated in the intensive two-month program that links researchers with industry mentors to define value propositions, receive direct market feedback through customer interviews, and develop viable market pathways for their products.
Inspired by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps) model, Energy I-Corps has attracted $30 million in follow-on funding, and six teams have launched businesses after graduating from the program.
Sixteen teams from Argonne have participated in the first ten Energy I-Corps cohorts, and 28 Argonne researchers have completed the training. One Argonne scientist who has benefitted from the program is Levent Eryilmaz, a principal materials scientist in Argonne’s Applied Materials division.
“Scientists can become very accustomed to the laboratory environment,” said Eryilmaz, “but Energy I-Corps teaches us to view our technology from a different angle in order to think like potential industry partners do, and that can open many doors.”
Major benefits of the program to the scientists include the development of skills necessary to determine the desires of potential customers and ways to meet that demand. Participants also learn strategies for developing a value proposition for their technology and for effectively communicating that value to the customer.
“The program gives you the whole package in terms of skills and strategies necessary for building long-lasting industry partnerships,” said Eryilmaz.
Eryilmaz is one of many Argonne scientists who has developed intellectual property (IP) that could be useful for industry. The Energy I-Corps program has helped him to identify specific industries that he might have otherwise overlooked that might be interested in licensing that IP.
“We have a coating that can reduce friction between engine components to increase their durability,” said Eryilmaz. “Our team originally thought to market the product to the passenger car industry, but after interviews with industry representatives from General Motors during the Energy I-Corps program, we realized that a more appropriate application for our technology is in heavy-duty engine manufacturing. We steered our target customer to a different field, which has made a huge difference.”
The program also fostered an ongoing relationship between Eryilmaz’s lab and Magna International, a leading global automotive supplier. This partnership has informed Eryilmaz’s research and has led to its growth into different technological areas.
“Because of the skills I developed in the course, specifically in communication and the construction of needs-based research plans, the partnership with Magna is expanding and ongoing,” said Eryilmaz.
Energy I-Corps participants spend 50 to 75 percent of their time over the course of two months talking to customers, developing a business model, and participating in lectures, workshops, and webinars. These activities help them to evaluate the market potential of their technology and to bring new perspectives and entrepreneurial skills back to their laboratories.
“The program has created a cadre of researchers in the lab who know how to do customer discovery,” said David McCallum, the Energy I-Corps project manager at Argonne. “This is a transferable skill that researchers can use to develop research programs that are more responsive to the needs of the commercial sector and to write more effective proposals.”
McCallum supports the program by providing information to potential applicants about the requirements and benefits of the program, as well as providing guidance to participants and graduates as they pursue further commercialization of their technology.
“It is a very interactive program,” said Eryilmaz. “You’re not just listening to lectures; you’re playing an active role in the whole course, which pushes you to develop greater industrial awareness and a framework for industry engagement.”
Energy I-Corps runs two training cohorts every year. Each cohort involves up to 14 teams, each of which includes two national laboratory researchers. Argonne personnel can get involved by applying to participate in one of the Energy I-Corps training cohorts. For more information, contact David McCallum at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I would encourage anyone with viable technology to apply to the program,” said Eryilmaz. “The class has pushed us to step outside of our comfort zones, and the benefits for our team have been huge.”