VERGE Boston: How ARPA-E creates the future of energy

VERGE Boston: How ARPA-E creates the future of energy

In a keynote interview at the VERGE conference in Boston today, Cheryl Martin of the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) discussed how her agency is boosting the bleeding edge of energy technology.

"We're learning things that we didn't think were possible," Martin said in the exclusive interview with GreenBiz executive editor Joel Makower.

Martin is deputy director of ARPA-E, the agency within the U.S. Department of Energy tasked with funding early-stage research of transformational energy technologies. The agency is modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the group credited with such breakthroughs as the Internet and the Global Position System.

"The bar is high from our big sister," Martin told Makower, "For us, the big deal is to start really outrageous projects," and "demonstrate that something there is possible."

Formed by Congress in 2009, ARPA-E has invested $770 million in 285 high-risk, high-reward projects to date. Most recently, the agency announced $40 million for research projects to develop technologies that will shift vehicles from oil to cleaner, renewable fuels.

While it's still too early to tell which, if any, of ARPA-E's technologies will change the world, the agency's track record has avoided the high-profile missteps of other Energy Department investments, which have included such oft-maligned flops as Solyndra and Fisker Electric. To date, 17 ARPE-E projects have attracted almost half a billion dollars in private sector funding, and a dozen projects have produced technologies that started companies.

One such company is OPX Biotechnologies, Inc., of Boulder, Colo. The biofuel company received nearly $6 million from ARPA-E to engineer a microorganism that produces a liquid fuel from hydrogen and carbon dioxide. If the research proves successful, OPX Biotechnologies will create a liquid transportation fuel that is cost competitive with gasoline and 10 times more efficient than existing biofuels.

"Our process improvements use the rapid advancements in biotechnology and are accomplished using living cells engineered to perform as efficient, microscopic factories," OPX CEO Chas Eggert said in March upon receiving an award for being an innovation pioneer.

Asked by Makower how ARPA-E helps bring moon-shoot energy ideas to market, Martin emphasized the importance of creating "innovation ecosystems" that connect researchers working in different fields of technology, a process that produces new approaches to problems.

"Part of the role of ARPE-E is to be the convener," she said.

Martin also stressed the importance of connecting corporations with academic institutions and other technologists at the earliest stage of the development process.

"We've been really excited to see the engagement of the broad corporate community across all energy sectors," she said.

Such engagement helps companies understand the technologies that are several years down the road and enables researchers to understand the sorts of innovations that may be more readily marketable.

Makower also asked Martin whether the departure of outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu, the Nobel Laureate whose four-year tenure was marked by notable achievements in spite of the Solyndra fiasco, will negatively affect ARPA-E's mission.

Martin said she has spoken with Chu's likely successor, the nuclear physicist and current Undersecretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, and has been pleased with his approach.

Moniz "is very, very supportive of innovation," said Martin. "His first question was, 'Do you have enough people to be stirring the pot for ideas?,' and that's what you want from a leader."

"That will be great when he is confirmed," she said.

Summing up the agency's first four years, Martin expressed optimism. "I'm excited that we're starting to get through these first rounds of projects," she said, "and we're starting to see things succeeding.

"The learning is very profound."