Argonne Fuels Energy Start-ups

Argonne National Laboratory is accelerating more than protons these days. Through its Chain Reaction Innovations (CRI) entrepreneurship program, Argonne is accelerating the development of new businesses that are tackling the challenges of producing and conserving energy with new, cost effective and environmentally-sustainable technologies. Argonne is located in Lemont, Illinois, west of Chicago. It is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) and operated by the University of Chicago. It is one of the largest and most scientifically diverse research centers in the world. The CRI program is supported by the Advanced Manufacturing Office within DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

This summer, with the first four startups graduating from the program, CRI innovators have raised about $12.4 million in funding as of Aug. 1, 2019. Out of that total, more than $5 million has come from private equity sources, and the rest has some from various organizations – including DOE – that offer open funding opportunities.

In addition to raising funds, CRI innovators have garnered major accolades for their work from leading organizations like NASA, the National Science Foundation, and DOE. They have also created more than 60 new jobs as their companies have grown and have established two dozen industrial collaborations across their respective industries.

The success of the first cohort is early validation that CRI is doing just what it is designed to do – accelerate the development of energy innovations and drive economic outcomes that improve sustainability for the U.S. and the world.

“The primary metric we look at as a measure of our success is how much money the innovators raise through public and private sources through the course of the program. That number should surpass $10 million for each cohort we bring in, and we’ve well surpassed that with our first cohort,” said CRI Director John Carlisle. “If we can replicate their magnitude of success in every cohort, over time, the program should easily deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in business value, as well as create hundreds of jobs in just a few years.”

How it works

The program’s success lies in its unique design. CRI was intentionally created to do what most stakeholders in the private sector don’t: give initial support to early-stage, high-risk technologies to attract follow-on funding.

Funded by DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office and Argonne National Laboratory, support is offered in three ways. One is through access to the full range of capabilities a national laboratory has to offer. At Argonne, this includes access to world-class equipment and laboratory space, as well as more than 1,600 Ph.D. scientists, including manufacturing and energy experts. Innovators also receive financial support to develop and test their technologies and pursue additional funding opportunities.

Finally, innovators are mentored not only by laboratory experts but also collaborators outside the lab, including business and industry leaders at the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and within Chicagoland’s rich energy ecosystem.

“With resources already in place, they can mature their technologies more rapidly, and less expensively than in the outside world,” Carlisle said. “That’s the fundamental value of this program, to help the technology mature fast so that in two years the private sector is not funding fundamental science but instead taking proven technology, vetted by customers and the business world, to build companies, teams and manufacturing processes to deliver that product at-scale to customers.”

The Impact

Animal products (meat, fish, milk and eggs) are major dietary sources of protein, but animal farming is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and uses more energy than non-animal farming. Emergy Foods is developing methods for producing food that tastes like meat but is made from plants. The food will have all the nutrients of meat and in a number of respects will be healthier than meat products. Emergy’s products will require less energy to produce and will generate less pollution than traditional meat products.

Emergy’s journey through CRI demonstrates the obstacles energy innovators face when they try to mature their technologies to solve real-world problems. Thanks to the unique combination of support from Argonne, the Polsky Center, and the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, and several others, Emergy leadership and CRI innovators Tyler Huggins and Justin Whiteley pivoted the focus of their technology multiple times, ultimately addressing a significant challenge in the world today: providing a sustainable source of protein.

This summer the company closed on $4.8 million in private funding and are currently building a pilot production facility in Boulder, “To build that much business value in such a short period of time around a hard tech with high impact that also creates jobs is truly impressive,” Carlisle said. “I don’t know any other lab-based program that’s done that.”

Another successful member of the first cohort is ClearFlame Engines a company founded by Stanford University graduates Julie Blumreiter and BJ Johnson. The company is developing modifications to diesel engines that allow them to use non-diesel fuel. The combination produces greater power and lower pollution. Since participating in CRI, Blumreiter and Johnson have received multiple Small Business Innovation Research grants, valued at over $1 million in total. Of that total, $355,000 will be used at Argonne to continue advancing their technology. The founders were also named 2019 Climate Fellows by Echoing Green.

Felipe Gomez del Campo is another member of the graduating cohort who has found success with CRI support. Through his company, FGC Plasma Solutions, Gomez del Campo has developed a unique fuel injector technology that uses plasma – a state of matter – to improve the efficiency of jet engines and gas turbines.

In two years, Gomez del Campo has garnered multiple awards for his innovation and sources of funding to develop it further. Through the course of the CRI program and since graduation, FGC Plasma has raised $3.6 million in additional funding and has plans to continue research and development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“CRI is a fantastic program that serves a really important need,” Gomez del Campo said. “It does a good job of putting the needs of entrepreneurs together with a readily-available solution, using all the excess space, brain power and capacity national labs have.”

The Future

Looking ahead, the future for CRI remains bright, Carlisle said. Fifteen innovators are currently participating in CRI Cohorts 2 and 3, and a number of them have already found early success in raising funds for added research.

Erica Boeing is one example. As the founder of Accelerate Wind, she is pioneering an innovative approach for capturing wind energy at the edge of commercial rooftops. Only a year into the CRI program, Boeing already has surpassed several major milestones, including receiving a $225,000 Phase I grant from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Technology Transfer Program.

Boeing and other members of Cohort 2 are preparing to showcase their achievements to investors during CRI’s annual Demo Day event. This year’s event will be held on Sept. 17 at the University of Chicago’s Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago. The event is open to the public. Entrepreneurs, investors and science curious members of the public are all invited to register to attend.

“There’s proof in success of the first cohort that our approach to accelerating innovation does work and can create a lot of business value in a short period of time,” Carlisle said. “Seeing their success and the early successes of our second cohort gives us a lot to look forward to in the future.”

The application period for Cohort 4 will open on September 17 and close October 31, 2019. Last year there were more than 120 applicants. Of these applicants, 20 were recognized as semi-finalists, 10 as finalists and 5 were named to Cohort 3.

Chain Reaction Innovations provides innovators with the laboratory tools, seed capital, and collaborators needed to grow their early-stage technologies to enable them to attract the long-term capital and commercial partners needed to scale and launch into the marketplace. CRI is part of the Lab-Embedded Entrepreneurship Programs from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). EERE created the Lab-Embedded Entrepreneurship Programs to provide an institutional home for innovative postdoctoral researchers to build their research into products and train to be entrepreneurs. The two-year program for each innovator is funded by EERE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO).