Leading Through Innovation

From Patent to Elevator Pitch: Students and Scientists Team up to Fast-track Clean Tech

From Patent to Elevator Pitch: Students and Scientists Team up to Fast-track Clean Tech

Cleantech by Roy Kaltschmidt

Biomass found in woody plants and grasses may be one step closer in the move from field to fuel tank, thanks to an innovative collaboration between scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and student members of the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative (BERC), an interdisciplinary organization founded by Berkeley MBA students.

The partnership, called "Cleantech to Market," or C2M, dispatched five cross-disciplinary student teams to evaluate the commercial viability of clean technologies under development at LBNL. Graduate students from UC Berkeley schools including business, law, public policy, and engineering assessed technologies that included a novel solar-chemical storage device, a breakthrough fabrication method for high-efficiency solid-state photovoltaic devices, and the use of ionic liquids to pre-treat biomass for conversion to biofuel.

Haas students are channeling their potential to become leaders of the world's sustainable energy future.In addition to the five teams working to commercialize new technologies, three teams focused on energy policy and analysis. Eighteen Berkeley MBA students participated and were represented on each of the eight teams.

C2M began with the efforts of BERC student leaders, including co-chair Naveen Sikka, MBA 09, who teamed up with LBNL's Technology Transfer Department to create the program. Haas School Associate Professor Catherine Wolfram, co-executive director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Innovation, was also instrumental in forming the program.

Pushing Clean Tech into the Private Sector

The program launched in September 2008, when students got an overview of the tech transfer process at LBNL and began to familiarize themselves with their team's technology or policy issue. Over the course of ten weeks, students on the technology teams conducted research and delivered a market analysis assessing such components as revenue potential, commercialization challenges, target customer profiles, and possible venture or industry partners. They also created a technology marketing description for use with business development professionals, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists.

"We market 40 to 50 technologies a year and we simply don't have the resources to gather in-depth market intelligence for each and every one–yet this kind of research and evaluation can really help to push a new technology into the private sector or into the hands of the right venture capitalist," says Cheryl Fragiadakis, head of the Technology Transfer and Intellectual Property Management Department at LBNL. "To have students apply their talents to readying an entire suite of clean technologies for market is of tremendous value."

The diverse student teams push each other in new directions, according to Jay Stowsky, senior assistant dean and a former senior economist for science and technology with the White House Council of Economic Advisers. "Everybody is looking at the same new technology through different lenses," Stowsky 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."

"By forming teams from a talented pool of students, we are not only catalyzing the commercial pathway for technologies at the Lab, but also providing opportunities for MBA and other students," agrees Sikka. "Through this work with researchers, scientists, and fellow graduate students, Haas students are channeling their potential to become leaders of the world's sustainable energy future."

Gathering Market Intelligence

First-year full-time MBA students Dwight Crabtree and Adam Lorimer (pictured above, left and center) were on the team evaluating an ionic liquid technology that could increase the viability of second-generation biofuels. "These promise a genuinely sustainable, low-carbon alternative to petroleum-based transportation fuels," says Lorimer. "Since they are produced from woody plants and energy grasses, they require significantly less water, fuel, and fertilizers than food crops. They can also be grown on marginal land not suitable for traditional agriculture."

The hitch, notes Lorimer, is that existing methods of breaking down the cellulose in these crops into sugars to be converted into liquid fuel are inefficient and make use of toxic solvents. "The technology we're evaluating promises to solve a lot of these difficulties," Lorimer says.

At 5:30 p.m. on a Friday this past winter, the team engaged in their second exchange with the project's lead researcher, Blake Simmons (Pictured above, right). Simmons is manager of the Energy Systems Department of Sandia National Laboratory and vice president of Deconstruction for the US Department of Energy's Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), which developed the ionic liquid technology and whose inventions are managed by LBNL's Technology Transfer Department.

As a lowering sun began to tint the Campanile, visible out JBEI's Emeryville window, the team discussed which technical specifics (yields, temperatures, times) could be shared with potential investors. "We can say what we've accomplished, but not how we've gotten there," advised Simmons. They also reviewed pending patents for technologies that might overlap with the one they were evaluating. One of the first–and largest–challenges the team faced was to define the technology with competitive distinctiveness, to find what Simmons calls "The clear running lane."

The team adjourned after an efficient hour, acknowledging that they have a lot to do before the next meeting in three weeks. They assigned "to do" items and planned on having a draft of their marketing description ready for Simmons to review at the next meeting–something he looked forward to.

"For scientists, new business considerations are really on the back burner. We are concerned with getting things done in the lab and not on how to push our inventions into the real world," says Simmons. "Working with students interested in business planning right out of the gate really offers a refreshing perspective."

Photo: Roy Kaltschmidt, courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

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