By Gordy Slack
Taking great ideas and turning them into technologies that help solve serious problems has been the CITRIS mission for all of its ten years. The need to do that is nowhere more clear or more urgent than in the energy field. Carl Blumstein, Director of the California Institute for Energy and Environment (CIEE), puts it bluntly: “Our survival as a species depends on our learning to manage energy problems in new ways.”
But turning research into action on the ground can be tricky at a university most celebrated for its fundamental research. CIEE has been supporting CITRIS in its effort to do that in the energy efficiency world from the start. It was nine years ago that Blumstein met Ron Hofmann—now a senior advisor at CIEE and in a similar role at CITRIS—at a Berkeley café and discussed how best to best lower the costs and increase the performance of information technologies needed for a real-world Demand-Response system. That meeting, and the funding from the California Energy Commission that stemmed from it, led to much published academic work, but it also led to the creation of practical new devices and algorithms and contributed to the establishment of businesses, such as Dust Networks, Arch Rock, and Adura Technologies, all spinoffs from CIEE-supported research.
Other CITRIS and CIEE-generated research, however, is still ripe on the vine. A new Haas School of Business program, called Cleantech to Market (C2M), is partnering with CITRIS to help select suitable projects and bring them to market. The program brings together Haas business students as well as masters and PhD students in engineering, sciences, law, and the Energy and Resources Group, and Berkeley and LBNL researchers working on clean-energy technology, and exposes them to industry venture capital professionals. Each of ten groups in the class is assigned a new technology—developed by a Berkeley or LBNL researcher—around which they conduct market research and in some cases develop a business plan and investment pitch.
For example, one group built a proposal around work done by engineer Christine Ho on materials and direct-write fabrication methods that can be employed for printing carbon-based electrochemical capacitors and zinc batteries. Basically, Ho’s work enables the fabrication of “solid-state” capacitors and batteries that can be patterned and integrated directly onto devices such as wireless monitors. The type, shape, and capacity of batteries can easily be customized for each application.
Ho, who earned her Berkeley PhD in engineering this June, worked with three MBA students—Brooks Kincaid, Ben Poynter, Hiroki Taniguchi—and one PhD EECS student—Kyle Braam—to develop a business and marketing strategy for the technology. After analyzing the market opportunities and competing technologies, the group developed a business plan for a company selling wireless sensor networks based on the new battery technology. The group also helped Ho navigate the intellectual property issues, which, “because of my unfamiliarity with IP laws, was extremely helpful,” says Ho. “We also met with a series of VCs and industry executives, and their contribution to the meetings was very valuable.”
Ho gave a version of her presentation as a talk to the CITRIS i4Energy symposium, and has received more invitations to talk from companies around the country who may be interested investing.
Another group based their project on work long conducted at the Berkeley Wireless Research Center under EECS Professor Jan Rabaey and CITRIS director Paul Wright. The students—Dave Bend, Ankush Garg, Kurosh Hashemi, Mark Hurwich and Taylor Keep—developed a plan for this work on self-powered, wireless network platform that exploits a novel ultra-low-power radio technology. Because the radio uses far less energy and is much smaller than previous radios, it will allow for much smaller, easier to use, less expensive, and more reliable sensors that could be employed to do environmental monitoring, personal work station energy efficiency lighting controls and, more broadly, efficient building management.
The technology is a product of many years of investment, both on the parts of the researchers, CITRIS, and CIEE. Numerous papers, conference presentations, and PhD theses have come from it. But now, says Blumstein, “the work we started a decade ago is coming to the place where it really needs C2M-like attention, where students can team with researchers and make sensible and compelling business plans that will get the attention of industry.”
“C2M is a class,” says Beverly Alexander, the co-director, “but it also functions as an incubator.”
Alexander, a former VP at PG&E and a lecturer at Haas, says the course is providing a link between the “focus on fundamental science that Berkeley researchers are so famous for and the kind of research it takes to get these technologies into the market where they can impact society and solve pressing problems.”
“Most of the people I work with are in this business because they want to make a contribution,” says Blumstein. “To make one, though, you need to start thinking like a business or you will not succeed. As a close friend says: ‘No margin, no mission.’”
Doing that can be tricky in a university setting where publishing papers is traditionally more celebrated, and more likely to be rewarded with tenure, than solving practical problems, says Alexander, whose years at PG&E were devoted to clean energy and business customer solutions, including moving $1.2 billion of clean energy incentives into the California economy. In these urgent times, “understanding the fundamental science is essential, but it is not enough,” says Blumstein. “The people who are supporting this technology do not just want papers; they also want results that can be applied.”
But working in a multi-disciplinary team “can be exhilarating,” says Blumstein, “and clean energy is as multi-disciplinary as it gets. If you get a group of the right people together working on the right problems, you wind up with a very special kind of energy, you want to come to work and make a lot of progress, ideas are flowing, it is very stimulating. We are creating an environment like that in the CITRIS context. We are building a community of researchers with a common agenda who can rely on one another in their research.”
Individually, faculty can focus on their research, but collectively, and with support from the staff, that research can turn into real progress.
That is certainly the aim of i4Energy, the year-old program that coordinates all of the clean energy related projects from CITRIS, LBNL, and CIEE, says Gary Baldwin, CITRIS Director of Special Projects for Energy and the Environment and Managing Director of i4Energy. i4Energy, housed on the fourth floor of SDH, sponsored C2M’s final presentations in the CITRIS auditorium. The event drew approximately 200 people from the university, business, industry, and beyond.
“CITRIS is one of the shining examples on campus where we reach out to industry in a user-friendly way, it is a space people want to come to, where the discussion is a little less academic and more applied. People in industry can relate to it,” says Alexander.
The missions of CITRIS and C2M are “well-tuned for collaboration with each other,” says Alexander. “We are both devoted to promoting clean energy—CITRIS from IT perspective and C2M from a business perspective. We bring the MBA students, and CITRIS brings technologies that are closer to market. Together we can do wonderful things.”