It often seems easy to know when the next big thing is upon us. Someone like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk stands on stage and tells us what is being launched next. The business press gets excited, pundits swoon and a thousand imitators are created. Before long an ecosystem develops and the world is forever changed.
In reality though, things are much murkier than that. Innovation is a process of discovery, engineering and transformation and it is only the last part that is visible to most of us. The seeds of a revolution start long before, in obscure labs and at conferences with high priests presenting papers written in arcane vernacular.
Since the 1950s, the engine that’s driven new knowledge to, as Vannevar Bush put it, “turn the wheels of private and public enterprise,” has been the US government. Unfortunately, moving new discoveries out of federal labs has often been a slow and cumbersome process, but a new model holds promise for greatly accelerating breakthrough innovation.
The Birth Of JCESR
Since the beginning of the new century, wind and solar technologies have been moving fast, increasing efficiency at a rate comparable to that of computer chips. Similar advances in electric cars point toward the possibility of a future beyond the fossil fuels. Yet in both cases, battery technology is a enormous barrier to unlocking the potential of green energy.
Both wind and solar need backups for when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. Electric cars need batteries that are powerful enough to quell “range anxiety” and cheap enough to make them cost-competitive with gasoline-powered engines. For both the grid and transportation, it’s been estimated that battery costs need to come down to $100 Kwh to make a clean energy future viable.
It’s also clear that a replacement needs to be found for the current lithium-ion technology that has been the gold standard for nearly 40 years, but is nearing theoretical limits. That was the impetus for the creation of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) in 2012, an innovative partnership between the Department of Energy, academic labs and private industry.
The idea behind JCESR is that in order to accelerate innovation you need to strengthen links between discovery and commercialization. Scientists need feedback from private industry so that they can focus their efforts on the ideas with the most potential in the marketplace, while private companies need insight into current research in order to prepare for the future.
Today, five years later, the model seems to be an enormous success.
Processes Before Products
Developing new battery chemistry is generally a long, painstaking process. Literally thousands of materials need to be tested in order to identify even a few promising candidates. Then, those components need to be evaluated to see if they can be made into a safe, viable battery that will be both more powerful and cheaper than existing products.
So the scientists at JCESR realized that before they could start coming up with a better battery, they needed to innovate the research process. So they started by building new tools, including materials and electrolyte genomes as well as techno-economic modeling to test the market viability of an idea before further work is done on it.
“The triumph of the materials genome approach is that it let us discard 98% of the possibilities and pare it down to just a few really promising candidates,” George Crabtree, Director of JCESR, told me. That, along with the techno-economic modeling helped save huge amounts of time and resources that would otherwise be spent going down blind alleys.
These tools provide value far beyond government and academic labs. Because JCESR is a public-private partnership, involving about a hundred partner companies which range from the large enterprises to small startups, firms across the country are using them to speed up their own development.
A Nascent Revolution
Today, JCESR is coming to the end of its original 5-year mission and it has exceeded all expectations. Initially, it was expected to come up with two viable prototypes, but it actually has come up with four — two for the grid and two for transportation. There is still much work to be done, but we’re eons closer to a clean energy future than we were.
The program has also helped to spin off a number of promising startups, including Baseload Renewables, Blue Current and Sepion Technologies, with many more likely to come. Going from basic research in the lab to a technology advanced enough to attract private investment in less than five years is unusual, but to do it three times over is even more impressive.
Probably most importantly, the program shown what can be achieved through greater collaboration between the government, academic labs and private, profit-seeking companies. Historically, these have held each other at arm’s length, which slows down innovation considerably, but at JCESR, they each inform the other, greatly accelerating the innovation process.
“Usually discovery propagates at the speed of publication,” JCESR’s Crabtree told me. “But here, we can operate within the time frame of the next coffee break.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
Energy storage is one of the most profound problems facing us today, but it is far from the only one. Climate change, food sustainability, healthcare and many other pressing issues need radically new solutions. There are also a number of powerful new technologies, such as genomics, nanotechnology and robotics, that can redefine what we thought was possible.
Look at any significant modern technology and much, if not all, of the initial scientific work was funded by a government program. In fact, Google itself began with a National Science Foundation grant. Still, historically the process of getting those discoveries translated into marketable products has been slow, usually taking decades.
The JCESR model offers a great blueprint for the future. Innovation is always about networks rather than nodes and it is essential that we learn how to build those connections faster. Building intense collaboration between government labs, academic institutions and private businesses will be key to maintaining our technological and competitive edge.
Unfortunately, we seem to be going in the opposite direction. Since its peak in 1964, federal investment in R&D has fallen from nearly 12% of the total federal budget to less than 4% and, in the current political climate, support for research is likely to diminish even further. That is going to make it much harder to maintain critical programs like JCESR.
Prosperity and technological dominance are not birthrights. If we want to win the future, we have to invest in it.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com