— By Julie Chao
In his three years as a program director at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), awarding multi-million-dollar grants to high-potential R&D projects, Ilan Gur started noticing a disturbing trend: some of the smartest entrepreneurial scientists were dropping out of energy R&D, despite their passion for developing technological solutions to address the global energy and climate problem.
Many saw their startups shrivel due to lack of ongoing funding. Some went into biotech or other better-funded fields. Some got jobs at Facebook. Few were interested in pursuing traditional academic or corporate research careers.
Now Berkeley Lab is launching a new program dubbed “M37” that seeks to attract scientists such as these to the Lab and to experiment with a new model for bringing cutting-edge science from research to society. The vision of M37 is to create a unique environment where scientists can focus on translational R&D with a sense of urgency.
“Throughout Berkeley Lab’s history, scientists have made possible through their research an impressive number of important benefits to society. We want to develop new ways to leverage the tremendous intellectual ecosystem dedicated to energy sciences at Berkeley Lab and strengthen the connections between use-inspired research and technology development,” said Lab Director Paul Alivisatos. “We believe the addition of M37 innovators at the Lab will benefit the DOE mission, allowing scientists to take their ideas to the next stage and eventually out to the private-sector marketplace.”
The new program is one piece of Berkeley Lab’s three-pronged strategy for accelerating the transfer of science and technology to the public. Recently what was once known as the Technology Transfer and Intellectual Property Management Office was changed to the Innovation and Partnerships Office, and Elsie Quaite-Randall was named Chief Technology Transfer Officer. In addition, last October the Lab created a new Area called Energy Technologies and is searching for an Associate Laboratory Director to lead this area.
Gur has been hired to lead the third piece, M37. “With the benefit of state-of-the-art scientific facilities and some of the best researchers in the world, national labs are built for world-class science,” Gur said. “If we succeed in marrying those strengths with a vehicle that’s optimized for translational impact, the combination could accelerate our contribution to solving society’s biggest problems, like global climate change.”
The name M37 stems from Gur’s experience at ARPA-E, where projects were typically funded for three years. “We got into the habit of saying: OK, you have a great idea, but before we fund you for 36 months, let’s talk about where the project will be in month 37,” he said. “Focusing from day one on the path beyond the research phase is what drives this whole story.”
While at ARPA-E, Gur funded and managed a $50-million portfolio of advanced R&D projects in the areas of energy storage, solar energy, and advanced materials. He also served as a cofounder and senior advisor of ARPA-E’s Technology-to-Market program, aimed at maximizing the commercial and societal impact of the agency’s breakthrough R&D portfolio. Prior to ARPA-E, Gur was involved in launching two venture-backed clean energy startups leveraging advanced materials science.
M37 will put out a national call for a first cohort of innovators, with applications due in mid-August of 2014. These M37 project leaders will be hired as term employees with the explicit goal of transitioning hard energy technologies out of the lab. They will be provided salary and seed funding for the first two years. In that time they will build research collaborations within the Lab and pursue outside project R&D funding. They may work to advance a technology already under development at the Lab, or embark on developing a new concept with support of the Lab ecosystem.
“We have the opportunity to create something that can attract very high-caliber folks,” Gur said. “By connecting and collaborating with them, the Lab could benefit in several ways: they will bring new ideas, industry connections, and new funding sources. Most importantly, we can unlock a new mode of driving impact.”
For more information on the M37 program, visit the website or attend an upcoming talk by Gur on the following dates:
Tuesday, July 29, 11 a.m. – 12 p.m.
Bldg. 67 Room 3111
Wednesday, July 30, 12 – 1 p.m.
ESE 4 (Bldg. 978) Room 4132/4134
Thursday, July 31, 12 – 1 p.m.
Bldg. 90 Room 3122