Tons of great ideas, science, and inventions never see the light of day. Without adequate support, many innovations can end up in the “valleys of death.” But some organizations are working to reduce the loss with.
The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) teamed up with Wells Fargo to create the IN² Innovation Incubator Program. IN² is an invitation-only $30 million program that helps innovative companies think about their end customer, providing technical assistance that leverages the capabilities, facilities, equipment, and expertise at NREL. These companies also have access to Wells Fargo’s buildings portfolio to help them beta test technologies and ease their path to market adoption and deployment.
I sat down with Trish Cozart, the IN² Program Manager at NREL, to discuss this program and what innovations it’s empowering.
Full Video Transcript
I’m Trish with Innovation and Tech Today. Joining me is Trish Cozart with the National Renewable Energy Lab. We’re going to talk about what they’re doing with Wells Fargo and the Innovation Incubator. Trish, what are some of the technologies that have come out of the Innovation Incubator?
Trish Cozart: We have 20 different companies that have gone through the incubator so far. We have everything from energy storage, to window performance, to thermal storage type of products, to software that do energy audits. We have a whole gamut of technologies that have come through.
Innovation &Tech Today: Why do tech startup companies often find themselves stuck in the development stage?
TC: That’s a great question. Early-stage startups often have what we call trouble with the valleys of death. The first valley of death that they encounter is called the technology valley of death. In that stage, they’re really starting with R&D or a concept. They’re trying to build a prototype but the financial resources or investment aren’t really there yet to … They’re timid to put in money into something they haven’t seen.
Companies will hit a point where they need some financial help. To get them through that, they need expertise, they need equipment, and that’s just a tough thing to afford. The IN² Innovation Incubator stands in the gap of that technology valley of death and builds a bridge across it.
I&TT: Okay. That makes sense. How do some of these programs find their way to the Innovation Incubator? How are they selected?
TC: That’s a great question, as well. We have more than 40 channel partners that are geographically diverse locations across the United States. They refer companies to us. Those channel partners are made up of accelerators, incubators as well as universities who have programs with new innovations coming out of them. Those channel partners we have good relationships with, and they know the type of company that would be a good fit for IN².
I&TT: Okay. That makes sense. I know the project was initially slated for three rounds of participants. Is that right? Then, do you see there being more rounds like a fourth round coming about? Or continuing the program after the third round?
TC: Absolutely. The program started as a 10 million dollar program supported by the Wells Fargo Foundation. We have three rounds coming through, all in the commercial building sector. We actually have a fourth round happening right now. The down selection process is in process.
We will be announcing five more companies to join IN² starting in September, also in the commercial building sector. The whole program has expanded now to a 30 million dollar program and we’re looking for more rounds in the future, including probably two rounds a year. Even expanding into other areas besides commercial buildings.
I&TT: Wow. What are some of the technologies that Wells Fargo is beta testing at their facilities?
TC: We’ve had one beta test go through so far, Whisker Labs. They’re a peel-and-stick energy metering company. Whisker Labs went into a Wells Fargo bank branch, where they tested both the cost efficiency as well as the results that came out. Accuracy of the results that came out of a very simple peel-and-stick metering system. In comparison, if you had an electrician come and install the full system, it would cost a lot more.
You might get slightly more accurate data compared to this very simple installation. They were able to compare cost of both of those installations and then take back the results and build a report to show what happened. Actually, from that beta demonstration they were able to adjust their market strategy. They’ve been acquired by Earth Networks now and even spun out as a standalone company now.
I&TT: Wow. That’s incredible. How do you see Wells Fargo … Let me rephrase this. Why do you think Wells Fargo chose to partner with NREL to do this project?
TC: Wells Fargo and NREL make a great team. How this started in 2014 is, Wells Fargo brought to the table a diverse group of resources that they have. They have a commercial building footprint that’s quite large. I think it’s 90 million square feet, across the nation.
TC: They have access to capital. They have investment knowledge and access, and they have a very, very strong commitment to sustainability. NREL brings to the table their mission, which is to advance science. Especially in the clean energy technology area, as well as world class facilities, amazing researchers of the highest caliber and the ability to take both of those resources from Wells Fargo and NREL and put them together.
From that, the IN² Innovation Incubator was born. We can take companies into the Incubator, give them $250,000 worth of technical assistance, and incubate them through the process to where they have made leaps and bounds, strides into getting closer to market.
I&TT: I was also curious, how does IN² help these companies go from the development stage to the commercial market?
TC: That’s a great question. IN², when they bring a company in, that acceleration starts with scoping out a project. The NREL researchers get with the company. They scope out a project and that project is solving a problem that they might have. That problem is usually something is preventing them from getting closer to commercialization or the marketplace, so that’s where it all begins.
That $250,000 is worth far more than any just cash infusion would be. Because they get the access to the world class facilities they can tap into the minds of brilliant researchers and they get the network that we have. NREL has a strong leadership and network of large building portfolios, of OEMs, of original equipment manufacturers and even an investment world that they’re attached to and those companies get the benefit of that.
Even beyond that, they get the benefit of the demonstration process with Wells Fargo at the end, so that $250,000 goes far beyond just what a $250,000 check would be. In fact, I think for clean energy technology IN² is doubling down on a bet and winning. It’s might on paper look like $250,000 but in reality it’s worth far more, the opportunity.
I&TT: I would agree. It’s incredible. Beautiful facilities. I guess lastly, is there anything particularly that you’ve really taken pleasure in doing with this company, or with this position? Something that stood out to you as maybe special? Or …
TC: I think learning about the new technologies and working with startups is a fantastic place to be. They’re excited. They have incredible innovations and to help them make their way along to making the world a better place is just a great thing to be a part of.
I&TT: Absolutely. Well, I appreciate you joining us, Trish.
TC: Thank you.
I&TT: It’s been a pleasure. From the National Renewable Energy Lab, this is Trish with Innovation and Tech Today.