NREL-Hosted Embedded Entrepreneurship Program is a Clean Energy Transition Bridge

By Bill Farris, NREL Associate Laboratory Director for Innovation, Partnering, & Outreach

I’ve written before on Medium about the bridge between the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and market innovation. Indeed, bringing new technologies from the laboratory to market is in our DNA. It’s what we do best.

In the past, we have launched successful clean-tech startup accelerators such as the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2) and the Shell GameChanger Accelerator Powered by NREL. NREL’s accelerator programs all have three key ingredients: entrepreneurial talent from a broad talent pool, access to world class research capabilities, and a strong program sponsor willing to underpin the effort.

In that tradition, earlier this year we announced West Gate, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) program to give entrepreneurs the resources to develop promising new technologies into successful cleantech startups.

NREL will host this newest Lab-Embedded Entrepreneurship Program (LEEP) in collaboration with the Colorado School of Mines. Funded by the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, West Gate LEEP provides an institutional home for innovative researchers to build their research into products and also to train to be entrepreneurs.

Simply put, West Gate supports innovators with entrepreneurial mentorship and technology de-risking through a two-year runway. Progress in this time period can help bridge the many difficulties that can keep promising advanced manufacturing and energy technologies from reaching the market. Difficulties can include sizable capital investment needs, lack of access to scientific tools and facilities, and lengthy development timescales. As we have learned, a timely boost can make or break organizations facing the challenge.

Entrepreneurial risk is not for the faint of heart. Because of that, we chose an identity to reflect the spirit of this gritty undertaking. On a practical level, the name is a nod to NREL’s actual West Gate on its Golden, Colorado, campus. That gateway leads from NREL to the School of Mines (our partner for the West Gate program). On another level, West Gate honors the exploratory spirit associated with the American West combined with the concept of a “gate,” which brings to mind the image of an opening to new horizons and opportunities.

With NREL’s experience, we know how to operate such an incubator. We will select qualified entrepreneurial scientists and engineers through a competitive process that requires them to be strongly aligned with the core capabilities and mission of NREL.

West Gate provides up to five selected innovators with:

  • An annual stipend of $100,000

By collocating with NREL, the companies involved will commit to the laboratory and the Denver metro area as the beginning ground for their vision.

A key factor is that West Gate’s operation is seeking to provide more flexibility in who we accept. Rather than limit applicants to Ph.Ds., the program will consider a candidate who has a bachelor’s degree in a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) field and also has had experience in the industry. Further, this incubator will seek out underserved populations and communities that deserve a chance to transform the entrepreneurial cleantech world.

By pairing excellent research and technical capabilities, West Gate can help entrepreneurs create companies that go on to raise additional funding for growth, hire new employees, and help bolster our economy. The gate truly will open to new ground.

And these projects can help us transition to a low carbon energy system for the world.

Perhaps a chosen candidate will have an early-stage company eager to tap into the national laboratories’ high performance computing (HPC) resources to streamline manufacturing processes, thereby increasing their productivity, and lowering their carbon footprint. Or a member of the first West Gate cohort could be one of the next generation of clean energy manufacturers focusing on material reuse, remanufacturing, recovering, and recycling. Maybe there’s an applicant with a concept to cut the carbon emissions in buildings by using low-carbon materials.

Projects like these and more are possible through West Gate.

It is designed so that companies with cutting-edge, transformative technologies can then go on to partner with large industry stakeholders, continue to work with the laboratory after the program, or even become the next major players in the industry at large.

We believe the West Gate will be the start for many impactful journeys. West Gate is open for business, the business of providing a bridge for transition to clean energy solutions.

Learn more about the West Gate LEEP, including details about eligibility and the application process.

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