The innovation hubs could correct some historical shortcomings of the Department of Energy, according to Chu. In the past, the department has not focused on commercializing technologies, and most of its efforts have revolved not around renewable energy but rather around cleaning up after nuclear weapons development, says Mark Muro, a fellow and policy director at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. “The reason Steven Chu wanted eight of them, dispersed across the entire corpus of the lab’s research activities, was essentially to transform the culture and practices of the lab system,” he says.
But some experts say that replicating Bell Labs today isn’t a good idea, and likely isn’t even possible. “So many people have tried to build a mini-Bell Labs and it has never quite succeeded,” says Howard Anderson, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and a venture capitalist. For one thing, when Bell Labs was at its height, “they didn’t have 125 venture-capital firms ready to suck off all the brightest guys all at once,” he says. When venture capitalists “see someone with a breakthrough who is on a government salary, we say, come over here, take $5 million, a chance to be rich.” Over time, the hubs could be drained of the top talent essential to them functioning well.
But William Aulet, director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, says that the Bell Labs approach has been superseded in industry by a new approach exemplified by companies such Cisco, which draw on many outside researchers and are open to spinning off technology into other companies. He says that while clusters of researchers are definitely a good idea, a more open, Cisco-type approach will ultimately be more effective than a lab that tries to do everything itself. Aulet is encouraged that more-recent descriptions of the hubs by the DOE include ties to industry, which could help foster such an open model.
The appropriations bills from the House and Senate committees are now awaiting conference, so there’s a chance that funding for the hubs could be restored before a final vote. What’s more, the Waxman-Markey energy and climate-change bill that’s working its way through Congress also has a provision for very similar energy innovation hubs.