Valerio De Angelis, the charismatic executive director of the Energy Institute at City University of New York, caught me glancing at his booth at the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy Summit this week and before I could get away he was regaling me about the wonders of the technology he was showing off, a new battery that could make it relatively inexpensive to store wind power at night for use during the day when demand is higher. The technology was developed with the help of an ARPA-E grant awarded in 2010. Already he has orders for two megawatt-hours worth of his batteries, something he says wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for ARPA-E.
Winning the grant from ARPA-E gave the project credibility. Then the agency went a step further and helped connect the researchers with customers. “They did the introduction,” he told me. Gesturing to the large hall full of displays of innovative technology, Angelis said the ARPA-E summit is unique. Because of the reputation of the agency, companies send top people, the ones who can make decisions. He contrasted it to the trade shows he went to drum up business for a software company he used to lead–nothing came out of those, he told me. They didn’t connect him with the right people.
I’ll write more about the battery technology in a later post. What I’ll note for now is that De Angelis’s experience with ARPA-E appears to be a common one. While ARPA-E is inherently limited in what it can do (see “What ARPA-E Can’t Do”), one thing it does well is make connections. It might not be able to fund demonstration projects or help a startup build a factory, but in some cases it can put researchers in touch with those who can. And perhaps just as importantly, it can introduce innovators to each other.
ARPA-E project managers regularly put together workshops that bring together some of the leading thinkers in a particular area of technology. The connections that happen there lead to new avenues of research (such as ARPA-E’s Electrofuels program). One interesting project happened because someone from Berkeley met someone from an R&D company at an ARPA-E workshop. The company had developed a promising membrane that seems to be an answer to a problem the Berkeley researchers were having.
On the sidelines of the conference, former ARPA-E director Arun Majumdar told me that it was the people who made working there great. If ARPA-E is going to have a big impact going forward the agency will need to keep attracting the right people, and using them to bring others together.