Skip to Content

What ARPA-E Does Well: Making Connections

The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy is a filter and a matchmaker.
February 28, 2013

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. 

Keep Reading

Most Popular

AV2.0 autonomous vehicles adapt to unknown road conditions concept
AV2.0 autonomous vehicles adapt to unknown road conditions concept

The big new idea for making self-driving cars that can go anywhere

The mainstream approach to driverless cars is slow and difficult. These startups think going all-in on AI will get there faster.

biomass with Charm mobile unit in background
biomass with Charm mobile unit in background

Inside Charm Industrial’s big bet on corn stalks for carbon removal

The startup used plant matter and bio-oil to sequester thousands of tons of carbon. The question now is how reliable, scalable, and economical this approach will prove.

AGI is just chatter for now concept
AGI is just chatter for now concept

The hype around DeepMind’s new AI model misses what’s actually cool about it

Some worry that the chatter about these tools is doing the whole field a disservice.

images created by Google Imagen
images created by Google Imagen

The dark secret behind those cute AI-generated animal images

Google Brain has revealed its own image-making AI, called Imagen. But don't expect to see anything that isn't wholesome.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.