CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- If future U.S. energy and climate policy is to be based on the emergence of "breakthrough technologies," one of the incubators for them is here, on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
While the campus feels a bit drab and austere, the real action goes on inside the labs amid rooms of snaking pipes, tables crowded with beakers and fluorescent lamps glaring long after business hours.
Last October, President Obama visited some of these labs and spoke of the seemingly impossible: batteries grown from viruses, wind turbines that work even without the breeze, windows that generate solar power.
He has made the push for new technologies a centerpiece of his policies, and technology experts generally agree that existing technologies can help the United States and others make a first wave of emission cuts. But in the long run, they say, there will need to be scientific leaps to decarbonize energy that will make current approaches seem quaint.
If one were to guess where these leaps might start, MIT would be a conservative bet. Its alumni and faculty have won 75 Nobel Prizes. Add up the revenues of all the existing companies founded by MIT graduates, and the figure would equal at least the 17th-largest economy in the world.
Now, the campus has turned its focus to energy, and with Obama's visit, it got a chance to feature its most impressive explorations.
But from an economic perspective, one question looms large: How will any of these innovations get from initial lab confirmation here to the marketplace? For many concepts, that can still be a treacherous pathway that some innovators call the "valley of death."
For MIT and the country's other leading research universities, there are a gantlet of reasons why some won't make it. MIT administrators remind that it is foremost an academic institution, charged with educating its talented pupils. Some professors are said to "enter the monastery": They toil in their labs, far from the public eye, wishing only to do their research in peace.
Salesmanship is a foreign term to them. Other researchers, working in compartmentalized disciplines outside of energy, come up with breakthrough innovations that they don't even know can help.
Feeding the 'risky, but not crazy' approaches
With so much potential bubbling in the university's labs, one goal is to do a better job of finding and harnessing it. A leading figure here in that campaign is Ernest Moniz, a former undersecretary at the Department of Energy and the head of the MIT Energy Initiative, or MITEI.
"Part of our job has just been to understand what's happening on the campus," he says. "Who's interested in what? What tools might be applied to a problem, an energy problem, even if that individual never worked on energy before?"
Moniz' program doles out grants to promising research on campus: "early-stage, preferably somewhat risky, but not crazy," he describes. It also connects researchers to companies and investors trawling for product ideas. Some of these firms aren't just involved in the marketplace; companies such as BP, Entergy and Siemens are heavyweights in it.
How does a technology "graduate"? A scientist makes a breakthrough in the lab that has an energy application. Early grant funds, from MITEI or elsewhere, help him or her develop it to the point where it's presentable to private funders. If they like what they see, they'll endow a "spinoff," a small company formed around the innovation and tasked to bring it to market readiness.
Last fall, a company started by two MIT alumni won an Advanced Projects Research Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) award from DOE -- one of the most exacting tests of breakthrough potential. The firm, FastCAP Systems, wants to build an ultracapacitor that can store energy as densely as batteries, but won't wear down with repeated charges and discharges. Such a device could dramatically drop the cost of energy storage for electric cars and the grid.
FastCAP's ultracapacitor is based on a carbon nanotube design developed by an MIT electrical engineering professor -- whose research, years prior, received a seed grant from MITEI.
'Bringing new people to the game'
Increasingly, Moniz said, some of the best ideas on campus are coming from places he never expected.
Of the 55 projects MITEI has funded, about half involved faculty who had never done energy-related research before.
Recently, he said, he came across a faculty member he'd never met -- Moniz has worked at MIT, excluding government appointments, since 1973 -- who works on the electronic systems in unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the Predator drones used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The researcher told Moniz he had an idea for applying the complex math in these drones to make the electrical grid more stable and thus allow it to use more renewable energy. Asked to describe the technology, Moniz -- himself a nuclear physicist -- calls it "extremely complicated." Soon, Moniz had helped the researcher present his ideas to an interested company. "That's the kind of thing we do: We're trying to bring new people to the game," Moniz says.
Academics may find that game to be rough-and-tumble. Given the size of the climate problem, a test-tube breakthrough won't suffice. Private firms want a technology with clear business potential, and that means getting as close to a finished product as possible.
Of course, ideas cooked up in the laboratory are usually at a far earlier stage, making them improbable candidates for investment.
"University inventions are embryonic, half-baked at best," says Lita Nelsen, the head of MIT's technology licensing office. "They aren't products waiting to be licensed ... they are the results of basic research that have been brought just about far enough to get it published."
A guide for getting to Kendall Square
In her 24-year career there, Nelsen has seen many such ideas come and go, in all kinds of research areas, from energy to biology to medicine. All have one thing in common: They're risky. A potential investor might like what he sees in the scientist's notebook, but without any proof that it'll turn a profit in the real world, he's likely to pass.
Nelsen's job is to play the middleman. When MIT researchers bring her a half-baked idea, she and her team evaluate it. Is it unique? Does it do something better, faster, or cheaper? Is it for a niche market, or could it explode into the mass arena? If the idea survives the gantlet, she helps get it patented.
Then she and the inventor shop it. They explain to venture capitalists and small firms how the technology works, and they share a plan showing how it can travel from scientific concept to market-ready idea.
If there's a willing suitor, Nelsen's office writes up a licensing agreement. Unlike a patent, which gives someone the exclusive rights to use an invention, a license allows someone else to use the invention -- as long as he pays royalties to MIT. Roughly a third of those royalties go to the scientist who first came up with the idea.
The perfect spinoff spends a few years in development, pilots its project and is swiftly bought by a large company that sees the technology's potential. The inventor may be at the helm, or he or she might sit back and collect a share of royalties, year after year, as the invention becomes a profitable technology.
Often, these companies don't spin off too far. Today, on MIT's eastern edge, corporate high-rises bristle with smokestacks and large fans. Thirty years ago, when Nelsen was a student here, it looked much different. "Kendall Square was a desert," she says. "There was a greasy diner, which we all loved."
Now, she says, "We spin off 20 companies a year. And most of them stick around."
Growing 'innovative ecosystems' outside the federal labs
The proximity helps. Companies keep a close eye on campus laboratories, and they constantly scout fresh talent. Professors drop in to track their former students' progress and to offer advice. Across the river, in downtown Boston, venture capitalists keep watch for the next promising idea.
Whether the country develops breakthrough climate technologies could hinge on this process. Leading companies don't focus on basic research anymore, Nelsen said. Instead, most basic science comes from research universities backed by federal funding.
Last year, a report by the think tank RAND found that funding packs a punch: The more federal research and development money a university receives, the more patents it tends to file.
Yet only a small slice of that federal funding goes to energy research. The report said that of all federal R&D funds given to universities, two-thirds goes to biomedical and health care topics.
Moniz, head of the school's energy initiative, says the new DOE is waking up to this reality, and more and more, it's letting the universities and their "innovation ecosystems" do the driving.
Historically, he says, "The energy programs at DOE have not, frankly, done anywhere near enough in terms of real energy technology innovation." The system has been overly centered on the DOE's research labs scattered throughout the country, he says. The agency's internal rules favor old partners, not new participants.
Great ideas at the national labs have fewer places to go, he says, but universities like MIT are surrounded by "innovation ecosystems" that nurture them. Moniz says Energy Secretary Steven Chu -- himself a former director of a national lab -- understands this.
To illustrate, Moniz points to a U.S. map showing the recipients of two brand-new DOE programs: the Energy Frontier Research Centers and ARPA-E. Red stars on the map, representing national labs, sit isolated. Farther away, yellow and white stars crowd together. Those, Moniz says, are universities and the companies that cluster around them.