ARPA-E's Martin discusses agency's successes, new $125M funding opportunity

What more can the federal government do to ensure the United States stays ahead of the energy technology innovation curve? During today's OnPoint, recorded at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Innovation Summit, Dr. Cheryl Martin, deputy director for commercialization at ARPA-E, discusses her agency's evolution and the most compelling innovations coming out of this year's summit. Martin, who recently announced she will be leaving ARPA-E, also talks about her next steps in the energy sector.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello, and welcome to OnPoint from the Department of Energy's ARPA-E Summit. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Dr. Cheryl Martin, deputy director for commercialization at the Advance Research Projects Agency-Energy. Cheryl, thank you for joining me.

Cheryl Martin: Thank you for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: Cheryl, this is ARPA-E's sixth annual energy innovation summit. What's most exciting to you about this year's conference and the evolution the agency has undergone over the last six years?

Cheryl Martin: Wow, that's a big question. At the summit this year, you know, we have 2,000 people gathered together, a third academics, a third small companies, a third business, and to watch the dynamic of everyone here, looking at new technologies, becoming new products, sharing knowledge and learnings across different technology areas is really, really exciting. The buzz in here from the very start of this conference yesterday has been amazing. And I think it speaks to the evolution of the agency. You know, when ARPA-E started not even six years ago, right, it was a startup agency, and the first summit was formed to basically talk about what the agency could be and to show that it was supported very uniformly, you know, across Congress and business and academics, but the first conference, right, we didn't have any projects. We had potential. And as we've evolved as an agency, you know, we have $1.1 billion, 400 projects that we've funded, and down on the floor today, we have 250 booths of technologies where, you know, some of them are actually real products now. And so you see that movement from idea and growth and now certainly not at ... maturity, but it's an evolution that's real, and I think the buzz in the summit now reflects that.

Monica Trauzzi: Are there specific areas of innovation that you feel ARPA-E should be involved in?

Cheryl Martin: Well, you know, if you look at what's ARPA-E's mission, right, it's the development and deployment of transformational energy technology that helps us improve energy efficiency, reduce emissions and reduce dependence on imported sources of energy and ensures the U.S. technologically, so it's a really wide mission, and we take that very seriously. And so in that 400-plus projects, we have things in everything from carbon capture to grid-level storage to hardware-software to route the grid. We have distributed generation, both totally new ways of thinking of solar to intermediate temperature fuel cells that could allow us to have fuel cell at a distributed level at the home. We have new ways of thinking about plants to have them be more fuel-like versus more plant-like to, you know, new ways to use natural gas in passenger vehicles. So if you look at the breadth, I mean, it's amazing to have people who are expert in the various subfields working on these projects, everything from, you know, the brightest of academics and their grad students and postdocs to some of the very largest industries in America coming together to figure out how do we make these things matter.

Monica Trauzzi: And DOE recently announced $125 million in support of transformational energy projects. It's the third ARPA-E funding opportunity since 2009, so what types of innovations is the agency looking to fund?

Cheryl Martin: Well, that's the great thing about the agency. We fund two kinds of funding opportunities. We are modeled on DARPA, and so we have program directors who come in for three-year assignments. They come in from industry, academia, the national labs, and they come in with a focus area. So if they want to look at new ways of rethinking vehicle batteries, they'll come in and they'll run a pitch and then a funding opportunity basically puts $30 million into a space, maybe funding a dozen projects, really trying to push the envelope and make a difference.

On the other hand, our open projects, we've done them every three years. They allow us to cast open the doors and say, "Energy community innovators, send us everything you've got." And we're able to look at thousands of inputs and select things that are very unique. Maybe they would never fit in a focus program area or something that we've not seen. For example, in our one three years ago, we had such things as diverse as something that you'd put in a backpack that has cameras, sensors, infrared sensors, allows you to walk through buildings. There's no GPS in it, but it would allow you to walk through a building like this and we could see all the hot and cold spots. It would give you a visual and a thermal map, so you could think about how would we do energy efficiency in this space. I mean, just things that really unique, out-of-the-box ideas.

Monica Trauzzi: How do you judge, though, when something is maybe pushing the envelope a little too much?

Cheryl Martin: Well, I think at ARPA-E, as long as it doesn't break any known laws of science, we're willing to look at it, and we look at it with the filter of if it works, will it matter, and that becomes a really important mantra for us. We're not trying to do things just because they're unusual. It's because if we do them and if they work, they will transform and change how we view the future. You know, for example, in the open solicitation in '12, everybody I think knows, you know, grid-level storage, big hot topic, lots of batteries are coming out, and we've seen some of our original investments start to be products. However, at the same time, we saw a couple of interesting applications, one we selected from Harvard and one from USC, Southern California, and they proposed whole new battery chemistries where the chemistries are water-based, metal-free, all right, which is not how you think about batteries. They're composed of the chemicals that are in rhubarb. And so that's weird, but at a fundamental principle, it's grounded, and so far, they're working. And so it's cool.

Monica Trauzzi: You announced this week that you're going to be leaving the agency. What's behind your decision? What's next for you?

Cheryl Martin: Well, you know, ARPA-E both, as I mentioned, our program directors as well as everyone on the tech-to-market side, we come in via our special hiring authority for three-year terms, nominal three-year terms, and so my three years was up last August, but you know, as you know, Ellen Williams, our new director, was not confirmed until December, and so I was leading the agency and I stayed on through what the three years. And so at this point, Ellen's getting up to speed really well and, you know, I'm kind of an all-in person. When I left the chemical industry six years ago, I left on an acquisition, and the minute it was announced that we were going to be acquired, I said, "Well, once it's done, I'm going to leave." 'Cause I think it's better for our organization to be clean as a leader that, oh, I'm going. And so I left then and took some time off and ended up taking an opportunity with Kleiner Perkins that led me here, but now I feel like, OK, we're ready for the transition, I believe, in ARPA-E model, and so I put a marker out in March now and I said, "OK, what else do we need to do as an organization so that we can have a really good transition?" And so, you know, I'm excited about the next steps. I don't have a plan beyond that and -- but, you know, there's a lot of opportunity out there to figure out how do we move beyond ARPA-E. How do the partnerships, the scale-up parameters, how does it come together, and so I would love to find the right opportunity to do something in that part of this space.

Monica Trauzzi: And how do you expect Ellen Williams, the new director, to shape the direction the office takes and the types of projects that we see coming out of ARPA-E?

Cheryl Martin: Well, the good thing is, you know, Ellen's already been in for a couple months, so we've been able to actually work together as we've looked at some of the solicitations we've had coming through, and hopefully you'll do an interview with Ellen, so I hope that was a lead-in, to be able to get her views about the agency, but she's obviously got a tremendously broad background, you know, grounded in chemistry and physics. She spent time at the agency over the past year. She was at BP, and so her knowledge and networks, different than mine, different sectors, and so I think she'll bring different views on some of the parts of energy, but really supportive of innovation, really supportive of the idea of transformation and making a difference, and that we are the option agency. So I think some of those fundamental precepts won't change at all, but you know, everybody's got their own flavor about how they do things, so I think it'll be fun and it's really going to be awesome.

Monica Trauzzi: There's so much competition internationally on innovation. What more should the U.S. be doing to stay ahead of the curve?

Cheryl Martin: Well, you know, I think that innovation has always been at the heart of the American ideal, right. There is something -- we talk to international agencies all the time about what we do at ARPA-E. There's something in how America's always been put together to take big chances and to risk just outrageous, you know, failure where it doesn't work the way you thought and be able to take the knowledge in that thing that didn't work and pivot it to something else, that I think is alive and kicking and is better done here than anywhere else, and so I believe that what we've seen, we've funded innovation in 44 or 45 states, everything from the smallest company that's a couple of brothers in their father's, you know, tool shop in the Upper Michigan Peninsula to the biggest powerhouse universities and the biggest industries in this country. And so innovation is alive and well across the U.S., and to watch teams come together where you've got, you know, a team, a small company in Arkansas pair up with Ford and they come together and they put together a battery charging system that changes the whole way you think about how these things are going to be in vehicles, you know, America thrives on this, and if you go down here at the summit, we host this every year, there's 2,000 people here and they're there talking, you know, as much as they can with each other, to each other. We set up networking events around specific subjects to get people to interact that ordinarily wouldn't talk because I really believe that it's not that we don't have answers to our problems; we just need to parse the question so the right person knows they have the answer. So it's exciting and, you know, I am excited for what we've been able to do at ARPA-E so far, and the future of not only ARPA-E but the whole innovation ecosystem in the United States.

Monica Trauzzi: Thank you, Cheryl. Thank you for your time today, and good luck in your next venture.

Cheryl Martin: Thank you very much.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back from the OnPoint studios tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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