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A Match Made in Heaven: Small Company Innovators and DOE National Labs

By Posted on October 15, 2015
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Robert JacksonGuest Blogger: Robert Jackson, Director, Michigan Energy Office

When most people think about the Department of Energy national laboratories, such as Los Alamos and Oak Ridge, they might think of the development of the atomic bomb, particle acceleration, or some other top-secret clandestine research. Those in the energy and transportation technology space, however, think about the nation’s most extensive network of advanced R&D in materials science, physics, and applied energy and transportation engineering. Those not intimately familiar with the energy space should know that the labs are doing far more than building nukes.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) apportioned roughly $11 billion across the 17 national labs, which represents about 40% of the overall DOE discretionary budget. The labs employ 22,000 people across the country, many of whom are PhDs engaged in advanced research in a variety of different energy-related technology areas.

Despite the significant funding from the DOE, the national labs system has historically been underutilized by the private sector, specifically small companies developing new technologies. Several new DOE initiatives are seeking to change this and reimagine the national labs as engines of economic growth for small high-tech companies around the country. The reimagination focuses on commercializing technology that comes out of the labs and opening up the labs as broader resources. One of these new initiatives is the Small Business Voucher Program.

The Small Business Voucher Program (SBV), is a DOE-funded program that awards competitive grants to small businesses to fund engineering and technology development services with partnering national labs. The idea behind the SBV is that national labs resources can fill in critical gaps in small companies’ technology development, bring the technology to market faster, and avoid the “valley of death” in tech development. For example, a startup company commercializing an advanced electrolyte material could receive third-party testing and validation from Argonne National Lab, which could in turn show investors that the technology is legitimate and has a strong market potential. The national labs services, including testing, simulation, prototyping, manufacturing scale-up, and market analyses, have the potential to advance the Technology Readiness Level of small companies participating in the SBV.

Eligible small businesses can request vouchers of up to $300,000 (DOE awarded a total of $20 million to the program) in three application rounds over the next year, including the first deadline of October 23. The SBV requires successful small businesses to contribute 20% of the total project costs in the form of cost-share, either cash or in-kind. Learn more about the SBV, eligibility requirements, and application process at SBV.org.

The State of Michigan and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation recognized the importance of this program for growing small companies in Michigan’s energy and transportation technology sectors. Thus, the Michigan Agency for Energy is launching the Michigan SBV Assistance Project, which awards up to $30,000 in grant funding to select Michigan-based small companies that successfully receive SBV vouchers to work with a national lab. The grants must be used as part of the required 20% SBV cost-share. Eligible companies must submit their application in advance of the SBV application deadline to receive a letter of financial commitment. If you have any questions about the Small Business Voucher Program or the Michigan Agency for Energy’s SBV Assistance Project, reach out to me at jacksonr20@michigan.gov.

I think the DOE is on to something with the Small Business Voucher Program. It taps into the underutilized assets of the national labs to help companies bring their tech to market faster. This resource is very important to small businesses in the energy and transportation space in Michigan, and I encourage all interested companies to consider applying.

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