What You Need to Know About the ARPA-E Program

If you’ve been worried that the Department of Energy’s loans, loan guarantees and grants to greentech startups like Tesla, Solyndra, and BrightSource, are too risky, then you’re not going to be too keen on the DOE’s high-risk energy tech fund, ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy). But that’s the entire point of the ARPA-E program — to support moonshot technologies that might be too risky for other investors — and the DOE has already announced the first round of ARPA-E grants, and has awarded a total of $151 million for 37 projects.

On Tuesday the DOE will kick off its first summit that will look at the ARPA-E program, the grant recipients and how the DOE funds will help these young companies scale. Speakers include Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, the CEO of GE Jeffrey Immelt, and Kleiner Perkins partner John Doerr. We’ll be bringing you details of the conference over the next two days, but we thought we’d give you these 7 points on what you need to know about how the program works and the companies that have won grants:

More Than Half of the Funding Left: The ARPA-E program was created in 2007, but was left unfunded until the passage of this year’s stimulus package. In total the ARPA-E program has $400 million to award over the next two years, and a little less than half has already been awarded. (Related GigaOM Pro Research: In Q3 2009, Uncle Sam Was the Green IT King Maker – sub required)

The Second Round of Grants Coming Soon: DOE Secretary Steven Chu announced that the DOE was taking submissions for a second round of $100 million in ARPA-E grants in December. For these grants the DOE is specifically looking at liquid transportation fuels, carbon capture technology, and batteries for transportation. The full application for these second round of grants is due March 15.

It’s Really Competitive: The first round of 37 winners announced back in October were drawn from a pool of 3,700 concept papers, and then 334 full proposals — so about 1 percent of the applicants won a grant. A team of 500 scientists worked on the applications.

Previous Winners: The first round of grants covered work across the spectrum of green technologies, including building efficiency, carbon capture, energy storage, fuel-efficient vehicle technologies, renewable energy, waste heat capture and water desalination. (For a complete list of ARPA-E grant winners see here).

Scoring An ARPA-E Grant Can Be A Game Changer: For an early stage startup scoring an ARPA-E grant can bring not just funds but the proof of government validation. As we explained it in this article in October, through the lens of the battery startup Envia Systems, winning an ARPA-E grant can shift the playing field for early-stage startups entirely. (Related GigaOM Pro Research: How to Break Into The Energy Storage Market – sub required)

What DOE Is Looking For: The DOE says an ideal ARPA-E applicant would have a “multi-disciplinary” technical idea that could reduce dependency on oil imports, improve energy efficiency across all sectors of the economy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and/or give the U.S. an edge in deployment of energy technologies. The grants are meant to support ideas and technologies in these areas that are facing the “valley of death” — the place where many capital-intensive cleantech startups go to die because they can’t find financing for a critical phase of development or commercialization. (Related GigaOM Pro ResearchHow EV Battery Startups Can Cross the Valley of Death – sub required)

Small Portion of Stimulus for DOE: While $400 million might sound like a lot, it pales in comparison to how much the DOE is spending on greentech in general out of the stimulus package: at least $36 billion. (Related GigaOM Pro Research: The Post-Stimulus State of Cleantech VC – sub required)


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