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UPDATED: Feds Open Up $25M for Risky Research

UPDATED Amid fierce competition for a slice of the Department of Energy’s multibillion-dollar pie of loans and grants for high-risk energy researchbattery manufacturing, and green car projects, another pot of government funds designed to support development of new manufacturing technology for advanced materials can go largely unnoticed.

But the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Technology Innovation Program has doled out $71 million in awards to companies including A123Systems (s AONE) and Amprius in recent months, and this morning it announced a new round of funding available for high-risk, potentially high-reward research projects. The idea is to develop more efficient, lower cost, less wasteful and faster ways of producing biofuels, as well as products from other “process-based industries,” such as pharmaceuticals and chemicals.

“New materials have the potential to open whole new markets for novel or dramatically-improved manufactured products,” NIST notes in its release this morning. But taking those innovations from the lab and moving them into commercial production, “remains a major challenge for manufacturers.”

Many greentech startups have become all too familiar with that challenge. Battery developer Firefly Energy stopped operating last month after being unable to cross what’s known as the valley of death — the gap between proving a technology and scaling. And battery startup Imara shut down last winter after a year’s delay in scaling up operations and stymied fundraising efforts. Meanwhile, algae fuel developer Solazyme has been around for seven years and raised more than $76 million, but has yet to reach commercialization.

Clean technologies ranging from energy storage for plug-in vehicles to photovoltaics to biofuels need both kinds of inventions in order to lower costs enough to compete with conventional options (e.g. gas engine cars and fossil fuels).

As Lux Research explained in a report earlier this year, the race to scale represents a make-or-break contest for many next-gen biofuel developers, which have a chance to secure funds under NIST’s program. Achieving low enough costs to compete with petroleum counterparts, “can only happen at commercial scale,” according to Lux. And, “companies that get there first — due to favorable funding, government assistance, or operational excellence — will have the best prospects even if their technology isn’t the absolute best in class.”

Around $25 million is at stake in this latest competition under the Technology Innovation Program, or TIP, which expects to help fund work on 25 research initiatives for up to five years. Awards can be as much as $3 million over three years for a solo company effort, or up to $9 million for joint venture projects taking place over five years.

Update #1: NIST spokesperson Michael Baum has confirmed with us in an email that biofuels projects, as well as biomanufacturing “certainly _could_ qualify for an award under this TIP competition,” depending on the nature of the project. He noted that,”The important thing to understand is that TIP is looking for novel, path-breaking technology in these areas, not projects that are simply proposing an incremental improvement on existing practice.” While the Federal Funding Opportunity announcement and NIST’s white paper on advancing critical manufacturing processes focus heavily on biopharmaceuticals as an example, Baum said similar opportunities likely exist in biofuels manufacturing.

Update #2: Several days after sending us that initial email, Baum has now reached out to tell us that he inadvertently gave us the wrong information about this latest TIP program. “The biomanufacturing sectors targeted by the current competition are those focused on the production of complex biopharmaceuticals,” he explained. The Federal Funding Opportunity Announcement, he said, excludes biomanufacturing projects that focus on processes for “production of non-biopharmaceutical products, e.g. production of biofuels or small molecule drugs),” among other categories. “TIP competitions are generally very focused and necessarily limited by the funds we have available,” Baum explained, adding that while biofuels are not included in this TIP competition, “NIST has been active in supporting biofuels research over the years.”

Related GigaOM Pro article (subscription required):

Photo courtesy of Coskata

6 Responses to “UPDATED: Feds Open Up $25M for Risky Research”

  1. Charlie

    Biofuels are a non-starter for this solicitation if I’m reading it right. I think it’s just materials and biopharma/tissue engineering.

    In fact the RFA says “Examples of proposals addressing critical process advances that will be considered nonresponsive are: … Biomanufacturing projects that primarily focus on processes for production of non-biopharmaceutical products ( e.g. production of biofuels or small molecule drugs”

    Nonresponsive = does not qualify. Let me know if I’m wrong, but I can’t find anything in here that makes it seem like biofuels are a subject of this grant.