Introducing a brand new type of R&D program for energy entrepreneurs

A new type of lab, image courtesy of anyaivanova / Shutterstock

This article was updated on February 8th, 2015, to reflect that the program’s name was been changed to Cyclotron Road in November 2014, from M37.

Breakthroughs in energy technologies are just plain tough — they can take a long time and a lot of money, and usually require hard core specialty science knowledge. These are some of the reasons why venture capitalists have fled investing in “cleantech,” as they couldn’t make the same type of easy, quick money that can come from investing in internet companies.

But a brand new program that’s a sort of combo startup accelerator and R&D lab has just opened to help fill this gap and support budding energy entrepreneurs that need funding, collaboration and commercialization help. Meet Cyclotron Road, an entrepreneurial R&D program that’s being launched with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and that will offer five superstar energy researchers funding, lab space, and business help.

Photo from the Berkeley Lab campus. Image courtesy of Oleg, Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo from the Berkeley Lab campus. Image courtesy of Oleg, Flickr Creative Commons.

The program is the brainchild of Ilan Gur, who is Cyclotron Road’s founding director. Gur was a director at the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program, which funds early-stage high-risk projects at both startups and in academia. At ARPA-E, Gur managed 20 research projects in energy storage, solar, and next-gen materials, and also co-founded ARPA-E’s Technology-to-Market program, which helps the research projects get to market.

So yeah, he knows a thing or two about helping these types of early stage energy innovators get to a commercial stage. Cyclotron Road is now accepting applications for the five slots for “Project Leaders” in the program and these leaders will get full time employee benefits at Berkeley Lab, $500,000 in seed funding over two years, a network to advise on tech development and commercialization, as well as any other help needed for things like grant writing, corporate partnerships and business model strategy. And — of course — lab space and equipment at Berkeley Lab.

A new type of efficient solar cell made within Berkeley Lab, image courtesy of Berkeley Lab, photo by Roy Kaltschmidt.

A new type of efficient solar cell made within Berkeley Lab, image courtesy of Berkeley Lab, photo by Roy Kaltschmidt.

The Cyclotron Road program is meant to act as a launching pad and sort of incubator for breakout energy projects. The entrepreneurs should have a product path as part of their research vision. The maximum term of the program is five years, and seed funding is offered for the first two years. The idea is that the entrepreneurs will line up their own funding after that to take their projects to the next level.

As the amount of funding from venture capitalists in cleantech has dwindled, new funding models have emerged from corporations, from family offices, from international investors and from these types of new accelerator hybrids. Think of Cyclotron Road as a riff on the Valley incubator program, but with the deep science and lab connection, the multiyear length, and the advisors who have been through the energy commercialization game before. If Y Combinator morphed into something actually useful for an energy-focused entrepreneur it’d be Cyclotron Road.

When the program was launched in July 2014, it was called M37, which stands for “month 37.” At ARPA-E, Gur and his team would ask themselves: “if we support this team for the next 36 months, where will the project be in month 37?” The program changed its name to Cyclotron Road in November 2014, which is the name of the road upon which the lab is based. A cyclotron is a particle accelerator that Ernest Lawrence invented at U.C. Berkeley.

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