On his way to Golden, Colorado, in June to take part in the Energy I-Corps program, Richard Skifton of Idaho National Laboratory’s High Temperature Test Laboratory (HTTL) thought he had a real winner with his team’s High-Temperature Irradiation-Resistant Thermocouple (HTIR-TC).
As the name implies, HTIR-TCs are the only sensors specifically designed for operating reliably in high-temperature radiation environments. The accurate measurements of temperatures that it can deliver between 1,100 and 1,700°C are important to safe, efficient and economical industrial operations.
What’s not to like?
“I went in thinking everyone’s going to want these thermocouples, that they were going to sell like hotcakes,” he said.
Seven weeks later, after 75 interviews with potential customers and partners, Skifton and the two other members of his team, Pattrick Calderoni and David Roberts, had done a complete 180 degree turn. Their best bet lay not in selling the equipment itself but in their ability to deploy it as consultants.
“It gave us a lot more clarity,” said Skifton.
Energy I-Corps is a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy aimed at helping engineers and scientists from national labs commercialize the technologies they have developed. Over seven weeks, each three-person team gets coaching and conducts dozens of interviews to determine the sales and licensing potential for their lab-developed work.
Teams consist of a principal investigator, an entrepreneurial lead and an industry mentor. They go to the Golden, Colorado, for training, followed by weeks of interviews and customer validation.
“The first three-and-a-half days are like Marine Corps boot camp for scientists,” said Mark Kaczor, of INL’s Technology Deployment department. He served as industry mentor to an INL team that attended Cohort No. 2 in 2016. “You’re up at 7:30 a.m. and not done until 9:30 that night. Then you have homework, and it’s due the next day. No one comes out unscathed or undeveloped,” he said.
Since 2014, there have been seven Energy I-Corps cohorts (Cohort No. 8 is scheduled to start in early October. Two INL teams were selected to attend). Overall, 10 national labs have sent 80 teams to Energy I-Corps. INL has sent 18 teams in all.
The program was modeled on the National Science Foundation’s successful Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program, which started in 2011. DOE sought to create a training program based on the customer discovery process and industry engagement. It identified the NSF’s I-Corps program as one of the key validated models in this area, specifically focused on increasing the commercial impact of federally funded research and enhancing scientists’ market awareness. Energy I-Corps builds upon the I-Corps model while adapting it to the unique features of the national labs and DOE’s mission space.
Business propositions have to be developed scientifically – fact based rather than faith based, Kaczor said. “Your idea that people will want what you have developed is a hypothesis,” he said.
The interviews done in the two months of an Energy I-Corps cohort are not sales calls. They are aimed more at identifying market channels, market segments and value propositions. “For us in tech deployment, its most valuable aspect is that it helps us get our technology licensed and deployed,” Kaczor said. “For the researchers, it introduces them to an experience they’re unlikely to have ever had. There’s no other way to learn this.”
The other INL team to participate this summer was AxiVis, consisting of Su-Jong Yoon (principal investigator), Jeffery Aguiar (entrepreneurial lead) and Daniel Masiel (industry mentor and president/CEO of IDES Corporation). AxiVis is an augmented reality (AR)/machine learning platform, a combination of hardware and software designed to guide users through industrial safety procedures.
“We went into it with very little knowledge of what to expect,” said Aguiar. They went in thinking AxiVis would be a good prospect for the nuclear industry. But after interviewing more than 100 potential customers and attending conferences and trade shows, they developed a much broader view.
“From the people we talked to, we discovered it would be well-suited to industrial space, construction, training,” he said.
Yoon attended the augmented reality expo and discovered a possible commercial collaborator in DAQRI, a Los Angeles AR company whose wearable technology product, DAQRI Smart Glasses, is designed for industrial users. If a relationship transpires, Aguiar said he hopes to apply for funding from DOE’s Technology Commercialization Fund (TCF), the other main element in DOE’s technology deployment arsenal. A two-year, $600,000 TCF was recently awarded to Skifton and his team to work closely with Idaho Laboratories Corporation of Idaho Falls, Idaho, to commercialize the HTIR-TC.
Kaczor pointed to two Energy I-Corps teams from Cohort No. 6 that have gone on to collect a combined $1.5 million in TCF money. The 4CS team, led by Vivek Agarwal, brought technology designed to automate the remote monitoring of valve positions at nuclear power plants. Using retrofitted wireless sensor/communication technologies, 4CS does not require requalification of valves, of which nuclear plants have hundreds, resulting in significant reduction of labor cost in day-to-day plant operations.
Because of the Customer Discovery networking they did through Energy I-Corps, the 4CS technology is scheduled to be deployed as a pilot demonstration at two Exelon Nuclear power plants – Calvert Cliffs in Maryland and Nine Mile Point in New York.
The other technology receiving Topic 2 TCF support is ELINA, a computer-based procedure (CBP) system for nuclear plants developed by INL’s Johanna Oxstrand, Dr. Katya LeBlanc and Rachael Hill. ELINA visually guides workers through each step of the process, validating inputs and outcomes before moving on to the next step. It simplifies the complex paper-based procedure process and ensures that organizations can safely decrease operation and maintenance costs.
INL has sent teams from its Nuclear Science & Technology and Energy Environment Science & Technology directorates to Energy I-Corps cohorts. This fall it will be sending two teams to Cohort No. 8, including its first from the National and Homeland Security directorate.
“It’s kind of like watching kids grow up,” Kaczor said. “You know they’re going to go through this transformation, and they don’t know it. At the end, they come back with so much more knowledge about who they are, what they can do, and where their great innovation can be deployed … or not.”