Fireside Chat with Dr. Jennifer Gerbi, Acting Director and Deputy Director for Technology of ARPA-E.
♪♪♪ Professor Melissa Schilling: Hello, everybody. Welcome to our next Fubon fireside chat, and we are extraordinarily excited today. We are going to talk with Dr. Jennifer Gerbi, the acting director at the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, ARPA-E.
She leads the agency's development launch and execution of high-risk, high-reward energy R&D programs. And previously, as a program director at the agency, her programmatic focus at ARPA-E included improving the energy efficiency and management of buildings via advanced sensing systems and storage, novel insulating materials for windows, and renewable energy generation via full the photovoltaics. Prior to working for ARPA-E, Dr. Gerbi worked at Dow Corning
and she holds a PhD in material science from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Now real quickly, I just thought I'd let you know what ARPA-E is in case you're not familiar. So ARPA-E stands for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, and it's a United States government agency tasked with promoting and funding research and development of really advanced energy technologies. So by supporting research in these extremely advanced energy technologies, ARPA-E plays a critical role in ensuring US competitiveness.
What's interesting is this program has enjoyed broad support for its leading edge work, including even in Congress, which we don't often see bipartisan support for too much stuff in Congress these days. So I want to say thank you so much for coming, Jennifer, we're so, or Dr. Gerbi, we're so excited to see you here today.
Dr. Jennifer Gerbi: Well, thanks so much, Melissa. Please call me Jenny. I'm always happy to chat about ARPA-E and really appreciate the invitation. Melissa: Awesome, Jenny. So Jenny, let's just jump right into this. How did you get involved with ARPA-E, which seems like a really cool organization.
How did you decide to, or how did you get roped into getting involved with this agency? Jenni: It is a super interesting place. I'll say I always thought I was going to go into academia and that ended up not being my path. I actually went into industry after spending a little bit of time in a national lab, and I was at a couple different companies and, you know, I learned a lot from being there, but I was always didn't really fit in and I didn't really know why. And, you know, I really like sort of this high risk, high reward kind of R&D area. And it's hard to find that honestly in large industry, in this country these days, and I had been asked to be a reviewer for an ARPA-E funding announcement by somebody who I had done some work with in grad school, who I had met at NREL, his name's Howard Branson. He was a program director at ARPA-E.
And I remember him telling me when he was actually going to go start doing that because he was like, "There's this crazy place, and I'm going to go do this crazy thing. And you only go for three to five years and then you leave," and he loved it, and so I reviewed for him. He saw what I wrote and thought, boy does that sound like a program director? And he just cold-called me and reached out.
And he said, you know, "Wow, is there a problem that just, you know, sticks in your crawl that you would just really think needs to be solved in the energy space and nobody's doing it?" And I knew immediately what I wanted to do. And I was just like, "Yes, Howard, I do, and actually, this is not a bad time to be thinking about a move and you know what, let's talk about this more." And that's how I ended up going to the agency. Melissa: I mean, how cool to be such an expert in area that a government, the big government agency just reaches out and says, "Hey, come solve problems for us."
That is super cool. When you say NREL, are you referring to the National Renewables Energy Laboratory? Jenni:I am, I did work- Melissa: So you worked? Jenni: Yeah, and in graduate school for thin film photovoltaics and we did some stuff with NREL. Melissa: Okay, so you were kind of in this space already. That's really cool.
So I have another question for you here. So in case people don't really understand ARPA-E's mission, they're funding the kind of stuff that would have trouble getting support if it didn't get government funding, 'cause it's so advanced that it's hard to see the commercial payoff in the near term. So the kinds of projects we would put on a R&D portfolio map up like breakthrough or advanced to R&D, which are really hard for a lot of companies to fund, that's the kind of stuff that ARPA-E funds.
So it's pretty advanced cool stuff, but that also seems like it must be really hard to make decisions about what to fund because it's so, you know, new and unproven and you don't know which path is going to work. So my first question for you is how does the agency set it's priority about types of projects to fund. And when I say types, you could think about that in terms of technology areas, or you could think about that in terms of development stages, or you might even have a different way of dimensionalizing this problem, but how does ARPA-E set its priorities? Jenni: You know, that is an excellent question. I'm going to pull up a couple slides here, let's start with slide two in that, you know, ARPA-E, we have a lot of freedom, the way that we're set up. And, but we do have a mission. We have a very specific mission and this is really important because all aspects of the agency really respond to this mission.
And you know, you can sort of see here it's applied, we're looking for impact and results about reducing imports, improving energy efficiency, reducing emissions. We have a couple other things on here regarding nuclear waste and you know, energy infrastructure, resiliency, honestly, these things are all tied together. So we ask ourselves all the time, how does what we want to do fulfill our mission and not just generally, but in a quantitative way, in terms of, you know, quads energy produced or CO2 avoided or things like that. So we do have a very strong guiding principle in terms of what we do, but in terms of how we figure out what we want to do, let's go to the next slide, slide three, which is that, you know, a lot of people say this, but it's really hard to be set up to have the freedom to do this, which is that we are actually turning everything on its head and we are not looking at technology first.
We are saying what problems should be solved and why? And there's a huge amount of strength in being able to look at this approach, okay? Then we say, how can that solution have an impact? Which means we're thinking about the market along with the tech in the beginning. We think about what technical gap needs to be filled in order to enable a completely new pathway, this transformative research we call it. And most of it probably won't work. Again, this is really, really difficult stuff to do.
I'll sometimes it's pie in the sky. It's like imagine a world in which this were true, but the people that are looking into this are, you know, senior level of PhDs that have a lot of knowledge about these technical spaces. So we look at the problem first to solve, look at what the metrics need to look like. And we go through this really intense process internally of how to figure this out.
So what I should say is that, you know, we're really driven by this core of something called program directors at the agency. That's what they ask me to come in to do. And again, we're all on these term limits.
We cycle through three to five years and we have a process by which internally we do a huge amount of pressure testing, even from the earliest stages of an idea together. You can take the slides down now, Jen, thanks. And what we do is we'll say, we'll have an idea. Well, maybe this is a problem we should solve. Well, we talk with our program director peers.
We talk with the market side of the agency, which we have folks on our teams. We pressure test this internally, externally, we put out RFIs, we have workshops, we do all sorts of work and it'll take a year to put together a program which accumulates in a funding announcement and then the real fund begins. So the key is that we have the set of program directors and we do not have a top-down roadmap driven structure.
It is completely bottom-up. Really the only control we have over is sort of who we hire and bring in, not everything people propose happens, I will say that, you know, we have a very high bar, but that process is very organic. So it self corrects and pivots and changes as people are looking into this and they have the freedom to be able to do that. Melissa: Okay, so related to this, like when I think about it advanced energy technologies, I know that right now there's a lot of people placing different bets, right? There's some people betting on new Lithium-sulfur batteries. There's people betting on green hydrogen, there's flow batteries, there's just all these different potential pathways. What is the philosophy at ARPA-E, do you try to pick one and bet big? Do you pick a couple and bet pretty big, do you try to have a big op portfolio of options where you're making lots of small bets on lots of different technologies? Like how do you think about that? Jenni: So the way to think about ARPA-E is that we are trying to enable there to be options to bet on at all.
So we're not really choosing a winner, right? We're trying to put new options into the space, which is why it's important that we're sort of outside of this road mapping system. And then, you know, and you know, again, we're not picking winners. We might fund five different things, all of which, if one of them was spectacularly successful would obviate the other ones.
We don't care. Like the chances of these things working at a very large extent is relatively low 'cause it's very high-risk research. So we're sort of all of the above kind of a strategy. Melissa: That is awesome, I got to watch this video and take these quotes down 'cause I can just give up and put this on the stuff I talked to my students about. So cool. Okay, so given I, so I want to ask you, is it really hard? Someone sends in, you put out a funding proposal for FOA and people send in these proposals and this is really advanced on certain stuff.
Is it hard to evaluate the quality of the proposals? And do you have some rules of thumb you use for evaluating the quality of the proposals? Jenni: There's a few different aspects to that. And Jen, if you can pull up slide five, it's, you know, we really work on building a community to solve a problem. This problem that we decided needs to be solved. And as part of that, you know, we have our antenna out looking for reviewers very early because we have two different review stages and we go really in depth with that. So we look for, you know, we look for technical experts, experts in industry, you know, we are on the lookout for reviewers and spend a long time putting our funding announcements together, where we're very clear about why we choose the metrics that we choose.
We're very clear about what information needs to be included. And so this is sort of our model of how we do things, all the stuff I was just talking about with program directors and pitching a program, goes up to that program approval stage. But after that, when we put out this FOA, again, we have two rounds of external reviews and internal reviews. We have a proposal rebuttal stage where we actually will send comments back to the people who applied and they have a chance to rebut them, that's pretty unusual. So we actually, we take that very seriously, but you know, curating that list of reviewers is a big deal.
We have in-person review panels where we fly everybody in, that sort of hybrid these days, to all talk about these different proposals. That's actually what Howard had me do. When I first was introduced to the agency is I flew in for these reviewer panels and I was just blown away by the amount of just information and expertise that I saw. So that is a really important part. And again, that's part of forming that community, is getting that those reviewers together.
You can take that down, thanks Jen. Melissa: So you get in these proposals and then you have to basically farm them out to reviewers who are specialists in those areas, right? And then nobody may be a specialist across the areas. So then, or who decides across the area, who decides in what areas these things have cleared a bar, you know what I'm saying? Like there could be a whole area where everything is below bar, but the best one still gets the best reviews.
I mean, I'm just curious about that. Jenni: Sure, that's an excellent question. So, you know, at the end of the day, the program director is the one who chooses a portfolio.
So they have all of this information in front of them. They have the external reviews, internal reviews, all of the comments, scores, rebuttals, they have all this information. It is up to you as a program director to build a portfolio that makes the most sense to achieve the goals of your funding announcement. So you do not just pick the top 10 scoring ones.
Honestly, sometimes, some of the lower risk approaches tend to score higher because they seem more feasible, but you want a lot of different shots on goal. You might want to try seven different technical approaches. So there tends to be a mix of things in there. And, you know, sometimes, I mean, one of the proposals that, you know, I really enjoyed in the program I put together was put together by a tiny little startup that only had a few people in it. Their proposal was not beautiful. In fact, it was very not beautiful, didn't care.
What was important was the content in that proposal. We also sometimes get beautiful proposals written like you would not believe, gorgeous, the content, not really what we're looking for. So a lot of what we do is to try to, you know, sort of dig through and really look at the content of what's going on and having the freedom again, to build that portfolio to be what you need and not be beholden to reviewer scores and things like that. Super important.
Melissa: Wow, that's really cool. I'm learning so much and I'm taking lots of notes here. Okay, next question. So say you pick the projects that you're going to fund, how involved does ARPA-E stay with the project after that? Are there kinds of assistance that you can provide the teams? Like, are you involved directly with the projects after that other than providing funding? Jenni: So we actually have something called substantial involvement, you know, in our authorizing language. And we are very involved with our project teams, which is, which can be a bit new for some of them, if they're not used to this sort of things.
So right upfront when we negotiate, we don't negotiate grants really, we negotiate cooperative agreements. And so these things can change sort of at any time. We put together a statement of work that's driven by milestones and there's things like go, no go milestones. There's both technical and market milestones. So there's this big negotiation upfront.
And then we have quarterly meetings with our teams to see what the progress is, do they need help? Let's discuss what they're figuring out here, you know, how can we help them? And those are a blast. I have learned so much from so many teams from doing these quarterly reviews. You know, again, everybody's around the table.
You know, we have some, subject matter expert consultants that work with us on our teams, you know, we'll have a tech to market advisor, we'll have the program director and we're all throwing out questions and sort of learning things and suggesting things and making contacts and you know, really trying to help these teams out. And, you know, we'll, sometimes those will be in persons. Those have been virtual the past couple years. We're very excited to get back to seeing some of these teams in person. But that's just invaluable because again, these, we're doing these high-risk approaches. A lot of it's not going to work, a lot of times you might need to change your approach, you might learn something, you might, maybe you can't solve the overall problem, but you can pull something really useful as a partial solution out of it, there's all sorts of things like that.
And again, it comes back to this idea of that you have the freedom to do that, but it is a lot of work. And I know the first few years I was at the agency, I was on the road a lot, because I was visiting a lot of these teams and I inherited a couple of programs, but it was just, it was amazing. So it's well worth it, but we are extremely involved. So if there's a particular, there may be an academic group that has only had NSF funding and then they get an ARPA-E, you know, award, we warn them up front.
We're like, this will be different than what you're used to, right? We're doing applied research. There is a goal, it's very specific, this is why, you know, we're going to be in your face a lot, but you know, hopefully that's a positive relationship and it, everybody benefits from it. Melissa: And so how many years could that go on in general? Like what is the average number of years you're going to stay involved with that project? Jenni: So a program's usually three years. Sometimes they're different. Sometimes we do some smaller seedling sort of awards, which are more like one or two years.
We have the freedom in our portfolios to sometimes we shut, we have to shut things down, but then we can utilize that money to plus other projects up. And so those might end up lasting four years or a little more. Melissa: Wow, okay, and then I know this wasn't on the list of questions that I like present with, but it just makes me wonder what happens to the intellectual property rights. Like does the government take an interest, does the government get part of the intellectual property rights for the stuff that's being developed or how do you guys handle that? Jenni: Excellent question. So teams are required to file their subject matter inventions.
So when there's something that would be patentable, let's just say, you put that sort of into the system. So we know that that happened. And so teams do, you know, often file patent and we actually provide some funding for that. I think it's what is that up to now? Was it 25,000, 30, something like that, which is pretty unusual because we think this is so important.
You know, teams will put together an IP strategy. You know, that's actually one of the deliverables that, you know, will be sort of in our milestones because we know that IP is so crucial. And part of our mission is US competitiveness. And, you know, to that end, you know, IP is a real thing. So we work with our teams on this and, you know, no, the government does not own this.
There are under some cases, the government has something called march-in rights to take IP in an unusual situation. But that's not really what we're talking about here. So it's actually really valuable because, again, we do help our teams that can get some money to file IP. It's a very important thing to get. So it is important. And we actually track that as one of our sort of impact indicators are, you know, the amount, you know, the number of patents that are being reported and filed because sometimes licensing that patent is actually, at the end of the day, what's going to make an impact because some teams do not have an interest in forming a startup, right? The way you're going to have an impact is licensing that IP.
So we track that too. Melissa: Or they couldn't scale fast enough, right? There's a lot of, I could think of a lot of startups developing technology, where that technology will only be valuable at tremendous scale, and they're not going to be able to scale fast enough so that the solution is to license it out. Jenni: Yeah, and it strengthened your business case.
I mean, you know, everybody knows who's who sort of pitched something, you'll be asked about your IP at some point, you know, and it goes into your strategy and that's really what's going to be driven by very highly technical milestones. So it might be, oh, I don't know. You have to have, you know, something that has a certain efficiency as measured by X, Y, and Z or a certain, you know, optical transparency and/or you know, that can meet even, you know, certain cost metrics at scale or these things are very detailed, including how you measure them.
And those are one of the things that it sort of spelled out in these statements of work. So those are highly, highly technical and measurable. Let's just say that. Where things start to get a little bit more fuzzy is when you say, okay, from more of a market point of view, how do you know if something, what would you call a success? So, you know, there might be a team who maybe didn't think they would do this, but they end up actually forming a spin out company or startup company. And, you know, it successfully moves forward. That's a really big deal for some groups who haven't done it before, you know, talk to seven perspective partners, put your pitch decks together, I mean, there's things like this that we, you know, can work on with teams to sort of help them move forward and sort of be success that way.
And then that sort of leads to the broader picture of looking at what does that mean as success at an agency? Because, you know, we're funding all sorts of different things. I mean, we have programs and fusion and we have programs and sensors where if they worked tomorrow, people would be buying them off, like off the shelves. So distance to market is really different depending on the technologies that we're talking about.
So different impact metrics make sense for different kinds of programs and how close you are to the market. So we actually have a team of people that look at this, it takes time to do this the right way. I will say it is not easy, but I love the fact that we do this because this is something that, you know, I think the agency was just sort of starting to work on when I got there, let's go to slide nine. And this, you know, this has grown up over time, but this is where we're at right now.
And I'm actually sharing with you for the first time, publicly, updated numbers as of the end of last year. So these are always really fun to look at. So we have developed over time. We have eight of them now in terms of these impact indicators for sort of our portfolio as a whole.
So one thing you can think is very simple, all right, money out, we've put about $3 billion out that still sort of blows my mind sometimes. And then let's look at private sector follow-on-funding, specifically to the technology that ARPA-E funded. We do not count money that a company gets. Maybe even that company started under one of our awards, if it's not actually pertinent to the technology that we funded, okay? So we go through and we audit every instance of this to see, should we count it, should we not count it? So that's, you know, 9.8 billion in follow-on-funding
directly attributed to the tech. That's awesome, that's just one thing though. There's many other things. We can look at things like the number of companies that are funded, a somewhat crazy number which is market valuations. We actually, we pull that out of the follow-on-funding number, because that's a different kind of number. There's been a lot of sort of high value exits recently, especially in the battery space that drove that number very high, but you know, there's other ones, you know, moving on to other government agencies and, you know, being funded by them, journal articles, again, that, you know, add knowledge to these, you know, communities in these spaces to sort of, you know, help define these new disruptive pathways.
Those are important. And then again, I mentioned, you know, both patents and licenses and again, licenses are the things that we are continually trying to run down, trying to encourage teams, help them figure out how to do you this, different universities care to different extents about this and have different levels of resource to help teams actually get their IP licensed. But this covers a lot of ground, I would say, in terms of technologies that are either far from market or closer to market. And it's been just amazing sort of watching this sort of change with time, I'll show you one slide for that. And that would be slide 10, the next one, which is just looking at that follow-on-funding number. And this really gives a lot of credence to the idea that, you know, it sort of takes 10 years for something to start to take off when you're just working on it in a really high risk space.
And like at 10 years, yeah, something took off. And a lot of that was some of the early battery work that the agency did. So who knows what that curve's going to look like moving into the future, but I love this, because it really is, I mean, these are data around this idea that, yeah, you know what, there is an incubation period here for higher risk tech and it can be five, 10, 20 years, depending on what you're, you know, what you're thinking about.
And we have a little bit sort of in each one of those spaces. Okay, you can take the slides down, thanks, Jen. Melissa: Well, also that line for follow-on-funding looked really steep, sharp, is that like, would something the quantum scape IPO be in that number? Jenni: That was in there.
That was in that number. Not the only one, but it was one of them. Melissa: That was a big one, right? Jenni: That was a big one. Melissa: All right, so do you have any sort of favorite successes or maybe favorite failures that you learned something from that you want to talk about at ARPA-E.
Jenni: It's so funny you say that I love the idea of favorite failures, and nobody's ever asked me that before, and I'm going to take that down as a note because I should have something very clever to say about that because I'm very careful not to pick favorites or at least talk about picking favorites, but what I will say, and I'm going to go on the other side of that in terms of favorite failures. I love seeing a team do high quality work to show that something isn't possible. There's something- Melissa:Is impossible.
Jenni: That it's not possible. That really resonates with me because, again, it's adding knowledge to the field. You've really truly learned something. You didn't just try something blindly and it just sort of didn't work, I mean, we have some amazing teams that really dig down and understand why something didn't work. So again, they might propose a new pathway and try to do more work, or they might want to publish that and sort of wrap it up. But I have huge respect for these teams and I work for some really good smart teams who ended up doing this, and I just appreciated what they did so much.
And, you know, I think we need to embrace that because you know, the willingness to "fail" I really think we need a different word for it, that is, that underpins the whole reason why innovation in this country is amazing because we take chances. And we're willing to have some not pan out and doing that in the right way is just incredibly valuable. So look, we've had some amazing successes too, which is a lot of fun.
Those are easier to talk about. But I think talking about, you know, the amazing failures, that's just as important in a way, because it, again, it helps drive the field forward in the right way. Melissa: Yeah, I mean, you don't want a lot of more money getting put down wasteful paths. And I also think it takes an incredible amount of honesty to put out results about what doesn't work. I know in academia, for example, it's very difficult to publish a study where the hypotheses fail, like that's just hard to publish. And yet when it does get published, you know that the person have a lot of integrity because generally, you know, researchers are in the business of trying to make hypotheses that be affirmed, you know.
Jenni: That, you know, that's so true, and it's funny. I think coming from my background, I originally was in physics and I got a master's in high energy physics, which is, this is a field where, you know, maybe there'll be one paper with 200 authors on it every five years or something like that. And you know, you have a hypothesis. I mean, are we going to, you know, see this kind of decay of this particle or not? And you can work for 10 years and the answer will be no, that's the one I worked on, the result was no after all of the work.
But you know what, that doesn't matter. What matters is that you know something, there is knowledge there that you didn't have before, and that knowledge itself needs to be considered as the win. Not whether or not your hypothesis was proved correct or not. Melissa:Yeah, that reminds me of a great quote or a great scenario about Thomas Edison. There was this colleague of his, Thomas Edison used to work late until the night in his laboratory.
And at one point he was working on, as coincidence would have it, a storage, a battery, an energy storage battery, really, really early energy storage battery. And he had tried and tried and tried and tried and tried and tried, tried nothing was working. And his, one of his colleagues came in one day and without Lee thinking said, you know, "I just hate to see you go through so many failures like this, you know, how do you endure it?" And then he regretted saying that actually to Thomas Edison, but Thomas Edison turned around and just like flashed in this man he's like, "What are you talking about? I haven't failed. I've just found 9,999 ways that won't work." And- Jenni: That's right. Melissa: Like he saw the value in that, you know.
Jenni: 100%, that's exactly what it is. You're increasing the amount of things you know, that's huge, yeah. Melissa: And if you're not willing to take risks of failure, you're not going to take big risks, which means you're never going to find breakthroughs is kind of the way I look at it. Jenni: That's right. Melissa: You know, we've talked about batteries a couple times here, I've got batteries on the brain lately 'cause I've been advising a batteries startup and I've been, you know, it's interesting to think about the continuum. You've got these companies working on really, stuff I don't understand, like Lithium, I don't understand that one at all.
I understand Lithium-sulfur, which I think is kind of cool. I kind of understand Lithium-silicon, but then you have flow batteries that I don't understand. Then you have people saying, oh no, you know, we're going to go straight to green hydrogen, or we're going to go, you know, to something else. In your mind, how do you organize that space of possibility? Like, do you think of batteries as the near term solution? Or do you think of batteries as the long term solution? Is it running parallel with hydrogen or do you think of like batteries as bridging a gap to some other technology? Like I just, what is your thoughts? I'm sure you get exposed to so much, you have this map of knowledge that the rest of us just can't even dream of having, you know, and so we want to peek at it. Jenni: Well, what I'll say is that it's important to think about things in context as a system, you know, a battery alone, so what, right? So you think about things more in terms of what they do for you.
So you think about things about you're thinking in terms of storage. Okay, do I want storage for the grid? Do I want storage for an automobile or for an airplane? Okay, what do I want that storage to do? Okay, maybe electrochemical storage is the answer. Maybe it's not. And so there's actually very pragmatic side to doing this where you're just looking at, okay, what do I want this thing to do? And you, again, you have to think about it as a system, because without doing, say, you know, a full carbon lifecycle analysis, you could make the wrong decision.
You could make a decision that looks good, and then you say, wait, how much energy did it take me to make that hydrogen and wait, but I wasn't able to use it there. I had to ship it, and then what happened? And, you know, looking at the boundaries of that analysis, in some cases, it might be the solution, in some cases it might not. So you really have to take a very, you know, pragmatic camera to this and sort of challenge all of your assumptions to it. So the technical side is super fun.
I think, you know, the harder part is to really go back to that whiteboard and say, what am I actually trying to achieve here? You know, we have, you know, somebody in the agency who is amazing, who has been working on, you know, a program looking at EVs and you say, well, everybody's been looking at EVs for cars. We have Teslas, blah, blah, blah. It's like, no, look at where the gaps are. Look at what the problem is, right? The problem is most people can't charge the cars at home. That's the problem. So I don't care how fast can you get- Melissa: Right, they can't charge 'em fast enough to charge 'em anywhere else, right? So you got to either charge them home or you got to charge fast.
Jenni: Right, and they don't have any thousand dollars to buy a car. And so you really think about that use case, think about the use case scenario, what problem really are you trying to solve? And then you let that sort of drive your mind into the technical gap that needs to be filled. And it may be a very different space than what the market is actually addressing now, because quite frankly, that case probably doesn't make as much money as the cases that are driving the market right now, which is why they're doing that, right? And so there's a place where we can say, ah, but if there was technology that could do X, Y, and Z, that could totally change that paradigm and enable something that you can't have now. So that's, it's more, that's the way we think about it. It's not so much, oh, there's all these technologies available.
It's really just sort of pulling back and saying, okay, well, why aren't, you know, 80% of the cars out there not electric right now, why, like really why? And then you really dig into that and that drives you into some different directions than you might expect. Melissa: So you focused a lot just then on user-based problem identification, right? What do customers want? What do they not use? What of about like supply chain? Do you ever like focus on supply chain? Jenni: Oh yeah. Melissa: Resiliency problems, like I've been thinking a lot lately about cobalt is a problem, 'cause you know, we relied on the Democratic Republican of Congo, they have a lot of child labor or like lately the price of nickel has gone crazy. So well what about this idea of focusing on battery technology just to solve supply chain resiliency issues, is that like a focus of ARPA-E. Jenni: That can definitely be part of it.
So, you know, depending on what sort of identified as are the main gaps, you know, those might be, you know, gaps that you include in your metrics because you realize that that would be a big market barrier if it's not solved. So those are things that we can include and have before in programs and you know, it's good that you bring up, you know, sort of the supply chain issue because that is a real one. And that's, you know, there's been a lot of interest in that, you know, at ARPA-E recently, you know, we just, you know, we just put out a program called miner. I love our acronyms and it's, you know, it's about domestic mining of critical minerals for energy uses while concurrently using, you know, sort of carbonization of those minerals to use less energy to crush them up. I mean, there's these things are all sort of interconnected, but you know, that really is looking at some of those critical supply chain issues.
But we would always include that as for example, like a market risk. Let's just say, what are the risks to this happening? Oh, you want to use this element? Well, at scale there might not be enough of that in the entire world, so, you know, think about that you know, at the beginning, not at the end. So we think about those things a lot. Melissa: Cool, that's really cool. And also, I imagine you're also thinking about the end of use issues like recyclability and things like that, right? Jenni: That would be along the same lines, I think as something that would be, you know, is this a market barrier? Is this something you need from a market point of view? I mean, it's so much fun because you have, you know, you have these really deep technical PhDs, you know, having discussions about value chains and having discussions about, well, wait, how is this going to have an impact? Well, you have to think about who's going to like make it and buy it and use it and sell it. And you know, a lot of times you don't think about that stuff.
And so it's really fun to pull that into it when you're also looking in deep into the technology, and again, 'cause we're impact-focused, that's why we can do that. Melissa: You should have strategy people there too then, like me. Jenni: We have a whole market side of the agency, it's led by James Zahler, and we have amazing people and we all work together all the time and fact that we're not siloed is why it all works.
Melissa: That's awesome. So a friend of mine called me this morning 'cause he wanted to get the first question in. You can tell he is highly motivated. So might be the hardest question, let's see what he says. He said, "We understand ARPA-E is considering announcing a new funding opportunity to support the development of faster charging, an improved low temperature performance, advanced batteries for EVs. And just this week, ARPA-E announced a teaming partner list, encouraging the forming of consortia to prepare for this opportunity."
And so he asked "When might we see the actual FOA and what else can you say about this battery focus and any next steps?" That sounds really specific. I hope I didn't catch you off-guard on that one. Jenni:It is fine. To answer this question, Jen, I'm going to ask you to put up slide 15, just so people know how to find out about stuff like this, because putting out something like a request for information or a teaming list are public ways that we can let folks know what we are thinking of doing, okay? A teaming list is something that, and I put this out so that this newsletter at the bottom, if you have any interest, you should subscribe to this newsletter because this is where we post announcements that we put out on RFI, we put out a teaming list, we put out a FOA, everything comes out on the exchange site. But if you go to the newsletter, you'll see what we're doing.
Right, you can take that down. I just wanted to put that up so people knew. If you just type, if you just Google ARPA-E, you'll find our website and find all that stuff. So when- Melissa: Maybe we can get- Jenni: Go ahead. Melissa: Liz to drop that into the chat, let's get Liz to drop that ad. Or maybe Jennifer who was, I think, got your slides there can drop that into the chat so that we don't lose that address. Jenni: Perfect.
Jenni: Yep, we will do that. Melissa: Thank you. Jenni: So when we put out something like the teaming list, I would say that, you know, that's getting closer to the stage of where we would put something out, because we, once we put out a funding announce, we can't talk about it anymore, we enter a quiet period. So, you know, a teaming list is a way for us to sort of announce interest. So people can start talking with each other to realize that, yeah, we're thinking of doing something in this while we can still talk about it.
So I'm not, you know, I'm going to not announce like when FOA is anticipated to come out or something like that. But you know, I can say that that shows a strong signal that something's probably. Melissa: You're warming up the market a little, right? Jenni: Yeah, and- Melissa:For our audience, tell 'em what a teaming list is.
What is a teaming list? Jenni: So a teaming list is just, it's something that's on our exchange site that's publicly available where you can put your information. If you have an interest in getting, you know, to see who else is also listed on that teaming list, right? So you can say, oh, there's a contact information of this person or this team who have expertise in this. So when you're thinking about, hmm, you know, if I could use my technology along with some other stuff, we could form a really good team to apply to this FOA. It's a way for you to find each other in advance of the FOA coming out. Melissa: So it's just like in class when I want to set up the discussion board so that students can find the other students they want to work with on projects where they have shared interests.
It's like that. Jenni: Exactly, that's a teaming list, perfect, yes. Melissa: Very cool, all right. Well we have a bunch of questions now in the Q&A, let me pull 'em up here. All right, so the first question I have, this is an interesting one.
What about non-US residents? Is there a pathway for non-US residents to participate in ARPA-E programs? Jenni: So if you work at ARPA-E, you have to be a citizen or naturalized citizen. You do not have to be a citizen for us to fund you as a project. Now, even, and in some of our teams, they will, they might have an international component to them.
They can't be the, you know, the PI on that. But, you know, we can do things like get a foreign work waiver, so some work can happen overseas. Sometimes you really need that because, you know, there's only one fab that will make this one kind of electronics, or there's only one expert in this thing and you know, he's in Australia or something like that. So we can do foreign work. But the citizenship requirement is for being a federal employee, you know, working at ARPA-E.
Melissa: And the team has to have, the team has to be led by a US-based PI or US-based company, something like that. Jenni: That's right, so, you know, for example, a company that would have a branch in the US. like a US subsidiary. Melissa: Like a branch in the US? Jenni: Like a US subsidiary, yeah. Melissa: Sounds, pretty flexible.
I mean, that sounds- Jenni: It's not bad. Melissa: I mean that sounds pretty flexible. All right, from your experience as the next question, from your experience, what is the most common reason that tech startups end up failing? That's a big question.
Jenni: That's a big question. This gets into sort of the people aspect of things, which is something that I didn't appreciate as much early on as I do appreciate now. The number one thing that I have seen personally, I think, and this is just my experience, when people answer your questions in a defensive way so that you can tell that their mind is already sort of closed and that they've decided that their pathway is like the winner, when you can tell that somebody's mind is closed to that kind of feedback, that's a real danger sign because it means that you're not learning. It means that you're not taking any feedback. You're not continuously improving your business case or your technology, you know, you're in sort of pure sales mode and you're not in learning mode. I think when folks move into pure sales mode, that's a bad sign.
I think you have to realize that, yeah, nobody has the perfect solution. Everybody's always changing what they're doing and trying to learn more. So I think blocking off that learning pathway, whatever you would call that, that's what I would say is a, that's a bad sign.
Melissa: I love that answer. I have always said dogmatism was the enemy of intelligence because soon as you think you know all the answers, you're not learning anymore. Jenni: Exactly right. Melissa: So you're not going to be the smartest person in the room. I actually love this next question, although I'm going to stretch it a little bit.
So we've got a question here from (indistinct) saying, apart from batteries, is their room for funding and conductors downsizing. I want to rephrase that a little bit and say, when we're thinking about energy, one of the ways we solve energy problems is to use less of it, right? Like what about projects in lightweighting? Like lightweight carbon or projects in reducing the amount of energy it just takes to move a car, reducing friction in the way transportation happens, is that part of ARPA-E's mission. Jenni: We funded stuff in all of that before. So a lot of times, even if we don't have a big focused program on something, we will have had projects like that coming through our open solicitations.
So every three years, we have this huge open solicitation. Jen, why don't you go ahead and put up slide eight just for fun for a second. This is an example of- Melissa: That's where we get the weird stuff, right? That's where you get the cool, weird stuff is the open one, right? Jenni: I would argue it's all cool, weird stuff. But I think for open is a good opportunity to, you know, maybe have a few projects in something that maybe, you know, a full focused program, you know, there really wasn't justification for, or we just don't have the PD here yet to lead that and push that. So, you know, our most recent one, this is really big, it was 175 million in many different technical areas.
And that's what we're looking for is to have just the sort of stuff from all over the place. And so we've absolutely had projects and things like, you know, ultra low friction surfaces and lightweighting and stuff like that. And then Jen, if you can switch to slide 11, here's another example of how to use less energy. And that is in, you know, power conversion devices. So power electronics is a big area in terms of, you know, whether it's saving energy or it's enabling sort of grid resiliency or things like that.
And we've had a number of different programs that all touch on this area. Some of them build on each other. Some of them have some open projects that got pulled into their portfolios. And this is sort of a fun example of looking at synergy between some programs and how it can sort of impact the community in terms of, this is just a follow on investment picture, but there's a lot of energy that we throw away in power conversion. And when you start to think about things like electronic aviation and stuff like that, power conversion becomes really a big issue. 'Cause now you're talking about a plane, you know, kilovolts, you know, up high in the atmosphere where you start getting plasma discharges and things like that.
So we actually have a small program on that, for example, you can take that down, Jen. Thanks, but it's, but yeah, go to our website sometime and you can look at the projects that we've done under some of these different open FOs and you'll see all sorts of stuff like that. Melissa: Cool, all right. I'm going to ask you another question from Q&A. Mark Mawin, Mark Mawin joined us, that's really cool.
She's a really cool scientist that I happen to know. She says, "Thank you for this insightful presentation. Last week, President Biden announced ARPA-H to explore the next frontier of biomedical research.
What lessons can we learn from ARPA-E's experiences that can be used in this sister program? Is there anything process related that should be definitely replicated or anything that should be avoided? Jenni: Wait, these are like crazy smart questions that are coming from this event, I'm loving this. So, I was actually on a working group that was helping inform ARPA-H and I sang from the rooftops in terms of the things that made ARPA-E different and how we worked, you know, the devil's going to be in the details in terms of how it gets set up. There is very important that we report directly to the secretary, okay? There are not levels of management down to us. That's very important again, because we're doing this bottom-up sort of decision making process.
And it is very important that we have a certain amount of independence and autonomy, again, because we're sort of in that higher risk area, this is going to be a really interesting challenge for ARPA-H because that is a gigantic organization that it's going to be a part of. And you know, you really have to understand the culture of an organization like this and what it needs and you have to trust the people in it. So I love the idea of an ARPA-H, I really do. I desperately hope they can make it work. I think the mission is really important.
So it'll be interesting to see what that comes down to. I think if you don't have a clear mission, then everybody's just going to want to take a piece of it. You know, everybody has their own idea of what they would love to see, an ARPA-H sort of attack.
So, we'll see what happens, but you know, what I will say is there's so much acknowledgement regarding the ARPA model and how successful it can be. And even with that, it's still pretty hard to maintain it, especially as it grows, because you know, when you're getting 200 million, you know, you can sort of fly under the radar to a certain extent, you know, people aren't going to bug you too much. When you get a billion, people are going to want to know what you're doing and is the thing they're interested in your portfolio, and they're going to start to bug you about it. Melissa: Yeah. Jenni: And once you start to get that kind of a pressure, it's going to impact what you're doing and it's going to be harder for you to generate the entirely brand new things. So it's going to be a very interesting challenge.
I'm so happy that they're taking it on, but it isn't easy. Melissa: Does it get political? You find it starts getting politicized? Jenni: I mean, I'm sure- Melissa: Different groups going after. Jenni: I'm sure these things can be, I mean, I think that, you know, we are very lucky, you know, in that we haven't, I mean, when you look at our level of funding, our bi-partisans support, you know, the programs that we put out under the last administration, I mean, we just keep pushing forward and doing all sorts of different things.
And I think it's because people do respect the fact that we are not politicized. We don't do that and I think that's 'cause we're just so crazy pragmatic and we just don't have time for it, but we've been very fortunate. Melissa:Let’s hope it can stay that way. Jenni: We're doing everything, I think we will. I think we will, because I think everybody can relate to the kind of problems that we're trying to solve. And also, you know, I mean, we have projects all over the country and almost every single state in all these different areas, we have a big focus on agriculture, for example.
So, you know, a lot of people relate to what we're doing and I think that's important. Melissa: You know, it's a really nice relationship to the next question, which is a cool question by Nick Alexof, Nick says Dan Kaufman, who was a DARPA guy, says DARPA gets no credit in 2015 via the... With respect to the public's understanding of DARPA's impact on many consumer devices used.
Is ARPA-E concerned with getting credit? 'Cause anecdotally, defense seems to get funded regardless of what's going on, will ARPA-E be subject to the political winds a bit more? So I guess they're asking two questions there. They're asking how much does it matter that ARPA-E gets credit and how does that credit translate into how much money you guys get to spend? Jenni: That's a good question. I mean, outreach is important to us because we are a taxpayer-funded agency, and we are solving problems for the American people and American competitiveness is part of our mission. So, it would be a very bad idea for us not to communicate the impact that we're having. That's one of the reasons we put those impact metrics together.
We also, you know, put together, you know, here's products that exist that wouldn't existed, you know, if we didn't of ARPA-E, we do a lot of outreach. A lot of that is also to get people into the agency and also to recruit new performers to apply to the agency. So people need to know about us. We are lucky, and I think this is a harder challenge for DARPA, because you know, when your main customer's defense, I mean, I'm sure they do a ton of things that they're never allowed to tell you about. So, you know, how are you supposed to do outreach when you are hampered and you know, what you can talk about? So it is harder for them, I think because of that, whereas, you know, we can talk about, you know, what we do.
So to me, it's limited, quite honestly, we are a pretty lean and flat agency and we are all busy as heck. So, you know, we're trying to get, you know, more people involved to do more of this kind of work. 'Cause we do think it's very important. And you know, the fact that, you know, we also have this sort of congressional outreach, you know, that we do and management and that's so important. And that's one of the reasons why we have such bipartisan support as well is because we make the effort to go and communicate what we are doing on both sides of the aisle and have since we started, all of that is crucial.
Melissa: Cool, all right. Now we have another question from Jeremy Reed who says, "For a small business whose mission is also US competitiveness and innovation through technology transfer, what are the, lighting around here, hold on a second, 'cause people are putting questions in there so fast. What are the biggest hurdles you see in bridging the valley of death? What are the key capabilities we need to bring to the table and how can we facilitate effective partnerships between academia, industry and government? Jenni: Well, that's a big question, there's a lot in that.
Melissa: You know, I think by valley of death, they might be referring to what we think of as like crossing the chasm, like how you go from having you have a cool technology you've invented and sure the innovators think it's cool, but how do you get to the point where it's really efficient and can be produced in scale? That's kind of what I would- Jenni: Yeah, I would argue like there are many valleys of death, but the one that comes right after ARPA-E, let's just say, you know, and that's why we actually built a new kind of program called scale up in order to address this. And that's, you know, if you get something working in the lab that, like you would've thought that was impossible, it's amazing that you ever got this thing to work, like that will blow your mind as a scientist. That is not being demonstrated at a scale that will make other people believe that it's even a thing at all, right? You need, there's a level of validation and scale that is necessary in order to get something to move forward, because those of us have worked in that area know that not everything translates out of the lab in the way that you expect. There're going to be a lot of technical problems moving forward. And you also need a business case. So, you know, you need to work on those things.
So I'll throw another slide up, Jen can put up slide seven. We just, we're doing this right now the second time, we did our first one, you know, at 70 million something that's open to all past ARPA-E and current ARPA-E projects that have filed some sort of subject IP, this is IP-based, to get a significant amount of money, larger projects than we do, also high cost share 50%. They have to have a partner involved with them in order to validate this technology at a scale that's relevant to getting the next stage of investment. This is really important because you know, to us, we might be, oh, that's like the next step. Like that's not, you know, the ARPA-E hard stuff was already done.
It's like, no, no, no, this is also ARPA-E hard. And somebody looking at this from the other direction, thinks that this is still crazy risky, and difficult to do, right? That's sort of all relative. So to me, programs like this and the fact that we have the freedom to do things like this, super important, and this is one of the reasons I'm also, you can take that down now, Jen, thanks.
Something I'm really excited about is the office of clean energy demonstrations that's, you know, being set up at DOE. I think there's so much emphasis being put on trying to understand how these things work in the real world. What demonstrations look like, you know, tech transfer at DOE as a whole.
I think there's a much bigger emphasis. So I think people are well aware of these issues. And I think giving agencies like ourselves the freedom to be able to fund in the spaces we need to, in order to reduce these barriers is very important. So that's another thing we're very fortunate.
The people that set us up knew exactly what they were doing because we can fund research close to what would be considered basic, all the way to what would be considered a demonstration. So we have a lot of freedom in that space. Melissa: So let me make that really concrete. I have worked with a company that, you know, they demonstrated their technology to university lab and it was super, super cool. But then to demonstrate that it can be scaled at like manufacturing scale, that's like a hundred million in capital equipment. So how do you, that's a big. Jenni: It is vast, yeah.
Melissa: And until it's proven, what investor wants to give you a hundred millio