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The US Revitalized Bioscience During COVID. Now It Must Do the Same for Energy

March 18, 2022
I firmly believe that American-made energy innovations are the key to avoiding the most extreme climate-change scenarios —and to reducing our dependence on off-shore manufacturing.

The world is running out of time to make the transition from a fossil-fuel economy to one based on clean energy. Changing the energy sources that power humanity is, of course, no small undertaking. It depends, in large part, on creating innovative new energy technologies and then scaling those to meet the demands of nearly 9 billion people. From rural electrification to the national highway system to the Marshall Plan to aid Europe, the U.S. has shown time and again that it can rise to meet the most monumental of challenges. To avert planetary crisis, we must now focus our nation’s attention on the rapid innovation and scaling of new clean-energy technologies. Our work to improve the energy density of batteries can dramatically accelerate this transition to clean energy sources.

In my 20-plus years as a U.S. solar industry executive, I was responsible for scaling solar-panel hardware from small labs to large industrial production, in one case at an 800,000 square-foot manufacturing facility staffed by hundreds of workers. I know from daily experience that clean energy can be efficiently scaled. I also know that to do so, the U.S. must build deeper, more strategic connections between fundamental research, industrial scale manufacturing know-how, and long-term investment (whether public or private).

In this country, most fundamental research and innovation originates in universities and national labs, with the hope that advances will be spun out and industrialized by the private sector. But taking a laboratory-scale innovation to full-scale manufacturing usually requires many years (often a decade or more) of applied research and development and millions of dollars of capital investment. Funding this level of investment over extended time horizons is extremely difficult because most private investors prefer to make multiple, small, early-stage bets with the prospect of high reward over a relatively short timeline, which is why they tend to bet on software start-ups. Bringing hard-tech innovations to market is a greater challenge, one that requires deep trust and commitment between a broad community of technologists, industrialists, investors and government policymakers. 

While it’s true that taking technology out of the lab and into fully scaled production can be challenging, I firmly believe that American-made energy innovations are the key to avoiding the most extreme climate-change scenarios —and to reducing our dependence on off-shore manufacturing. To this end, I believe that focusing on getting three things right to make sure that our clean-energy products work not just in test tubes or research labs, but in vehicles, energy grids, homes, and factories: (1) fueling applied R&D; (2) building a strong, long-horizon investment ecosystem; and (3) cultivating a reinvigorated, American-made innovation mindset.

Planting a Seed, Growing a Forest

The term R&D itself suggests that there are two stages to innovation: research, then development. In practice, however, a chasm exists between the two. To bridge this chasm, there needs to be an applied research phase, staffed with its own dedicated team, to the R&D structure. By creating dedicated teams for fundamental research and applied research, companies are able to stimulate constant interplay between blue-sky thinking and rigorous focus on scalability. With these two teams working side-by-side, companies can carefully select only those projects that are “robust”—that are highly innovative and that can also be manufactured at the scale needed to solve a global problem. In a sense, this working process intends to find the best seed of an idea and grow it into an entire tree—and then into a massive forest.

Building a Strong Ecosystem Based on Credibility and Integrity

Bringing winning ideas to market is not something that happens in a single quarter: It requires significant capital investment and often years of research — along with a great deal of investor confidence. The industry challenge has been to convince investors to place a bet on something that, in the case of battery technology, likely won’t come to full fruition for 5-10 years. With a focus on credibility and integrity, industry players must work diligently to build long-term, trusted relationships with only those customers, investors, and partners who share the core values of patience, purpose, and persistence. 

The journey to a greater energy density must begin by assembling a world-class internal team, each member of which possesses a deep understanding of the science and engineering behind our battery technology. Also, a focus on technology that is transformative but practical and delivering products that work—not on hype. 

While many innovative ideas come out of research labs, investor confidence in a company’s ability to manufacture new technologies at scale and anticipate problems that might otherwise derail the manufacturing process is paramount. In a clean-energy industry that has been long on promise and short on delivery, investors should be looking at go-to-market timelines that are realistic over aggressive.

A New Mindset for American Manufacturing

The climate crisis is global, but it presents a golden opportunity for our country to reinvigorate its leadership mindset to power the next generation of U.S. materials science and manufacturing technology. To both address the crisis and grow our domestic production capabilities, America must improve its R&D processes, give investors the confidence to support longer-term go-to-market strategies and foster the next generation of chemists, engineers, scientists, and manufacturing experts. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which calls for a $555 billion investment in clean energy, is a very positive step in this direction.

In many ways, the challenges we face in the clean-energy industry are akin to those facing the biosciences industry. We too must invest a great deal in fundamental science. We too must contend with long development cycles. But as we saw with the unprecedentedly rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines, we too can solve major challenges once we develop the fundamental manufacturing strength needed. Success will not only solve global problems but bring tremendous economic growth.

There is no larger problem than the one our planet faces as temperatures continue to rise. By carefully selecting scalable solutions, investing for the long-term, and capitalizing on American ingenuity, we can rebuild our domestic manufacturing base and avert the worst effects of climate change.

Bill Mulligan is chief operating officer of Sila, a San Francisco Bay Area-based battery startup. Previously he held executive positions at SunPower and was CEO of SolarBridge Technologies until it was acquired by SunPower in 2014. 

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