As discussions begin today at the 10th MIT Energy Conference, the energy sector ponders how industry, government, and the scientific community can combine forces to enable the rapid evolution of the energy system. Will it be a modern day Bell Laboratories? Or is a new approach to innovation and the funding paradigm needed?

Looking back to see ahead: the telecommunications revolution

Bell Laboratories, the research subsidiary of American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), played a central role in shaping the information age by successfully translating new scientific discoveries into viable communications technologies. As the parent company, AT&T provided Bell Labs with a broad mandate to continually make its vast telecommunications system more efficient and cheaper to operate. A key factor in this success was the ability to convene young scientists and engineers that were, as the father of information theory Claude Shannon put it, “bound in a sacred mission.” In its early days, Bell Labs recruited the nation’s top students who were insatiably curious about the scientific basis behind communications. Most of them had put together a homemade wireless radio set during their childhood and “discovered how sound could be pulled from the air.”

Over time, Bell Labs became the home of the ‘Young Turks,’ a self-proclaimed group of leading thinkers that included John Pierce, developer of the first satellite communications, and William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor. Risk-taking was encouraged and failure was a prerequisite for success. This attitude, along with the informal exchange of information and proximity to a diversity of skilled personnel, from metallurgists to physicists, led to new ways of thinking and problem solving. In sum, Bell Labs provided the environment, structure, and tools for a community of aspirational young pioneers with common goals to work and innovate.

In terms of sheer impact, this approach worked exceedingly well: the list of technological innovations developed by Bells Labs includes the first transatlantic cable, the transistor, fiber optics, lasers, information theory, programming languages, radar, cellular phones, integrated circuits, and satellites. But researching, developing, and commercializing new scientific discoveries is a costly endeavor, and Bell Labs relied upon AT&T’s monopoly to provide virtually limitless R&D funding for its scientists. When the monopoly was broken in 1984, its great era of technology innovation came to a close.

Spurring Modern Day Energy

Now, 30 years later, we live in a ubiquitously connected society, thanks in large part to technologies and ideas developed at Bell Labs. We also face a looming societal and technological challenge in global climate change. This brings us to the question: without the limitless funds of a natural monopoly, can we create a high-impact innovation machine aimed at solving the challenges of the 21st century? And can we bring together today’s best minds in a “sacred mission” to build the technological solutions our society needs?

Energy technology development has a unique set of challenges. Even after initial applications of scientific discoveries have been conceptually proven, significant technical risk remains. Whether it’s the stationary power or the transportation sector, technology advances are often materials or chemistry-based, hardware-intensive, and face significant engineering challenges. This complexity requires a series of time-consuming and capital-intensive steps to develop, validate, and integrate the technology.

Once they are mature, energy technologies are often headed down a path to market that is inherently challenging. As U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz has said:

The energy industry is a multi-trillion dollar per year, highly capitalized, commodity business, with exquisite supply chains, providing essential services at all levels of society. This leads to a system with considerable inertia, aversion to risk, extensive regulation and complex politics.

For these reasons, the recent paucity of venture capital aimed at early-stage cleantech investments shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Though the funding paradigm might be different in today’s world, the Bell Labs philosophy of convening the best mission-driven scientists has begun to resurface. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, two initiatives – Cyclotron Road and Otherlab - are trying to address today’s energy technology challenges by testing new models for translating early-stage R&D and supporting entrepreneurial scientists and engineers.

Leveraging existing research infrastructure, Cyclotron Road (where one of the authors of this article, Sebastien Lounis, is a member of the team) is working to dramatically reduce the start-up cost for next-generation industrial energy technologies by partnering technology developers with the extensive network of U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory facilities. To understand how this could work, one can look at the example of a battery company trying to commercialize a novel chemistry developed at an academic institution. Without the option of using existing research infrastructure, this company’s first several million dollars of investment would be spent setting up a state-of-the-art battery lab. Embed the same technology in an existing world-class research facility, like Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL), and that initial cost can be avoided, allowing for a much leaner startup. And, on top of the facilities themselves, this battery company can now more easily engage with LBNL’s world-leading researchers, further reducing the technical risk and increasing the probability of success for a technology.

The Cyclotron Road model is already being applied with its first cohort of projects. Launched earlier this year, these projects span technology areas as diverse as ocean wave energy, thermionic energy conversion, and electrochemical reduction of carbon dioxide. In order to be selected, these researchers were not just vetted according to the likely viability of their technologies, but also probed regarding their commitment to doggedly drive the proposed technology toward an impactful outcome. They hope that this emphasis on people’s motivations will help to build a community that is driven to reinvent energy technology in the same way the 'Young Turks' were focused on communications.

Across the bay, Otherlab is taking a different approach to stimulate innovation by attracting entrepreneurial engineers. Rather than leveraging existing infrastructure, Otherlab is taking advantage of the rapidly dropping cost of design, prototyping, and small-scale manufacturing techniques to develop hardware solutions across several technology areas, from robotics to energy. Their offices in San Francisco’s Mission District are replete with tools for quickly designing, building, and testing new technologies, from 3D printers, to laser cutters, to precision machining tools. Using these tools and with funding from government agencies like the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E), Otherlab is able to attack problems in the realm of mechanical engineering and systems more efficiently than a traditional R&D shop. And by housing them all underneath one roof, with several project teams working side-by-side, their hope is to create a breeding ground for creative ideas.

It’s part of Otherlab’s DNA to spin projects out as start-up companies – encouraging teams to move prototypes into market reality after initial concept validations have been made. For example, Otherlab has developed a novel solar tracking scheme, now moving forward in a start-up called Sunfolding, to lower costs and increase reliability of solar installations. Rather than using mechanical motors to track the sun, Sunfolding is employing low-cost pneumatic bellows made from the same materials as plastic soda bottles. Another Otherlab project is using the human digestion system as inspiration for storing natural gas onboard vehicles. By layering and conforming high-pressure tubes within space available, Otherlab’s technology – now spun out into a company called Volute – has the potential to increase the volumetric density of natural gas, which is a key barrier in the adoption of natural gas vehicles.

If technology innovation is to play a role in this century’s “sacred mission,” the track record achieved by Bell Labs seems a worthwhile goal to strive for. As a self-proclaimed “institute of creative technology”, Bell Labs was able to systematically replicate the process of innovation – in large part because of its mandate from AT&T and the environment it created for innately curious scientists and engineers. Though the funding paradigm might be different in addressing today’s energy challenges, the Bell Labs spirit and philosophy appears to be rising again, with a modern day twist.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Varun Mehra (a graduate student at MIT) and Sebastien Lounis (a member of the Cyclotron Road team).

Photo Credit:

1. Photo of John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain at Bell Labs in 1948 by Jack St. via Creative Commons/Wikimedia Commons.

Note: This post was edited on 2 March 2014 to clarify the goals of the two identified Otherlab spin-off companies.