ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar Meets with Bill Gates, Advises Local Startups, Speaks at UW

There’s no better way to kick off a Seattle visit than to have a two-hour meeting with Bill Gates. That was Arun Majumdar’s morning yesterday.

The director of ARPA-E, the new $400 million research agency within the U.S. Department of Energy, was on tour to promote novel energy R&D programs and get feedback from innovators across the country. He and Gates had an in-depth discussion about energy and climate change—some of the greatest problems facing humanity, and what Majumdar called “the challenge of our lifetime.” Earlier this week, Gates addressed these same points in his talk at the TED conference in California, calling for very fast-paced “miracle” innovations to increase energy efficiency and production while reducing carbon emissions.

It sounds like Gates and Majumdar are very much on the same page. Before being appointed to lead ARPA-E, where he reports to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Majumdar was a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at UC Berkeley, and also led research programs at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. His expertise includes energy conversion, transport, and storage, from the nano-scale level to large energy systems.

After his meeting with Gates yesterday, Majumdar convened a group of about a dozen local energy entrepreneurs and investors, including Lars Johansson and Byron McCann of Northwest Energy Angels, Rick LeFaivre of OVP Venture Partners and the UW Center for Commercialization, Alla Weinstein of Principle Power, Rick Luebbe of EnerG2, Christina Lomasney of Modumetal, Jill Watz of Vulcan Capital, Niki Parekh of Bio Architecture Lab, Dan Rosen from Alliance of Angels, Chris Tagge of LivinGreen Materials, David Kaplan from V2Green (GridPoint), and Daniel Malarkey of the Washington State Department of Commerce.

Those I talked to after the meeting were very positive. They said Majumdar stressed the importance of risk-taking in R&D, and sought feedback from local leaders on things like who the customer will be for ARPA-E projects. This is a critical issue. The whole effort is modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has the Department of Defense as its main customer, and falls under a centralized policy. In the case of ARPA-E, however, Majumdar is navigating a discontinuous set of customers—essentially the entire energy market.

Arun Majumdar (image courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab)

One key takeaway from the entrepreneur meeting was that the U.S. government needs to create a technology “pull” as well as a push. Majumdar noted in the meeting—as he also did in a recent presentation to Congress—that government is one of the largest consumers of energy (think buildings, transportation, and so on). So ARPA-E needs to use that power to create adoption and purchasing standards, as local leaders discussed with Majumdar.

“The U.S. government can come back and say, ‘We’re going to create a buying policy,’ and only buy production processes that have [a higher] level of efficiency,” says Lomasney from Modumetal, a Seattle-based nanotech startup that hopes to reinvent the metals industry. “ARPA-E has to supply the technology, but it also has to be the first adopter.”

Majumdar also gave a public talk at the University of Washington yesterday, hosted by the Department of Computer Science & Engineering. The theme was to address the “three Sputniks of our generation”—a reference to the Soviet satellite launch in 1957 that spurred U.S. technological efforts in the late 1950s and ’60s (including the formation of DARPA, or ARPA, as it was originally called). Now, ARPA-E’s three key challenges are energy security, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, and U.S. technological leadership. “We’re essentially sitting on the Titanic,” Majumdar said. “We want to turn the whole ship around.”

After giving some historical context on previous game-changing technologies (e.g., fertilizer), Majumdar talked at UW about rewiring the “spaghetti chart” that shows how energy supply, demand, and distribution are all connected. To that end, ARPA-E is paying for several dozen projects and companies around the U.S. at a level of funding and risk that is comparable to a Series A venture capital round—in areas like new approaches to cellulosic biofuels, grid-level electricity storage, batteries, windmills, and “electrofuels.”

Majumdar is currently recruiting program managers and evaluating proposals as he works to “reframe goals” in the energy industry. He emphasized, “We are not picking technologies, we’re picking targets.” He also talked about managing expectations. “Everyone expects the equivalent of ARPAnet [the forerunner of the Internet] to happen,” he said. “It’s not going to happen in the next few years. If we are to hit the home run in the energy sector, it will take 10 to 20 years [or more] to make a huge impact.”

But the metrics for the next three to five years will be crucial, he said. Do the ARPA-E projects lead to follow-on investments from others? Will the value of the funded companies go up? How many new companies will be created? What about the number of new industries launched, new jobs, patents filed and licensed, and papers published in top journals? Will the effort advance understanding of new mechanisms for scaling innovations within the U.S.?

One of the questions from the audience was whether ARPA-E will invest in geoengineering efforts—proposed Earth-scale projects such as putting reflective particles in the stratosphere to block some sunlight and combat global warming. Majumdar sounded skeptical, but open. “The issues are cost, and to make sure that if we do it at that scale, we understand the consequences,” he said. “Before we get into it, we better know what we’re doing.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in Chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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