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New grant to help commercialize renewable energy technology

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Potential entrepreneurs with innovative ideas in the areas of renewable energy and energy efficiency will be able to get help taking their technology from a university laboratory to the market, thanks to a new three-year, $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The William J. von Liebig Center for entrepreneurism and technological advancement at the Jacobs School of Engineering and the Rady School of Management, both at the University of California, San Diego, and San Diego State University will together hold a series of regional energy innovation challenges, providing fellowships and extensive mentoring support for students and faculty working on the most promising technologies.

This is good news for budding first-time entrepreneurs wondering where to get seed money and expert advice in a slow economy.

The grant is part of a $5.3 million DOE program in five states, to enhance university-based innovation ecosystems around energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.

It will enable graduate or post-graduate students and professors with energy-related innovative projects from any Southern California university to team up with select MBA students from Rady or SDSU, and leverage their combined talents to build a business around the innovation.

The chosen teams will be guided by experienced business advisers attached to the von Liebig Center.

The von Liebig Center is one of the first proof-of-concept programs in the country. Its mission is to inspire entrepreneurism and catalyze commercialization of UCSD inventions through grants, education and business mentoring.

Since 2001, it has given nearly $4 million in grants to about 70 projects. This has led to the creation of 26 startups and six licensed technologies. Those startups have attracted close to $100 million in private sector capital and now employ nearly 200 people.

In addition to grants, the center also offers business coaching and advice. Its seven advisers comprise entrepreneurs, current and former CEOs and senior executives from the private sector.

With this new DOE grant, the principal added value will be the addition of MBA students and their skills to the innovator teams, and opening the competition up to project teams from outside UCSD. Until now, the von Liebig grants had focused on fellowships for teams within UCSD and only paired them up with business advisers, but not business students.

“One of the reasons we received the grant is our ability to connect the engineering students with business students and industry leaders. Bringing business expertise early into the commercialization process is crucial to identifying promising technologies and making them successful. This is where Rady comes in,” said Lada Rasochova, co-investigator of the grant, who is the director of entrepreneurship program at Rady and the Rady venture fund manager.

“Rady educates next generation leaders in knowledge-driven industries,” she said. “Rady MBAs are particularly well suited for the fellowships because many have advanced degrees in science and engineering, they have worked in these fields and they are developing the business acumen necessary to guide these new technologies.”

Rasochova is a former scientist and Rady alumnus herself, who started the venture fund program at the school in order to train students to assess and invest in promising companies.

With the DOE grant, the school plans to award nine MBA-in-residence fellowships to management students who will work in teams of three and partner with the three scientists or engineers with the winning ideas. The fellows will work on market and competitive analysis, and on developing a commercialization plan, with guidance from von Liebig advisers.

Unlike the advisers, who will only be strategic consultants and team coordinators, the MBA students will be hands-on, according to Rosibel Ochoa, principal investigator of the grant and director of the von Liebig center.

One challenge, according to Ochoa, will be the question of how to sustain the program beyond the life of the grant.

“We are looking towards private industry in part, also foundations and other means,” Ochoa said.

SDSU’s role in the innovation ecosystem program will also be vital.

The university has established commercialization programs such as the Center for Commercialization of Advanced Technology (CCAT) sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense, and the Energy Innovations Small Grant Technology Transfer Program sponsored by the California Energy Commission.

CCAT has provided more than $23 million in grants to about 120 projects, resulting in over $200 million in sales and capital investments in those businesses.

Eligibility requirements

The grant focuses on university technology and intellectual property, so the project must be university IP and have been submitted to the university office for an invention disclosure.

Second, there must be evidence that the technology works or preliminary data that proves it works. Finally, it has to be related to renewable energy or energy efficiency.

October is the start date for the grant, and Ochoa said her office will send out requests for proposal solicitations in November.

Interested students and professors will then be asked to submit a 500-word summary. Her office will sift through the summaries, and von Liebig advisers will meet the applicants or speak on the phone with them. They will assess what stage the technology is in and whether the project qualifies.

Selected teams will be invited to submit a proposal that describes the technology, commercialization potential and status of IP. Of these, 13 will be chosen to present to a panel of expert reviewers in March.

The top three projects will be chosen for grant awards, which Ochoa admitted is a low number for a given year, but she said the grant is a good start and this type of program needs more funding.

The three teams will meet with the advisers, pair up with the MBA students and put together a development plan for the whole year.

At the end of the year, the teams should have met all of their milestones, such as having a prototype built, or refining the project idea, contacting industry for licensing opportunities, etc.

Then Ochoa and her team begin the process all over again for year two.

“In San Diego, entrepreneurs have many avenues. You can go to Connect, CommNexus or Tech Coast Angels. If you have university IP, then you can come to us. We are all facilitators,” Ochoa said.

Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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