ARPA-E 2013 Shows America is Still Producing Sci-Fi Technology


Just like with most things in life, the resilience, relevance, and future of an organization is determined by its ability to adapt and evolve. This year’s Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E) Innovation Summit was a perfect illustration of why this agency holds the key to American economic prosperity, innovation, and development.

The agency and the summit have undergone a number of changes, some anticipated and some not, but once again it has come out on top. From top to bottom, changes can be noticed in the management and in the structure of the summit to the very experience of participants. For over 4 years, ARPA-E was led by a distinguished scientist and founding director Dr. Arun Majumdar. He is responsible for the positive energy and emphasis on setting crazy goals that are rooted in fundamental science found at ARPA-E.

Today, the organizational leadership has been passed from the steady hand of a scientist to Dr. Cheryl Martin, a scientist turned venture capitalist. She inherits the responsibility for overseeing the future financing success of the previously funded projects and creating new programs and funding opportunities for the projects to come.

In addition to the changes at the very top of the agency, program directors and project managers are also changing, as they are term-limited to allow for new leadership and thought in the organization. This creative approach to management allows for the new officers to ask tough questions from those engaged in current projects and find new ways of addressing old problems. Other major changes of course included the departure of the much admired secretary of energy, Dr. Stephen Chu. His tenure saw the fastest growth of the renewable energy sector, major strides in the development of shale natural gas and oil, and major reforms in the funding structures within the department that allowed for the best ideas to be funded and advanced the national energy agenda: reduction in the imports of foreign oil. Another noted difference was the incorporation of a pitch session into the general program. The pitch was organized by Future Energy and supported by Shell.

In some cases, if there are changes at the top and programming, the change is not felt by those participating in the demonstrations and energy showcases. Having attended my third summit and having progressed from a scientific question to a spin-off company – Urban Electric Power – it was encouraging to experience that the conversation on the floor of the convention center had shifted from those of probability of the materials acting the way we expected, to questioning the design, to the current conversation of financial viability and sizes of investment. The organization and the conversation have progressed in a steady tandem and have generated additional private investment into the American economy with tax incentives and indeed requirement for manufacturing in the United States.

This is the gathering to inspire and encourage that making a bet against the United States will not pay off. While there is generally recognized dysfunction in the elected offices of Washington DC, our agencies, states, and localities continue to function and operate in a way that continues to build confidence abroad and should do so at home as well. We will overcome our current difficulties and will succeed as long as we continue to invest in innovation and development with an eye for economic and environment sustainability, as any one nation cannot succeed if it fails to innovate.