Colorado Energy Collaboratory leverages dollars, institutional expertise in cleantech research partnership

By: David Wagman Friday February 7, 2014 0 comments Tags: Christine Shapard, Cool Planet, CSU, CU-Boulder, Dan Arvizu, David Hiller, NREL, Vestas

By David Wagman


When state legislators approved the Colorado Energy Research Collaboratory's first funding, they attached at least one string to the money: The newly created organization would need to bring to Colorado at least $1 in private sector investment for every $1 in state backing.

In fact, the Collaboratory, a research partnership among the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Colorado's major research universities (Colorado State University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the Colorado School of Mines) has done better than that, leveraging closer to $8 for every $1 of state funding, says Executive Director David Hiller.

He adds that the leverage ratio does not include a multiplier to account for the broader economic impact since the initiative was created in 2006.

"The governor and legislature are pleased with the return," he says -- with perhaps a bit of understatement.

In some ways, the Collaboratory may resemble an exercise in herding cats. Research institutions typically pride themselves on their independence and sometimes are reluctant to work with others. The reason is not surprising: Basic research is a big-risk, big-reward undertaking that can polish a researcher's credentials and boost an institution's ability to attract money and talent.

But collaboration can offer advantages, says Dan Arvizu, director of NREL. "For a future energy system that's clean, reliable and affordable, we need to move knowledge and technology from the laboratories of research institutions to the market quickly enough to meet environmental challenges and at a scale that makes a difference."

Arvizu notes it's no one-way street, either. NREL and university-based researchers can benefit from interacting with industry, "learning what resonates in the market, with energy providers and consumers," he says.

The Collaboratory was proposed in March 2006 by then U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar. He saw that national laboratories elsewhere viewed themselves as economic drivers for their states. Salazar decided that Golden-based NREL also should play a larger role in the Colorado economy. The senator's vision, Hiller says, was to create a partnership involving NREL and the state's major research universities.

Enabling legislation to do that was passed and the state appropriated $2 million to fund the venture for the years 2007-2009. It also was allowed to compete for economic stimulus money available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Model of collaboration

The Collaboratory offers a "model of university and laboratory collaboration" that state economic officials uses to differentiate Colorado from other states," says Christine Shapard, executive director of the Colorado Cleantech Industries Association (CCIA). "It's a national model for collaboration."

A report published last August by Engine/Kauffman Foundation ranked Boulder, Fort Collins/Loveland, Denver and Colorado Springs among the top 10 nationally for tech startup density. (Cheyenne ranked 10th on the list.)

High-tech startups are a "key driver of job creation throughout the United States," the study said. Although they start lean, new high-tech companies grow rapidly in the early years, adding thousands of jobs along the way. "In fact, high-tech startup job creation is so robust that it more than makes up for the job destruction from early-stage businesses failures," the report said.

Hiller says the Collaboratory does not "dictate or even enlighten the institutions with research opportunities." Instead, the Collaboratory pursues research through four centers:  the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels, the Center for Revolutionary Solar Photoconversion, the Center for Research and Education in Wind, and the Carbon Management Center.

Each center pursues shared (public) and sponsored (proprietary) research. Industry members also may sponsor fellowships for graduate and post-doctoral students.

In practice, the four member institutions operate under a single administrative structure, with one institution serving as the administrative lead. Research can be conducted on any of the four campuses, depending on the location of the principal investigator, key researchers, and appropriate laboratories. Private industry members provide financial support and help guide their center's shared research program.

Hiller said most of the research to-date has been focused on the biofuels and biorefining center. In one case, a researcher received $50,000 in seed money to investigate how to break down biomass for energy uses. The research proved it is possible to scan a surface and identify different colonies of bacteria, an application with human health as well as energy uses. Based on that success, the researcher secured an additional $3 million in funding from public and private sources.

The nature of patents and intellectual property rights means that "it is extremely difficult for two or three institutions to be involved in commercializing a project," Hiller says. Before a company makes a major commitment to a product, they typically want to make sure the "provenance of the underlying patent is pure."

That means, he said, that as a research project shows commercial promise, the development process focuses increasingly on one of the four institutions. "The more hands there are in the process, the more opportunity there is for a patent challenge," he said.

Hiller said the four institutions work together "exceedingly well," share faculty and staff and pursue new hires as a unified and "powerful research institute." That spirit of cooperation helps the Collaboratory as it works to meet one of its primary goals: to attract clean energy companies to Colorado.

For example, Cool Planet and Vestas have big presences in Colorado and both are industry members of a Collaboratory research center: Cool Planet is a member of the biorefining and biofuels center and Vestas joined the wind research and education center.

"We were part of an attractive package," Hiller said, referring to Vestas' decision to base four manufacturing facilities and focus its North American wind research efforts in Colorado. "It's a remarkable relationship among research institutions."
David Wagman

About the Author: David Wagman

David Wagman is a Denver-based analyst and journalist who has covered most aspects of the electric power and oil-and-gas industries, and has written broadly on topics that range from international trade to commercial real estate to homeland protection in a career that spans more than 20 years.