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Cyclotron Road: How to get new energy technology from the laboratory into the market

Entrepreneurial scientists can get stuck in the early phase of maturing their technology, also known as the “Valley of Death.” Chris Graves experienced it in Denmark in 2018 and decided to apply for the Cyclotron Road fellowship program in the California Bay Area to get the necessary support. Learn how Cyclotron Road creates a pathway for technology to go from the lab into the market.

In a laboratory inside the Technical University of Denmark far away from the Bay Area, Chris Graves was working on a groundbreaking technology. He was coming up with a new way to create ultra-low-cost flow batteries that can enable long-duration energy storage. And surely, he did.


Chris Graves developed a new type of flow-battery in Denmark a few years ago as an associate professor and senior scientist at DTU, and this was to become the building blocks of Noon Energy. If the research project was successful, the batteries would create continual, stable access to energy from renewable sources like solar and wind – even when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. The question and next challenge were how to mature the new technology and get it into the market, so it could be of use for the energy industry. At the time, Chris was not able to get his new startup off the ground in Denmark because of restrictions around founding companies with a researcher visa.

 

Therefore, Chris decided to move back to California: ''After almost 10 years living and working in Denmark, in 2018 we decided to move our family to California to build the startup with the help of Cyclotron Road and the unique ecosystem in Silicon Valley. Noon would have been started in Denmark if I had been able to access some of the same resources – and if it were legal at the time.'' Chris explains. Furthermore, the support to commercialize the technology was not readily available in Denmark. 

"From the outset, funding seemed a really important part of the fellowship. What surprised me were the other resources: how they teach scientists the ropes of business, the enormous network in Silicon Valley I was introduced to, and the invaluable community of other founders in the program"
Chris Graves Founder and CEO of Noon Energy, and a fellow with Cyclotron Road

The Valley of Death

 

Cyclotron Road is a program of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in partnership with Activate, an independent nonprofit. It was designed for entrepreneurial scientists like Chris, who was accepted into the 2018 cohort of Cyclotron Road fellows. Unlike the many accelerators and entrepreneurship programs in Silicon Valley, Cyclotron Road does not take any equity stakes in participants’ startups, and it is aimed especially at researchers who need help getting their research across the Valley of Death, the early phase of maturing the technology, developing a proof-of-concept and making an initial prototype. For deep tech coming out of laboratories this requires considerable investment and time. However, without that prototype, the required funding is difficult to secure, creating a chicken-and-egg problem. As the term Valley of Death implies, many promising technologies do not make it to the other side, where they might have achieved broad societal impact.

"Denmark is already one of the most progressive countries in the world for energy, with high consumer support for transitioning away from carbon. The opportunity for Denmark to build an even more impactful ecosystem for clean energy is huge."
Chris Graves Founder and CEO of Noon Energy, and a fellow with Cyclotron Road

The two-year Cyclotron Road fellowship offers entrepreneurs a pathway to translate promising research results to initial product through comprehensive support including a living stipend, access to state-of-the-art laboratory facilities at LBNL, networking opportunities, and business resources.

 

The program also helps scientists learn the business side of a technology startup with an entrepreneurship curriculum and mentorship from Cyclotron Road’s team of full-time advisors. Fellows are also introduced early on to the sizable venture capital community and corporates present in Silicon Valley to build relationships that might lead to support down the road in the form of funding, advisors and future customers which Chris explains was very helpful: ''From the outset, funding seemed a really important part of the fellowship. What surprised me were the other resources: how they teach scientists the ropes of business, the enormous network in Silicon Valley I was introduced to, and the invaluable community of other founders in the program.''. This network and the close proximity to Silicon Valley is an important reason why Cyclotron Road is successful in supporting startups.

 

Cyclotron Road has an encouraging track record so far. Since being founded nearly five years ago, nearly $18M has been invested in 56 fellows, who have gone on to generate $150 million in funding to support their ventures. The success of Cyclotron Road has recently prompted Activate to launch a similar program in Boston, in collaboration with MIT Lincoln Laboratory. Activate Boston is the first of what Activate hopes will be several new programs in the US and around the world.

 

A Danish model for success?

 

There is no clear path for how to reach the Danish goals of a 70 percent carbon emissions reduction in 2030 and ultimately achieving a carbon-neutral society in 2050. Developing and scaling commercially viable new technologies will most probably be needed. But as analyses show, although we have a robust public funding system for innovation, there are few funds for early stage research and especially venture capital can be hard to come by for energy startups. At the same time, the potential is there: Denmark has made important progress on decarbonizing its economy, is home to leading research and competences in cleantech.

 

Chris Graves will graduate from Cyclotron Road this summer, equipped with the tools to grow Noon Energy and get his new battery to market within a couple years. As his story shows, supporting startups with the right resources and plugging them into an ecosystem of peers, labs, business expertise and capital can bring cleantech across the Valley of Death and further down the path to success. For Denmark, collaboration with international ecosystems, leveraging comparative advantages could be a way to increase the likelihood that tomorrow’s energy solutions to global climate challenges have a Danish footprint.

 

Innovation Centre Denmark in Silicon Valley is working to build bridges into the ecosystem in the Bay Area, creating access to inspiration, best practices and partnerships that can assist in maturing the Danish cleantech ecosystem.

quick facts  about the Cyclotron Road Fellowship Program

  • Two years of funding: fellows receive a living stipend on par with a typical salary
  • World-class research labs: startups have access to the lab facilities at LBNL and UC Berkeley as well as an additional $100,000 for project expenses to be spent at the lab
  • Rigorous mentorship: fellows get one-on-one mentorship and guidance from the experienced team of Cyclotron Road staff
  • Startup curriculum: To become entrepreneurs, fellows receive tailor-made weekly sessions on business and product development to develop skills
  • An unrivaled network: Cyclotron Road has a broad network of industry executives, investors, entrepreneurs, philanthropists who can serve as advisors and partners

Cyclotron Road is located in the California Bay Area and run by the non-profit organization Activate in partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

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