April 16, 2014

Cleantech to Market Bridges Gap from Lab to Launch

Lindsay Miller, PhD 12, and Chris Tan, MBA 13

Mechanical engineer Lindsay Miller, PhD 12, knew there was a market for her doctoral thesis project—a device the size of a stick of gum that harvests energy from machinery vibrations, generating enough electricity to run wireless sensors without ever having to change a battery.

The potential is huge, since large networks of wireless sensors are expected to gain widespread adoption for a range of uses, including measuring the temperature of equipment in data centers, where Miller's devices can be attached directly to servers to harvest their vibrations into energy. Miller's prototype featured several key innovations, but how long would it take for the market to develop? Who were the potential customers? What price points would she have to hit? Those were questions the busy post-doc had neither the time—nor the expertise—to answer.

Enter Cleantech to Market (C2M), which pairs UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientists with full-time Berkeley MBA and other graduate students from across UC Berkeley who are passionate about clean energy. C2M began in 2008 with the efforts of leaders in the Berkeley Energy Resources Collaborative, an interdisciplinary student club, including co-chair Naveen Sikka, MBA 09, who teamed up with LBNL's Technology Transfer Department to create the program. C2M, which was turned into a course to satisfy the full-time MBA experiential learning requirement, now attracts several dozen scientist applications for 8 to 12 slots. C2M also has built the Berkeley Energy Network, a curated and searchable database of 1,000 subject-matter experts who act as resources and mentors to the teams.

“The whole industry is pretty nascent. It’s only been five years that that we have seen investment in the billions, and we are growing along with it,” says C2M Co-director Beverly Alexander, a former PG&E executive. "For example, we have an increasing number of outstanding guest speakers address the class from industry, government, and academia. And we started a new case study series on clean energy, beginning with a case on Alphabet Energy, which was recently published in the California Management Review." 

Each scientist works with five graduate students—three MBA students and two from programs in engineering, science, law and policy—who take an intensive course and produce a detailed report on market potential based on 750 hours of research. This fall's course culminated Friday, Nov. 30, when the teams presented their work at C2M's annual public symposium, which attracted more than 200 registered attendees.

Although C2M focuses equally on licensing technologies and refining research objectives, companies also arise from the program. C2M’s first startup, Imprint Energy, which is pioneering printable and rechargeable zinc batteries, launched in 2010. Another startup, Xite Solar, won a Department of Energy competition last spring, and several other projects have received outside funding.

“Mother Nature is going to make it abundantly clear that we need these solutions and we need them yesterday,” says Brian Steel, who this year joined Beverly Alexander as C2M co-director after 30 years as an executive in the private sector, including CEO of Idealab Silicon Valley. “But one of the biggest challenges the sector has faced is from products being introduced that aren’t ready for market—or the market not being ready for the product.”

With Berkeley’s reputation at the leading edge of energy research, C2M also has become a magnet for ambitious business students interested in cleantech.

“C2M is the reason a lot of my energy peers are here. It’s the capstone class for us,” says Chris Tan, MBA 13, who led the team that worked with Miller on her energy harvester last fall. “Every scientist gets a reframing of how their technology fits in the big picture, and every student in the class is extremely passionate about this area. It’s been really rewarding.”

Topics:    Student News