Hundreds of start-ups are presenting advanced energy technologies at a Department of Energy conference this week. Their early-stage efforts are funded by a government grant program, called ARPA-e, but what happens next is a difficult question.
Given Government’s propensity to pick losers, do we want any public money involved in this?
Will many of these useful and interesting U.S. technologies die on the vine because there won’t be capital to take them further. Will they be bought and developed abroad?
Few venture capital and private equity investors are providing capital for new clean-tech ideas. And the federal government received some major disincentive with the Solyndra fiasco for any renewed attempt to walk clean-tech companies across the funding chasm for factories and biofuel refineries–the proverbial Valley of Death. Those battery technology companies funded by ARPA-e and touted as breakthroughs, will need money for factories in order to deploy. ARPA-e alone won’t cut it.
Asked on the sidelines of the ARPA-e-focused conference in National Harbor, Md. on Tuesday how many companies in the portfolio of the government-grant program are meeting technical milestones, but are unable to get funding, Arun Majumdar, director of the program, demurred. He said he can’t give a number of the struggling companies, and pointed out that 11 projects raised $200 million in private funds. There are about 258 ARPA-e projects in all. “We need to get access to low-cost financing,” he said.
But is this financing coming, and where from?
Bill Gates, who spoke on stage at the conference, remarked on the tremendous lack of funding in this space, pointing especially to the government. “It’s crazy how little we are funding this energy stuff.” He also said that giving a little bit of money and making it seem as if that’s practically all that’s needed is a disservice.
“If we are underestimating how hard it is, we wind up underfunding,” said Gates.
Gates was not optimistic on the success, saying 90% of such novel energy projects will fail. “We need a thousand companies,” he said, to test concepts to increase the chances of a truly meaningful technology breakthrough. But who will go in backing companies of such risk? Gates himself has a couple small bets — he is an investor in Terrapower, a nuclear-technology start-up.