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The Technology Commercialization Fund Awards: A Q&A with Mike Tucker and Ning Sun

Call for proposals for the DOE OTT program is expected in early to mid-September

A virtual webinar on the TCF awards process will be held on Thursday, September 17, from 2:00 pm to 3 pm.

Are you looking for funding for your research? If that research involves Lab-developed intellectual property and you are working with or plan to work with an industry partner, the Technology Commercialization Fund may be the right place to seek funding. 

The DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions (OTT)’s Technology Commercialization Fund (TCF) leverages R&D funding in the applied energy programs (including electricity, energy efficiency, renewable energy, fossil energy, cybersecurity, and nuclear energy) to promising energy technologies with the potential for high impact. The goal of the TCF is two-fold. First, it is designed to increase the number of energy technologies developed at DOE’s national labs that graduate to commercial development and achieve commercial impact. Second, the TCF encourages lab-industry partnerships.

All TCF projects require matching funds from non-federal sources that cover half of all project costs, though not all the funds have to be in the form of cash; time and equipment costs count towards the matching funds.

TCF offers two types of awards. Topic 1 awards are for projects that demonstrate evidence of commercial potential; the awards provide $100,000-$250,000 for a performance period of 6-18 months. Topic 2 awards are projects with a defined commercial application for the technology and requires an identified industrial partner; the awards range from $250,000-$1,500,000 and the performance period is 12-36 months. 

Two recent awardees, Mike Tucker, of the Energy Technology Area’s Energy Conversion Group, and Ning Sun, who works with the Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts Process Development Unit (ABPDU), part of Biological Systems and Engineering Division (BSE)  , shared their experiences with the TCF program and tips for potential applicants. Mike received a Topic 1 award for $100,000 in 2016 and another for $100,000 in 2018, while Ning Sun received a $500,000 award for her Topic 2 proposal in 2018. 

How has the TCF award helped your research project?

Mike: I received two TCF awards, in 2016 and in 2018. The 2016 award allowed me to take my concept of a cooking stove that uses the metal-supported solid oxide fuel cell (MS-SOFC) technology that my team developed, to the prototype stage. Having that prototype enabled me to be taken seriously by Coleman and MSR, companies which sell camping stoves. The 2018 funding allowed me to develop the proof of concept for the industrial manufacturing of metal-supported solid oxide fuel cells, and supported the development of new intellectual property for that process.

Flame cell prototype, developed with funding from TCF program, charges an LED light and mobile phone. Credit: Mike Tucker

Ning: The TCF award was very helpful. I had gotten DOE seedling funds to generate preliminary data for my project to convert lignin into ionic liquids, which are superior solvents or catalysts for a range of industrial applications. We then used that data to apply for the TCF award, which is enabling us to go from the modelling stage to actually using commercial lignin to produce ionic liquids. We have now figured out how to produce and purify the intermediate, and so are getting closer to our goal of a scalable and economically viable process for this conversion.

Ning Sun at the ABPDU. Photo credit: Angela He

What was the time commitment for submitting a proposal?

Ning: The TCF process requires a technical description which is standard for most funding opportunities, and a commercialization plan, which is specific to the TCF. My first attempt for Topic 2 took some time to develop and was not successful. However, we did receive valuable comments from the reviewers which allowed us to improve the proposal when we made the second attempt. Putting together the second proposal didn’t take very long, and this time, we were successful.

Also, it wasn’t hard for me to get industry partners, as I was already working with a former Lab colleague, Aaron Socha, now a startup CEO, through another DOE project. The company, Illium Technologies, contributes their time and equipment as in-kind contributions for the matching funds. And they helped identify additional partners, Domtar Corp. and Natural Fiber Welding, which are helping us during the different steps of process development.

Mike: For Topic 1, I just had to submit a five page proposal. Some other proposals require 30 pages and many additional forms, but the TCF process is pretty streamlined. It’s a good funding option if you have an industry partner.

Do you have any tips for those who are considering submitting proposals for this coming cycle?

Mike: TCF projects require a cost-share partner, but the cost share funds don’t have to be spent at Berkeley Lab. They can be spent at the company for equipment, staff, or facilities. I should mention that Cyclotron Road companies can also provide cost share funds, as long as they are not from federal funds.

Another suggestion is to add customer discovery to the project proposal. I did this for my TCF projects; I spent the last weeks doing customer discovery—talking to users, potential manufacturers, regulators, and stakeholders. It’s an important part of commercialization, and TCF is supportive of it.

In your proposal, it’s important to present a clear goal and deliverable, such as a piece of hardware or dataset, and it’s also important to frame the value of this goal to commercialization. This could be couched as developing intellectual property into a prototype, or demonstrating the technology to a new customer—whatever it takes to move the technology forward to the next stage of commercialization.

Ning: It’s helpful to establish industry relationships as early as possible, through other DOE projects or other mechanisms. It’s important to explain to them what DOE cost share means, and the contracts that are required for the partnership. The lab’s Strategic Partnerships Office can be very helpful in this regard.

Also, if you don’t first succeed, keep trying! My first proposal was not successful, but I got good feedback from the reviewers which I incorporated into my second (successful) proposal.

Contact [email protected] in the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) if you are interested in submitting a proposal, as TCF projects must involve Lab-developed IP.  Contact Todd Pray at [email protected], Chief Strategic Partnerships Officer, if you have any questions regarding the contracting process required to include industry and cost-share partners.