Future entrepreneurs get outside their comfort zone in Energy I-Corps workshop

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
May 10, 2021

Alexandra Pantry, an electronics technician at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), joined PPPL’s Energy I-Corps workshop to learn entrepreneurial skills. Within a few weeks, she and other members of her team were talking to company executives all over the United States, the United Kingdom and South Korea. 

Pantry worked with engineer Andrei Khodak and physicist Rajesh Maingi to discover commercial uses for a technology invented by Khodak that uses liquid metal lithium to absorb heat from the super-hot plasma in fusion experiments.

“It was very cool. I really enjoyed it,” said Pantry, who has been at PPPL for about six months. “Because we were all from different fields, we have no problem playing to our strengths, so I have no problem talking to strangers and emailing them and asking them to come to our meetings … I could just reach out to someone and say ‘Hi. I’m interested in your research,’ all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.”

With the help of facilitator Todd Morrill, an entrepreneur who has hosted hundreds of I-Corps Lite workshops, four teams learned research skills that they weren’t taught in college and graduate school: how to cold-call experts in industry and learn about what they do and learn about possible applications or markets for PPPL technologies. The team met every Thursday from Jan. 7 through Feb. 25.

Laurie Bagley, head of PPPL’s Technology Transfer Office, which organized the program, said she was pleased with how well the program worked and is looking forward to hosting another session at PPPL in the fall. “It was extremely valuable,” she said. “The whole point is to make the Lab more entrepreneurial.”

The workshop was funded by a $55,000 grant from the DOE’s Energy I-Corps program and is a mini version of the full Energy I-Corps program, a full-time two month program, Bagley said. PPPL is one of 11 of the DOE’s 17 national laboratories to participate in the program, which has generated 12 new businesses and $83 million in revenue.  

Learning to talk to strangers

Morrill, a teacher at the Haas School of Business and the College of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, estimates he has led more than 1,500 teams through a similar process at numerous federal agencies and companies. “People who are working on technical projects, engineering and science, are necessarily focused on what’s in front of them, and as a result they’re not looking outside themselves,” Morrill said. “What they find is there are a lot of interesting  people out there and there are a lot of interesting ideas out there, whether they use those ideas to define a project or find a future collaborator or a market for a technology they develop.”

The program included eight two-hour weekly workshops along with one-on-one weekly “office hours” with Morrill. It also provided  funding for participants for workshop attendance. Most teams’ members spent many more hours of their own time on top of that.

But despite the hard work, most said they enjoyed meeting colleagues from other departments and learning new skills. They also had fun, they said. The final presentations were light-hearted. The liquid metal team, for example, made references to the science fiction movie “Terminator” in which the main character is made of liquid metal. The team depicted themselves as “Star Wars” characters, with Pantry as Princess Leia, Maingi as Han Solo and inventor Khodak as Luke Skywalker.

Getting valuable information

Morrill urged the I-Corps teams to branch out as much as possible when looking for contacts. “My pitch to you is don’t be afraid to go outside the box – this is a chance to talk to people whom you wouldn’t talk to otherwise,” he told them. With that in mind, the liquid metal team ended up talking to industries all over the world, including someone who is investigating using liquid metals as a cooling and heating vest – an application the PPPL team members would not have thought of on their own.

“I thought I was going to learn about how to determine if a specific technology would be embraced by private companies,” said Maingi. “In fact, what I wound up learning was much more than that: We learned how to find out what the private companies want, what is important to them, and how to ask the right questions and conduct interviews so you can get the most valuable information.”

Outside scientists’ “comfort zone”

Physicist Fatima Ebrahimi, whose team researched commercial applications for her invention of a plasma-based rocket thruster, said she enjoyed employing the tactics Morrill taught. “The approach that Todd has is not conventional,” Ebrahimi said. “He basically took us from our comfort zone as scientists to contact other people, go broader and wider, and talk to more people.”

The team, which included former PPPL physicist and inventor Johan Carlsson and PPPL engineer Doug Bishop, met online on weekends to learn about the technology, develop a database of contacts and get organized. The publicity around Ebrahimi’s technology helped open doors but it was hard work, said Doug Bishop, a member of the team who is an aerospace engineer. “Everyone really got along and everyone was really motivated,” he said.

The team was able to talk to representatives from a major aerospace company and from NASA. They learned that while the thruster could be used on a rocket traveling long distances to Mars and beyond, as Ebrahimi had envisioned, it could also be valuable on shorter space voyages to the moon.

A “revelation” about people’s willingness to talk

Physicist Erik Gilson said he was surprised to find how easily people were willing to talk to him and his team, which worked on researching commercial uses for a liquid centrifuge, which he invented along with Hantao Ji, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University; Adam Cohen, former PPPL deputy director for operations; Phil Efthimion, head of Plasma Science and Technology; and Eric Edlund, assistant professor at the State University of New York-Cortland. “I was surprised how often people would say yes and how they’ll talk when you ask them a pretty open-ended question,” Gilson said. “Despite the fact that it sounded obvious, it was still a revelation.”

The team, which included physicist Francesca Poli, and engineers Feng Cai and Mark Pauley, talked to contacts at Exxon Mobil. They learned about possible uses for the device,  including employing the device to separate platelets from blood, an application Gilson had ruled out until talking to someone in one of the Energy I-Corps interviews who convinced him otherwise.

Physicist Florian Effenberg joined the workshop from the DIII-D National Fusion Facility at General Atomics in San Diego, with a team that included physicists Adelle White, Ahmed Diallo and Stuart Hudson, which investigated uses for a modeling software. While the group initially spoke to people from a broad range of industries, they ended up focusing more on plasma -surface interactions and specifically on plasma processing applications, Effenberg said. This prompted Effenberg to start looking into the development of a new application on plasma processing, he said. “Just talking to people from industry was very helpful and inspiring,” Effenberg said. “It gave us an idea of what industry is doing, how they think, and what their needs are.”

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which  is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visitenergy.gov/science.

Some scenes from the final Energy I-Corps workshop

Some scenes from the final Energy I-Corps workshop: Top row from left: Laurie Bagley, head of Technology Transfer, which hosted the workshop; Todd Morrill, the entrepreneur and workshop leader; Kristin Fischer, PPPL chief financial officer; second row: slides from Morrill's presentation, bottom center, participants in the workshop. (Screenshots and collage by Elle Starkman)

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