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Steven Chu on the Importance of Work Culture in Innovation

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Energy Secretary Steven Chu at the ARPA-E summit (Photograph by Sarah Gerrity, Energy Department)

Progress in developing new energy technology typically has a longer time horizon than can be measured in little more than three years, but the ARPA-E program is already showing early signs of success. Created in 2007, ARPA-E began funding energy technology projects in 2009. By November 2012, ARPA-E’s total portfolio had reached $770 million, which has been allocated to 285 projects.

Over this initial period of funding, ARPA-E awardees have developed a 1-megawatt silicon carbide transistor the size of a fingernail and engineered microbes that use hydrogen and carbon dioxide to make liquid transportation fuel, among other advancements. Early ARPA-E developments have fueled millions of dollars of private sector investment, the agency’s website notes.

Departing Energy Secretary Steven Chu, speaking at ARPA-E’s Innovation Summit last week, likened the atmosphere of the ARPA-E program to the culture at Bell Laboratories, where Chu worked in research in the late ’70s through the late ’80s. Bell produced 17 Nobel Laureates, including Chu, who noted that Bell’s scientists were young hires, not accomplished researchers. (See related post: “Steven Chu to Step Down as Energy Secretary“)

Chu reminisced about the working conditions at the company: “The cramped labs and office cubicles forced us to interact with each other and follow each others’ progress. The animated discussions were common during and after seminars and at lunch and continued on the tennis courts and at parties.”

“That spirit was replicated at ARPA-E,” Chu continued. “It was the quality of your ideas [that was important]. Everything was open to scrutiny.”

While ARPA-E by definition is meant to encourage early research that is “high-potential” but inherently riskier, the Department of Energy’s separate loans and grants programs have targeted energy technologies that are farther along in the development process. One such program is the SunShot Initiative, directed toward bringing down the cost of solar energy. Chu made the point that sometimes red tape can hinder innovation more than technological stumbling blocks.

He quoted SunShot Program Minh Le: “Unlike physics, where we can fundamentally figure out the upper limit for the efficiency of solar cells, there is no such limit to bureaucracy.”

“We recognize that bureaucracy is going to be the dominant cost [in new technology]. It already is on rooftops,” Chu said, noting that the Department of Energy is working to address this problem with SunShot and other programs.

But Chu also offered an argument for big goals, even given the risk of failure and setbacks, courtesy of Michaelangelo. “’The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.’ This is what ARPA-E’s about,” Chu said. (See related post: “Tesla’s Musk Promises to Halve Payback Time to DOE, Jokes About ‘Times’ Feud“)

Chu’s sense of humor was often apparent during his ARPA-E speech. At one point, he referred to a humorous article that appeared in The Onion with the headline, “Hungover Energy Secretary Wakes Up Next to Solar Panel.”

“I just want everyone to know that my decision not to serve a second term as Energy Secretary has absolutely nothing to do with the allegations made [in] The Onion,” Chu joked. “While I’m not going to confirm or deny the charges specifically, I will say that clean, renewable solar power is a growing source of U.S. jobs and is becoming more and more affordable, so it’s no surprise that lots of Americans are falling in love with solar.”

Chu ended his address on a sobering note, saying to his staff, “We have a moral responsibility to the most innocent victims of adverse climate change: the poorest citizens of the world and those yet to be born.” As Chu gets ready to move on, and nominee Ernest Moniz prepares for the possibility of taking on his job, ARPA-E will bear a large part of this responsibility of addressing climate change through innovation. (See related post: “Mixed Reactions to Moniz for Energy Secretary.”)