The third annual ARPA-E conference — created to highlight research and startups that have received mostly small grants from the Department of Energy — kicked off just outside of Washington DC on Monday. The ARPA-E program is the darling of the DOE (well, compared to the loan and loan guarantee programs) and it’s meant to give seed investments (a couple million dollars) to developers of early stage, high risk energy technologies to help move basic scientific research forward. If the DOE loan programs have been characterized by flashy companies and large loans, the ARPA-E program is just the opposite.
Walking around the opening night of the ARPA-E technology showcase is like getting to peek into a window onto some of the most interesting energy-focused labs across the U.S. — from the corporate R&D efforts of GM and Johnson Controls to government-backed labs to the occasional venture-backed startup. It’s also about as geeky as looking straight into a lab window; much of these groups don’t have commercial products yet and have little or no marketing and branding (but I guess you don’t need slick branding if you’re selling a membrane to an industrial conglomerate).