Q&A With Former ARPA-E Tech-to-Market Summer Scholar Dan Sanchez

ARPA-E is actively recruiting Technology-to-Market Summer Scholars with a unique combination of technical and business skills to assist in defining commercialization pathways for high-impact technology development programs. This internship opportunity offers experience in advancing the transition of cutting-edge energy technologies to market applications in a fast-paced environment. With that in mind, we recently sat down with a former Technology-to-Market Summer Scholar, Dr. Dan Sanchez, to get his perspective on the experience and see what insight he has to offer our next crop of scholars!

Dr. Daniel Sanchez is an Assistant Specialist at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studies the design and commercialization of CO2 removal technologies. He runs Berkeley’s Carbon Removal Lab, which aims to commercialize sustainable negative emissions technologies and conducts outreach to policymakers and technologists across the United States. Prior to joining the Berkeley faculty, Sanchez served as a AAAS Science and Engineering Fellow in Senator Michael Bennet’s office. In the summer of 2013, he was a Tech-to-Market Summer Scholar at ARPA-E. Sanchez holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in Energy and Resources from Berkeley, and a B.S.E. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania.

How did you first become interested in energy?

I spent the summer between my freshmen and sophomore year of college designing solid oxide fuel cells, which can directly convert fuel into electricity. I was fascinated by the potential for new energy technology to combat climate change, but I quickly realized that commercializing new technologies is extremely difficult: it requires a broad understanding of policy, economics, and technology. Since then my career has focused on pursuing this kind of interdisciplinary work.

How did you hear about ARPA-E, and what made you apply to be an ARPA-E Summer Scholar?

I learned about ARPA-E while I was pursuing my graduate degree in Energy and Resources at Berkeley. The agency, its approach to innovation, and the technologies it supports permeated conversations about energy across campus. I applied to be a Summer Scholar to see firsthand how experts can guide new energy technologies to market.

How did your past educational and professional experience prepare you for this internship?

As I mentioned, I have a broad training in engineering, public policy, and economics. Simply put, all three are tremendously important to the process of innovation.

What projects or challenges did you work on during your time as a Summer Scholar?

I supported the Reducing Emissions using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy (REMOTE) program, which harnesses microorganisms to convert methane into liquid fuels. Specifically, I worked with the program’s Tech-to-Market team to perform market research and analyze revenue opportunities related to oil and gas exploration, biochemicals, and stranded natural gas.

What was your specific role on the project – what did you learn and contribute?

In 2013, the United States was just beginning to understand the economic and strategic implications of rapid shale gas development. I spent the summer learning the economics of oil and gas exploration and production, guiding the deployment of technologies developed under REMOTE. This approach to technology commercialization—searching for strategic niches where a new technology can flourish—has guided my research on negative emissions technologies ever since.

What was your interaction with the other Summer Scholars like?

I learned from all of the ARPA-E staff, whether Program Directors, Fellows, or Summer Scholars like myself. We all worked hard, but took advantage of the professional and cultural offerings of Washington, DC. I particularly appreciated the educational and gender diversity that the Summer Scholars brought to ARPA-E. 

Did you have a mentor or sponsor working with you throughout the summer? If so, what was that like?

I was lucky enough to work with Dr. Ramon Gonzalez, the intellectual father of the REMOTE program. Ramon and I bonded over our training in Chemical Engineering, along with our Cuban heritage. I particularly admired his willingness to leverage the tools of modern biotechnology to solve energy challenges.

What was it like living in DC for a summer? Did you get to really experience the city while you were here?

Absolutely. DC is a vibrant, diverse, and beautiful city. No matter your cultural interest—sports, food, museums, or history—DC is a great place to spend a summer. 

Aside from the project itself, what was the most memorable part about your Summer Scholar experience?

One memorable set of experiences was my interactions with Dr. Cheryl Martin, the Acting Director of ARPA-E at the time. Cheryl’s leadership, mentorship, and vision for ARPA-E inspired the entire staff. Dr. Martin took time to meet with me several times to discuss my work and its implications for ARPA-E’s strategy.

How did your experience as a Summer Scholar prepare you for a career in energy beyond ARPA-E?

Technology commercialization and innovation policy are now the center of my research. I focus on carbon removal technologies, which remove CO2 from the atmosphere, but lack technical and commercial maturity. ARPA-E’s approach to guiding new technologies to market has been central to my research program and policy advocacy ever since.

Do you have any lessons learned or advice for future ARPA-E Summer Scholars?

Apply! Spending a few months at ARPA-E had an immeasurable impact on my career.