ARPA-E: Accelerating U.S. Energy Innovation

With aggressive commitments to mitigate the impacts of climate change and emphasis on maintaining an advantage in technological development in an increasingly globalized marketplace, the U.S. government is actively taking measures to ensure the nation’s environmental and economic health and sustainability. As part of its broader strategy, with motivation from the National Academies,1 the United States established the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) within the Department of Energy (DOE) through the America Competes Act in 2007.2 The agency was allotted an initial appropriation of $400 million in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.3

ARPA-E is charged with addressing the most pressing issues facing the U.S. energy sector today, as well as those projected to impact national energy security in the future. The agency’s mission is clearly elucidated in its authorizing statute:2 “To overcome long-term and high-risk technological barriers in the development of energy technologies.” The three principal thrusts of the agency’s mission are (i) reducing energy imports, (ii) reducing energy-related emissions and greenhouse gases, and (iii) improving energy efficiency in all sectors of the U.S. economy. Meeting these ambitious challenges requires focused, interdisciplinary effort on a national scale that will help ensure the United States maintains a competitive lead in developing and deploying advanced energy technologies. 

The driving question behind all ARPA-E programs and projects is: “If it works, will it matter?” In the pursuit of changing what’s possible, ARPA-E activities are not bound to an overarching roadmap. Rather, the goal of each technology program, whether focused on engineering novel battery pack designs or enhancing the productivity of biofuel crops, is to facilitate the development and deployment of technologies that have the potential to be disruptive in the energy market. By funding high-risk, high-reward projects, ARPA-E seeks to accelerate the development of transformative technologies by mitigating the key technical risks limiting follow-on private sector investment. In addition to significant energy impacts, technological innovations therefore must also have a probable path to an improved cost/performance ratio beyond that which economies of scale and incremental R&D alone can achieve (Figure 1). Particular emphasis is placed on translating scientific discoveries into marketable technologies through applied science and engineering.

Figure 1. Hypothetical learning curves derived from the cost/performance ratio of transformative research and disruptive technology relative to a given incumbent technology. ARPA-E seeks to catalyze the development of technology that has a path to becoming disruptive. Image: ARPA-E.

In the seven years following its inception, ARPA-E has invested over $1.5 billion in research funding distributed across more than 35 programs and 500 projects (Figure 2). Current and previous focused programs can be categorized into four broad energy impact areas: electricity generation, electrical grid and storage, efficiency, and transportation and transportation-related storage. Detailed information on ARPA-E's programs are available, and a list of current and previous ARPA-E funding opportunities can be found on ARPA-E's eXchange portal.

There are three archetypes that ARPA-E employs to fund transformational energy research: (i) focused programs centered on a particular energy technology space, (ii) OPEN programs that consider projects spanning all facets of energy technology, and (iii) IDEAS (Innovative Development in Energy-Related Applied Science) projects, which support very early stage technology concepts and serve as the agency’s rapid evaluation tool.

Figure 2. (A) ARPA-E historical timeline showing budget appropriation and number of funding programs and projects to date. Image: ARPA-E.

Focused technology programs span 3-5 years, range from $30 to $50 million in funding, and consist of 5 – 15 individual projects. The focused program lifecycle is outlined in the flowchart in Figure 3. Following initial conception by an ARPA-E Program Director and due diligence involving interactions with scientists and engineers both internal and external to the agency, a technical workshop is held to seek input on the program concept from the most influential and experienced researchers in the technical area. Upon program approval, which is gained through an internal program pitch, a funding opportunity announcement (FOA) is released to the public. ARPA-E FOAs set very aggressive technical milestones, based on what the agency believes are required for transformative progress. Project applications are then received and reviewed on the basis of their scientific merit, impact, and potential to generate breakthrough technologies in a two-stage process—first through short concept papers and then through full proposals. The review of full proposals includes a rebuttal step, after which projects are selected for award negotiation. All ARPA-E awards have a specific final project deliverable, typically a laboratory-scale prototype device, and all projects are structured with quarterly milestones designed to highlight the critical path to that end-of-project outcome. Program directors actively guide the technical progress of each project through quarterly technical reviews, site visits, and annual meetings. Technology-to-market advisors concomitantly work with project teams to guide commercial development activities. The ultimate goal at the end of the program cycle is to position as many projects as possible for handoff to external entities that can drive the newly-developed technology toward market adoption. This is in keeping with ARPA-E’s role as an accelerator of energy technology development in moving from scientific concept to an investible technology outcome.

OPEN programs share many aspects with focused programs, save that their scope is not limited to a particular technological area. Instead, they provide a broad survey of U.S. energy R&D, and the applicants must make their own case for significant impact. ARPA-E has run OPEN programs every three years since the agency’s inception (2009, 2012, and 2015). Because of the breadth and large number of funded projects (40 – 60), OPEN awards have totaled more than $100 million in each solicitation. In 2015, 41 projects were selected across 10 technical areas (building efficiency, industrial processes and waste heat, data management and communication, wind, solar, tidal and distributed generation, grid scale storage, power electronics, power grid system performance, vehicle efficiency, storage for electric vehicles, and alternative fuels and bio-energy).

Figure 3. Flowchart outlining the steps involved in a typical ARPA-E focused funding program, from ideation through project handoff and transition toward market. Image: ARPA-E.

The third ARPA-E funding vehicle is the IDEAS program. Established in 2012, these are smaller, shorter-term awards (1 year, $500k or less) that enable rapid evaluation of early-stage applied research across all sectors of energy R&D. This agile funding tool ensures ARPA-E and its programs stay on the cutting edge. IDEAS projects are a source for innovative concepts that can potentially serve as springboards for the development of focused funding programs. Projects are organized and their merit reviewed according to basic energy conversion relationships (e.g., radiant → chemical, nuclear → thermal, mechanical → electrical, etc.).

Regardless of the programmatic bin into which they fall, ARPA-E projects all share a number of common characteristics. Foremost, they have the potential to be high impact in one or more of the ARPA-E mission areas. In addition, they have a probable path to disrupt current technological paradigms. Projects are headed by teams of best-in-class scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Achieving the demanding technical targets defined in ARPA E FOAs is a tall order. Success, more often than not, requires effective collaboration between multiple entities. As such, 72% of ARPA-E projects have involved multi-institutional partnerships. Technologically-driven companies play a substantial role in many projects (84% involve small or large businesses) due in part to their ability to readily transition new technologies to market. A breakdown of projects according to the type of lead institution is shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Distribution of ARPA-E projects as a function of lead institution type. FFRDC: federally funded research and development center. Image: ARPA-E.

As an early indicator of the effectiveness of the ARPA-E model—ambitious programs with an emphasis on the technology-to-market transition—as of the end of 2015, 45 projects have received follow-on funding totaling more than $1.25 billion from the private sector, 36 have resulted in the formation of new companies, and 60 have continued beyond their initial funding period through assistance from other government programs, including the applied energy offices within DOE. Furthermore, ARPA-E funded research has yielded over 1,100 peer-reviewed publications, more than 13,000 citations, and 101 patents over the past seven years. An overview of select ARPA-E alumni and late-stage projects, which highlights their approaches to overcoming significant technical challenges and their potentially transformative impact on the U.S. energy sector, has recently been made available on our publications page.

Aside from funding opportunities, there are several other ways to get involved with ARPA E and contribute to its mission and its programs (short of joining the agency—more on that below). These are requests for information (RFIs), workshops, and the annual ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit.

ARPA-E frequently reaches out to the broader research community through RFIs to obtain insight that can be used to inform program design. RFIs are initiated by Program Directors in an area of interest during the earliest stages of ideation (the Envision phase in Figure 3). These questionnaires are used to aggregate knowledge from experts within a particular field, as well as anyone who feels he or she can provide meaningful contributions. Responses are utilized internally to help frame technical challenges and opportunities that focused ARPA-E funding can address. RFIs are often integral components of successful program design.

Workshops offer an additional opportunity to interact with ARPA-E. As noted above, convening researchers with expertise related to a proposed program area is essential to ARPA-E in identifying promising research pathways toward disruptive technologies. Workshops are a tool to develop program details and can help better define appropriate metrics and identify key technical challenges. ARPA-E workshops are by invitation only, however, anyone interested in attending may request an invitation by submitting a CV and a statement regarding experience and perspective on the workshop topic of interest.

The annual ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit brings together researchers, industry professionals, policy leaders, and students for a three-day event to shed light on America’s most pressing energy issues and promising paths toward new energy technologies. Keynotes from influential leaders and luminaries provide unique perspectives on current trends and prospective futures in U.S. energy technology and policy. Various seminars offer insight into commercialization of emerging technologies. For many, the Summit provides unparalleled access to top experts and decision makers from academia, industry, government, and nonprofits, presenting myriad opportunities for establishing funding partnerships and collaborations. Graduate students with an energy focus in accredited science, engineering, business, and policy programs are selected to attend the Summit through a competitive application process. Registration fees are waived for those chosen. Students participate in panel sessions and meet with corporate recruiters. As part of the Summit, ARPA-E hosts a highly regarded Technology Showcase that offers a first-hand look at cutting-edge energy technologies developed by ARPA-E funded teams, along with other revolutionary products with disruptive potential. The Summit is the first public display for many of the selected technologies, giving attendees an exclusive preview of products that could soon transform the energy market, as well as introducing these exciting developments to investors. The 2016 Summit hosted more than 2,200 attendees and 275 Showcase exhibits. The 2017 Summit will be held from February 27 – March 1. More information, including registration details, can be found on the ARPA-E Summit website. 

Getting involved through RFIs, workshops, and the Summit are great ways to contribute to ARPA-E and its mission. However, a more direct course of action for researchers passionate about tackling the highest-risk, highest-reward challenges in advanced energy R&D is to join the ARPA E team.

ARPA-E Program Directors (PDs) and Fellows have limited tenure by design, initially three years for the former and two for the latter. This policy ensures the agency maintains an influx of novel ideas and fresh insight while promoting rapid ideation. It also means that there are many opportunities to join ARPA-E. The agency is always searching for bright, creative, highly-motivated and committed scientists and engineers who are willing to push boundaries and are committed to advanced energy R&D. What follows is a brief description of the roles and responsibilities of PDs and Fellows, attributes critical for their success, and the exceptional opportunities these positions have to offer.

PDs serve as ARPA-E’s visionaries. Generally mid- to late-career researchers, PDs join ARPA-E from a wide range of previous appointments, including academics and nonprofits, start-ups and large corporations, and government laboratories. A list of current PDs is available on the ARPA-E website). Candidates must have a strong, independent R&D background and proven management skills. Broad technical experience, intellectual integrity, and the ability to clearly communicate key technical concepts to scientific and general audiences are vital. Experience in moving technology from the laboratory into the marketplace is highly desired. Perhaps most importantly, PDs must be genuinely passionate about influencing the future of U.S. advanced energy R&D. Upon joining ARPA-E, a PD’s principal role is to lead the development of a new focused research program, as illustrated in Figure 3. A program’s concentration does not necessarily have to align with a PD’s prior experience, providing for some a compelling opportunity to pivot into a new research area that broadens his or her technical acumen. Other responsibilities include actively managing projects through site visits and annual meetings, setting project milestones, and reviewing technical proposals. Within ARPA E, PDs work closely with technical advisors, tech-to-market experts, and Fellows to flesh out ideas and evaluate the merit and performance of ARPA-E funded projects. The appointment offers a number of unique opportunities. Several of the most salient include: (i) recognition as a thought leader in not only a specific technical area, but also in the broader U.S. energy sector, (ii) a unique glimpse into the future of commercial energy technologies, and (iii) personal interaction with some of the most influential scientists, engineers, thought leaders, philanthropists, and business and policy leaders in the United States and abroad. When asked why they came to ARPA-E, PDs invariably answered that they wished to have a more significant impact on energy technology than possible by staying home in their laboratories. More “behind the scenes stories” of current and alumni PDs can be found online as well.

In contrast to PDs, ARPA-E Fellows are early-career researchers. Most join the agency shortly after completing their doctoral degree. During their two year appointment, Fellows serve as the agency’s technology evaluation team, identifying potential white spaces that are high risk, high impact, and that could yield real energy solutions given three years and $30 million. The same opportunities listed above for PDs also apply to Fellows, as do many of the attributes necessary for success. Technology optimism is essential, as is the ability to envision potential futures ten, twenty, fifty years down the road and the energy challenges that may accompany them. Fellows work to identify actions the scientific community can take now to address these grand challenges. This work requires divergent thinking to identify innovative solutions to big problems while remaining grounded in sound scientific fundamentals. Fellows assist with program creation by scouting various technical areas, carrying out critical technoeconomic due diligence, building networks of relevant experts, organizing workshops, crafting funding announcements, and assisting in project management. Travel is an important part of the position, providing ample face-to-face networking and first-hand exposure to the energy technologies of tomorrow. Fellows have the opportunity to publish research articles using results from original technoeconomic analyses or technological surveys. They can also serve as lead managers for IDEAS projects. Suffice it to say that the ARPA E fellowship is not your typical postdoctoral appointment. As a testament to this, Fellows have pursued a wide range of exciting career paths following their time with ARPA E. Examples include tenure-track faculty at top U.S. research universities, program officers in governmental and non-governmental organizations, and technology evaluators and engineers in the private sector. A list of current Fellows can be found on the ARPA E website, as can “day in the life” stories from current and alumni Fellows.

If the job descriptions and agency activities outlined in the previous paragraphs pique your interest, whether near completion of your graduate studies or searching for a stimulating mid- to late-career opportunity, an appointment with ARPA-E could be a fulfilling next step. The valuable experiences, extensive networking, and growing influence of this nascent agency offer enduring benefits long after your tenure ends. To see a list of current career opportunities and to submit an application, visit the ARPA-E job board.

Stay up-to-date with ARPA-E’s latest funding opportunities and events by subscribing to the agency’s e-newsletter and blog.