Challenge: For entrepreneurs developing high-risk emerging technologies, the stage between prototype development and commercialization is often not only the most challenging part of starting a company, but most critical for attracting investment and first customers. Known as the “commercialization valley of death,” this stage requires extensive testing and validation to de-risk the product and obtain certifications. However, it is nearly always time- and capital-intensive, especially for hardware-focused companies.
Solution: Testbed facilities help expedite this process and decrease costs for entrepreneurs by centralizing needed testing equipment. States could sponsor and create advanced energy testbeds to accelerate technology development and stimulate innovation. Municipalities and regional economic development groups—with support from local universities, industry, incubators, and accelerators—could collaborate to facilitate funding for the testbed from the state and/ or via match programs by leveraging the testbed as a public education and business attraction tool. By centralizing and streamlining access to testing resources for advanced energy innovators, states could accelerate technology development and further spur the entrepreneurial culture.
Examples: Based out of the University of Washington, the Washington Nanofabrication Facility is a public access resource that houses micro- and nanotechnology testing capabilities and fabrication services. Entrepreneurs and businesses that wish to use the testbed must simply participate in an initial consultation to discuss project feasibility, design, and safety. The Washington Nanofabrication Facility offers à la carte pricing and services to accommodate all user types. All interested users can access the lab if it meets their needs and they accept the user agreements. The facility supports 200-250 unique users and over 220 projects each year, with a 3:2 ratio of industrial users from small and large companies to academic users. Through in-house training and expertise, users can utilize equipment after a few hours, develop processes within days depending on the complexity of the problem, and develop a prototype in 3-6 months. If the lab lacks a certain capability, lab staff help to facilitate connections to other resources that can fill the identified gap. From 2012 to 2016, this customer service-oriented approach supported a 283 percent increase in the lab’s revenue.
In 2011, four MIT graduates founded Greentown Labs in Somerville, Massachusetts as a place where entrepreneurs could affordably build and test their ideas. Today, Greentown Labs provides co-located prototyping, event, and office space to meet the needs of hardware-focused advanced energy startups. Currently, more than seventy startups utilize the space, pioneering solutions for renewable power generation, battery storage, energy efficiency, and other technology areas. Through its Manufacturing Initiative, Greentown Labs connects energy startups with manufacturers across Massachussetts to help establish business relationships. Since its founding, Greentown Labs has incubated over 120 startups, leading to the creation of more than 900 jobs and $260 million in investment. This success facilitated a major expansion in late 2017, when Greentown Labs opened its Global Center for Cleantech Innovation.