Pandemic lab closures meant lost time for cleantech startups

The temporary closure of research labs last spring in response to the coronavirus outbreak created serious setbacks and headaches for the region’s cleantech startups that rely on them to help develop and test new innovations.

I’ve spoken with several entrepreneurs and laboratory officials who say the sector is still recovering and assessing the longer-term impact of the disruptions even now that many labs have reopened under new COVID-19 safety protocols.

Today’s headlines:

🥬 AG-TECH: Revol Greens, a fast-growing Minnesota company that grows lettuce in high-tech greenhouses, has closed a new $68 million funding round, Greenhouse Grower reports. The funding will allow it to begin building out a planned 80-acre facility in Texas.

☀️ SOLAR: Iowa State University researchers partner with the Iowa Army National Guard to develop a portable solar crate that could provide power during disaster responses such as the recent derecho wind storm.

🛷 ELECTRIC VEHICLES: Minnesota-based recreational vehicle manufacturer Polaris tells Axios that it plans to develop, manufacture, and sell electric off-road vehicles and snowmobiles through a 10-year partnership with Zero Motorcycles.

💡 LIGHTING: Illinois-based LED lighting manufacturer Luminii announces that it has acquired iLight Technologies, an LED manufacturer that specializes in durable and flexible lighting products the company says will complement its existing product line.

🌊 WATER: The U.S. EPA invites applications for $5 million in funding for projects that use mechanical devices, vessels, and other technology to clean up and protect Great Lakes harbors and waterfronts from trash.

♻️ RECYCLING: Business Insider gets a look inside a new Brightmark plant in Ashley, Indiana, where the company will turn plastic waste into wax and “eco-friendly fuels” when it opens full time in 2021.

Now, back to our reporting on lab disruptions during the pandemic…

The Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Illinois. (Photo by John Hill for Argonne National Laboratory)

Cleantech startups depend on public labs for research and development. When the pandemic struck this spring, many university and government labs temporarily closed their doors or shifted resources to coronavirus-related projects as the nation scrambled for more test kits, personal protective equipment, and sanitizing solutions.

As cleantech entrepreneurs lost access to lab space, they couldn’t take their work home. Unlike other tech sectors, cleantech often revolves around devices, materials, and hard technology. Many of the tasks involved in developing and testing them depend on physical tools, materials, and chemicals that can’t be reproduced at home.

“There’s only so much you can do in terms of business development as a young startup. Eventually, you just need to get back into the lab or test facility,” said Adria Wilson, entrepreneurial program lead for the Chain Reaction Innovations incubator at Argonne National Laboratory, which closed for a portion of the pandemic.

Jolt Energy Storage Technologies is among the startups whose progress relies in part on access to Argonne’s lab space. The company also does work from its home base at Michigan State University. MSU’s lab closed for nearly three months before reopening. Much of Argonne has reopened, though limitations remain.

“The pandemic has certainly hindered our progress,” said Tom Guarr, Jolt Energy Storage Technologies’ co-founder and chief technology officer. “I was able to remain reasonably productive remotely, but it was not ideal.”

Some labs are trying to make amends for tenants affected by the closures.

“Argonne was cognizant of what happened with COVID and were understanding enough on the back end to extend our agreement. So we can continue to use the facility even past the time when the initial agreement expires,” said Damien Despinoy, CEO of advanced lithium-ion battery material developer Volexion.

Argonne has also tried to help participants in its Chain Reaction Innovators program to find a secondary space that can accommodate product development and social distancing, but that has proved challenging. Many spaces only allowed for “basic stuff that requires minimal equipment, just to keep the ball rolling,” Wilson said.

Social distancing and other new rules have created new challenges even as most researchers are back at their labs to some degree. COVID-19 restrictions have made it difficult to operate at the same efficiency and capacity as before the shutdowns.

Cleantech development could remain at a slowed state for months. “The impacts have been, and could continue to be, significant — disrupting productivity… and the development of new technologies that drive the economy,” Joseph Walsh, interim vice president for economic development and innovation at the University of Illinois System, told a Congressional research and technology committee last month in which university research advocates asked for federal support.

Cleantech and climate tech entrepreneurs who need lab space clearly have faced setbacks and product launches are likely to be delayed. The bigger issue may be whether cleantech investments continue flowing despite the pandemic.

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