Why restoring startup’s lab access is critical for cleantech innovation

Yesterday I shared how university and government research lab shutdowns caused disruptions to cleantech startups early in the pandemic. Today: why restoring that ecosystem matters so much in our race to innovate solutions to climate change and other global challenges.

Today’s headlines:

🤖 ROBOTICS: A Des Moines, Iowa, artificial intelligence startup placed in a statewide entrepreneurial competition, the Des Moines Register reportsRoboflow’s technology helps cameras detect images and is being used by an energy company to scan pipelines for places where oil could leak.

🏆 RECOGNITION: Chicago Inno unveiled its annual list of 50 people and companies that are “innovating, growing and thriving” in Chicago’s tech and startup scene, including renewable materials company LanzaTech, lab-grown protein maker Nature’s Fynd, and positive impact investor Impact Engine.

🏃🏽ACCELERATOR: The University of Missouri-St. Louis’ entrepreneurship program launched a new business accelerator to support company founders from underrepresented backgrounds and marginalized communities, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

👩‍🔬 EQUITY: Women in academia have written significantly fewer papers than their male counterparts this year, a sign of how the pandemic is intensifying gender gaps that were already causing universities to hemorrhage female faculty, the New York Times reports.

Now, back to the lab(s)…

Cleantech research and development was widely shelved this spring as many research labs shuttered amid the coronavirus outbreak. Most have reopened, but new safety protocols often mean less capacity — some of which has been prioritized for COVID-19-related work. For cleantech startups, entrepreneurs, and researchers, things still aren’t back to normal.

Corporate research labs were less affected by shutdowns, but when it comes to cleantech innovation, those institutions are doing less of the heavy lifting than they did in the past. Instead, university and federal laboratories have become the main engines where researchers and entrepreneurs collaborate to spin out startups or license new technologies to established firms.

“Previously, a lot of innovations came from fundamental research labs at corporations — Bell Laboratories or IBM, for example,” said Yu Kambe, founder of Chicago-based NanoPattern Technologies. “These are iconic, historical research places where great innovations were born. But more and more progressively, those fundamental research institutions are shutting down.

“It’s actually way cheaper for these companies to put in the money to invest in startups, and the startups take on the risk. Then when [the technology] is good enough, [a corporation] can just acquire that technology. That merger and acquisition strategy has become more of the dominant strategy.”

All of that makes restoring lab capacity and access for cleantech and other innovators a matter of national concern. During a Congressional committee hearing in September, members and witnesses discussed the importance of U.S. research institutions and the need to get them back on track from pandemic hardships with support from the federal government.

“In our research enterprise, recall that we are really the feeder to all industry sectors. What that means is everything from agriculture… all the way to doing engine research,” Dr. Theresa Mayer, executive vice president for Research and Partnerships at Purdue University, said during the hearing.

“All of us here on this committee… recognize the critical role that the universities play in America’s research enterprise,” said Rep. Jim Baird, a Republican from Indiana. “They really are the largest performer of basic research, which drives scientific and technological discovery in this country,” and they play an important role in regional economic development, patents, and spurring startups, Baird said.

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