ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar Meets with Bill Gates, Advises Local Startups, Speaks at UW

2/19/10Follow @gthuang

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our generation”—a reference to the Soviet satellite launch in 1957 that spurred U.S. technological efforts in the late 1950s and ’60s (including the formation of DARPA, or ARPA, as it was originally called). Now, ARPA-E’s three key challenges are energy security, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, and U.S. technological leadership. “We’re essentially sitting on the Titanic,” Majumdar said. “We want to turn the whole ship around.”

After giving some historical context on previous game-changing technologies (e.g., fertilizer), Majumdar talked at UW about rewiring the “spaghetti chart” that shows how energy supply, demand, and distribution are all connected. To that end, ARPA-E is paying for several dozen projects and companies around the U.S. at a level of funding and risk that is comparable to a Series A venture capital round—in areas like new approaches to cellulosic biofuels, grid-level electricity storage, batteries, windmills, and “electrofuels.”

Majumdar is currently recruiting program managers and evaluating proposals as he works to “reframe goals” in the energy industry. He emphasized, “We are not picking technologies, we’re picking targets.” He also talked about managing expectations. “Everyone expects the equivalent of ARPAnet [the forerunner of the Internet] to happen,” he said. “It’s not going to happen in the next few years. If we are to hit the home run in the energy sector, it will take 10 to 20 years [or more] to make a huge impact.”

But the metrics for the next three to five years will be crucial, he said. Do the ARPA-E projects lead to follow-on investments from others? Will the value of the funded companies go up? How many new companies will be created? What about the number of new industries launched, new jobs, patents filed and licensed, and papers published in top journals? Will the effort advance understanding of new mechanisms for scaling innovations within the U.S.?

One of the questions from the audience was whether ARPA-E will invest in geoengineering efforts—proposed Earth-scale projects such as putting reflective particles in the stratosphere to block some sunlight and combat global warming. Majumdar sounded skeptical, but open. “The issues are cost, and to make sure that if we do it at that scale, we understand the consequences,” he said. “Before we get into it, we better know what we’re doing.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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