Obama's "Director of Game Changers" Talks Energy Breakthroughs

<a href=Arun Majumdar" />

When the Soviet Sputnik beat American satellites into space in 1957, the U.S. tried to reclaim its technological edge by creating the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which pursued high-risk, high-payoff tech breakthroughs. DARPA contributed to the creation of GPS, speech-recognition algorithm ... and the internet.

One could say the U.S. is facing three energy Sputniks now—its foreign-oil dependence, its diminishing technological lead, and climate change. Energy Secretary Steven Chu hopes that a new agency modeled after DARPA—Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy—will bring similar breakthroughs in the energy field. He placed a former colleague from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, mechanical engineer Arun Majumdar, in charge of ARPA-E. Last fall the agency awarded $400 million in stimulus-act funding to 37 projects (see a list). Another round of funding will be announced in April.

Majumdar visited Seattle last week to talk energy with Bill Gates, meet with venture capitalists, and speak at the University of Washington Department of Computer Science & Engineering. I caught up with him after his speech for an interview in the back of a decidedly non-high-tech minivan.

(Here's a sample of the Q&A; for the complete interview including what the Dept of Marketing & Decision Science does, visit: Grist.org)

Q. What advances in energy technology are you excited about these days?

A. Storage. Let's say we create battery technology that improves hybrid electric vehicles. You can then use electricity to run our cars, and that becomes part of our energy security. The other part is carbon-capture technology for coal. Storage in general is a huge missing piece in the grid today. If you can get it cost effectively, that's a game-changer.

...

Q. How do you explain to the public why it's important to make these high-risk investments?

A. I'll use a quote by Wayne Gretzky: "You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't try." So we've got to try. If you look back in history at what the best entrepreneurs and technologists have done, it's not that they've never failed. When you ask the best, most famous people, you learn they have failed. But they have failed and learned quickly from it. That's what we want the teams to do.

Q. I always hear that Silicon Valley culture is action-oriented and responsive, and you learn things and change course quickly. Washington's reputation is different. What's the transition been like?

A. I have to wear a tie. I have been in academic and research culture which happens to be in Silicon Valley and it's hard to avoid investment communities out there. But I've worked with the secretary in the past and he has given his 100 percent support for ARPA-E. Without that kind of support, perhaps I would have just stayed back in Berkeley.

The other thing that is very rewarding is that I get to see some amazing ideas being proposed. I never got to see that being in an academic institution or a national lab. And I'm very optimistic from what I'm seeing. If we can get a few of those innovations to a maturity level that can then balloon and blossom in the private sector, we would really be in great shape. So that is very rewarding.

Q. If you could wave a wand and instantly change one thing about the political structure, what would it be?

A. I don't want to change political structures. I don't understand politics—I'm a techie. I'm serving the nation and after a few years, I'll go back and be a scientist and engineer.

(from our friends at Grist.org)

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