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Obama’s “Director of Game Changers” Talks Energy Breakthroughs

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.

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.

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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.

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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?

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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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