National security might one day do for green what it did for semiconductors, if speakers at the MIT Energy Conference are right.
As reported last week, the U.S. Navy is entering a new partnership with ARPA-E to develop energy storage solutions for both the battlefield and the home front. What was the Navy’s rationale?
“The first question that has to be dealt with is…resilience. The military is on the grid with everybody else. If the grid goes down, soldiers are as hungry and thirsty as the rest of us,” said Jim Woolsey, a Senior Advisor to VantagePoint Venture Partners and the former Director of the CIA. “We have to…figure out how military bases and surrounding civilian areas can island themselves if there is a big problem with the grid and produce enough electricity to get by from stored fuel and renewables.”
The military’s interest not only in storage, but also in energy generation offers tremendous potential for renewable startups looking to gain market traction.
“The military can act as a great source of procurement for technologies that are expensive,” said Bill Lese, a Managing Partner at Braemar Energy Ventures. “It is hard to start with a bio-based fuel and be directly competitive with an industry that has been around for over 120 years.”
Solazyme is one example of a company benefiting from its relationship with the military. In September, the Navy ordered 150,000 gallons of algae fuel from the California-based company. Sweetwater Energy is another example. The New York-based firm uses a distributed cellulosic-based process to create concentrated sugar feedstocks for biofuel and biochemical producers.
“The military is really driving our early-stage company,” said Sweetwater CEO Jack Baron. “The military is our largest customer. We are effectively processing at the farm, converting biomass into concentrated sugar water. The military is buying our sugar water.”
The Department of Defense’s stamp of approval and purchasing power are particularly helpful to companies such as Solazyme and Sweetwater.
The military provides an opportunity “to get initial scale and proof that the commercial market absolutely wants to see,” said Doug Moorehead, the President of Earl Energy and a former Navy SEAL whose graduate research at MIT helped found A123. “You will get traction in the military. You will get [your] products…verified and certified to an incredible standard.”
“If the U.S. Navy is your customer and you know what you are spec’ing to, you create a lot of credibility for yourself,” said Lese. “You create a real buyer, one of the best buyers on the planet.”
Military experience can also serve as an impetus for greentech entrepreneurship.
“My first tour with the SEAL team was with a combat submersible that was all battery-powered. We had silver zinc batteries. They were very big, heavy, unreliable [and] expensive,” said Moorehead. “That experience brought me back to MIT…[and led me to] say, ‘I wonder if anyone is working on advanced battery storage?’ When I…called on my professors, I found [A123 founder] Yet Miang-Chiang.”
But for all of its advantages, working with the military has its drawbacks. For starters, it is a hard relationship to establish.
“What is hard about selling to the military is the way they do business. When I was at A123, [we] could sit across from customers [who] could have the person who has P&L responsibility, engineering and contracting at one table,” said Moorehead. “In the military, it is hard to find your champion, the person who has the funding and the person who does the contracting. [...] It is difficult to find out who has the influence and how can you get to them.”
Startups that are able to navigate the bureaucracy and establish a relationship with the military then encounter a slow sales cycle.
“The military has not yet been a significant enough buyer. They don’t move fast,” said Lese, adding, “Procurement times in the military are very long.”
In addition, the military, like other big customers, often sets to hard-to-reach goals.
“The military is asking for things that are a few years out and they are asking for them today. They are asking for sub-$3 jet fuel today and that is a huge challenge,” said Baron. “The military is very large and has the muscle and the money to set bars and enforce them.”
To help greentech companies reach those bars, the military could help startups through collaborative research.
“Their technologists could be helpful,” said Lese. “I am really interested in seeing the military say, ‘If you meet the following criteria, we are going to buy product from you. We want to be your first buyer. And by the way, we’ve got 30,000 engineers doing R&D, of which we might lend you a couple to solve problems. [That's an] offer of assistance that could [help get] true innovation off the ground.”
Yoni Cohen is a JD-MBA student at the Yale Law School and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. A former college basketball writer for Fox Sports, he tweets about greentech @Cohen_Yoni.