Helping entrepreneurial scientists cross the first ‘Valley of Death’

Guest Author
Illustration, scientist stands in front of a deep valley, with a wind turbine and solar panels on one side and an oil rig on the other. Blue background.
Illustration by Nadya Nickels.

In the startup world, “the Valley of Death” is typically associated with the precarious phase when a company is going from a promising early product demonstration to finding its place in the market. It’s a chasm many startups fail to cross.

I’d argue this isn’t even the most perilous Valley of Death. There is an even earlier and deeper one, where much of our country’s science and tech innovation remains trapped.

This valley is by the lab bench. Many scientists develop breakthrough materials and new processes that could be successful commercial products. But most of these breakthroughs remain in lab notebooks or seminar slides and never translate into startup ideas.

This first Valley of Death is the main bottleneck severely limiting how many impactful new commercial technologies eventually reach the market. Figuring out a way through it is particularly crucial for cutting edge energy and cleantech startups that could help the world reach its goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

We need more attempts with potential breakthrough solutions to find the ones that work.

To help researchers turn more ideas into companies, we need to create self-sustaining communities of well-trained entrepreneurial scientists. I envision hundreds of vibrant climate tech ecosystems throughout the country and around the world, rooted in universities acting as the hub for science and entrepreneurship to come together.

To create these ecosystems, a standard curriculum on science entrepreneurship can be established and implemented across schools for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduate students. A course dedicated to PhD science students that is accessible, low risk and provides mentorship for startup-curious scientists and engineers can seed a scientist-to-founder ecosystem.

Universities can also create programs focused on building local communities around budding entrepreneurial scientists, successful founders and leading commercial entities.

Finally, governments and private entities should create grants that encourage graduate students to develop their startup ideas.

All these steps will help create a flywheel of climate tech innovation.

Fortunately, we aren’t starting on the bridge across the Valley of Death from scratch. The United States government already has an impressive ability to commercialize basic science. The government already dedicates $4 billion a year to advance basic science into new energy products and has a dedicated agency, the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy or ARPA-E, that focuses on accelerating the commercialization of breakthrough energy technologies.

Outside the government, there are also fantastic institutions working on solving this challenge. Activate, Breakthrough Energy Fellows, The Engine’s The Blueprint, Stanford Climate Ventures and many others are leading examples of institutions that aim to instruct scientists and create entrepreneurial communities.

However, the problem of climate change is so daunting that we need to double down on these already successful approaches and focus on further scaling communities of entrepreneurial scientists. These great early examples can help lead the way.

I have firsthand experience of the value of these communities. In graduate school, I was developing novel materials for storing hydrogen gas and realized someone needed to develop that research into a full commercial product that could transform heavy-duty transportation.

To avoid getting lost in the chasm between research and commercialization, I joined forces with two outstanding co-founders, Edward McKlveen and Bav Roy, received invaluable guidance from the Stanford Climate Ventures course and received financial support from various institutions including Stanford, Caltech and MIT. After we incorporated our company, Verne, we received a fellowship from Breakthrough Energy Fellows.

We are developing a way to compress and store hydrogen at low cost. Our technology can solve the hydrogen storage problem, enabling hydrogen powered trucking, aviation and distribution.

My team and I are now safely on the other side of the first Valley of Death: We received fantastic resources to form a startup, assembled a world class team and are now actively advancing a technology from the lab into a more commercial product.

I’d like to see other scientists have the same opportunities we had at the same critical period of their graduate training.

It can be difficult for PhD students to independently determine whether the new material they have discovered or idea they have been developing has merit in the real world. And to run a company, scientists have to retrain themselves to make decisions with imperfect information, to choose progress over perfection and learn how to tie scientific parameters with benefits to customers.

Budding scientists shouldn’t have to figure all of these things out on their own.

As scientists bring new products across the Valleys of Death and disrupt incumbent technologies, we stand a chance not only of solving some of the world’s toughest problems, but of coming out the other side with energy abundance.

Editor’s note: David Jaramillo was a member of the First Cohort of the Fellows Program at Breakthrough Energy, which also supports Cipher.