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An Innovation Framework That Delivers: The SunShot Catalyst Program

Aug 7, 2015

Behind every great innovation is a team. And behind successful innovation teams are efficient tools, processes, and most importantly, people.

The Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative funds projects that make solar energy more affordable and accessible for Americans. As part of the initiative, the SunShot Catalyst open innovation program seeks to rapidly deliver solar solutions through prize challenges.

Catalyst has been recognized as a leader in the innovation field. The International Society for Professional Innovation Management (ISPIM) recently awarded Catalyst the ISPIM Grand Prize 2015 for excellence in innovation management.

Michael Contreras, Managing Director of Catalyst and an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow, said Catalyst has a unique framework that delivers by linking incubation to innovation.

“The feedback I received at ISPIM was that prior to Catalyst, there was not a proven open innovation framework that had been able to create real products from raw ideas. Previously, open innovation was often focused on public engagement,” Contreras said.

The Catalyst Way

To deliver innovations quickly and cost-effectively, Catalyst uses a four phase cycle for its challenges: ideation, business innovation, prototyping, and incubation. Each round offers prizes.

  1. Ideation: Problem statements are uploaded to a crowdsourcing platform. The DOE and the public are invited to vote on ideas.
  2. Business Innovation: Interested innovators submit a video pitch. Judges evaluate the videos and winners are selected.
  3. Prototyping: Round 2 winners have about 90 days to develop a prototype of their product and a business pitch.
  4. Incubation: Products are pitched at a Demo Day, and five winners receive cash prizes to grow and scale their businesses.

The Catalyst model has proven effective in time, cost, and magnitude. In comparison to Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, Catalyst moves twice as fast as SBIR phase 1, and for 1/10th the cost of SBIR phase 2 awards, according to Contreras. For the Solar Apps challenge, 17 products were prototyped in 90 days.

D.O.E. SunShot program graphics

Currently, Catalyst is in its second challenge cycle. To date, more than 200 problems have been crowdsourced, and video pitches will be accepted until August 14th.

A Broader Impact

Catalyst touches more innovators than just the ones who submit videos, prototypes, and products. Video pitch winners are linked with topcoder, an online crowdsourcing platform for design, development and data science. Topcoder participants can compete in challenges to demonstrate their expertise, improve their skills, and win cash.

Contreras said that the Catalyst team began working with topcoder after seeing that many freelance techies were looking for an incentive to dive into entrepreneurship.

“There’s a lot of people willing to do work, and as the momentum builds, it becomes a passion and a livelihood,” Contreras said. “We see it with the sharing economy and we’re seeing it here, with our ability to take these communities and plug them into the Catalyst framework.”

Catalyst also aligns with other federal efforts: for the Solar apps challenge, all 17 finalists made an effort to incorporate Green Button data.

“Everybody knows that data, in and of itself, is valuable,” Contreras said. “I think Catalyst has shown that we are capable of building products on that data. Underneath this software development is a wealth of open data that solar has put out there. We have a ton of data assets from DOE labs across the nation, and they are the data layer for these products. Not only are we successful with engaging new people, we are unlocking data. The more people who know about energy, who can code, and who are entrepreneurs, are helping the data movement.”

Data from Catalyst has also been used to improve the program itself. A master’s student did a thesis on Catalyst, and Catalyst awardees and participants participated in the qualitative analysis.

Social Impact Through Catalyst Solutions: GridMates

One of the participants in the first challenge cycle was Gridmates. Gridmates aims to eliminate energy poverty through the sharing of energy resources: utility customers can help people or organizations in need by donating electricity to their accounts.

As part of Catalyst, the Gridmates team focused on solar energy and created a special plug-in for solar users, who typically have excess power around noon.

“This is an example of how we brought new talent to the solar space: we would never have thought of this solution,” Contreras said. “This is the true power of innovation; it was purely based on how these individuals could solve this problem.”

Ultimately, innovation is about people, Contreras said.

“We get focused on technologies, and technologies are important to drive innovation, but they are just one component,” he said. “How can we reach people, and how we can get people to look at problems? How much impact we can have will be based on how we can manage people in multiple communities.”