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Department of Energy opens doors to tech entrepreneurs

Under the entrepreneur in residence program, the agency will invite executives to set up shop inside select labs to assess technologies.

The Department of Energy is going to open its doors to Silicon Valley in hopes of turning some of its research projects into commercial projects.

Under the entrepreneur-in-residence program, announced Tuesday, the Department of Energy will invite executives to set up shop inside of select labs to assess different technologies and their commercial viability.

"They will have unfettered access to our taxpayer-funded technologies in our national labs," Alexander Karsner, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the Department of Energy, said to an audience at the Dow Jones Alternative Energy Innovations Conference taking place this week in Redwood City, Calif. Karsner also spoke with reporters separately after his speech.

The program exists in part to help spur the alternative energy economy. The Bush administration, Karsner said, is very interested in promoting low-carbon and carbon-free alternatives to fossil fuels.

For instance, on November 5, the Department of Energy will unfurl a program outlining some of the administration's long-term goals. Wind could provide 20 percent of the electricity for the U.S. in the future, Karsner said. The administration also will discuss "clean energy superhighways," or areas that will be created for producing large amounts of electricity from wind or solar power that will then be transferred to cities and densely populated regions, he added.

At the same time, the department wants to speed up the process of commercialization.

"We were looking at the logic of breaking the logjam and the less-than-fluid rate of tech transfer," he said. "We have a system where the labs are incentivized for research and writing reports on that research. They do not produce business plans."

In the past few years, the Department of Energy has loosened its technology transfer process a bit. Companies like GreenVolts (which develops solar concentrators) and LiveFuels (algae-based biofuels) are based on technologies from the national labs. Neither company was founded, moreover, by ex-national lab scientists.

The entrepreneur-in-residence program will start at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and then move to Sandia National Laboratories.

While the agency has figured out many of the terms and conditions, the royalty that the labs get will be determined on a case-by-case basis, Karsner said.