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Episode 49: Dr. Jennifer Gerbi

This week, Jon Powers sits down with Dr. Jennifer Gerbi, Associate Director for Technology and a Program Director at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Dr. Gerbi discusses how the agency’s unique culture encourages innovation and current efforts to bring these exciting projects to market.

In addition to supporting program development, recruitment, and coordinating project management across the Agency, Dr. Gerbi’s programmatic focus at ARPA-E includes improving energy efficiency and management of buildings via advanced sensing systems and storage, novel insulating for windows, as well as renewable energy via photovoltaics. Dr. Gerbi holds a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.S. from the University of Virginia, and a B.A. from Bard College.

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Jon Powers: Welcome to Experts Only Podcast, sponsored by CleanCapital. Learn more cleancapital.com. I’m your host, Jon Powers. Each week, we explore the intersection of energy, innovation and finance, with leaders across the industry. Thank you so much for joining us.

Jon Powers: Welcome back to Experts Only podcast. This is your host Jon Powers. Today, we are speaking to Dr. Jennifer Gerbi, who is the Associate Director for Technology and Program Director at the Advanced Research Program Agency-Energy. For those that are familiar, it’s ARPA-E. It’s an incredible part of the Department of Energy, that’s helping to drive innovation.

Jon Powers: Jenny’s got a great background, doing a lot of her work in, for instance, the national labs, and later on at Dow Chemical, and is helping to provide oversight in all the technology issues relating to ARPA-E’s program.

Jon Powers: We’re going to talk a little bit about the upcoming ARPA-E Summit, which is in Denver, July 8th to the 10th. If you’re not familiar, you can go to the ARPA-E summit website, which is ARPAE-summit.

Jon Powers: As well as, an RFI that ARPA-E has in the street, is they’re trying to find ways to put together public-private partnerships to help these new companies and new technologies overcome the valley of death. So I hope you enjoy our conversation.

Jon Powers: Jenny, thanks so much for joining us here at Experts Only podcast.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: Oh, happy to be here. Thanks.

Jon Powers: I want to talk about your work at ARPA-E and I think your experience sort of academically. But I really want to step back as we were talking offline, you mentioned growing up in the Hudson Valley. What sort of began to trigger your interest in the energy space?

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: That’s a great question. I grew up in a very small town, so I was outside a lot, sort of by myself a lot. So I sort of read books and hung out in nature. I was very interested in ecology and animals, as kids are who are sort of like that. And just sort of as I matured and started taking more classes, I realized that my interests were really always about why, like why does something happen and [crosstalk 00:02:09].

Jon Powers: Right.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: To me it’s all about physics. Like when I finally took physics, I was like, Oh this is like answering some of the why questions. So I knew that I wanted to go into sort of that side of science, but energy, in particular, was not something that I was looking at. I was sort of more interested in materials and things [crosstalk 00:02:25] like that.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: I was interested in making an impact somehow, but I didn’t really know what that meant. So I did some stuff in high energy physics, which is on the other end of the spectrum, than stuff that has a short term impact close to the market. And it was, it was fun, but it really didn’t sort of satisfy that. And it took a while. But when I learned more about, I mean this was the time when we had wars in the Middle East and oil was on everybody’s mind and I was a very young child in the 70s and so the more I sort of thought about that, the more I realize that energy links everything together. Everything. I mean, whether it’s the economy, ways that people work, what you can do as a society. I mean there’s no getting away from energy.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: Whenever I looked at important problems that I thought would be worth solving, they almost always came back to energy. And so it was really important for me to see that I did work in solar research for my graduate work in material science. But yeah, I just got more and more interested the more I dug into it. And some of the problems are really complex and subtle, and so again, as you sort of dig deeper into some of these problems, you realize just how fascinating it is.

Jon Powers: Yeah. Interesting. And you know, coming from, so the material science side of this, right? You worked at Argonne National laboratory. Can you talk a little bit about that experience and for folks that aren’t familiar with the national labs, maybe just add some color on what their role is and sort of the broader efforts.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: Yeah, the national labs are really interesting place. They can really sort of bridge the gap sometimes between doing more fundamental research and more targeted research and sort of what it means to get to that point. I went there to work with a group that was doing thin filmed diamond deposition. I was working on sort of dimed electronics, but we also sort of had a foray into bio implants and the fact that diamond is a very safe material to use in the body. We were working with this company doing artificial retinas and it was really interesting.

Jon Powers: When you say diamond, by the way, do you literally mean diamonds?

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: Yeah, it’s literally… so thin films of diamond using a plasma to make them. And you know they have certain crystal size, but it really is diamond. But it behaves in different ways because of how you can make the structure. It was really interesting for me to see that sometimes the gap between something that might seem a little more fundamental, you can find really interesting application spaces for that and it’s important to do that earlier rather than later sometimes. Also, it was the first group at Argonne, I think that spun out a company, which was not something that Argonne was used to doing at all. So I got to see sort of how that was actually really challenging. But I thought that was great that they were trying to do that. So I think all the labs are different. They have great people at them, they all focus on different things and I think it’s actually really important resource and I’ve learned a lot there. I also spent my last senior semester undergrad at Argonne National Lab at a science and engineering semester program. That was fantastic for me.

Jon Powers: I wonder how that experience being at the lab, being part of spinning a company out has sort of prepared you. You’re doing it at ARPA-E and seeing some of the challenges of these newer technologies and really the companies behind them trying to get traction.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: Yeah. You know, I learned a lot about that when I was in industry. So I went and worked… I was at Dow Chemical and then Dell Corning, but I saw that looking at innovation models and the way they bring new tech in, you know a lot of times they will assess startups and decide whether or not to acquire them.

Jon Powers: Right.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: I, actually, interacted more, I think, in that role with smaller companies and saw how people of did due diligence and what you could do at a small company culture versus a large company culture. That was really important to learn before coming to ARPA-E cause we fund groups of all types. I mean we’ll put out a funding announcement to solve this problem and energy.

Jon Powers: Right.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: And we will have national labs apply, we will have two people in a garage apply, we will have large companies apply, we will have different [inaudible 00:06:18] mixed together, in different ways, apply. And so the needs of all those groups and the styles of them are all different. So it really helps to understand how different that can be when before you go to ARPA-E.

Jon Powers: Sure.

Jon Powers: So I want to get to ARPA-E in a second, but I really want to first, we’ve had a theme on a couple of our recent episodes talking about sort of diversity and the clean energy workforce and you are, obviously, a woman in STEM. Can you talk about… I think about my own daughters, I have a daughter who’s six years old right now and we are actively trying to get her very interested in the space in a variety of different ways. What advice do you have for young women coming up in the STEM space and how to companies, that are out there, really try to find and add diversity into their workforce?

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: Well that’s like the million dollar question.

Jon Powers: Yeah.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: We struggle with that too.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: What I would probably do is, I’m going to tweek your question a little bit.

Jon Powers: Yeah, please [crosstalk 00:07:11] .

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: Not what can young women do in STEM? It’s what can everybody do to encourage there to be more equity in [crosstalk 00:07:19] people that go into STEM because it’s often sort of cast as, Oh, okay, you as a woman need to be less sensitive to people being a jerk to you or you need to lean in and take all these chances you wouldn’t otherwise take. And it’s not that any of that bad advice, but it’s sort of putting a solution on the person who’s being hurt the most by the problem. And it’s really… I’m very big on let’s look at this problem as a whole, right? It’s hard to recruit people. It’s hard to encourage people. We all come from different backgrounds with different levels of benefits. So we really have to think about are there policies in place that’s making it harder for certain people to go into a certain job?

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: For example, look at the way that you’re doing outreach. You know, are you just using your nearest next neighbor and getting tips from people that already worked there? Or are you aggressively going out and reaching out into groups of people that you don’t have a connection to? So what’s an interesting challenge and a lot of… I would say the atmosphere is different than when I was going through say, undergrad and grad school and things are much more overt back then. And yes, I did have my share of ridiculous things I needed to deal with particularly that there were never women’s bathrooms [inaudible 00:08:28] I would go to, things like that. I mean it was ridiculous, but now I would say, it’s really important to sort of know yourself and understand your personality and understand what you need in order to do well in a certain area or certain job and push yourself out outside of your comfort zone.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: But know what that means for you because you do have to be somewhat resilient, I think, to be, well honestly, to be anybody in tech, but when you are coming up against these sort of subtle barriers that people don’t realize they’re putting out there, it takes some resilience to get past that.

Jon Powers: Right.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: It’s actually a very subtle problem and I’ve been very interested in this and I’ve been sort of digging into it more. There’s people I work with at AWIS, Association for Women in Science and they’re a great group. So you can sort of look at all the stuff the NSF has done in this area and the studies they’ve put out and realize that this is a problem we all need to solve together. It’s something that everybody does, everybody has subconscious bias and just think of it as here’s how humans work, so how can we actually overcome this problem? Not by shaming people, but by understanding how humans work and how we could fix this problem from that point of view. [crosstalk 00:09:36] I think there’s huge opportunities for, for women in STEM, but I’m not going to say we solved the problem. You know, [crosstalk 00:09:45] dealing with unconscious bias and stuff like that.

Jon Powers: Really appreciate the perspective and obviously you’re probably taking a lot of those lessons with you into the work you’re doing today at ARPA-E. I’d love to sort of step back for our audience who, who are familiar with ARPA-E, the advanced research projects, agency energy, which is part of the Department of Energy. Can you give a little bit of a history of ARPA-E and why it was formed and talk a little bit about what you’re all focusing on.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: The ARPA-E is quite a young agency. We are less than 15 years old and we were started to look at very difficult research that other people really weren’t able to look at to solve energy problems for the country. So the language that we follow is actually quite broad. That started ARPA-E and it’s about strengthening our energy independence, reducing energy related emissions and increasing energy efficiency. And you can think about that, you know you can fit quite a different tech into that. We were set up from the beginning to have a very different culture than other agencies because our mission is different than other agencies and the types of problems that we are addressing are different than other agencies. So we have these term limits. Everybody that comes in is there for three to five years and then they leave. We’re essentially run by this group of program directors that come in and are very passionate about solving a problem in the energy space.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: And can also understand what the impact would be if it was solved. There’s nothing wrong with other types of cultures. It’s just that in order to attack problems like this, you really have to have the freedom to be able to go at it the right way.

Jon Powers: Right.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: The culture at ARPA-E is basically as close as you’re going to get to a startup culture in the government. As far as I can see. I mean it’s pretty amazing. It’s… [Crosstalk 00:11:33]

Jon Powers: Yeah.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: There’s no competition at all, right, we all work together all the time. Our portfolio is so broad, it’s amazing. And we are a tiny little agency. We’re very, very lean. We don’t have lots of levels of middle managers. We all sort of vet each other’s pitches and things like that. I think the goal of setting this up really was to have a place, that had a culture and could attack some of these very high risk research problems in a different way. And I think that that has been very successful.

Jon Powers: Yes. Having worked in the bureaucracy, right? Recognizing that innovation isn’t always the easiest thing to pursue when you’re working in a bureaucratic structure. And it’s not always the bureaucrats fault. It sometimes the challenges on contracting, challenges on budgets. But ARPA-E has an incredible level of success sort of trying to drive really creative change. When you guys are looking at what’s needed today in sort of the energy markets, what do you see as sort of the bigger problems that you’re trying to address?

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: Oh this, there are so many.

Jon Powers: Right.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: We look for… So let me give you some of the sort of the things we think about when we’re deciding what to work on. So we don’t have a top down sort of road map structure. We don’t tell people what to work on. People come in and pitch ideas that they think is what we should work on. So we’re determining that, which means that we are as varied as the people who come in. So we see enormous challenges in the entire grid space. I mean, whether you’re talking about, power electronics, hardware to software, and controls to how you actually assess different things on the grid. I think that system’s that are incredibly complex and that are somewhat inertial because of regulation or hardware or just physical capabilities. It gets really interesting to dig into that and figure out how can we possibly make a difference there with this, we have a small budget, you know, our programs are generally $30 to $50 million.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: How can I possibly make a difference here?

Jon Powers: Right.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: The key is to dig and dig and dig and to find that technical gap that nobody else can fiddle right now for whatever reason. And if we can help bridge that gap and be respect tech, the entire field can move forward. We put a huge amount of work into our program development process where we’re trying to figure out what problems should we solve, what should the solution look like, what should those metrics look like? And that’s what we put out in that funding announcement. So we see a lot of interesting stuff, whether it’s transportation, whether it’s power generation, nuclear fusion, I mean all over the place. We have a very broad portfolio.

Jon Powers: Coming up here in about a month after. This is up for July 8th to 10 in Denver, ARPA-E’s having a summit, the 10th annual energy innovation summit. And you guys bring together leaders in industry, academia, government to really look at America’s energy challenges. I used to go to this regularly when it was in Washington. What are people expecting sort of out of the summit, are you… is there certain things that you’re looking for there? I would just ask if people are interested in and getting involved or even attending, how do they do that?

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: No, that’s great. I think, the summit is a completely amazing event. That’s actually how I found out about ARPA-E.

Jon Powers: Really?

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: I went into the summit as a tech scout. Yeah. And it was really, there’s probably… and I’m not just saying this because I’m at ARPA-E, it was one of the best events I’ve ever been to.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: So there’s a number of different things that go on, the first thing is that every single one of our active performers is there and has a booth and you can go talk to them and see what they’re doing. I mean if you want to get an idea of what our portfolio looks like, you can actually go and meet all the teams.

Jon Powers: Right.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: You know, we have a lot of investors, VCs, tech scouts, people like that really like to come to see what we’re doing. And I mean that’s over like [inaudible 00:15:25] over 300 groups in one place.

Jon Powers: Right.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: We also have a lot of programming during the summit. We have some really great and useful panels and we also have these things called fast pitches. Fast pitches are super fun. It’s one of the things that impressed me the most for the first summit that I ever went to. And it’s basically these little seven minute long talks about whatever’s on our program director’s or PhD fellows minds, that could inform a potential future program. And there are topics all over the place. It’s really sort of a fun time. It can be like a slightly irreverent time and that’s how you can really sort of see how we’re thinking and the types of things we think about in order to sort of start new programs. And so you can see all those [inaudible 00:16:11] , if you go. They’re also, by the way, we have a YouTube channel and all of our fast pitches are on there.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: So those are one of the first things I tell people to look at if they’re interested in the agency. So the summit, it’s on July 8th to 10th in Denver, which is very unusual, it’s the first time it’s ever been out of D.C. And I’m so happy we were able to do that because one of the things that I’ve really noticed having contracts all over the country traveling all the time, is that there are amazing innovation centers all around the country. I think it’s very important for us all to tap those innovation centers.

Jon Powers: I agree.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: This is a chance for people to go and see Denver. So for example, there’s going to be sort of an NREL Innovation Workshop that’s going to happen right after the summit that people can go to and go see some of the facilities there. There’s a couple other things that are going on. So it’s really a good time to sort of come in and sort of see all different kinds of programming and sort of see how we think.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: So you can register at the website, so it’s just www.arpae-summit.com and you can just google ARPA-E summit and it’ll come up. I just can’t say enough good things about it. An enormous amount of work goes into it and we have some really interesting main stage speakers [inaudible 00:00:17:21] coming, for example, the CEO of Siemens are coming and so it’s really fun to hear their perspectives as well.

Jon Powers: Yeah, excellent. It’s a great conference, it’s really always super interesting companies, investors, sort of the whole ecosystem around innovation, sort of thrives at that summit. One of the things that you guys are looking at, I want to talk for a second about sort of a request for information that you have in the street and RFI is you know how to get those companies that are doing innovative stuff, whether it be supported by ARPA-E or not, right. Those early stage innovative technologies, how to get them through what many people call the the valley of death, right?

Jon Powers: For folks that aren’t familiar, it’s you’ve created a really interesting legit, but how do you scale that, manufacture it, get into the market. It’s a unique problem for… it’s not a unique problem for the economy. It is unique from the economy, but in energy in particular because it’s such a regulatory heavy environment, it’s a different beast to deal with. And you’ve got organizations like the breakthrough ventures that’s coming out of Bill Gates and other investors and others trying to to drive this. But you guys, are specifically have [inaudible 00:18:31] an RFI in the street looking for feedback from investors and others on things like public private partnerships. Can you talk a little bit about that RFI and what you guys are exploring?

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: Yeah, so you are, I wish there was only one valley of death. Sometimes I call the second valley of death, the valley of despair, like [crosstalk 00:18:48] again, just to talk a little more about that. I mean a lot of times we’re trying to do something that’s never been done before. So you have this huge technical gap and it’s amazing when people can actually get it to work. And so you get it to work in the lab, you have data, you have validation. That’s the first valley of death. Can I actually get something for work? Because until you have something, it’s really hard to get funding to do it. So that’s… sometimes we’re sort of the only game in town that’ll do that. But the problem is, all right, you have something that works on your laboratory bench. How are you going to convince people that that can ever actually be a real thing?

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: Looking at different industrial scale up processes. What people need to see in order to validate it. There’s a huge amount of risk involved into saying, okay, how can I take this thing I made in the lab and actually show it to be done for real? That is the valley of despair in my opinion and that is a really hard place to be. So we in our language it that includes deployment of technologies and we’ve never really looked at what would it mean for ARPA-E to actually be involved in helping address this second valley of death, the second sort of risk to de-risked something in order to enable, especially American manufacturing. We have an RFI out about something called pilot where we are asking feedback from anybody out there, about what’s something like this could possibly look like. We would be addressing any past or current RPE team that has reported as subject matter invention to the DOE.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: So, again, it could be somebody who stopped funding quite some time ago. We’re looking at a very different kind of funding vehicle. We usually do cooperative agreements and we have relatively small amounts of cost share. This would be a 50% cost share, where you would expect them to have some sort of an industry partner where people from the financial world might be able to participate in a way that they couldn’t before and really have this be sort of a different kind of partnership moving forward. And because we haven’t done this before, it’s very important for us to both know what people want and what people have concerns about because we don’t want to set something up and then have barriers in there that we didn’t realize we had.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: We mentioned the summit before. One of the things we’re going to do is to try to have teams at the summit chats with people that are interested in potentially partnering up for something like this, so we’re very excited about it. It’s something very different than what we’ve done before. Anybody can go read this RFI and send us their feedback. I think it’s going to be open until June 20th. You can get there very easily. You could get there from a bitly link, which is PILOTRFI, all one word. But you can also again, just google ARPA-E exchange. The exchange site is where all of our funding announcements and RFIs show up, so that is a good place to keep your eyes on. If you’re interested in ARPA-E.

Jon Powers: We’ll link to both the summit and the pilot from our website as people are looking. So feel free to like there and it’s great that you guys are trying to tackle that ever-growing problem I feel. It’s such an interesting and sort of never ending challenge and I appreciate your views and so about [inaudible 00:21:49] valleys of death. I have been an active fan and supporter of ARPA-E ever since it got started. We’ve had an earlier episode with Jim Zahler, who helped found it.

Jon Powers: This is the type of work that government is helping to change the game in terms of the market. I really… the work you’re doing, the culture you’re building is, is going to really have an impact, not just in the short term but in the longterm for how we engage with energy here in the future. So thank you for that.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: Wonderful. Thank you so much for that.

Jon Powers: Yeah. And so one final question. I ask all my guests, if you could go back to yourself either coming out of high school in the Hudson Valley or coming out of college and can sit down and grab coffee with yourself, is there any career advice you’d give yourself or any advice in general?

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: Yeah, I would say don’t be so scared. I was really a nervous, like I was… giving a talk was extraordinarily difficult for me. I was always very quiet in class and it was a process to push through that. And when I think of the amount of time I spent worrying about stuff that didn’t need to be worried about, like that’s time that could have been spent doing better things. And it took, I mean I was probably 40 before I really got over that.

Jon Powers: Wow.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: And you sort of get to this point where you just sort of don’t care anymore. Things get really bad [crosstalk 00:23:05] and it’s like, you know what, I just don’t care. And Oh my God, that opened up a whole new world for me. So it’s funny sometimes I [inaudible 00:23:12], when people ask me about that, I’m like, the trick is I’m not caring. But it’s not that you don’t care, it’s just you don’t care about things that don’t matter, right? [crosstalk 00:23:19].

Jon Powers: Sure.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: There’s only so much attention and energy to focus on things, so don’t worry about the things that don’t matter and I wish that I had learned that earlier.

Jon Powers: That’s great feedback and it actually ties into some of the earlier [inaudible 00:23:33] part of our conversation to you. You’ve had an amazing career, Jenny, and really appreciate the work you’re doing at ARPA-E, whether it be what’s going on out in Denver or beyond, you know, we follow your work closely. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Jenny Gerbi: Thank you.

Jon Powers: And I’d like to thank, just to wrap up, thank our producers, Carly Battin, as well as our intern Courtney Flynn and the team at ARPA-E that helped us put this together. Really excited to have Jenny on and have this conversation. You can find more episodes of cleancapital.com, as always, we’re looking for thoughts on others. Feel free to submit those and as look forward to continuing the conversation. Thanks.

Jon Powers: Thanks for listening in today’s conversation, find more episodes on cleancapital.com, iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. You like what you hear, be sure to subscribe and leave us a five star review. We look forward to continuing our conversation on energy, innovation, and finance with you.