Energy Foundry

Building Industry-Driven Innovation Ecosystems: An Illinois Case Study

By David Baker
Executive Director, University Technology Park at IIT, Illinois Institute of Technology

Great piece by David Baker from IIT, a core institution within Illinois’ energy ecosystem and founding Smart Grid Cluster partner. Originally posted by the Illinois Innovation Index.

Over the past decade, research institutions, universities, and industry in Illinois have joined forces to modernize the state’s electrical grid and create a growing smart grid/energy storage ecosystem. The three driving forces behind the emergence of this cluster include: the presence and interest of two large electric utilities and numerous Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) in the power electronics space; the passage of a 2011 Illinois state law enabling the utilities to recover their investments in a renewed electric grid; and the awarding of a $125 million U.S. Department of Energy Grant to a team led by Argonne National Laboratory for the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research.

While there are many players that support the ecosystem, I want to comment on three contributing elements that I work with directly: the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Galvin Center for Electricity Innovation; the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) funded Illinois Smart Grid Regional Innovation Center; and the University Technology Park at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).

IIT is a private nonprofit technology-focused PhD granting university located on Chicago’s Southside. It has an academic and research history in power engineering and power electronics dating back to the 1930s.  While many other academic institutions abandoned their power engineering programs in the last few decades, IIT continued to educate graduates for the power industry. As interest in electrical grid innovation grew, reliable electricity presented new challenges for power companies and academia. IIT responded to this opportunity in 2006 by starting the renewal the university’s electricity distribution system as a “smart micro-grid” with significant funding from the Department of Energy, industry, the university and the Galvin family.  Under the leadership of Dr. Mohammad Shahidehpour and with the help of industry, IIT now operates and evaluates its micro-grid, demonstrating how to manage systems that include base power, solar, wind and battery storage systems. This model site has quickly become an important element in the development of the energy storage/smart grid ecosystem.

In 2010, IIT led a team, which included the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition (ISTC), The Clean Energy Trust (CET) and O-H Community Partners, in a successful, competitive bid to land one of 10 Small Business Administration Regional Innovation Clusters. The winning bid leveraged the university’s expertise in smart grid, the anticipated passage of the state’s grid renewal legislation, and the existing industry interest and investments in grid technology.  The Illinois Smart Grid Regional Innovation Cluster (ISGRIC) committed to identifying and supporting smart grid/energy storage start-ups with the potential to provide innovations to the electric power industry, and IIT provided business school graduate students and support from its entrepreneurship center to help with the development of the business. The ISTC, CET and O-H Community Partners helped the companies develop relationships with OEMs and utility companies and find private and public funding resources.

ISGRIC and IIT also helped create a more formal cluster through marketing research, networking events, and an annual Great Lakes Symposium on Smart Grid and the New Energy Economy. In 2012, ISGRIC incorporated the Energy Foundry into a leadership role of the cluster. The Energy Foundry was created by state statute and funded by the electric utilities for operations and a seed stage venture fund. Energy Foundry’s new home, a co-working space called Coalition: Energy, has further helped to provide networking and visibility for the cluster.  ISGRIC now serves over 30 start-ups and continues to be supported by the SBA.

Finally, University Technology Park at IIT, a start-up-focused facility for technology companies in life sciences and energy, provides high quality laboratory and office space for cluster members.  SiNode Systems, a Northwestern University spin-out in the battery materials and storage space, is one of five members of ISGRIC that has located in the IIT Tech Park. SiNode needed the incubator’s wet-lab set up for the development of their novel battery materials. Emerging energy companies, like SiNode Systems, have taken advantage of IIT technical and student resources, as well as the presence of the micro-grid test bed.

David Baker was named Vice President for External Affairs at the Illinois Institute of Technology in March 1995. He is responsible for the university’s governmental relations, technology park development, and trustee relations. Since 2001, he has worked to create the University Technology Park at IIT of which he serves as Executive Director. He serves as Chair of the Heidelberg Club International of Chicago, and is a member of the Economic Club of Chicago. Mr. Baker holds an M.A. from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and an A.B. in History with a minor in Economics from Stanford University.