Apply to ORNL’s Prestigious Innovation Crossroads Program


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Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is a prestigious institution on the cutting edge of energy and advanced manufacturing research. ORNL has just announced the latest iteration of their Innovation Crossroads Program, which selects up to seven researchers who wish to be entrepreneurs each year.

Innovation Crossroads was created to speed up the development of manufacturing technologies. It was created specifically to take a technology from the lab into production. It is funded by ORNL, the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The program is for research and researchers, “whose early-stage innovations are presently too challenging or technically uncertain to pursue in a venture capital-financed startup.” Their startups get incubated at ORNL for two years, while they receive a stipend.

The mission of the TVA is to “to improve the navigability and to provide for the flood control of the Tennessee River.” So good luck with that. Actually it is “to make life better for the people of the Tennessee Valley through the integrated management of the region’s resources.”  The TVA is now an $11 billion revenue energy provider so anything that improves that in the broadest sense would apply as well. The Department of Energy’s mission is “ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions.” Which should be doable if you’re doing some of the heavy lifting in 3D printing.

ORNL is on the very frontier of the imagined and the possible. The lab has unparalleled access to machines and research equipment, a $1.4 billion budget, and 1,100 scientists and engineers. Additionally, they have things like the High Flux Isotope Reactor and the spallation nuclear source. At your current office, an accident means that coffee stains your pants; at ORNL, accidents could create superheroes.

Some of the world’s best minds are at ORNL solving some of the world’s toughest problems. One of the lab’s focus areas is Advanced Manufacturing and, within that, 3D printing takes a prominent place. It shows. Over the past few years, ORNL has worked on lignin as a 3D printing material, partnered with Lincoln Electric on a welding/3D printing technology that can make parts at a speed “in excess of 100 pounds per hour”, is developing a 3D printed nuclear reactor core, 3D printed fake fish, created a neutron component print technology, made an aluminum carbon capture device, worked on a large scale thermoset print technology, and developed AI-powered software for powder bed systems.

ORNL commercialized big area additive manufacturing (BAAM), a large scale composite print technology. They also found out how to use BAAM for precast concrete molds and have produced crack-free IN718, MarM-247, and IN738 on EBM equipment. The lab has also developed a data analytics framework to certify 3D print processes not parts for production. And this—I can not stress this enough—is just the stuff they’re telling the public about.

ORNL boasts the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, which is working on developing six or more new 3D printing technologies at the moment and has a completely amazing setup of 3D printing and ancillary equipment in a 10,000 square meter building. You can take the virtual tour here. And you should.

At Crossroads, you are provided with:

  • A two-year fellowship – Includes a personal living stipend of up to $90,000/year depending on education and experience, along with health insurance and travel allowance
  • Lab access and research funding – In addition to unparalleled access to facilities, equipment, and expertise at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, fellows receive $200,000 of R&D funding to support collaboration opportunities with researchers across the lab.
  • Business mentors, entrepreneurial training, and networking – Participants receive access to experienced business mentors, entrepreneurial training programs, and exclusive networking opportunities.

TCPoly’s Matt Smith

The ORNL team has a particular interest in additive manufacturing and previously Crossroads has funded, amongst others, Ascend Manufacturing, Actinic and TCPoly. Matt Smith’s TCPoly now makes “ice9 Thermally Conductive Filament, the world’s highest thermal conductivity 3D printing plastic that can conduct heat 50 times higher than traditional plastics.” This could be used to make polymer heat sinks or mold tooling.

A TCPoly 3D printed heat sink.

Dr. Justin Nussbaum was also in Crossroads with his startup Ascend Manufacturing‘s LAPS process that is a closed-loop sintering process that illuminates the entire build at once. The process is not only fast but they also claim that it produces “highly identical and defect free” parts.

Ascend’s Process.

A third 3D printing company aided by Crossroads is Joe Fortenbaugh’s Actinic. This company wants to commercialize innovative thermally cured thermosets to expand the types of materials that can be made with SLA and other light curing technologies. Among the materials that they want to make available is polyimide (Kapton). This material has a continuous service temperature of 232C, is inherently flame resistant, has good chemical resistance, and is very strong. What’s more he does this for composites and cures them from the inside out through localized heat. You can see a video by Joe here or check out other updates by the entrepreneurs here.

The Innovation Crossroads Program is an insanely advantageous opportunity and I urge you to apply. Eligibility criteria are:

  • Must have PhD or equivalent experience
  • Must be focused on energy or manufacturing innovation
  • Must leverage ORNL R&D capabilities and have an impact on DOE or TVA missions
  • Must be willing to relocate to the Knoxville-Oak Ridge area
  • Must be US citizens or lawful permanent residents at time of application

You may initially not be too excited to move to Knoxville, where ORNL is located, but SmarTech’s Scott Dunham lives there and he assures us that it is delightful with a lively bar, social scene and lots of nature to explore.

The process consists of you applying, a phone interview and an in-person interview. You will have to submit a resume, abstract, a “tell us about yourself”, and a two pager on the technology, what its impact is for the DOE and TVA, Why you wish to apply and “what most attracts you to Innovation Crossroads.” As a part of this process you will be subjected to the “The Heilmeier Catechism.” This is a set of questions, particularly beloved of the acronym set. The Heilmeier question set proposed by US engineer George Heilmeier is actually a fantastic way to boil down, strip to its bare bones and evaluate any new technology or idea.

  • What are you trying to do?
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What is new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares?
  • What are the risks?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the mid-term and final “exams” to check for success?

It’s a great framework. Furthermore, you will be judged on the following criteria:

  • How innovative is the proposed approach
  • Potential market impact
  • Applicant’s technical understanding of the problem and proposed solution
  • Evidence that ORNL capabilities can help advance the idea
  • Soundness of the business concept
  • Likelihood that the idea can be matured in the 2-year program

I really think that this is a fantastic opportunity for those of you working on fundamentally interesting things. Learn more about Innovation Crossroads and apply here.

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