Newswise — NEWPORT NEWS, VA – “High fences” are a hallmark of the Hampton Roads landscape.
The region is the East Coast hub of U.S. military activity, and these steel nets wrap around dozens of defense installations and naval shipyards. They also enclose a bustling international shipping gateway, the NASA Langley Research Center and a large chunk of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility.
Designed to protect this array of federal, state and business assets, the spans of chain-link mesh are also a metaphor for silos of information that dot the greater Hampton Roads community. And these “high fences” were a common thread at a recent Boost Platform workshop hosted by the DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories in partnership with Jefferson Lab.
More than 40 professionals representing business, industry, government, research, academia, military, the nonprofit sector and the local community filed into the conference space at the Virginia Peninsula Chamber in Newport News. Their reasons for attending were as diverse as their backgrounds, but nearly all were there to talk about deep tech and learn what the DOE’s Boost Platform is all about. 
“Sometimes we say the Department of Energy is the ‘department of everything,’” said Sandia Labs’ Kelli Howie, a business development manager who emceed the interactive event. She’s part of a technology transfer team that’s been on a months-long U.S. tour of DOE labs and their surrounding communities. The latest stop for this innovation roadshow was Hampton Roads. 
The Boost Platform is a DOE initiative, led by Sandia, that brings national labs, startups, academia and entrepreneurs together to find solutions to big, community-based energy and technology challenges. It is funded by DOE’s Technology Commercialization Fund, which is administered by the Office of Technology Transitions.
“We are using an approach different than the labs usually use,” said Mary Monson, Sandia’s senior manager of technology partnerships and business development. “We’re starting with the communities, learning what they might need, and presenting solutions. We’re then seeking entrepreneurs from those communities and pairing them with technology developed across a whole lot of labs.”

Local connections

Jefferson Lab is among 14 national labs and facilities that actively participate in the Boost Platform, which was launched by Sandia Labs and Virginia-based venture firm FedTech in 2023. The program targets underserved communities that are often overlooked in tech development and entrepreneurship. 
Marla Schuchman is Jefferson Lab’s chief innovation officer. Her Research and Technology Partnerships Office worked with Sandia to bring the workshop to Hampton Roads. 
“The unique challenges of our coastal communities may be a good fit for energy transition and resilience technologies born from the national lab system,” she said. 
After a brief introduction by Monson and Howie, the workshop participants split off into groups. Their challenge question: How do you envision technology and innovation resolving challenges and creating opportunities in your community?
Each group had a different color of marker, and after a lively discussion they jotted their ideas in large letters on separate sheets of paper. At the end of the breakout session, Howie collected the ideas and stuck them to the facing wall. The concepts ranged from talent retention and regional branding to leveraging nuclear expertise and addressing environmental disparities.
“There was excellent conversation around opportunities in transportation, logistics, maritime, and workforce upskilling,” Schuchman said. “Several challenges were identified, echoing regional sentiment from broader entrepreneurial and economic development circles.”

“High fences”

A common theme of the workshop’s animated discourse was the “high fences” that can sometimes limit information access between technology hubs and the surrounding community. 
“Some people are willing to share ideas, but there’s some protectionism in the industry and maybe it has to do with a military mentality,” one participant said. “Maybe it has to do with security, but none of the technology solutions that we could talk about developing for Hampton Roads will work if we can’t figure out how to share information.”
The Boost Platform has been actively bridging such gaps and has already connected several startups with lab-developed tech. A notable alumn is Conquira, whose AI-based asset management system helps keep hospital equipment accounted for and running. Another is BoostPV, which is working to maximize the efficiency of solar panels with thin-film photovoltaic glass.
“Sandia proposed Boost to address the gap of broader engagement of underserved communities and their entrepreneurs who had never been exposed to the national labs,” Monson said. “The entrepreneurs who have been successful have been passionate about their communities and the opportunities to contribute.”
And some of these budding businesses could use the help. Because of high interest rates and less investment by venture capital firms, some smaller companies are having trouble making ends meet. According to the New York Times, 2023 was one of the worst years for startups, with at least 3,200 private-venture-backed U.S. companies going out of business.
But there is help. Recent federal legislation, such as the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment Act, has been funneling billions of dollars to the private sector for clean energy initiatives. This provides alternative funding sources that Boost participants can take advantage of. 

How it works

The Boost process starts with identifying community energy challenges. Regional workshops, such as the April event in Newport News, are part of that process.
The Boost team will provide the results of the workshop back to the Hampton Roads community, then work to identify local entrepreneurs for the Sandia/FedTech studio.
Next is the selection of relevant intellectual property, which the Boost team gathers from the partnering DOE national labs. Meanwhile, Jefferson Lab is looking at its portfolio of available tech to see if it matches with any of the identified needs from the workshop – and other Boost events across the U.S.
Entrepreneurs interested in participating can apply for a chance to be matched with one of these novel technologies. Boost will also host an “Applicant Lunch & Learn” on May 30 via Zoom.
“We hope to see some connections made through this program,” Schuchman said, “stimulating new local businesses solving local challenges.”
FedTech aids in the vetting of the entrepreneurs, who create use cases for their matched tech through coaching, customer discovery other program workshops. Selected startups will pitch their ideas at a year-end showcase event, where teams of business and research professionals determine the viability of commercialization.
Finally, the successful teams get a chance to license the technology from the labs they worked with. 
“A key outcome to track is whether we will find local entrepreneurs willing to tackle the tough job of commercializing deep tech for the benefit of our community,” Schuchman said. “We know the opportunities are there, and we are excited to see the teams that come together.”


Ace Wallace works with the Hampton Roads Veterans Employment Center, which is part of the Hampton Roads Workforce Council. He helps fellow veterans transition out of the military and create their own businesses. He came to the Boost workshop to network and learn about the program.
“It’s always good to be in a room full of different but intelligent minds,” Wallace said. “Seeing people from diverse industries find similar problems and try to come up with a solution-based way to move forward is also good.”
Samaria Haysbert is the assistant director and study abroad advisor for Hampton University’s International Office. She attended on behalf of her students.
“I enjoyed the camaraderie and working with peers,” she said, “and I’m willing to participate as a way to give back. HU’s international students often intern and become research assistants at many of the organizations present at this energy event.”
Jian Wu is an assistant professor of computer science at Old Dominion University. He was there looking for collaboration on research and education.
“Potentially solving these problems could have a huge impact on a spectrum of people in different fields,” Wu said. “As a scientist, I think that will help us know what direction we should be working on to propose solutions in terms of AI.” 
Nathanael Miller is a partnership strategy analyst with NASA Langley’s Strategic Analysis, Communication and Business Development office. He came to the workshop “looking for partners to build things with.”
 “We’re all working behind ‘high fences,’” Miller said, “and finding specific ways to actually work across the fences was very, very good.”

Further Reading
DOE Boost
DOE Boost Workshop photos | Flickr
Tech startups get a timely Boost
DOE Boost Entrepreneur Application
DOE Boost Platform Applicant Lunch & Learn Registration
Sandia National Laboratories Catalyzes Solutions for Community Energy Challenges
FedTech: The Deep Tech Innovation Catalyst