From Ideation to Commercialization: Navigating the Phases of the Cleantech Lifecycle

A Q&A with 8 Rivers Co-Founder Miles Palmer on what it takes to bring ideas to market and 8 Rivers’ unique approach to the cleantech product lifecycle

8 Rivers strives to stand out among its peers working to address the clean energy transition. One of our most important qualities is our ability to move innovative ideas, concepts, and technologies swiftly and effectively to commercial execution. This is no small task, nor is the path linear and replicable across all technology types and industries.  

Over the years, we’ve had some key successes taking cleantech products to market. These include supporting NET Power‘s pilot project development and last year’s NYSE listing, launching our first project utilizing the 8RH2 ultra-low-carbon hydrogen production platform, and placing Calcite’s direct air capture technology in one of the Department of Energy’s new DAC Hubs.

Through these experiences, we’ve learned a few things about navigating the long and winding road from ideation to commercialization. And who better to shed light on that journey than 8 Rivers’ Co-Founder Miles Palmer?

Read on for some takeaways from our recent conversation with Miles on how cleantech products can best go from innovation to commercialization success.

Let’s start with the big picture. What do you see as 8 Rivers’ process for moving technologies through the various stages of their lifecycle? 

We’ve developed a uniquely effective approach for moving technologies from concept to commercial execution. I like to break our process down into three key pillars that guide decision-making and establish accountability.  

First and foremost, it’s important to remember that the commercial application, not the technology itself, is always paramount. This is especially true for solutions that address big-picture challenges within the energy transition and global decarbonization. 

For the 8 Rivers team, every technology is viable only to the extent that it can produce better economic AND environmental results. In energy, technology can only drive long-lasting impact when it achieves wide-scale market adoption. 

To get there, economic conditions must be favorable. Often, this means continuously adapting – or even entirely changing – the technology during its development to ensure you’re accounting for the latest market conditions. Every technology must be substantially cheaper and more environmentally friendly than available alternatives. 8 Rivers’ mission is global, large-scale market adoption, and we understand that compelling economics are required to achieve our goals. 

Second, our team insists that every technical element of the technology we are developing is founded on established engineering precedents. This helps ensure the technology can be reliably deployed in a reasonable timeframe. This is where we diverge from many industry peers – 8 Rivers focuses on innovative engineering, not applied science or research. 

And finally, we make sure our technical and economic calculations are verified by multiple independent external experts. These are third parties who perform this work without our compensation – their inputs are unbiased and often prove critical to our development process. Our team always takes the time to review this external feedback closely, and, over the years, this step of the process has led us to adopt some significant changes to our platforms. 

You noted this process is unique; how and to what degree does it vary from the industry standard? 

All too often, the industry standard is to be conservative and focus on expanding the footprint of existing, proven technologies, even if they are past their “sell-by” dates. Sometimes, it takes government regulations or external pressures to force change and innovation. For instance, even when forced, the power industry has only changed incrementally over the past 100 years. 

8 Rivers takes a “clean sheet of paper” approach to innovation and development. This starts by asking the question, “How can we deliver a technology that is far better than what has come before it?” Coming back to the power sector example, for instance – it has relied on CO2-emitting air and steam cycle technologies for more than a century. 

Our team looked at these technologies and precedents and made the decision to throw out air and steam cycles in favor of a brand-new oxygen and CO2 cycle. These kinds of radical changes yield the transformative impact and economic gains necessary to drive real change in global energy markets.  

Based on your experience, what practices are needed to help technologies progress smoothly from one phase of the lifecycle to the next?

Before you even embark on developing a new idea or platform, you need to take time to carefully quantify and externally validate all of its technical and economic aspects. In other words, the foundation needs to be solid from the start. You’ll need the support and agreement of not only your team but external experts and stakeholders at each step of the process, from concept to full market buildout. 

Remain focused on market cost and performance above everything else. Technologies will always change during their lifecycle – your first commercial unit will likely look very different from the original concept. When global adoption is the goal, cost and performance must be top of mind. Everyone involved in the development process must be willing to work through any technological changes needed to hit these metrics. 

Are there any common mistakes that can derail a technology’s progression from idea to commercialization?

The most common mistake is a faulty foundation – starting with inaccurate technical or economic numbers will always cause headaches and disruptions down the road. This is where taking the time for thorough external review and validation pays off tremendously. 

Often, companies and teams will also resist necessary changes that would address problems in the name of keeping true to the original design or approach. Changes are an important and inevitable part of any product’s lifecycle. Putting them off will only multiply costs and delays. 

Similarly, falling in love with your creation can be a big mistake. Everyone on the team, including the leader, must remain realistic, accountable, and open to changes. If the market application or numbers indicate a need for a hard pivot, put egos or personal feelings aside and react accordingly to keep the project on track.  

Do you have any tips that people might not have considered when it comes to navigating different talent needs across phases of a technology’s lifecycle? 

In a perfect world, every person involved across all lifecycle phases should be an expert in all those phases. But of course, that’s not practical! At a minimum, everyone involved in the project should aim to spend 5-10% of their hours annually learning how their colleagues in other areas think and do their work. The most effective teams have a shared, big-picture understanding of the project, mission, and technology. Encourage curiosity in your team members and create an environment where collaboration is valued, and all voices can be heard. Sometimes, the best insights may come from smart, like-minded non-experts! 

How much does a technology’s core idea change from origin to commercialization?

The core idea of a technology should not change very much, if at all. Going beyond the core idea, all options should be open to changes that improve cost and performance. Take the Allam-Fetvedt Cycle, for example. Its core idea – achieving lower costs and zero emissions from a sealed, high-pressure oxy-combustion system – never changed. What powered the system has changed over time, shifting from coal to natural gas and from steam to CO2. 

However, if a technology’s core idea proves ineffective or a more cost-efficient or viable alternative emerges, that’s a sign to leave the original idea behind. Across all efforts, the market application, not the technology, is king. 

At 8 Rivers, our innovators work hard to see every idea through to its most far-reaching, impactful application. With 2030 and 2050 climate and decarbonization goals firmly in our sights, we need these unique and innovative ideas now more than ever. 

Interested in helping us forge our path on the road from ideation to commercialization and a lower carbon future for all? Learn more about our portfolio technologies or explore a career with 8 Rivers!