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Cleantech Challenge Highlights the Value of Interdisciplinary Work in Energy and Climate

15 April 2019

Like any tech hub, hackathons are common at Stanford. Treehacks 2019, for example, drew 1254 students from 95 universities. Consistent with the Silicon Valley ethos of innovation, the common theme of hackathons is breaking out of your routine to creatively solve new problems. This past weekend, Stanford’s newest hackathon took place in Huang basement. 20 student teams participated in the Stanford Cleantech Challenge, billed as “Stanford's first-ever clean energy hackathon”. Given the location, it’s surprising an event of this kind hasn’t happened sooner. According to GreenTechMedia, California leads in terms of creating an attractive environment for cleantech startups (based on a range of indicators, including clean energy policy support and access to human, intellectual, and financial capital). Further, at Stanford under the Precourt Institute for Energy Umbrella, seven schools, 14 research centers, and more than 200 faculty members are involved in energy research.

One of the goals of the Cleantech Challenge was to provide an alternative to the traditional computer science hackathon. Students were encouraged to utilize a combination of skills from engineering, finance, and policy. For instance, in its challenge statement, Google told hackers that they weren’t required to write a single line of code. Out of the 84 students that participated, 18 schools were represented. Further, many teams (most including four students) were multidisciplinary. This was advantageous to the students, because like the challenge of decarbonization itself, the problems in the Cleantech Challenge required thinking across disciplinary boundaries.

Official hacking began at 10 PM on Friday evening. Armed with free meals and ample coffee, students had 24 hours to work on the challenges. The challenges are summarized in the infographics below. Note that these are real problems the companies are currently grappling with.

Clearly, the challenges provided were very open ended and required insight across technical, policy, and business domains. I asked hacker Vignesh Venugopal what the hardest part of his challenge (he was given the SVCE prompt) was, and he told me that it took his team several hours just to read up on background information. In addition, he told me he was very lucky that his team included a political science student, as a team of strictly engineers would not have been able to address the policy and business aspects of the SVCE prompt. Valerie Shen told me that the challenge had her come to terms with the fact that solutions to climate change will often cost more than the incumbents, and you need to find ways to communicate this.

On Sunday the winning teams were announced. The finalists then had the opportunity to present their proposed solution to the full audience of hackers and a panel of judges which included Jeff Byron (Band of Angels), Beth Zotter (Cyclotron Road), Amanda North (Plan C Advisors) and Jeff Ball (Stanford Steyer-Taylor Center). See below for the names and some details about the finalist teams.

The eventual grand prize winner, as determined by the judges was The Home Team, with Team AC/DC as the runner up. Jeff Bryson addressed Team AC/DC and spoke to their enthusiasm and aggressive solutions. Amanda North addressed Team Home and highlighted the multidisciplinary team they put together and their storytelling ability. 

I had the chance to catch up with Team Home after the closing ceremony. They told me that they were all excited to participate in a hackathon catered towards non-technical people. Given that the focus was not on computer science, it gave them more space to develop an interdisciplinary team. Michael Levin told me how he initially reached out to Valerie Shen, and then Eric Trusiewicz; “[Our interdisciplinary team] was sort of by design” he said. I then told them that the most impressive element of their presentation to me was their use of storytelling. Their final presentation was developed around the character Walt-E, a modern heat pump water heater, who can’t help solve the climate change problem unless he finds his way into people’s homes. Team Home described in their presentation the barriers to Walt-E (e.g., informing the public of electrification options, and convincing them to invest and install) and identified solutions (partnering with Sunrun). Valerie told me that the focus on storytelling was very deliberate. Speaking with Team Home, it also struck me how much fun they had working on the project, and this energy and enthusiasm was reflected in their presentation. They were clearly able to capitalize on each other’s skill sets, and in doing so, cover a broader solution space in decarbonization.

Jeff Ball of Stanford’s Steyer Taylor Center delivered the final address at Sunday’s closing ceremony. According to Jeff, focusing on tech will not be enough to solve the societal problem of climate change. In order for ideas to work, they need to be developed with a fundamental focus on their scalability. It occurred to me that for energy and climate solutions to be scalable, they need to be successful across multiple measures, including technical, financial, and social. In terms of fostering the right environment for innovation in energy and climate, Stanford’s Cleantech Challenge was certainly a move in the right direction.

Jeff Rutherford is a PhD student in the Department of Energy Resources Engineering.

Thanks to Kailash Raman for helpful edits and comments on this article, in addition to organizing the Cleantech Challenge.

Photographs by Kevin Zhu