Energy Spotlight – Danica Sarlya, TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy
This interview series shines a spotlight on energy-focused members of the Stanford community – students, faculty, staff and alumni - and traces their foray into the field of energy, their journey so far and what they have planned for the future. By highlighting the incredibly diverse range of ongoing energy-oriented work at Stanford, the series hopes to spur conversations and forge connections within campus and beyond.
My interviewee this time around is Danica Sarlya, who is the Center and Program Manager at the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy at Stanford University.
R: Tell me about your background – what spurred your interest in energy, and how did you get started?
D: I have a background in multimedia design, so I come from a slightly different area of work. But surprisingly, there are a lot of similarities in my role, where I actually get to be quite creative in designing and implementing systems that efficiently achieve their goal. I started at Stanford in 2007, and I have over 18 years of finance and management experience. What really sparked my interest in the TomKat Center and in the field of energy is the impact that sustainable energy can have from both socioeconomic and environmental perspectives.
R: How would you broadly describe yourself and your work?
D: I joined the TomKat Center in 2012, and am responsible for the financial and programmatic management of the center. My work is really varied on a day-to-day basis and I get to work on multiple projects at the same time within the Center’s/University’s non-profit structure. We have a small group, so my work is extremely collaborative in nature. One of my primary responsibilities, and I would also say passions, is to constantly look for opportunities for improvement and innovation, be it within our programs, sharing information and resources with people around campus, or looking at the inner workings of the organization and finding ways to improve. I also organize the workflow within the Center so we can maximize the effectiveness of our small team here.
R: Can you give me a broad overview of the work and mission of the TomKat Center?
D: The TomKat Center was started in 2009 with a gift from the husband-wife team of Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor (hence the Center’s name), who are alumni of Stanford University. They are very interested in supporting research on sustainable energy and its role in the mitigation of climate change. They started the Center with the broad goal of transforming the world’s energy systems for a sustainable future, but they gave the energy experts at Stanford significant flexibility in figuring out how that mission could be best achieved. As a result, the Center today has a wide range of programs supporting different types of efforts on campus.
The Center initially started off with a Seed Grant program to support early-stage research and over the years, this funding has supported faculty, graduate students and postdocs in the broad areas of smart grid, renewable energy, distributed energy generation and energy storage. The idea was to support new ideas in the field of energy and its intersections with the fields of food, water, transportation and the environment. The Center’s director, Stacey Bent, then identified a significant gap in externalizing the research being done on campus - in other words, she focused on the challenge of translating academic research on sustainable energy into real world solutions. This marked the start of the Innovation Transfer program, which is led by Executive Director Brian Bartholomeusz.
Beyond these research and innovation-oriented programs, we also have education initiatives where we offer small research and course grants through our energyCatalyst and summer programs that give students the opportunity to work in the field of sustainable energy. We have the energyStartup internship program where we connect Stanford students (mostly undergraduates) with a network of companies that, most of which, actually started out in the Innovation Transfer program. In partnership with the Haas Center, we have a summer fellowship program called Energy Impact Fellowships that explore socially beneficial impacts that can be achieved through the broader deployment of sustainable energy technologies. Last year, students in this fellowship looked at the capture of fugitive methane emissions from waste and its transformation into a renewable energy source. Through their work on this project, they were able to advise the CA legislature and think through the policy implications of their recommendations. Finally, our most recent program, the Postdoctoral Fellowship, was started three years ago to fund postdoctoral fellows who come from other universities and work with Stanford faculty. A unique feature of this program is that it encourages postdocs to bring their own fresh perspectives and ideas and then develop them in collaboration with a Stanford PI. We strongly encourage women and underrepresented minorities so that this program can offer a pathway to careers in academia.
R: Can you share a surprising finding that emerged from your work?
D: The Center is in its 10th year, and we still run into people on campus that do not know about us! But, on a more serious note, it’s been amazing to see the growth within each of the programs at the Center. For instance, the internship program started out with 4 students and now, we have 35 positions this year at a diverse set of organizations.
R: What is your favorite aspect about your work?
D: I feel strongly about the mission of the Center and finding ways to make our work more impactful drives me on a day-to-day basis. Stanford has a strong emphasis on interdisciplinarity, so it also has been very interesting for me to understand the interconnections between very distinct areas of research.
R: What are some real-world applications of your work that excite you?
D: The Innovation Transfer Program has had a lot of exciting results. We have awarded about 60 grants in 5 years to teams that have gone on to raise over $160 million from VCs and other sources of funding. About 14 of them are now revenue-generating companies. Some great examples of such companies are Aurora Solar, Opus 12 and ClearMetal. For me personally, it is pretty incredible to see these projects go from an idea at the beginning to companies that have tangible products and employ talented people. Even though Stanford has a strong culture of entrepreneurship and private-sector startups, I do want to emphasize that we are quite agnostic about the form and shape that the idea takes to be externalized, be it open source, for-profit or in collaboration with another entity. I also truly want to encourage people all across campus to get engaged, irrespective of their degree of expertise or area of work.
One of the hard parts of my job is to evaluate real world impact. We try our best at the Center to collect data on impact that is both qualitative and quantitative in nature. The qualitative data is often anecdotal and harder to collect. But having that data has helped us fine-tune our programs so that we accomplish as much as possible.
R: Which two organizations outside your own do you know the most people at and why?
D: I interact a lot with the Precourt Institute for Energy, the Woods Institute and the Haas Center. I have been at Stanford about 11 years now, so I have a fairly strong professional and personal network here that I really value.
R: What’s one interesting thing about you that we wouldn’t learn from your resume?
D: I am a maker and would love to explore the maker space at Stanford when I have the time. When I see something I like, I never think, ‘I should buy that’. I always think, ‘Hmm, how can I make that?’.
R: What advice would you give your younger self?
D: I have always been a bit of an old soul, so I’m not sure I have a good answer to this! I guess I would say, ‘Don’t cut corners, find a way to be of service in advancing your values and always be grateful.’
R: How might interested people get in touch with you?
D: The easiest way is through my email: dsarlya[at]Stanford[dot]edu. My contact information and details about the Center can also be found at our website: tomkat.stanford.edu.
Photo credit: Gustavo Costa (https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-playing-piano-1771304/)