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Stanford Energy Ventures: Why It Works

3 May 2019

The cleantech industry is hard to break into. It requires deep engineering, navigation of governing institutions, and extensive capital. The first wave of cleantech produced successful companies along the likes of Tesla and Sunrun; but many failed, leading some entrepreneurs to shy away from funding solutions to this pressing challenge. The traditional Silicon Valley startup formula didn’t quite fit for many cleantech ideas. But a program at Stanford may provide a solution.

Stanford Energy Ventures (SEV) is a class taught through Stanford’s Energy Resources Engineering department. Students form teams around high-impact project ideas or technologies developed in research labs with the potential to mitigate the effects of climate change. Over the course of ten weeks, these project teams push to create a commercial-ready venture. While not all projects turn into operating companies, many have evolved into successful startups. Notable successes include Fervo Energy, an enhanced geothermal company now at the accelerator Cyclotron Road, AIonics, a battery modeling and design provider, and Safi Analytics, a software platform to increase efficiency in factories. Other project teams have moved technologies closer to commercialization, shaped the path of future research, and unveiled the difficult realities of bringing an idea to market. Recent iterations of the class have seen project teams exploring ideas such as decarbonizing cement production, retrofitting gas-powered cars to be fully electric, and using carbon dioxide to produce sustainable plastic. I had the opportunity to lead a project team during the fall of 2017, and while our project didn’t end up scaling into a venture, the experience was the best I have had in my six years at Stanford. Through the class, I found an ecosystem that taught me the steps of entrepreneurship while connecting me with the best minds in the cleantech industry. SEV’s main goal is to prepare people and teams to be effective clean energy innovators and leaders.

Here are some key features of the class that make it particularly effective.

Low-Risk Setting

The most important attribute about SEV is that every participant is a student. This may sound like an obvious statement but its significance lies in the types of people this structure attracts. There are those students who are ready to take the plunge into entrepreneurship. These students are prepared to devote the majority of their time to the project and, while the resources of SEV are invaluable, they would most likely pursue their idea even without the class. But there are also those who don’t have an idea or a technology. These students may be passionate about climate change and want to contribute in whatever way they can. This group of role-players is essential. There are many entrepreneurship courses at Stanford, but most aren’t particularly welcoming of students who want to gain real-world experience without the responsibility of leading a team. SEV provides a platform for them to learn, grow and contribute in meaningful ways.

Even more important is a third group: those with an idea who aren’t ready to bet it all. Entrepreneurship is scary. It’s often compared to jumping off a cliff and figuring out how to build an airplane on the way down. And frankly, it takes a certain kind of crazy to do it. SEV, while intense, provides a milestone-based opportunity to pursue an idea. It breaks down the initial steps of entrepreneurship into actionable items that can be accomplished even while pursuing all the other interests and responsibilities that come with college. “The SEV ecosystem allows students to explore commercialization without the typical level of entrepreneurial risk. This risk abatement is especially nice for PhD students who may not pursue the market potential of their research in a normal start up setting. I'd argue every university who is actively involved in clean tech research should develop an SEV type opportunity”, says Nathan Ratledge, a PhD student exploring ideas through the course. At the end of the day, SEV is a class; it’s 3 months. So, if you hate the process or realize the idea just may not be right, then you can move on with a new skillset that will serve you well no matter what you choose to do. And if you love it, you can keep going, refine the idea, build another team, and even take the class again from a new point of view. By acknowledging that these are student and not yet entrepreneurs, SEV invites a wider range of people with a diverse and equally necessary set of skills and passions.

Camaraderie

There are many organizations that bring together like-minded people to discuss ideas in energy and sustainability. But in SEV, students develop an unparalleled trust in each other. There is more at stake; they are trying to start something real. As students suffer through the trials, tribulations, successes and failures of entrepreneurship together, it cultivates a level of trust that can’t be formulated in most other organizations. This has significant long-term effects. Maybe the idea a team is currently working on doesn’t pan out. In fact, like most startup ideas, it probably won’t. But the cleantech world is small and you are almost guaranteed to cross paths with your SEV team members at some point in your career. These team members have been in the trenches with you; you’ve had to sweat out the exhausting journey of a new venture together. They know exactly what you are capable of, your work ethic and your skillsets. SEV alums wouldn’t hesitate to hire or vouch for a fellow member because they know what it takes to succeed in the class. Maria Sambrick, now an engineer at battery startup Sila Nanotechnologies, explains, “The class is a catalyst for important connections with people that want to work on climate issues. Not only do you build relationships with members of your team, but also you really participate in other teams’ project journeys. And if I ever want to start a cleantech company, I know exactly whom I’ll call first.” This formation of trust is pivotal to the SEV structure and is what develops such strong teams within the class and beyond.

Network

To say it is all about the students would be to take away from the people running the show. The three Precourt Energy Scholars who orchestrate the class bring together the resources and expertise that make SEV possible. The teaching team includes Dave Danielson (former Assistant Secretary of the DOE, ARPA-E co- founder and current Managing Director at Breakthrough Energy Ventures), Stuart Macmillan (former Chief Scientist at NREL and serial entrepreneur including Sun Microsystems), and Joel Moxley (founder at Foro Energy, Rho AI and Moxley Holdings). This all-star cast has a vision to create the ecosystem of future energy leaders of the world. Their vast experience in the energy and entrepreneurship worlds provides student teams with the expertise needed to launch ventures from a nascent stage. They approach opportunities and roadblocks with equal parts engineering discipline, business acumen, and relentless enthusiasm. But the most powerful thing they provide is their vast network, a network they are happy to share with those striving to make a difference in the world. With their connections, any student or project team is at most two degrees of separation from any resource they might need. They almost always seem to know the right person to talk to. And even if they don’t, the person they introduce you to will know the right person. “The teaching team has an incredible ability to know exactly who can be helpful at each point of a project. They are so generous in sharing their time and network with students. I was always humbled by the valuable people they introduced us to, and how willing those people were to help out an early student project based on their faith in the teaching team,” says Tim Latimer, CEO and co-founder of Fervo Energy. With the ability to connect to almost anyone in the energy industry, students have access to a resource that is nearly impossible to find anywhere else.

Conclusion

Stanford Energy Ventures provides a platform to develop the people and the ideas that will change the future of energy. Through this program, we may find tomorrow’s energy leaders and not just through the companies that emerge from it, although many successful ones will. We may also see the leaders of established energy corporations, shapers of environmental policies, and investors in the next generation of technologies. It’s too early to tell if this is the best way to launch cleantech innovations, but so far, the evidence points in the right direction. Let’s build off of what has been created and funnel game-changing ideas and passionate people to this program that can give them the resources to make a difference. We know the world needs it.

David McColl is a second-year Master's student in Stanford's Energy Resources Engineering department focused on cleantech investment and deployment

Notes:

For interested students, the class is Energy 203. It is taught during the fall, winter, and spring quarters. Students with project ideas can submit them to the teaching team at energy203@lists.stanford.edu.

Stanford Energy Ventures is funded by the Precourt Institute for Energy and a generous donation from the Tom and Johanna Baruch Fund.