Insights by Danielle Fong

notes from a girl from the future

Category: History

Trade Trade Secrets

Your revolution will not be stolen.

Great ideas can’t change the world by themselves. They need people.

There are two kinds of revolutionary ideas. The explosive, and the subversive.

The explosive ideas seem to spread like wildfire. What people miss is that wildfires need kindling. One might spark the spark that lights the fire, but the ideas are in nascent forms in other minds as well — the very minds that would popularize and manifest that idea were they just slightly further ahead. One person — a Rosa Parks of a revolutionary movement, might come to symbolize it. But this revolution was never theirs alone. Rosa Parks was a heroine of disobedience, but the movement would have been sparked by any of those who grew to so fervently support it. One can’t steal such a revolution. Instead, one simply becomes a part of it.

Subversive ideas are a different beast, and are perhaps more truly revolutionary. They are not of their time — they push too hard against the zeitgeist. It is these ideas that are truly original; they can offer tremendous, untapped advantages to those who can realize their products, but in their development they require great effort, intellectual rigor, and dedication.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this work is in changing minds. The idea contradicts the conventional wisdom; hence, in addition to the real work, you are asked to produce a sweeping theory for why the right of the world could have been so blind or so wrongheaded. It is challenging enough to get people you employ to consider your ideas. It is even more difficult to have your ideas stolen.

If only it were so easy to change the world.

Harvard Mark I

“Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.” – Howard Aiken (primary engineer of the Harvard Mark I)

Subversive revolutionary ideas cannot simply be stolen. Adopted, with difficulty and without credit, perhaps, like an adopted child kept from their biological parents. But not stolen. Such ideas, before development, are too new, too fragile, and too ill-defined. These ideas only become real as the hard work and dedication required to develop them is put forward.

More than three years ago, I had the central ideas for what became LightSail Energy. Over that period of time, I and my extraordinarily talented colleagues have invested, collectively, the greatest efforts of our careers into developing the product and the understanding necessary to make it, a process that involved hundreds of experiments, thousands of decisions, and tens of thousands of tasks. We have almost two years ahead of us before our first product even ships.

One can not simply steal the kind of knowledge and expertise so developed. The momentum developed by one technical group cannot be simply transplanted into a competitor, it transcends documentation. No — it resides in our greatest assets: our people, the minds we’ve trained, the conventional wisdom we’ve transformed, the reputation that, through our trials, we have deeply entrenched.

While startups are growing, while their greatest advances and products are in their future, they need not worry about a competitor stealing their work or ideas. Startups are in a race against time, not others.

Theft

This whole picture changes once a product is released, once made whole.

A novel may be simply transcribed, code copied. An engine, reverse engineered. Once there’s proof that something works, it’s easy for some to imagine that they could simply copy it.

But it takes much more than an opportunistic interest to bring most things to market. Even as Facebook began their long ascent, they feared that Google, or someone else who knew what they were doing, would just make their product. “And look how long it took them!” Mark Zuckerberg exclaims.

Google couldn’t simply steal Facebook, even though they knew how it worked, even though they had access to the clientside code. There was a barrier — the users and data of their growing population. And if one is going to simply copy something, one might as well try to improve upon it. The same urge to simply copy a work now becomes a stroke of inspiration.

The crucial factor? The common thief is lazy, and the lazy thief is thwarted. As you see, the thief is rarely a person of great motivation, excepting for personal vendettas. If other victims make better targets, one is safe. If all victims defend themselves more vigorously than the notion of honest work in the lazy thief’s mind, an honest society becomes an inevitability.

Theft != Transcription != Transformation != Inspiration

We must distinguish these concepts. There are simple semantic distinctions that our law and policy makers continuously evade. But they are incredibly important.

  • Theft implies that the rightful person, an owner is denied access to something of value.
  • Transcription is simply the copying of something, leaving the original intact.
  • Transformation is the manipulation of a work into something of a different essential quality, message, or utility.
  • Inspiration is a transformation less direct, acted upon through the medium of our imagination.

The great danger of laws that ignore these is not that they will prevent theft, but that they will so heavyhandedly prevent transformation and inspiration: the engines of our entire civilization.

Copyright has its merits, but most importantly, compared to patents, it induces limited collateral damage. Authors are protected, by property laws and window locks, from the most egregious of violations, theft, and by copyright, from commercial and transcriptions of their works, which might, it could be said, constitute theft of the market for their authorship.

Where copyright is dangerous is where it spreads. It spreads to non-commercial sharing of fragments, in music, criticism, and art, to the use and transformation of fragments. It spreads to the prevention of the dissemination of works to those who cannot pay, wouldn’t pay, could never pay. It prevents even the growth of the stature of the artist: it dramatically tips the balance of power of such industries away from the artist to those with the organizational resources to enforce their copyright monopoly on others: in music, the record labels, in movies, Hollywood, in science, Reed-Elsevier, Springer-Verlag. Their corporate lobbies will declare that they are protecting the artist, but in reality, the artist is dehumanized. The artist plays only a small role: second fiddle to the giant, thrumming machines of distribution, promotion, copyright enforcement, and market analysis in the publication industry’s leviathan mass.

What does this do?

Musicians, actors, filmmakers, and authors are enthralled to the callous calculations of multinational corporations, by structure insensitive to the local, cultural sensibilities that artists wish to convey. Those artists outside of a mature mass market industry where the promotion machine, defended by copyright, can create hits by bulldozing over works of artistic merit, are steadily seduced by those monied coffers: sell-out or be squeezed out. Indie artists are remarkable for their resilience and their art, but also for their poverty.

Remixes are prevented. The sampling of other’s work is believed to be theft. Internet services engaged in the promotion of new works are embargoed by those entities enforcing copyright. The remixing of footage of ten thousand films, which, as YouTube amply demonstrates, are deemed not inspiration nor transformation but the acts of criminals. And scientists, like me, outside of academia, outside of institutions which can mindlessly purchase the scientific journals of highest repute, are systematically shut out of the products of academic scientists, the works of public investment, which should rightly be the domain of everyone. Scientists are seduced by the well defended and financially supported reputations of journals in much the same way as artists are seduced by the distribution and glamor of the labels and studios, as models are seduced into posing and surrendering their image, for their glamor, their paltry salary, their many admiring eyes, their fame.

A better system, one could imagine, would draw the distinction between the theft of property, the theft of market share or opportunity, and the transcription or transformation implied by these other examples. A remix scarcely steals the market of the original work unless unreferenced. An immigrant entrepreneur scarcely steals the jobs of the natives unless they hire only immigrants as well — and even then this is unclear.

The heavyhanded application of copyright law is tantamount to the mislabeling of transcription or transformation as theft. If we are to grow as a knowledge economy, we must not commit such a grave error.

But all of these problems pale in comparison to the collateral damage done by the patent system.1

Illegitimizing Inspiration and Independent Invention

It is a peculiar feature about a patented invention that it need not actually work.2

It need not actually satisfy any needs.

It need not be, on its own, economically viable.

It need not ever have been intended to be made real, nor spread out into the world.3

It is an even more peculiar feature of patents that they do not grant you any rights, that is, other than that of taking away rights.

Rights to use of equipment that you own.

Rights to a methodology of medical practice.

Rights to manufacture or sale or application of an invention.

But most importantly, rights to inventions that you neither described nor anticipated, but that some aspect of your patent, another invention happens to incorporate.

Even if your patent discusses only the barest of sketches, and all of the hard work, and the vast majority of the good ideas necessary, were the result of other minds, whether independently, or by inspiration arising from the original work.

The patent system, then, makes a terrible sacrifice. Our physical property laws protect our stuff. Copyright, to a great extent, protects our creative, transcribable works. But patent law, in shoring up the defenses against these other violations, ‘protects’ us against, and illegitimizes both inspiration and independent invention.

But the patent system continues to grow. Business model patents. Medical patents. Use patents. Design patents. Continuations, and continuations in part. Nations even measure their inventive efforts by their cumulative accretion of patent applications. The scope of this heavyhanded mechanism continues unrelentingly, and unrepentant, chanting their mantra “We are protecting our ideas. Ideas have value.”

Ideas do have value. Great value. But the value of inspiration, of innovation, of allowing someone to make an improvement on an unfinished, or incompletely adapted idea, and bring it out into the world, is far greater.

If the ideas for stories could be patented, modern artists as great as J.R.R. Tolkien, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg would have been sued as derivative.  The hero’s journey deeply underlies many of their works, in many forms. And who would have patented the love song?

SOPA – The Thermonuclear Option

The absolute misapprehension of these semantic differences, and the total disregard for collateral damage, in the past months reached a fever pitch with the introduction of the SOPA or Stop Online Piracy Act. It seemed as if everything that could be wrong with it, was.

True, as its proponents claim, it would give the corporate copyright and distribution monopolists one more tool to prevent sharing from degrading their dying business model.

But in a SOPA world, if one person shares one element and one corporation makes one complaint, then in one moment with zero due process and zero transparency, a website can be blocked, and the possibility for any transcription, transformation, or inspiration destroyed.

But not just for the offending material. For everything.

Share, once, the wrong content to Wikipedia, and the entire project, the greatest encyclopedia of all time, one of the greatest efforts of all of civilization, is threatened with extinction.

SOPA has been prevented — so far. But what halted process was that the ‘technical’ aspects of the internet confused our lawmakers. It is deeply disturbing that it was not the semantic distinctions between theft and inspiration, or the threat of inordinate collateral damage, that halted the efforts of SOPAs proponents. It makes one fear their judgments in other matters equally.

While it is tempting to make an analogy to our current middle eastern conflict, it would not, in truth, reflect our military operations adequately. The military aspired to surgical precision. Predator drones. Counter-insurgency tactics.

SOPA represents a different stance. To threaten wikipedia with destruction is to threaten to vaporize the nations thought to harbor Osama bin Laden. SOPA is absolutely the thermonuclear option. It, and the efforts behind it, must be stopped.

What this Means for Startups

Do not be threatened by others copying your idea. Do not even be threatened by others copying an unfinished product. They cannot copy you, nor the imagined futures in your head, nor the organization that you’ve built, nor the reputation you’ve gained.

Your job is to create something wonderful, get it out in the world, and make it so convenient and clear that you should be the one to buy from, that you should be the one to trust, that hardly anyone would attempt to compete with you. iTunes costs money, but is so superior an experience to Kazaa that hardly anyone would choose the latter.

Once you’ve released your product, your goal is to stay ahead of it. To improve it, refine it, and when the time comes, to supersede it — to have the success of your past project propel you into the next.

On rare occasions, a work or invention may operate, its works hidden, for the relevant time period of the interest of its creator. A high tech company might build their product in China, but integrate a single element, hard to make, hard to understand, at headquarters on american shores. A piece of software might require a special key; a chemical process an essential catalyst.

A business might hold a monopoly over these trade secrets for as long as they can, perhaps to wring continued business benefits out of it. This may provide some advantage.

But it will not last. At best, it will buy you time. And at worst, keeping secrets will hamper your own work; your story, your promotion, and all the internal communication of the company. Communication is hard enough when people are open and honest. Operating on need-to-know bases is torture — you don’t know what you need to know. Worst of all, it will keep you in the past — a cruel death to the innovative spirit, and a poor trade for a temporary advantage over a determined competitor.

Trade Trade Secrets

This risks of people discovering the secrets of your work are, frankly, almost always overstated, and the advantages of sharing, truly underrated.

We live in a global world. Interested, helpful parties can emerge from any of its corners. The more that you share, and the clearer that you make it, the further your reach. Helpful parties from any corner can bring gifts, information, criticism, or their own efforts. So much of what we now are at LightSail emerged from the people who over time approached us, fascinated by our mission.

We have secrets, of course. But it is impossible to track them all without hampering every conversation. So we will stay open. Not wide open — not exhibitionist — we can’t spend all of our time showing the world who we are and what we do, but open. We will let the conversation flow. And just as often as we share what we’re doing, people share amazing ideas of their own.

So don’t just keep trade secrets. Trade them.4

Footnotes


1 – Notably, the one area in which patents are decently functional is the one where they are most similar to copyright: pharmaceutical patents. It is unambiguous whether a drug is chemically identical to another, just as is it unambiguous whether it is, despite a different printing process, the same book. Pharmaceutical patents are the exception that prove the rule.


2 – Though in principle, patented inventions are supposed to work, it is beyond the ability of the patent office to determine this. As a result, many incomplete, aspirational inventions are patented — lying in wait as traps for those who discover how to make related inventions practical and real.


3 – Historically, patent models were required from 1790 to 1880 to demonstrate how the invention was supposed to work. Only perpetual motion machines are required today to provide such working models, as proof of their operating principle.


4 – It has been suggested in the comment threads about whether or not the patent system makes possible the sharing of trade secrets. While I do agree that patents do make some form of sharing possible, I believe in the best of circumstances that this is incomplete, and there are significant negative externalities to the fact that it is a patent traded, and not another form of knowledge. Such trades can be as informal as describing the basic shape of the traded invention, in iteratively greater detail, or may comprise such formalities as documents shared under escrow, or contractual obligations to work together to get the inventions working usefully for one another. Importantly, one must be careful to document the invention at a level of detail that will prevent others from patenting the concept and preventing you from practicing it!

Green Dreams: Life in the Year of the Rabbit

I’ve lived a lifetime this year. It sometimes feels as if so much is happening that one can feel however one chooses. Yet, sometimes, life gives you so much to feel happy about you can’t help but be overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude.

We’ve launched our new website, and finally revealed the technology that we’ve developed and we think is going to change the world — regenerative air energy storage!

LightSail set out to prove that the science of our regenerative air energy storage concept works, and we have answered that challenge with a triumphant yes!

LightSail's Industrial Scale Prototype

We built an industrial scale machine by modifying a commercial natural gas compressor. We changed the cylinder head, added nozzles, replaced valves to allow reversibility, coated the surfaces to prevent corrosion, and threw our minds and hearts at the problem of showing that our approach could dramatically increase the efficiency of compressed air energy storage. Without water spray, and without burning natural gas, previous attempts at storing energy in compressed air topped out at less than 50% thermal efficiency — ok for a backup system, but not enough to change the world. This year, we aimed at greater than 80% thermal efficiency, at a high RPM (and therefore power), to show that unlike what people had assumed, high efficiency does not mean sacrificing performance.

We met or exceeded all our technical targets — demonstrating record breaking performance at the same time as record breaking thermodynamic efficiency — conclusively demonstrating our water spray heat transfer idea behind our regenerative air energy storage concept is effective at industrial scale.

Afterglow: the day I presented to Bill Gates

We presented to Bill Gates, a limited partner in the fund that invested in us. He was super excited by the potential of our project — that if we hit our targets it would change the world.

We spoke before hundreds of policy makers and energy executives, and helped instate groundbreaking legislation supporting energy storage in California.

Governor Jerry Brown

We have settled on our ultimate product architecture and design — a huge accomplishment. We’ve got a long way to go, but our models predict our experimental results within 5% RME accuracy, so we have some real confidence that it will hit all our hoped for technical specs.

We truly defined our market and value proposition. We’re aiming to make renewables plus energy storage a better and less expensive way to provide high value peak power than what the conventional sources — natural gas peakers, diesel gensets, and extra transmission wires — can muster.

The Trillion Dollar Formula

This is an utterly enormous market; at least a trillion dollars in size over the next couple decades.

IEA Estimates of Energy Infrastructure Investment Over 2008-2030. More than 30% could be economically addressed by renewables + energy storage

We’ve found that we’re uniquely positioned to reach that target, providing the lowest levelized cost of dispatchable electricity of any source, way ahead of our competitors.

But most of all, we’re excited about changing the world. Not only does energy storage make a renewables based grid possible, it also makes it economical. That’s the key to changing the world!

We’ve been working hard to uncover the greatest, most urgent opportunities for energy storage worldwide, and the opportunities we’ve turned up are simply massive. Energy storage is just what’s needed in places as diverse as Hawaii, Texas, Ireland, California, Paris, Denmark, Iceland, Nova Scotia, New York City, Australia, Chile, Dubai, India, and Subsaharan Africa. The scale and diversity of opportunities were astonishing. The most amazing thing? The willingness of governments to put their feet forward and most towards a future that’s right. We have been cynical; we believed that only once we had a full product, a long history, and economic parity under the most conservative of assumptions would governments move. We were proven wrong. Governments are leading the world into a clean future of energy. It’s utilities that are pushing back!

Steve the Redeemer

Take Iceland — a country of stark beauty. More than 80% of the country’s electricity is exported in the form of aluminum — the processing of which is one of the most energy intensive for any widely used material in the modern world. This single industry represents 40% of the Icelandic economy.

The Hellisheidi Geothermal Plant in Iceland's Golden Circle

Essentially 100% of their grid electricity comes from their amazing geothermal and hydroelectricity resources, and an enormous amount of their heating comes from geothermal cogeneration. Iceland is a land of abundant green energy.

Gullfoss -- the golden falls.

There’s a catch, though. Transmitting power across the sparse, weatherbeaten land is an expensive, unreliable proposition, where remote locations risk being knock completely off-grid with each storm. This is worse than it seems — if power is cut to aluminum smelters, the aluminum freezes, severely damaging the equipment. To backup the geothermal and hydro plants, then, industries have had to co-locate with diesel gensets — hardly a solution in light of the self reliance and environmental commitment of the Icelanders. We intend to replace these gensets completely. But we can do a lot more.

Low-temperature geothermal heat is available nearly everywhere in Iceland, and we can harness it. By expanding air at a higher temperature (and therefore pressure and volume) than when it was compressed, we get more mechanical energy out than we needed to compress it. This allows us to convert heat energy into mechanical energy, and from there, electricity. So instead of sitting idly like backup diesel gensets, our machines can be producing clean, geothermal energy, constantly; leaving the compressed air available for bursts of power when the grid fails.

So, we met with Iceland’s Minister of Energy — a former thermodynamics professor at Lund University, who bemoaned parliament’s inability to understand the concept of exergy.

We have therefore ‘rebranded’ our efforts. From now on, we have an initiative in ‘energy quality management.’ This they understand.

He understood the implications of an economical energy storage and geothermal electric generator immediately, and urged us to consider a project in Iceland. This is exactly the sort of progressive movement that governments are making and utilities resist. But we will overcome their skepticism! Stay tuned.

Catching My First Wave - A Good Omen

Of course, it wasn’t all business. If your mission call upon you to travel, it is your duty to truly experience the place. So I took the time harness some of nature’s forces myself. After I visited the grid operator and wind farms of Hawaii, I learned to surf!

We have continued to hire and improve our utterly world class team. We’re almost 30 people now, but I can tell you I have never before seen or even imagined such a diversity interests or depth of talent in a group. I work with the most amazing people I’ve met in my life! It is amazing to see how rapidly people are growing, but even more amazing to see how much more we can accomplish as a team. There are things that we literally couldn’t do on our own given all the time in the world — we have such a diverse set of skills in the company that we can make amazing things happen.

It was our first Burning Man. Our minds were blown. It is more than a festival, more than an amazing city. It is the most spiritually profound, unashamedly sensual, and maniacally creative place I’ve ever been.

Whiteout

Offering to the Sun

Deep Playa

We travelled as the chefs of the Airship Victoria last year; an airship project that eventually intends to hoist a Tesla-coil based lightning musical instrument. The camp, directly on esplanade, next to the flaming lotus girls, the sonic cannon, the flamethrower organ, and a 24 hour bar, was a surreal experience.

The Airship Victoria

It felt like… the future! It turns out, in the future, there are lots of lights, people float around on bikes, and jellyfish hover and flow.

Wonderful. But the main thing about the future is that people can’t help but be caught in the moment.

Stargate

Our camp featured tesla-coil concerts, and there, was, admittedly, high drama before the balloons were successfully fully deployed. Despite some initial setbacks, eventually the camp lifted their payload high into the air. In a city confined to a flat lakebed, the balloons added a third dimension to the playascape.

It’s impossible to describe the sense of flow one achieves in such a dizzying storm of self expression. We danced in drum circles in the nude, rode art cars and floated glowing jelly-fish, windsurfed and found inner peace. But what was most dazzling of all was the temple.

The Temple of Transition

A strikingly elegant wooden structure, built in just 10 weeks by inspired volunteers, the temple was a deeply spiritual place of reckoning. The visitors, pilgrims of every creed, came and prayed, and made offerings for their loved ones, those who that had left them, those who they had left behind. Poems, and pictures, incense and chants, old clothes or talismans, and cherished items of every description, laid respectfully to rest, ultimately fated to return to the atmosphere aflame.

Steve was so overcome that he bent down on one knee and made an offering to his mother, a brilliant opera singer, who left the world when far too young.

I miss you so much mom. You would have loved this place. I will love you forever.

As the temple’s towers, lean and graceful, slowly surrendered to the flames, glowing sparks rose deep from the inferno, and like wisps were carried up towards the heavens. The temple of transition, once a place of cool respite, now glowed brighter than the noonday sun. The crowd gasped as a shower of blue leapt out from the flames. Someone, days before, hid fireworks that launched streams of blue from the middle of the swirling firestorm, but in that splendid moment, it was impossible not to see those glowing blue apparitions, lifted high into the glowing sky, as souls, let finally free.

Meditation, Release, a Moment of Inner Peace

Upon our return, it seemed as if the whole of LightSail met us with faces silently asking us to bring them next year! We will.

This year, we’re starting a camp — tentatively named “Cleantech”. A solar powered shower and water recovery/purification system of our own design. It will be beautiful and efficient and environmentally friendly. Our kind of project!

LightSail's Firehouse Lab

At the end of the year, having wrapped up our work at our firehouse lab, having shown all we can with our current industrial scale prototype, we moved into our new facility — the former Scharfenberger chocolate factory, in which we will design, test , and manufacture our first product line. It is an amazing space. We will do outstanding work there, and we will be happy and proud.

As the move in completed, the holidays arrived, giving us the occasion to throw a lab-warming party for our friends and family. It was absolutely amazing. I felt as if the party unfolded as a microcosm of the entire project. It began with a simple idea: “let’s have a holiday party,” which lead to the conclusion “we clearly must have it at our new space,” and from that point, it took on a life of its own, spearheaded by people of admirable competence and outstanding creativity.

We were blown away by it all. The founders had no idea! Everywhere you looked there was perfectly executed brilliance.

Enter the space, we’re greeted with placards describing what all of the work is, what each of the rooms are, how each of the items work. There were demonstrations of our tank technology, our electronics and controls, our machineshop and quality assurance, our water spray lab, and even our original prototype (built in Ed’s garage using scrap parts and ebay!) We had no idea it would be there, and were blown away to see it!

Humble Beginnings: The Original LightSail Prototype, hydraulic, quirky, built of scrap, sweat, and parts ordered off ebay.

The original machine used a hydraulic approach — slower, with less power per unit mass or cost, and with higher inefficiencies, but we conclusively proved we could control the temperature of the air during operation, and control the valves to let only an amount of air in that would expand down to 1 atmosphere — yielding the very highest efficiencies. It was a cheap, quick way to show that some of our main ideas worked, and that we could build something. We sure have come a long way from that!

Travis O’Guin and his band played an incredible set of dixieland Jazz of some of the past century’s greatest compositions (ever wonder how “hit me baby one more time” is in dixieland jazz? Amazing.) Ed broke out into dance with a series of dancers, and the LightSail toddlers couldn’t resist the beat!

Machinemaster Todd Bowers breaking it down for Professor Robert Dibble and wife Helen

The machineshop was running — demonstrations included a CNC lathe disco ball, a hula dancer shaking it to an earthquake powered by the CNC mill, and just-in-time manufacturing of LightSail Branded Bottle Openers!

Dave Sprinkle spent years in the racing industry, but it's cupcakes that bring this smile to his face...

But what really stole the party were the cupcake cars, brought in by the brilliant Keith Johnson and his merry friends Lisa Pongrace and Greg Solberg. Our partygoers insist they’re even more fun to drive than a Tesla.

It was an unbelievable way to ring-in the new year. This is going to be a great one. That everyone injected such creativity and excellence in such a gathering just shows how much people care about their work and their team and this company and how high a standard they have for themselves. It seems as if everything at LightSail is like that — our people perform at a higher level than us founders can even think to ask of them, or indeed, even to imagine.

Energy Standout of the Year

Energy Standout of the Year, Forbes 30 Under 30. Photograph by Harry Benson

To top it all off, we received coverage from none other than Forbes Magazine. I am honored to be highlighted as the standout in the field of energy in the Forbes 30 under 30 ranking! My extended family is finally less suspicious of my dropout ways. What a relief! I had a wonderful time at home with my brothers and little cousins and found to my amazement that my family had founded four businesses between us since we last visited. I guess it’s in the genes.

Christmas in Nova Scotia

This year looks to be even better. It feels like we’re reaching escape velocity.

I am honored to have been elected a mentor for the Thiel 20 under 20 Fellowship. These kids aren’t waiting to change the world, they’re just going out and doing it — I am so excited to be working with them!

I have been tapped to judge the Nova Scotia Cleantech Open, remarkable not only for being in my home province, but also for its amazing quality, rigor, and prize money ($100k free money with $200k of seed investment available.) I’m joining Matthew Nordan, of Venrock and Lux Research, whose work and judgement I have always admired greatly. His “The State of Cleantech VC is already a classic in the field.

We’re working full-speed on our product and technology, and are rallying allies across the planet to realize a wonderful number of as yet unannounced projects and partnerships.

Last year was an amazing year, but I have a feeling this one will be even better.

I am so happy to be alive at this moment in history. Great things are afoot. The winds are changing.

‘Ecopragmatist’ — Danielle Fong as interviewed by Dalhousie University

One month ago, I was interviewed by Jane Affleck as a profile piece for my Alma Mater, Dalhousie University. Unfortunately, long form responses weren’t quite what they were looking for — so I posted them here!

Jane: You “started” a PhD at Princeton… why did you stop? Was it boring? Did you feel driven to just do your own thing?

Danielle: I was more temperamentally suited towards my own thing – though that was only part of it. I entered a program in Plasma Physics to focus on fusion energy – the process that powers the sun. I thought that with a few good ideas, we could produce electricity more inexpensively than, say, planet-smothering, lung-blackening, mercury spewing coal.

Diptych - The JET Tokamak Fusion Reactor / Filled with Plasma

I guess I became disillusioned. The objective of fusion power is primarily to create a very inexpensive heat source. The reason people believed so strongly in fusion energy is that the fuel is practically free – unlike, say, coal. Unfortunately, we haven’t figured out how, even in principle, we might build a reactor that doesn’t wear out rapidly over time. Since you expend the reactor, it is most properly thought of as a kind of fuel. And if you consider the cost of ultra-high tech fusion reactors, versus pulverized coal, it looks like coal is going to be much cheaper.

I saw the technical work stretching out, endlessly before me, with no clear fix for our energy problem within sight. I got spooked.

There might be ways to solve these problems, but they certainly weren’t known.

I didn’t think the right things were getting funded. I saw my professors – brilliant scientists – spending most of their time in a struggle to acquire funding, rather than doing research. I thought there was a better way.

I came to Silicon Valley with the intention of making my fortune, and then funding research. After about nine months, I found myself compulsively doing energy research again, but this time, focusing on how to best harness and make use of energy from that great, fusion reactor in the sky, our sun.

Jane: On your Google profile, you call yourself an “ecopragmatist.” What does that philosophy mean on a day-day-basis, in your work and overall outlook?

Danielle: Environmentalism is a morality, or a philosophy. Ecopragmatics is a discipline.

Environmentalism, as a movement, achieves its greatest successes in raising awareness. Despite the fact that we live on this earth, cohabitate with nature and depend on nature for the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the land we live on, for the microbes that pervade and defend and compose us, and despite the fact that being close to nature brings people joy, people have become strikingly unaware of their environment, of the flora and fauna within it. Environmentalists have made personal and tangible, the plight of ecosystems worldwide.

Where environmentalism fails is in its mythology; both in the mythology it has developed and promoted, and the mythology of greater society that it fails to deconstruct.

Environmentalists – and I realise I am over generalizing here — imagine that we human beings are apart from, and the scourge of, pristine nature, and that to save it, we must depart from it.

I do not believe human civilization is apart from nature in any crucial quality any different from an ant’s colony, a beaver’s dam, or a coral reef. Collective beings, using whatever tools and artifice at their disposal, have for millions of years altered their environments, and adapted to fantastically diverse environments. Our artifice is no different in kind; save perhaps, a degree of understanding and intention, and a means of development within generations, and a mechanism for sharing – language, to pass our tools between generations.

What is most astonishing about the rise of humanity is not its use of tools, not its use of language, not its environmental cultivation. It is the scope.

We have spread to almost every ecological niche of the planet. Humans consume one quarter of the enter base of the food chain, either directly or indirectly.

Less than one quarter of the world’s ice free land is wild, and only 20% of this is forests – wildlands account for only 10% of the primary production – or plant life – on the planet.

During the reign of our influence, 40% of the world’s phytoplankton, representing 20% of the world’s plant life, and 20% of the oxygen in the atmosphere, has disappeared over the past half century.

Under our influence the world has changed faster, more widely, and more profoundly than since phytoplankton drove the atmosphere from methane to oxygen. It is not that our changes are distinct from those of nature; there are plenty of creatures that change their environment far more that we change ours. But we have done so within a few hundred generations, at a planetary scale.

Pristine nature is a myth. Mankind has already profoundly changed the planet; every acre of it feels our climatic influence. We coexist. We are in nature, the question is how to live within it.

Environmentalism fails us here, because it stresses the difference of our influence, rather than its scope. Environmentalism is unwilling to consider small sacrifices which might undermine the purity of nature – hoping to preserve untouched ecologies from our desecrations, and yet even preserved land, as the famous Nature Conservancy has discovered, cannot escape our global influence. We worry about the little things; the spotted owl, the desert tortoise. And yet all around us, the world is undergoing – has undergone – a paradigm shift. As the great Paul MacCready states,

10,000 years ago, at the beginning of civilization, the human portion was less than one tenth of one percent. […] Humans, livestock and pets are now 97 percent of that integrated total mass on earth and all wild nature is three percent. We have won. The next generation doesn’t even have to worry about this game — it is over. And the biggest problem came the last 25 years: it went from 25 percent up to that 97 percent. And this really is a sobering picture in realizing we, humans, are in charge of life on earth, we’re like the capricious Gods of old Greek myths, kind of playing with life, and not a great deal of wisdom injected into it.

Nature vs Humans. Biomass of Wild Air and Land Vertebrates vs Human, Livestock, Pets

Ecopragmatism rejects the myth that the wild is endless, the oceans an infinite bounty. We recognize that the needs of mankind must coexist with the health of our planet, and that it will take sacrifices on both sides, from nature and civilization, to achieve peace – we advocate for both sides at the negotiating table. Ecopragmatism accepts that we must overcome ideology, and enforce discipline – that we must work hard, combine ecology with economy, and, as inventors and influencers, accept human nature, and create solutions that make the easy choice the right choice, allowing even the greediest or neediest of people to work toward a healthy world.

Ecopragmatism recognizes that we are now the earth’s gardeners. The earth is now shaped by our whims. We must accept the responsibility that comes with power, and consciously guide planet growth, with wisdom, courage, and decision, toward a thriving, sustainable future.

Jane: You’re the “Chief Science Officer” with LightSail Energy. What that involve? What’s a typical day for you (if there is such a thing as “typical”)?

Danielle: LightSail Energy is a green energy startup company that’s trying to make it possible, and economical, to power the world with nothing but clean, green energy. We’re tackling what some call the holy grail of green energy – how to economically and efficiency store energy such that intermittent renewables such as solar and wind can reliably and economically power our electrical grid.

Two days of output and wind speed from a four section wind farm. See the sudden drop? That's why we need energy storage if wind is to be a major part of our grid.

To do this, we’re taking compressed air, an elegant technology from a more civilized age, and using it to store energy. Compressed air is already considered to be the most inexpensive method for storing energy. Our objective is to make it more efficient.

When you compress air, what you’re really doing is converting mechanical energy into heat energy, inside the air. Conversely, when you expand air, you’re converting the heat energy in the air to mechanical energy. The amount of energy converted, for a given mass of air, is proportional to the temperature of the air.

The trouble starts when the air is compressed. To achieve a high energy density, compressed air energy storage systems compress to more than 100 times atmospheric pressure, or higher. In doing so, the air reaches extremely high temperatures, nearly 1000 C. This is too hot to manage practically, and so the air is compressed in stages, rejecting heat to the atmosphere after every stage.

By rejecting heat to the atmosphere, you lose the energy you’ve stored. Conventional systems add heat back by burning natural gas, but that still presents both a carbon footprint and inefficiency.

We have a different approach. By spraying water into the air during compression, most of the heat goes into the water, rather than the air. And water has a much higher capacity than air – 3300x at standard conditions. You don’t need to spray in much before what would have been a temperature rise of, say, 800 degrees C, becomes a temperature rise of around 20 C – much more manageable. We can then just hold on to the water, and the heat in a tank. We then spray the water back in during expansion, recovering the heat energy and converting it back into mechanical energy. We then convert the mechanical energy to electrical energy, using a motor generator.

There isn’t a very typical day at LightSail, but I often begin my day with coffee and breakfast with my cofounder, Steve Crane – a lapsed Caltech geophysicist who found himself first in the 3D graphics industry, and then the entertainment business, responsible for some of the biggest hits in history. He tried to hire me for a videogame startup; I ended up convincing him to join me as cofounder, and funding our first efforts through the sale of a house. We talk about everything. We talk about our technical challenges; the engineering and testing effort, the physics, we (try to) invent solutions to the challenge of the day, we try to figure out how to make our team as happy and effective as can be, we discuss the broader implications and applications of our technology, we talk about our philosophy, and duty as a company, and we talk about the world at large; everything from oceanography to filmmaking to dancing to the philosophy of science to the finer points of Italian cuisine. We’ve become best friends.

LightSail

Then it’s off to the lab – a converted historical Firehouse in Oakland’s Lake Merritt/Chinatown district. Our laboratories occupy the bottom two floors. In the bottommost floor we have a test cell with a control center behind bulletproof glass (just in case), a machine shop with a CNC-mill, and an assembly and quality control room. In the stable (the fire engine used to be drawn by horses) we have a laser lab for imaging sprays, and a conference room. The tower where they used to dry the canvas hoses has been converted into an exhaust manifold, outfitted with a muffler and a heat exchanger. We converted the hayloft to our electronics lab, and upstairs are our main offices.

We’re a little jam-packed in there. There are nearly 30 of us in total, so we’re moving to our new facilities (a 25,000 ft2 former chocolate factory) in October. Until then, we’ve got our design room in the fire captain’s quarters, our experimentalists, electricians and technicians in the living room/kitchen/dining area, and our CTO and third cofounder, Ed Berlin, in a bedroom he’d converted to an electrical lab. The remainder are scattered throughout the machine shop, hayloft, and much of the analysis and business team (which includes Steve and I) reside in a penthouse in a second building across the street.

(I should mention that both Steve and Ed were prodigies in physics and engineering to the same extent that I was. Steve won his first research grant at 13, and entered MIT at 16; Ed, another MIT grad, built his first circuit at 3 and won the engineer of the year award from Grumman Aerospace – a 30,000 person company, mind you, at 21. People make a big fuss about me entering college at 12, but it was mostly that I had to find somewhere other than my dysfunctional middle school after dropping out. Plenty of other people could – and have – done it.)

The heart of the company is really the test cell, and we have a ‘driver’ from the racing industry (actually he focused on dynamometer tests, never racing in a car!) running most of the full-scale system tests. There’s a desk full of screens and controls, and one graph in particular, the pressure volume curve, draws particular interest from our theorists, and passersby.

If the test cell is the heart of the company, the whiteboard in the dining room area is the head! We often start discussions there, and people will drop in as they overhear and contribute. Our technical discussions can get quite intense, and we calculate much of what we need to make decisions by hand, in real-time, to verify the contentions and work that happens at our desks. All of our management comes from a deeply technical background, we all get our hands dirty, and we all dig into things and calculate them ourselves; especially with the most important technical decisions. There’s some replicated work, true, but we’re fast, and this gets us all on the same page. It helps to have generalists!

I’ll walk around the company, checking up on progress and issues, checking in to see if I can help people do their jobs, or if people are stuck, or need someone else to do something first to make progress. We spend a lot of time making sure people understand everything, and making sure that internal communication is handled correctly – it’s hard to get 30 people on the same page all the time! To that end, we get everyone lunch on Thursdays, which we have called “stupid question day.” Everyone is encouraged to ask their stupid questions – and people are obliged to answer them graciously!

Some days, we interview candidates. Our interviews are pretty comprehensive. We give a tour and the hiring manager introduces the position and the company. For most positions, we ask that people give a presentation on their previous work/explorations/education, and we ask lots of questions. Many people interview the candidate, and in the process we give both an in-person and a take home exam. The in-person exam involves much at the whiteboard, and sometimes we get people into the lab and have them solve an experimental puzzle and describe their solution. We have a world class team; the best that any of us have worked with.

I’ll return to my own desk at some point, and answer a slew of emails. Internal communication is critical! Then, every day, I’ve made a pact to myself to do at least one hardcore engineering thing – either in analysis, or making a spec, or designing a new experimental approach, or inventing something practical.

Maybe I’ll bike back, or grab dinner with Steve or friends. The evening and night are for big picture thoughts, and maybe a little music (I love my keyboard and guitar)

Then it’s to bed, and then, another day!

Jane: Would you have imagined five years ago that you’d be where you are now (career-wise)? Why or why not?

Danielle: I always thought I’d be working on my own projects, specifically in energy, but I fluctuated between thinking I’d do it within a university or my own company. It turned out that starting a company was right for me, at this time, with what I wanted to do!

Five years is a while ago now!

Honestly, despite the challenges and struggles I remember (among them, coughing my guts out before a critical presentation for us to raise our first bit of money during the financial crisis), I was surprised that it was this easy. Or maybe easy is the wrong term. I was surprised that it felt this right, at every step. There were no agonizing decisions. I went with my gut, and I am happy where I am.

Jane: What do you remember most about Dal’s Physics and Atmospheric Science program? What do you remember most about being at Dal? (i.e., “best” memories of both)

Danielle: I brought a friend of mine to the physics phyridays one summer. He couldn’t help but exclaim, while watching the players of hacky sacky, Frisbee, soccer, etc, watching the barbeque, and the liquid nitrogen shots, that the strangest thing about physicists was how *physical* we all were.

So those are my favourite memories: my friends and classmates camping, playing games, and being happy and young and brilliant and free.

I also fondly remember working with Jordan, my advisor, who really taught me a lot about how to *think* about science, and prowling around the labs, asking what people were doing, and naively offering to help.

Also – I loved the candy room. Whoever thought of putting a candy room right next to my office is an evil genius, and I offer kudos.

Jane: What was your biggest challenge while studying Physics and Atmospheric Science? How did you overcome it?

Danielle: The biggest challenge for me was balancing the wonder and curiosity that I had for the fundamentals of physics (and whatever question happened to interest me at the moment) and staying studious. You’d hope that doing one’s homework, and trying to get at fundamentals would be equivalent, but unfortunately not. Trying to understand why processes can be thermodynamically irreversible, yet are governed by fully reversible physics, isn’t something that helps you (much) in doing homework. Nonetheless, you need to do both to really grow as a scientist. I use the knowledge in from both my more disciplined physics training I received at Dal, and my personal investigations, every day. Dal gave me a lot of freedom to explore what I wanted to explore, but being the somewhat undisciplined person I am, I still found it hard to steadily “be a good student” when other inspirations stuck me!

Jane: Do you remember any particularly encouraging advice from profs, or any who were particularly inspiring because of their research interests or their engagement with teaching/students?

Danielle: There were so many! Jeff Dahn plucked me out of the giant Physics 1100 class and introduced me to physics research. His classes were also hilarious, which helped! My advisor Jordan Kyriakidis taught me so much of what I know about the scientific method, and rational thinking in general, and then set me loose on a bunch of incredibly interesting problems – some of which still bedevil me! Stephen Payne put up with my many questions about thermodynamics, and I credit much of what I finally understood – and what I put into practice at LightSail, to him. Andrew Rutenberg encouraged me to go to graduate school, and really got me thinking about my career path. There are so many more – I really enjoyed David Tindall’s astrophysics class, and the late Masoyoshi Senba taught me much about perseverance and rigor in solving scientific problems. But many of the best teachers were my classmates – we were a really tight knit group of kids and we learned so much from each other. We had a blast too!

Jane: How did the Physics and Atmospheric Science program prepare you for your current career? (either directly or indirectly…) Or, what do you find most satisfying about your current career? What’s the most challenging thing about it, and how has your education helped you?

Danielle: I haven’t really reached a point of satisfaction. I am like a traveler on a long journey, who knows the destination is yet beyond the horizon. But I know I am headed in a good direction – that I am on a good path.

The most challenging thing is when you worry that you’re off the right path! These existential questions are the most harrowing aspect of being an entrepreneur, or an inventor. We’ve made it through all of them though, so far.

Physics taught me how deeply one needed to dig in to something before one could say that one really understood it. How tenuous our knowledge was – and is – having our system of the world reconceived by each generation of scientists, over and over again. Physics taught me both to ignore the experts, accept my own fallibility, and to keep asking questions, to keep working!

Jane: What words of encouragement would you give students thinking of applying to the Physics and Atmospheric Science program, or students who are currently enrolled in it (especially those who might be questioning their choice of major)?

Danielle: Physics is like a bootcamp for your mind; I don’t think there exists another field of study that develops such powerful and versatile mental skills. It gives us a powerful lens with which we can ask questions of the universe, and of ourselves. Physicists can, and have, gone on to make major contributions in almost every field. Physics, as a field of study, gives you freedom.

Beyond this, physics is one of the most fascinating fields of study just by itself. It satisfies some of our curiosity, but then rewards us with still greater wonder. There are still a great many mysteries yet to be solved!

Jane: What’s your greatest accomplishment so far? (in any aspect of your life – from education to career…)

Danielle: Always looking ahead, yet having fun in the present! I don’t think about the past too much; what’s fun and satisfying is the journey.

I’m really proud of the work I’ve done as an entrepreneur at LightSail Energy, but I’m just getting started – it’s not an achievement yet!

Honestly, the two proudest moments in my life were dropping out of junior high and dropping out of graduate school. I’ll always remember to listen to myself if something’s just not feeling right – and I’ll always remember to strive to find something that does. I don’t know if that qualifies as an achievement, in the common idiom, but it’s something I’m proud of.

Jane: Where do you hope to be in 5 years? In 10?

Danielle: In five years, I hope to have caused the replacement of fossil fuels sufficient to power ten thousand people. In ten, I hope to have made renewables the economical choice for almost everywhere on our planet. And I hope to have helped hundreds of young entrepreneurs follow their dreams, and strike out, toward the unknown.