Today's guest is Ilan Gur, the CEO of Activate and the Founder of Cyclotron Road. Cyclotron Road is an entrepreneurial fellowship program that pairs PhD fellows working on promising scientific breakthroughs with grants that pay their salaries, access to a bunch of expensive equipment and showers them with mentorship to try to bridge the gap between early academic research that shows great promise and actually turning the corner to become a company. Activate is an incredibly innovative and important organization, and one of the best examples I have seen of organizations taking meaningful steps to help more breakthrough technology reach its full potential. Enjoy the show!
Today's guest is Ilan Gur, the CEO of Activate and the Founder of Cyclotron Road. Cyclotron Road is an entrepreneurial fellowship program that pairs PhD fellows working on promising scientific breakthroughs with grants that pay their salaries. Access to a bunch of expensive equipment and showers them with mentorship to try to bridge the gap between early academic research that shows great promise and actually turning the corner to become a company. Prior to founding Cyclotron Road, Ilan launched two science-based startups including Seeo, an advanced battery company that was acquired by Bosch in 2015. He was also a program director at ARPA-E. He holds a PhD in material science and engineering from the University of California at Berkeley.
In today’s episode, we cover:
Links to topics discussed in this episode:
You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 or @mcjpod and email at firstname.lastname@example.org, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and suggestions for future topics or guests.
Enjoy the show!
Jason Jacobs: Hello, everyone. This is Jason Jacobs and welcome to My Climate Journey. This show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change and try to figure out how people like you and I can help.
Jason Jacobs: Today's guest is Ilan Gur, the CEO of Activate and the Founder of Cyclotron Road. Cyclotron Road is an entrepreneurial fellowship program that pairs PhD fellows working on promising scientific breakthroughs with grants that pay their salaries, access to a bunch of expensive equipment and showers them with mentorship to try to bridge the gap between early academic research that shows great promise and actually turning the corner to become a company. Prior to founding Cyclotron Road, Ilan launched two science-based startups including Seeo, an advanced battery company that was acquired by Bosch in 2015. He was also a program director at ARPA-E. He holds a PhD in material science and engineering from the University of California at Berkeley.
Jason Jacobs: We have a great discussion in this episode about the type of work that they do at Cyclotron Road, the origin story, progress to date and what's coming next. The recent launch of Activate as they gear up to take the Cyclotron Road model and expand it to multiple additional locations. We also talk about some of the areas where entrepreneurs working in these stages need the biggest help. What the role is of capital, what the role is of policy, and what the role is of other kinds of assistance that can help more of these scientific breakthroughs to reach their full potential.
Jason Jacobs: Ilan Gur, welcome to the show.
Ilan Gur: Thank you, Jason. Take two.
Jason Jacobs: Take two, yeah. Although it's really take one because I think we started down the path, but you were just on the cusp of launching the Activate news. I think we can have a much cleaner discussion now since there's nothing you can't say. Everything, everything is on the record.
Ilan Gur: That's right. Well, one of the things I love about what you're doing here is it's your journey. So much of your brand is about authenticity, so I felt like we have to tell the audience that we tried this. I was lucky enough to be one of the first invites that Jason put out of the podcast and we tried it. We are in a transition organizationally, and I just kept fumbling my words, so here we are again and so excited to be here.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, but it's better now because when we tried it, you were in my office in Boston, and I'm here at the Berkeley National Lab with this ridiculous view. I'm actually glad that we're doing again because if we didn't then I wouldn't get to be here today.
Ilan Gur: Awesome. Thanks for making the trek.
Jason Jacobs: I was going to say what is Cyclotron Road? But why don't I say what is Activate?
Ilan Gur: Yeah, we just launched an organization called Activate. It's built off of about five years of work we did at building a program called Cyclotron Road, which originated as a program of Berkeley Lab, one of the 17 Department of Energy National Labs. The program was basically focused on how do we take the latent capacity for innovation in the hard sciences to contribute in a big way to climate change. And how do we unlock that talent and innovation through what we now call an entrepreneurial fellowship program.
Ilan Gur: We ran that. We supported 56 fellows at Cyclotron Road. Early on the program was set up as a partnership between Berkeley Lab and an outside nonprofit that very few people knew about because its main goal was supporting the work at Berkeley Lab for Cyclotron Road. That nonprofit recently got some foundational funding to basically build capacity and create a national organization to support more of these entrepreneurial fellows in more places. The nonprofit's called Activate. I now run it as the CEO. The vision is to enable any incredible scientist and engineer that wants to commit their life to moving their science to a product or a business that can contribute to social impact with a primary focus on climate. Anyone who's willing to make that all-in commitment to make their science impactful, that they have a path and an opportunity to get started on that track through the fellowship program that we run.
Ilan Gur: The big news is that we've launched Activate, and we are thinking about the Activate fellowship as something, we hope, that will turn into the prestige of a Rhodes Scholarship or a Marshall Scholarship for science innovation for society. We're kicking off with a new program to support entrepreneurial fellows in Boston actually in collaboration with MIT and Lincoln Lab. We can talk more about that later, but that's the news, and, yeah, it's real exciting.
Jason Jacobs: Where did this idea come from?
Ilan Gur: Just everything we've been doing.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. How did you get here? I love what you guys are doing. I'm surprised there's not more of it. There should be more of it. There's going to be more of it. There's this whole kind of ... It's like I feel like tough tech is becoming cool again. But you guys were doing it before it was cool. I have to say that as I made the rounds I had the honor of attending one of the fellowship events that you guys did. I was just blow again by not just the caliber of the fellows and the potential fellows and the alumni fellows and the afinity they had for the network, but also just all the firepower from a mentorship standpoint that you had in the room and how well run it was. It's like you've really built something special, so there. That's my preamble. How did you get here?
Ilan Gur: Okay. Yeah. I think the where did it come from, there are two answers to that. One that's deeply personal. What we built with Cyclotron Road and now that we're building with Activate, sort of the hypothesis of my life in terms of my personal journey. That's sort of one frame of the answer. The other is an enormous number of people in organizations that have come together to actually breathe life into it. Do you want the personal story? Or do you want the-
Jason Jacobs: Oh, yeah. No, I want both.
Ilan Gur: Okay.
Jason Jacobs: But let's put Activate way to the side for a moment, and let's talk about Ilan.
Ilan Gur: Yeah. Fair enough. Yeah, it's like the people say you do startups to solve problems that you've experienced. You're a startup guy so you understand that. That's where you can have your secret, your unique view on the world and your passion.
Jason Jacobs: It just sucks so bad to do it that if you're not scratching an itch that you care about like an irrational amount, then you're just not going to stick with it because it sucks.
Ilan Gur: Yeah. This has been my story. I got into science, I did a PhD here at Berkeley right down there down the hill in materials in chemistry. I got into the science for the same reason those people do because I was a geek, and I thought it was cool. That was it. Then I was here finishing up right before starting my PhD. It was right around the time Steve Chew was the Director of the National Lab here. Nobel Laureate, his entire focus was, "Hey, we need to be upping our game and thinking much more critically about climate change."
Ilan Gur: I still remember the first talk I heard him give and some of those first view graphs where as a scientist you look at the data. The data is what's compelling, and the data was fricking terrifying. Right? I don't know if you can bleep in this podcast or not.
Jason Jacobs: You don't need to. There's a little box that you can check that essentially enables you to say whatever you want.
Ilan Gur: Kids don't listen to this, right?
Jason Jacobs: Yeah.
Ilan Gur: Okay. Well, I'll try and be careful here. What I realized was my passion for science was really fueled by, wow, material science and chemistry allows us to think about making entirely new technologies and systems that do new things in the world that no one's ever heard of or no one's ever done before. Those new technologies can actually solve really big problems, climate change being the problem that we needed to solve.
Ilan Gur: That was the orientation that fueled me into a PhD. I ended up working on some advanced nanotechnologies for Next Generation Solar. This was right around the 2000 when people still thought we needed a radical next generation technology to have the solar industry take off. We now know that silicon is king now, but we were working on these next generation technologies. About a year and a half into my PhD, I had this crazy epiphany moment.
Ilan Gur: The chemistry department here at Berkeley is a stone's throw away from the business school. Serendipitously I became friends with a handful of B School folks who in literally about a three week period convinced me that the last year and a half of work I'd been doing on my PhD was completely misdirected. We were talking about how our research was going to transform and enable a whole new generation of solar energy through better technology, cheaper. It turned out we didn't really understand the problems to solve. We were working on the totally wrong aspects of the problem.
Ilan Gur: This was mind-blowing for me because our academic work was wildly successful. We had written a paper in science. There was a Forbes article about how our work was going to transform the solar industry. I woke up one day with a pretty simple spreadsheet in terms of why that wasn't going to happen.
Jason Jacobs: Well, if the journals cover it, it's got to be true.
Ilan Gur: Yeah. Right?
Jason Jacobs: If they say it, I mean, yeah.
Ilan Gur: Yeah.
Jason Jacobs: I said that in jest. I know from running a company if you get wild-eyed and say something really passionately and have some smart logos around it, you can just get whatever you want printed.
Ilan Gur: Yeah, well, you can't get academic papers printed through that technique. The science we were doing was phenomenal. But what I realized was you can be wildly successful within the academic setting without really an incentive to dig three levels deeper in terms of, well, what about the techno-economics? What about the manufacturing viability of what you're doing?
Ilan Gur: I went to my advisor and said, "If we actually want to solve the right problems, we should be doing organic chemistry and we're not. We're doing something else. We're not pointed in the right direction." We ended up switching gears, reorienting that work. That was a moment for me to think about, "Well, maybe academic isn't the place for me to make the impact that I want." Being here in the Bay Area, if you weren't going to do academia and you wanted to be involved in technology innovation, you did a startup. That's what I did next.
Jason Jacobs: I want to understand that epiphany though. Because it sounds like, I mean, the cynical view from the outside is that these brilliant PhDs were doing this world-renown research. Then some MBA know-it-alls said something really confidently about something that they don't have a lot of expertise in, and you shifted course. Now tell me what actually happened?
Ilan Gur: Wait. I don't understand. Say that again.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. Because it sounds like you were doing this research and felt really good about it. Then you talked to some business school students, and they convince you that that wasn't the case. I guess, what was it that equipped them to be able to make that determination? Why did they come to that conclusion?
Ilan Gur: Well, they dragged me to a handful of industry conferences. I started talking to folks in industry. I mean the short story on this, I don't want to go too far on this tangent. But we had in our heads that we were trying to make solar cells like newspaper. Print solar cells like newspaper. Pretty powerful vision. It could be so cheap. The way we make a solar cell with silicon is you got to go refine silicon. You got to make it ultrapure. You need something that's the scale of an Intel fabrication plant to make these wafers of silicon, which a wafer for Intel makes a hundred chips that they could sell for enormous sums of money. A wafer of solar only gets you barely sort of a CFL bulb worth of energy. How does that make sense? That was the thinking. The idea was we need to switch to a platform that can be wildly cheaper in terms of the manufacturing process and wildly less capital-intensive.
Ilan Gur: It's a really nice vision. In our heads, our view was, well, if can make 10% efficient solar cells, we're good. That's going to make an enormous impact. What we hadn't spent much time thinking about was the lifetime of the cells. Thinking, "Well, okay, silicon will last 30 years. That's great. But if we can make things that are so cheap, so what if they don't last very long? We'll just print new ones." You can already see the naivete in that thinking, which is really compelling from a story, and the science there was really compelling.
Ilan Gur: But what happened as I talked to folks from industry, this is now very obvious because the solar industry has evolved so much. But at the time, frankly, it just wasn't common knowledge such that I spent a year and a half of my life missing this. But even if I gave you a solar cell for free, if it only lasts for five years given all of the balance of systems costs ... to get it installed and maintain it and everything else, and the [inaudible 00:13:12] costs ... I could give you a solar cell for free. But if it only lasts five years, it still won't compete with Solar Gain solar cells with a 30-year lifetime. That was the piece that triggered for me, whoa, it's not as simple as efficiency or anything else. You've got to think about the amortized cost. You've got to build that techno-economic model. You got to think about how things get introduced to the market.
Ilan Gur: The fundamental piece was if you're sitting in a PhD program and even if you're a professor, if you look at the incentives of the academic system, there's not much incentive. There's a lot of incentive for you go do the exciting new science and think about what the breakthrough could be. There's very little incentive for you to go spend the weeks talking to folks in industry, developing a cost model, understanding the amortized system costs, because that's just not the world you live in. That's a fundamental limitation on how those innovations get out.
Jason Jacobs: Okay, so your epiphany, it sounds like, was that in academia that you had been working in a bubble disconnected from the needs of the market in that you wanted to make sure that any work that you did directionally was better tied to what would ultimately be deployed. That pushed you down the innovation side into startups because startup is the natural extension of stuff coming out of the lab?
Ilan Gur: Yeah. I ended up jumping in, we spun out a company based on the research I did. Then I jumped in with the Vinod Khosla, Khosla Ventures, when they first started Khosla Ventures and they were focused on energy. This was in the early 2000s and had a chance to basically help them incubate one of their first energy companies, a battery company Seeo, also coming out of very early stage academic work.
Ilan Gur: What I found was a few things. One was if you just think about the environment for doing that innovation, for translating science into products and value, the startup is such a powerful vehicle for that. Why? Because you get a group of really smart folks who understand the technology and probably an interdisciplinary team that's just 120% committed their lives. Eat, sleep how to do that? How to make that transition happen? The incentives are fully aligned on being rooted in the science and focusing on something that's going to be a product in the market. Otherwise, it just doesn't work.
Ilan Gur: That felt amazing. It was such a dynamic environment and such a just intensive experience. I had gone from feeling like a misfit in academia to finding my home institutionally. The problem ended up being that once I started understanding how the venture capital side of things worked, I started feeling like a misfit in a venture-backed startup as well. It was largely because we had started with a technology that was so early that we needed to be in that intensive mindset of how you get something to product. But the venture capital model can only support a really narrow range of ways to move things forward. Venture capital has its own business model. By having stated that startup and that exercise of moving things to product with venture capital money to begin with, what I realized later is before really knowing what the right path was to impact or to market, we'd constrained the outcome because once we took VC money, we had to play that VC game. Our goal was then to make money for our investors, and our board actually had some control over the company.
Ilan Gur: I went from feeling like a misfit in academia thinking, "This might not be the way to get science out into the world." To then feeling like a misfit in venture thinking, "You know what? For the type of stuff that I care about, which is really hard science, making an impact on these big industrial markets, vent startups are a great vehicle. But it may be that venture doesn't work for a lot of what we need to do." I'll stop there, because I know you probably have a lot of thoughts on that. I don't know whether we can talk about it at some point.
Jason Jacobs: My biggest thought is just that, "Okay. I get it." You felt constrained in academia and wanted to get closer to innovation. But then in innovation, it was innovation within the constraints of the venture model, which was not a big overlap in the ven diagram with the type of innovation that was coming out of the lab.
Jason Jacobs: That all makes sense. What did you do with that insight?
Ilan Gur: Well, I decided at some point that I didn't think we could get the win for our venture capital investors that they were looking for at the timescale they were looking for. It turns out that startup, thanks in large part to my co-founders who stuck with it for another five years, Seeo ultimately would be acquired by Bosch. It was a really interesting learning cycle to see how something actually could move from the venture-back startup into industry.
Ilan Gur: But I, about year four of that startup, just said, "This doesn't make sense." The constraints of that model isn't going to get us to what we need to do. I had a chance at the time to go join Arun Majumdar and Dave Danielson and others right when ARPA-E was standing up. There, for me, it was, well, okay. ARPA-E was a really exciting agency with a bunch of money that had a chance to go think about how you move science and innovation forward. But it wasn't about academia. It wasn't about Silicon Valley. It was for the whole country. It was across modes. It was across geographies, and so the idea of trying to understand how innovation could work in this space from that vantage point was really compelling. You're smiling.
Jason Jacobs: Well, I'm smiling because it's like all of your prior experience set the table perfectly for the work that you're doing now. It's unbelievable. Because you, a PhD, then venture-backed startup within the classic venture model. Then ARPA-E.
Jason Jacobs: Boom. It's like then Cyclotron Road. It's like the marriage of all those three things.
Ilan Gur: Yeah. One of the things that's become apparent in the work we've been doing now with Activate is this goal of moving innovation into the world and moving new science in the world is so important. You have these major stakeholder groups that all want to see that happen except they all speak different languages, and no one can do it themselves. One of the things I've been able to draw on from my life experience is an understanding of how venture capital sees the world. An understanding of how corporates see the world and their incentive structures and likewise academia and government.
Ilan Gur: If we're successful, what Activate can do is provide a platform where each of those folks can engage in this process in a way that's consistent with their reason for being. But where we can exist as an intermediary to create impact that's beyond what any of those groups does.
Jason Jacobs: I would love to talk about, just get a little more color on the ARPA-E experience. What you did there? What you learned there? Then, what was the epiphany moment that then put those pieces together to form Cyclotron Road?
Ilan Gur: ARPA-E, I would say, first of all I was shocked. I didn't think ... ARPA-E felt like a startup. Felt like any other startup I had been associated with, which is wild, because it was a government agency. I think DARPA gets credit for having created an operational model within government that can do that. I think Steven Chew and Arun Majumdar get credit for having actually set up ARPA-E with the right dynamic. But yet a group of people there who would be sending each other emails at 2:00 in the morning around what's the next big technology area we needed to tackle for climate. Every one of my colleagues there was just smarter than me and more intense than me. It was just an amazing environment.
Ilan Gur: In that way, ARPA-E was phenomenal. Just for folks who might not know, ARPA-E's main mode is to bring someone in either from academia or the private sector. You have a short term at ARPA-E in the government. You're only there for three years. You're protected from the broader incentives of my job is to make my manager happy or get a promotion or get at this political person. Protected from all of that. You go in for three years. Most people are taking a pay cut. The only reason you're there is because you're going to be given a purview to understand the full landscape of technology and innovation across the country and have a chance to go take big bets.
Ilan Gur: What program managers in the agency do is they go landscape an area. Rather than an investor that might find a few interesting things to fund that exist out there as companies or otherwise, a program manager will actually create a whole new horizon. Say, "Oh. Everyone's focused on battery chemistries." This was a program that I ran when I was there. Everyone's focused on battery chemistries. It turns out there's so much we lose in our inability to manage the chemistries that happen within batteries, sort of smart management of batteries, that you can get as much of an impact as 50 to 70 years of chemistry development of batteries by just switching the operating system. But no one's paying attention to that, so you can go build a whole horizon and then get people from out of the woodwork across universities, National Labs, big companies, startups to then try and apply for funding to go address that new challenge.
Ilan Gur: Amazing, amazing organization. When I was there I had a chance to do two things. One was create a group with a couple of colleagues, Sanjay Wagle and then Cheryl Martin who we brought in to lead it. A group that we called the Technology-to-Market Team that was focused on how do you take a government-funding agency that's focused on funding research and try and create an organization within that agency to make sure the research is connected to the market. Back to that earlier experience that I had driving that.
Ilan Gur: The other was manage a handful of technical projects. I got to manage projects across big companies, small companies, venture startups in the Bay Area, outside of the Bay Area. Partially I was searching for, well, what is the model to do innovation in the space? Big industrial markets, really hard technology, you have longer timelines, time constraints, resources needed, and I didn't find it. That's the simple story. I found a lot of really powerful work going on across the ecosystem.
Ilan Gur: But what I found missing was ARPA-E's mission was singularly focused on moving science out of the lab and bridging that gap from science to product. We had the money to do it. But if you looked at where the money went, it generally went into these institutions that each had their own game or their own constraints. The money that went into academia had amazing ideas and often powerful teams that wanted to think about spinning things out. But a lot of the teams were focused on their academic careers. Creating the new idea and then letting it sit and moving on to the next idea before you could actually dig down and see how it could be useful.
Ilan Gur: In the venture capital world, we had fewer and fewer startups that we could fund because venture capital had started to realize by 2010, 2014 that compared to funding apps, it might not be that attractive to get in at a very early stage of basically an R&D effort with venture capital money. The epiphany there was we need better environments to support this transition. I was thinking about this relative to institutional support. How do institutions support innovation?
Ilan Gur: Then I had a colleague there that said, "You keep talking about institutions, but really this is about people." The best and brightest individuals who have the capacity to think of new science and want to transfer it, the question becomes where are they supported to do that work? We then oriented the vision for Cyclotron Road and now this Activate fellowship entirely around those people and how do we create an environment to move them forward?
Jason Jacobs: How were you thinking about it initially when you got going? Then how has it evolved since you started?
Ilan Gur: Really a great question. I'll give you the quick motivation and the way we framed the pitch for Cyclotron Road and now the Activate fellowship, which was we have a bunch of enormous problems for society. We always have and we will continue to have enormous problems. You think of climate change, it's the perfect example where the solutions to those problems where science can offer a unique set of solutions. We want to create next generation nuclear. We want to create next generation engines. These are things that new science can contribute to. At the same time, we as a society are investing heavily in creating a bunch of these cutting edge scientist engineers in fields like physics and chemistry and material science. These are people that we've trained 10 years to be cutting edge experts in exactly the areas you need to create those technology solutions.
Ilan Gur: Yet there's this piece missing, which is what happens when the scientist or engineer, their motivations become too applied for the world of ideas and academia? Yet they don't yet have a product or a business, and so they're not something that lives in the world of venture or corporations. How do you support someone through that transition?
Ilan Gur: The model that we've created that we now call this entrepreneurial fellowship basically has three components. One is we capture that person. Our view is if you're thinking about innovation, the key to innovation is learning. What you know is that when you go through this process, everything's going to change. The ideas of the technology is going to change. The ideas of the application is going to change. If we rewind that process to the very beginning, you only have one asset, which is who's the person who's going to navigate the ship through those changes?
Ilan Gur: The key observation that we had was if we're thinking about a retail business and a retail startup, you and I can walk into the Starbucks down the road and probably 80% of the people sitting there could be the person who can navigate a ship to build a retail business. We're trying to create a new hard technology in industrial markets in energy and climate. There's only a very unique set of people who can navigate the ship in the earliest stages. Because they have to understand the complexity of the technology, and they have to be motivated to go do that search and figure out how it turns into something valuable, which is really hard in these spaces.
Ilan Gur: We run a competition once a year and we say, "We want to select that unique breed of individual." Someone who's already had the training. They can think about the next generation technology, and they're willing to commit their life to that transition. If you get into our program, if you're the best of those people from around the country and now the world, we're going to give you a very unique opportunity that no one else will. Which is we're going to give you two years to focus entirely on that transition and how your science creates value for society. How it turns into a product. It's not just about the academic science part. It's about the interwoven set of criteria of, well, what about the market? What about the value in the product? Who are the first customers? By the way, how are you going to manufacture this thing? How are you going to finance the effort to get it done?
Ilan Gur: What we found is that's not going to happen in a six-week accelerator course. It's also not going to happen in a garage in SoMa here in San Francisco. You need a different support structure. Our program offers two years as a fellowship, meaning fellowship for three reasons. One, it's about the people. Two, we've realized it's fundamentally a nonprofit activity because the people we support don't yet know what the product or the business or the value is. Three is as fellows they actually aren't employees, so they don't have to assign their IP to anyone. We're actually supporting them in a way that's consistent with moving things to market.
Ilan Gur: It's a two-year fellowship. You as the individual, as that captain of the ship, gets to focus on this transition. But we know that you can't do it on a laptop because we're thinking about transforming the physical infrastructure of the world. Through initially when we run the program out of Berkeley Lab, it was through being at the lab. But now Activate has partnerships with Berkeley Lab and we're building partnerships with other labs, MIT Lincoln Lab in Boston and others, where the idea is in the two years of the fellowship you actually get to be embedded in a place that has the expertise and the physical resources to support that early development. Figure out if there's a there there.
Ilan Gur: Our goal is that by the end of the two years our fellow are able to start to be really thoughtful and see, well, wait a second. How does this move forward? Maybe it's a venture capital startup and maybe I'm going and raising a series of venture money at the end of the fellowship, but maybe not. Maybe this actually wasn't a good idea altogether and I should do something better with life. We have a few fellows now that have decided to walk away from their projects. One who's now a professor at Oxford. Went back into academia. A couple who are running really interesting and impactful projects at Apple. Yet, most of our fellows, they start to figure out where their technology, where they slot in. Some of them through venture and some of them through other paths forward, and that's really exciting for us.
Jason Jacobs: How many cohorts have gone through the program so far?
Ilan Gur: We did a pilot of this in 2014. We put up a website. We didn't really know what the response would be. We approached it as an experiment. We had 150 PhDs from across the country two and a half weeks after we put up this website say that if they got into this program they would move to Berkeley within a month or two and get started on the work. We had funding for four slots at the time. Since then, we've been wildly over-subscribed. We've been averaging a 5 to 10% selection rate. We've had almost a thousand people apply over the last four and a half years, and we've supported 56 fellows to date.
Jason Jacobs: How did the initial pairing with Berkeley National Lab come about?
Ilan Gur: Oh, that's a great question. I and some colleagues at ARPA-E were turning over this problem and this idea. Frankly, because ARPA-E's a term ... You're there for three years ... I had to figure out what I was doing next. I fully assumed I would either be doing another startup or venture or be in venture capital. But I just kept having this itch. One of the motivating factors at the time was we were tracking some of the best hungry entrepreneurial scientists around the country and looking at where are they going? Most of the ones that when I graduated with my PhD, there was cohort of folks who all went and started companies, mainly with venture capital money because that was the thing you did.
Ilan Gur: By 2013, 2014, the best entrepreneurial scientists we were tracking were saying, "I didn't see that many people go change the world through that path, so maybe not." A lot of them were basically taking their Plan B. Some of them even leaving science altogether going into fiance or management consulting. Now, I've forgotten the question.
Jason Jacobs: Oh, the question is how did you get paired with Berkeley National Lab?
Ilan Gur: Oh, yeah. That just like it was just so infuriating to see us losing that talent. I just kept talking to people about this. One of the interesting conversations I had was with Horst Simon who's the Deputy Director of Berkeley Lab. He said, "You know what? We've been trying to think about we're a Department of Energy National Lab. We're not a university. We're here to serve the interests of the country. We've been trying to think about how we'd up our game in terms of making the world class basic research and science we do here impact the world. We've been thinking about a startup incubator or a program to spin out companies."
Ilan Gur: He said, "You know? What you're talking about is not a spin out program, but it sounds really powerful. It's the observation that not all the good ideas are going to come out of Berkeley. Some will. But we have this enormous asset that could take a bunch of people who have visions to change the world outside of these walls who what they don't have is an infrastructure like ours and a support structure like ours. What if instead we thought about doing an innovation program that matched what you're talking about, which is let's spin people in to this ecosystem, and use this amazing resource to get things going?"
Ilan Gur: That was a conversation where we saw eye to eye. Berkeley Lab, to their credit, did something really wacky. This is a, National Labs that are a hundred years old don't take wild institutional experiments. They were willing to take this experiment because they saw that it was the right thing to do for the impact around energy and climate. It was the right thing to do for the country.
Ilan Gur: What we were able to show in just the first few cohorts was we were able to attract from all over the US and now globally scientists that are as strong as the Nobel-winning scientists that Berkeley Lab is known for, but a different breed with a different motivation and who are now going and driving impact in industry. The benefits back to the lab and the impact to the country, we believe, are going to be really, really powerful.
Jason Jacobs: It's really interesting because the demand and the exclusivity that you were able to establish in a short period of time is quite atypical. What do you think enabled you to foster that right out of the gates in the way that you did?
Ilan Gur: There are a few things. People looked at what we did with Cyclotron Road and said, "Wow, this is incredible." Some of the early success that came out, our first, we attracted incredible talent in the first cohort. Then what we saw-
Jason Jacobs: How did you do that?
Ilan Gur: Oh. Well, so, you're a startup person. You're a product guy. It really had nothing to do with us. It had to do with the fact that we put a product into the market.
Jason Jacobs: Got it.
Ilan Gur: The market for innovators that didn't exist.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. The model filled a void, and so there was a vacuum that was created?
Ilan Gur: That was it.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah.
Ilan Gur: What we found in that first cohort and this is what's been really powerful is we had folks coming out of Nobel Laureates' labs from the top institutions of the country who once they got into our program and our first cohort working on think of things like Opus 12, turn CO2 into new products and chemicals. Raymond Weitekamp came out of Caltech. He's working on additive manufacturing that could be hugely impactful for lower carbon products, for enormous amounts of carbon impact.
Ilan Gur: When they got into our program what we recognized was a handful of these people basically said, "Well, if not this, I don't think I would have had a path to keep moving this forward. I probably would have just taken a job in academia. I'd still be working on this, but not thinking about the product in this intense way." We had other people who said, "You know what? If this program didn't exist, I think I probably would be in a management consulting job."
Ilan Gur: What was amazing was within the first two years of that first cohort, we basically saw this is the deal. You take a really talented individual. You connect them with the credibility and the resources of the partner institutions and the network that we have, and you give them a two-year window that feels like a startup. I got two years of runway to go make something happen. The amount that they can do is just so powerful. Our first cohort in the first two years, they were doing world record, new world record, devices in terms of efficiency on new performance efficiency. They were finding new customers. They were completely changing their direction in terms of what they were going to build.
Ilan Gur: Then what we found was we give them a fellowship. We don't actually fund their technology and their product. In the first two years, the first cohort had gotten probably over $10 million of government grants to support the early technology development. Then they had brought on some early private partners. What was amazing there was in those two years we had some of them who basically said, "Oh, I think I've got a venture capital story. Something with the cadence of venture capital, and I'm going to go raise venture capital money." We had others who said, "You know what? I actually don't think venture capital is going to be able to work for the space I'm in in the technology area." They started getting funding instead from big corporations or from family offices with more of a slower growth approach.
Ilan Gur: If you think about it, the biggest industrial companies we have in the world, 3M or GE, if you think about how many of those came out of a venture capital-backed startup in areas like materials and chemistry and commodities, like very, very few. The idea that some of the innovations that come out of our shop may be a slower growth story is where they look like failures through the traditional venture lens in the next five years. But in 20 years, there may have been something enormously powerful that's built is really compelling for me.
Jason Jacobs: Where is the funding for these fellowships come from? I'm not asking names. But what's the profile of that money?
Ilan Gur: The way we think about Activate as a vehicle is, look, society is demanding some pretty serious changes in how we run the world. Climate change being the front and center issue that we have to deal with. We can drive new policies. We can drive new demand. Fundamentally we're going to want to see an accelerated number of technology solutions to address some of those challenges.
Ilan Gur: The way we set up Activate is if you're one of the organizations that's got a mandate to create that change for society ... You might be a government. You might a philanthropic organization ... we provide a very unique tool to help accelerate that change, which is provide funding for us. We have a process to go take that latent talent in entrepreneurial scientist engineers and activate them. That's kind of the word. Activate them to aggressively go pursue new solutions to that challenge. Initially the funding for this program actually came from Berkeley Lab for the pilot. But the Department of Energy through their advanced manufacturing office was one of the first funders of these fellowships.
Ilan Gur: We now have funding from the Department of Energy. We have some funding from DARPA, which is one of the most reputable innovation agencies on the government side, and a handful of private philanthropies and family offices that philanthropically have provided support specifically for the climate fellowships. Our hope is that not only can we expand ... Again, we're way over-subscribed in the talent ... the pool of folks who can fund the fellowships. Get to a critical mass where and a shared backbone with Activate where fellows have a shared backbone of resources in a peer community to drive success among each other. But we're also, by having the fellows and having an organization like Activate that can then interact with all those different stakeholder groups, government, corporate, venture, et cetera, you have an opportunity to bring everyone together to get the impact that we all want to see, which is more technologies, driving climate impact faster in the world.
Jason Jacobs: One category that I didn't hear you mention is the big strategic. How do you think about them from a funding standpoint? Also, just in general, what's their involvement with the organization if any?
Ilan Gur: We early on realized and Nicole Systrom who joined our team in the early days and helped build quite a bit of our strategy pointed something out, which was the biggest thing that we can do as a ... We're a nonprofit. We exist so other people can leverage us. The point she made was this point that these different stakeholders need to be talking to each other more, et cetera. We realized it shouldn't be about how do we get funding from each of these stakeholder groups? It should be about how do we get them to the table so that our fellows can leverage the connection with them to be successful, and our other partners can all leverage each other.
Ilan Gur: Corporate is a great example of that, which is we now have a corporate sponsorship program. We have a number of multinational corporations who are providing sponsorship. They don't provide enough funding to support the fellows, because what we do is actually fairly expensive. You're taking a highly trained person for two years. You have to write down the cost of the research institution. But they do provide some sponsorships. For us that's important because it brings them to the table. It gives us a connection to the corporate world and our fellows a connection to the corporate world to be guided by what the real problems are that need to be solved.
Ilan Gur: The corporates really like the engagement because by sitting here and working with us, they're not only seeing a really broad range of innovations coming out our fellows and our community of fellows and being connected to both that science and those innovation communities. But they're able to participate in a community where in the same events at the same table visiting as well are the government sponsors and the academic sponsors, and so they are actually learning about how to engage with those other groups. They're coming to us and saying, "Oh, by engaging with Activate, we've actually started to think differently about how we create innovation programs. We've started to think differently about how we do work with early stage startup because we realize that three people and an idea is not the same as a venture capital-backed startup."
Ilan Gur: That's the opportunity that I think excites me the most about what we're building with Activate is the more of a critical mass we can get from these fellows, the more trusted relationships we can develop with these different stakeholder groups around corporates, et cetera. The more we can then influence how they change their behavior to support innovation and to work with these other groups. On the corporate side, we're really interested in working with corporates to think about, again, how do you reduce the friction for corporates to work with the very early stage efforts and guide what are the real problems they need to solve.
Ilan Gur: We're also interested in working with the corporates on how do you overcome the barrier of some of the incentives of Wall Street around shorter term to really invest in some of the innovations that need to bake longer, so to speak. On the government side, we're really interested in getting government to realize that the institutional incentives of who they fund matter. It's there are barriers and friction where our teams are essentially sort of proto-startups. We know they're not commercial, and so government research funding should be the exact place they should be going to fuel and de-risk the technologies. But it turns out, it's very hard to apply to the government for funding if you're two people in a garage, so to speak. Because you don't have the backend. You don't have the structure. In some cases you're not even eligible to apply to government funding because you're not a university or a National Lab.
Ilan Gur: There's a lot of big changes that can happen in the government side, likewise with philanthropy. We've seen a really strong focus on the impact of the technologies that emerge from these innovation programs. We've noticed that philanthropy, and corporates to some extent, they want to drive impact by taking in existing technology and thinking about all the metrics of how it disrupts and penetrates the markets and drives CO2 reductions, et cetera. The place we live, at the very early stage of innovation, some of that stuff's not relevant because we haven't even gotten the technology to that critical horizon point where there is a clear sense of what you would penetrate. Again, it's about these different languages and being able to help translate between them that's exciting.
Jason Jacobs: You talked about bridging the gap. First of all, finding the scientists who have both the skillset and the desire to crossover and see their technology through to commercialization or other impact. But how important is the actual problem itself in the selection process? What are the criteria you use to determine whether ... I get there's a people component, and I get there's a motivation component. But what about the problem itself?
Ilan Gur: The way we think about this is, again, we see the people as the driver for change. What we're investing in is creating people who understand how to navigate this transition from science to product and who have some experience doing it so they can keep doing it. We're thinking about people who are motivated to do that for social good, climate and otherwise. We select for the best of these people, that rare breed.
Ilan Gur: Then after we find the best people, what we do is we filter for the impact we think they could make. We'll look at the project and we'll say, "Oh, yeah. This person's tremendous. But if what they're trying to do, if there's no way our support can actually move the needle in terms of helping them do that, we shouldn't take them here because they're taking up a slot for someone else. We've had people come in with really big system innovations. New hydrogen stations all around the world. Really elegant solutions, but what you would really need to do to get that to happen has much more to do with policy and finance than it does with the early stage innovation process. Where we start to say, "You're amazing, but our two years of support aren't going to move the needle in terms of making that a reality, so we can't help you." That's one of the filers is like, "Are we sure we're not building a bridge to nowhere?"
Jason Jacobs: One question I have is just as a nonprofit and I don't have much experience with nonprofits, but what frequency are you back to the till? Is it every year? Or, how does that work? Also, what do you need to show in between to feel confident that you're going to keep getting funded?
Ilan Gur: Well, I'd say, as an entrepreneur who's gone and raised money from venture capitalists and other sources, it's a lot easier to have a business model and raise money when you tell people you're going to make them money. This is really challenging because we've basically gotten really confident that what we're doing is there for social impact. That for us to make a meaningful difference relative to what's going to happen anyway in the world, we need to support people at such an early intervention point that it won't work if you build it to make money. Which means we live in the world of nonprofit funding, philanthropy, government, and yet we're doing something really different.
Ilan Gur: The exciting but terrifying part of where we are right now, especially thinking about expanding with Activate, is we have a really clear and confident vision in terms of the impact model of what we're doing. But I'd say the business model, meaning how do we support our organization over time and how do we grown and expand the impact, is unclear. The short answer to your question is we have some without both some really, I'd say, courageous organizations on the government side and the philanthropy side, we wouldn't have a program today.
Ilan Gur: We are still in the mode where basically every year we might have 50 amazing fellows who want support. Generally, year after year we don't know until the day we basically make our offers how many we can afford to support. We're chasing it year after year. One of the big challenges and one of the things we hope to do as Activate can grow in critical mass is build a sustainable model. Because we're only doing this because we got to play the long game.
Jason Jacobs: Well, I was going to ask a different question, but now that you've said that, I guess, there are some companies that are coming out of here that are starting to get some meaningful traction. I mean, is there any world where you could get equity in those companies as an organization? I guess, a follow-up question to that is, I mean, if there's one or two outside successes, doesn't it then make up for all the others that maybe do good for the world but aren't going to be the big financial return that a strictly financial investor would want?
Ilan Gur: Yeah. Well, I mean, we look at this first from an impact perspective. From an impact perspective, there's no question like there are going to be outside returns from a select few of the individuals we support whether it happens now or later. From a financial perspective, we made a choice, which was let's focus on supporting the people. Let's focus on the impact. As part of that choice, we decided the social contract we build with our fellows and the community of fellows is so important. To pencil it out and to have this whole operation be funded by the success of the fellows' ventures, my guess is, it's impossible to know. But my guess is to reasonably do that, given how early the fellows we take are, we have to set it so that when a fellow walks in, we're taking 30 to 50% of the equity in their company. As you know, as an entrepreneur, no fellow in their right mind is going to take that deal.
Jason Jacobs: Or, you're just going to be incentivized to subliminally to start taking fellows that are further along?
Ilan Gur: Absolutely. We'll take the ones that are already there to win. We decided we're not playing that game. We're not doing it. We're doing this pure. But it's also important for us to create a socially responsible group of fellows. That's the whole point. One of the things we've done ... Sorry. Yeah.
Jason Jacobs: No. Go-
Ilan Gur: I was going to say, one of the things we've done is we've set an expectation with the fellows saying, "You don't owe us anything. We're doing this because we want to drive your success. But you're getting something really special here. You should be paying it forward." It's amazing. The first two cohorts that graduated with this fellowship have actually all signed the Founders Pledge. They've all pledged to basically pay it forward towards helping other science innovators do good for the world. Some of that, we hope, is going to go back and help fuel our organization as we go. We're not depending on it, but that's one of the pieces to say, "Okay. That could help add to the sustainability."
Ilan Gur: Then the other thing that we've started to realize to your point because people are shouting it at us, which is if you look at the success rate of fellows that have come through our program in deep tech, hard tech, it's off the charts in terms of their ability to go attract funding and actually build the origins of businesses. Then there's a question of, well, we don't want to take equity. We still want to support their fellowships in a very pure way, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a way to think about a way to support them with other financing beyond our fellowship that could be a win-win and might be able to come back and support us. Some sort of aligned fund, partnered funds, so we started to think about that.
Jason Jacobs: Would that be something that you guys might pursue as a for-profit entity?
Ilan Gur: We've already started to think about it. Not as a for-profit entity. It's something we might be able to, again, through the idea of we're a nonprofit, people should leverage us. We could be an intermediary. But there potentially is a way for us to be involved in coordinating that. Have it provide some funding back to support more fellows, but really be doing it as a way where impact-driven for-profit investors can leverage everything we've done to drive more impact and better returns for themselves while supporting the success of our fellows. The win-win-win opportunities, it's always what we're looking for.
Jason Jacobs: Well, not for purposes of this episode, but at some point we should talk more about that. But for this episode, one question I have then, and this is a non-Activate question. But for the companies or for the fellows that go in and actually turn the corner and leave the nest, what's missing for them? If you look at the rest of that lifecycle, where are the biggest gaps that you see in terms of helping their technologies have the biggest impact and achieve the biggest scale that it can in the shortest timeframes?
Ilan Gur: That's a really great question. There's, obviously, a lot missing. One of the biggest things that we see missing ... Well, so we think about when we support our fellows, we do some guiding. But what we're really trying to do is teach them to actually guide themselves. They build advisory boards. They have frameworks to think about moving not just the technology forward but the business. One of the frameworks we have them use is let's think about team. Let's think about technology. Let's think about market, and let's think about finance. It's actually a good framework for your question.
Ilan Gur: Let's start with team. We're about people. That's most important. One of the big issues that we see is our fellows who are all early technical founders, they leave the nest here with some pretty powerful visions around how to go create value. Their ability to attract experienced entrepreneurs who have done something in hard tech and industrial markets, innovation, who are actually willing to go back to the early stage and do it again is a really big limitation. Because what you find is you had a bunch of people who tried to do big things around climate innovation in the 2000s. They didn't have the success they wanted, and then they just thought, "Oh, that was so hard. How can I ever go do that again?"
Ilan Gur: One of our goals, again, with the fellowship is get more people to have some early wins so they can go back and do it again. But building those teams and having the talent to come around the folks where they're still not revenue businesses, so they're not just looking for business folks. They're looking for this intersectional characteristics. I think that's one of the limitations.
Ilan Gur: On technology, and I think this is technology and finance, one of the big challenges with industrial applications is the proof points are of value. I like to say there's a really big incubation period between proof of interest and proof of value in these markets unlike software or consumer. Oftentimes, those proof points of value, they both take longer but they also happen at a much bigger scale. The question of how do you go create what someone coming out of Cyclotron Road might do at the bench scale, how do you go and create that at the hundred kilowatt scale or the megawatt scale? And have a trusted validation point for that where that exercise also isn't yet commercial? This is something that a lot of people who understand this space knows is a gap, feels like a really important one both from the technology side and the finance side.
Ilan Gur: Another one on the finance side is just the spectrum of capital that's available to these teams. We know how the venture capital model works in terms of the 18-month cadence of I fund you, and then my job is to get you to get funding from someone else at a higher valuation in 18 months. That person's job is to do the same. Given that long incubation tied to proof of value, there are a lot of our teams where when they walk out of the door here, they're not ready for that cadence of value growth. Yet they still need high-risk capital. Who provides that capital in a big way where you're willing to have a different cadence of growth? There are some new models emerging. This is why the breakthrough energy ventures, the congruence. People are experimenting with different models. There used to be way more experimentation in terms of how capital can support these longer growth trajectories.
Ilan Gur: Then probably the last one is on the market side. One of the big challenges we see in this space is it's really hard to really understand what are the pain points and what are the criteria for success in introducing new products into the markets. We have a few teams that think about chemical separations. 10% of greenhouse gas emissions come from chemical separations of some sort. If I have a new separation technology, we have a team, Mosaic Materials. Tom McDonald, a PhD student who's now running it, has what we believe is probably the most powerful carbon capture material in the world in terms of an ability to remove, separate CO2 from other gas streams. It could be wildly powerful.
Ilan Gur: For him to really prove that that could be used in an industrial market, he needs to understand, A., the deep, deep system engineering of what are the gas separation systems look like across power plants. There are probably only a few of really geeky engineers embedded within these companies ... They're probably not even on LinkedIn ... that understand the details of that. How does he get that information? How does he know what the problem to solve is? We need a lot more shedding light on is this even a problem we're solving, A. If you are going to solve it, what are the hundred different layers of constraints to a solution that could be meaningful? Finding ways to transfer that information between some of the big companies and established players who know the answers to some of the people who want to innovate in the space is a pretty big opportunity.
Jason Jacobs: Given what you just laid out, if you had a magic wand and you could change only one thing to have the biggest impact in unlocking the trajectory of these innovations ... Could be a technology thing. It could be a consumer perception thing. It could be a policy thing. It could be anything ... what would it be?
Ilan Gur: Well, so as much as I'm about people, I think the answer to that question it's got to be about money. I would say this. I think, with a magic wand, let me give a magic wand scenario for each of the stakeholder groups we care about.
Ilan Gur: My magic wand scenario for the finance community would be ... You could think about manipulating different fund structures to help support this early stage innovation or longer growth innovation. The thing is, like as Ben Franklin said and others, you can't beat compounding interest. Compounding interest is the fixed thing that you'll never beat. The magic wand experiment I would want to do in finance is if you could create a fund that's big enough than anything you do at the early stage, you're not actually looking at the return from that investment as a return on investment. You're looking at it as an option play. If you could build a fund that's so big where even what looks like a Series A or Series B in a venture deal right now still looks like you're just buying an option in terms of the way you think about the return on that, that gets really powerful.
Ilan Gur: The problem is, yeah, there are only probably a few sovereign wealth funds that could do that. And, there's no one group that can be credible at the late stages of innovation and understand the really early stage. The structure of that is really complicated. I think breakthrough energy ventures could build towards that. I think that's what's exciting about the breadth of their effort. That's on the finance side.
Ilan Gur: On the government side, I think it's really simple, which is the government has the dollars that can support the most speculative work out there. The stuff that industry's not going to do. Our fellows, we support them because they are pre-commercial because industry's not going to do it yet. One of the problems we have within government is we haven't taken a fresh look at where the government puts its R&D dollars. The US government spends $70 billon a year on R&D. The portfolio of who are the recipients of that money, we need to take a fresh look at that.
Ilan Gur: There is an enormous opportunity to shift a tiny bit the way we spend federal R&D dollars to be activating entrepreneurial scientists and scientist engineers in a way ... You'd never want to say, "Don't fund academia." We need to keep funding academia. That's where all the talent gets created and the ideas get generated. We need to fund the National Lab, but a little tweak could unlock enormous potential for impact in terms of entrepreneurs. I would want government to think about those shifts in terms of who gets supported with research dollars and how does research get done.
Ilan Gur: Then on the corporate side, I mean, honestly, the corporates, the type of innovation we want to see at the stage we want to see it from Activate, it's not the corporates' fault that they can't support that. It's the way the markets have evolved. There, I think, for corporate leaders to be able to talk about the constraints that they face, the reasons they can't invest in early stage innovation the way they want to, so that regulators and lawmakers and folks on Wall Street can try to think about how do you structurally change the game to allow them to do that again feels really important.
Ilan Gur: I don't know how that happens. That's one step away from my expertise. But I don't know if that's activist investors who can get involved in that. Or that's a regulatory policy game. But to some extent, why is climate so hard? It's because it's a long game problems that's not front and center, and so if we don't create the ability for folks to respond to things that are going to unfold on those timescales, why should we expect the thing to get solved?
Jason Jacobs: Last two questions. One is just if you had hundred billion dollars that someone gave to you, but they'll only give it to you if you allocate it toward anything that's going to maximize its impact on the climate fight, where would you put it? How would you allocate it?
Ilan Gur: That's a great question. I feel you've asked this question to others. Or at least I heard one of the other-
Jason Jacobs: Pretty much every show.
Ilan Gur: All right. I mean if you had a hundred billion dollars, I think with a hundred billion dollars I would procreate that long-term fund. Because I actually think you would have the breadth and the visibility to go create some really massive impact in terms of new technologies that could drive market forces. Beyond that, maybe I'll close. I don't know. You'll cut some of this out, hopefully.
Jason Jacobs: I'm cutting ... It's going to run. It's going to run.
Ilan Gur: I'll just give you an adage. As a scientist, you got to imagine, as a scientist who cares about climate, I've had the moments and I've talked to other friends of mine who are in the same position, that moment where you wake up in the middle of the night full of sweat realizing that if we want to solve climate change, it's not going to happen from something that I invent in the lab. This came into contrast for me when right around the time I was doing my PhD. I can't remember if I had just finished my PhD maybe. Al Gore started the Climate Project, which was essentially the project to go train people on the Inconvenient Truth story and on the science of climate so that they could go train others. Through some serendipity, I got invited to be part of the first 50 group that was trained in Nashville.
Ilan Gur: There was a moment where that group was on the bus. We were actually going to ... I don't know if you've seen Nashville, the show. It's the Bluebird Cafe. Before the show came out, we're on a bus to the Bluebird Cafe to listen to some music. Al Gore gets in front of the bus, at the front of the bus. He's got presence when he's standing in front of folks. He gives this impassioned speech about how we're going to solve climate change. His speech is basically here's what's going to happen. We're going to train everyone we know about to understand what's happening with climate and science and the implications. They're going to train everywhere they know. We're going to get to a point and it's going to be at churches and synagogues. I've given climate training talks at churches and synagogues.
Ilan Gur: He said, "We're going to get to a point where any politician around the world will not be able to walk down the street without someone grabbing them by the shoulder and saying, "What the heck are we doing about this problem? What are you doing to our kids' future?" I was sitting there, a scrappy, pompous young buck doing my PhD, developing next generation solar. We were going to change the world in solar. Back to that story. I was sitting there going, "This guy just doesn't have any clue what he's talking about. That's not the way we're going to solve climate change." The way we're going to solve climate change is we're going to invent some really amazing radical new technologies. We're going to leverage market forces to turn them into massive new companies that change the way we do everything. That was my view.
Ilan Gur: It wasn't until after the startup and even at ARPA-E where I thought to myself, there was this article from Bill McKibben ... It's got fire on the cover. It was in Rolling Stone, old article ... where one of the points he makes is like, "If we're going to solve climate change, you realize, we have to take a bunch of really valuable fossil fuels that are already built into the valuations of big oil and gas companies and we got to leave that stuff in the ground." That was like that moment where I was like, "Nothing I invent in the lab is going to get the world to leave a bunch of valuable fossil fuel resources in the ground." You wake up, and you realize like, "No. There is only one way you're going to change this problem, which is society is going to have to demand the change."
Ilan Gur: Then you basically need to decide, okay, well, how do I play in that? As someone who doesn't like politics or policy or whatever else, my view was like, okay, when society demands that change, hopefully, I'll be doing something which is in a position to offer opportunities to accelerate that change with technology.
Jason Jacobs: I guess that leads into my final question, which is just for anyone out there listening to the pod that's trying to figure out how to have their own impact on this problem, what advice do you have for them?
Ilan Gur: Well, I think that's it. I think you can do an intellectual analysis. If you go on Twitter or anywhere else, everyone's going to fight about what's the best way to move things forward in climate? From a personal standpoint, you got to ignore all of that. Because what we need to do to solve climate is basically so big. We need to do an industrial revolution plus an agricultural revolution plus a digital revolution. All transformation we've had in technology over the last hundred years, we need to do that times five to solve this problem.
Ilan Gur: It's so big, for me, what I think matters is figure out what you want to do. Just figure out the piece that you resonate with and go do that. I actually think is your climate journey. Maybe I'll turn the question because I think that's the answer. I think the answer is, yeah, go be thoughtful about how you move the needle. Then just find your role and go do something. I don't know. Where are you? Where are you on your climate journey?
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. I mean, I'm still working through it, but I think that's what I'm coming to is that I think ... I'm going to do a whole whether it's a medium post or a separate episode or something that frames us a little more thoughtfully in terms of where I am on the journey today. But I think that I went in thinking, "If it doesn't have X gigatons of potential, then I'm not interested, and it's we're wasting our time."
Jason Jacobs: Actually, because it is a societal problem, there's no one lever. It's everything goes together. It's like turning a big tanker ship. Policy has a role. Innovation has a role. Corporations have a role. Employees of those corporations have a role. Voters have a role. Philanthropists have a role. Foreign policy has a role. National security has a role. Academia has a role. Media, journalism has a role. Everything has a role, and so it's like, "Well, what's your piece?" Well, actually, whether it's a little thing, whether it's a big thing, whether it's something over here, whether it's something over there, there's so little of society that's now oriented in terms of actively playing a role, even a small role, that anything you do already puts you above the mean.
Jason Jacobs: Then it's just a question of where you personally are going to have the most fulfillment, the most impact and the best fit. That's for each person to decide. But I think there's a tendency to overthink and to get wrapped up in those debates where, honestly, if it's pushing forward directionally, just do it. That'll lead to other things. It's like life. Just put one foot in front of the other.
Jason Jacobs: Where am I? This is part of that journey, and whatever I do will be a natural evolution from the things I'm already doing. I'm going to keep doing this, and I'm going to do more things. I'm starting to actively think through what those things are. I have some ideas, but nothing yet that's concrete.
Ilan Gur: That's awesome. Well, one of the things I'm so excited about it is, I think, by doing this, I think, by sharing your climate journey, I think you're giving any individual a chance to go figure out where they plug in. It's awesome.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. To anyone trying to sort through it, it's like, "Well, listen to this one dude who's just like you, who's trying to figure it out."
Ilan Gur: Yeah, right?
Jason Jacobs: Right?
Ilan Gur: Yep.
Jason Jacobs: It's like maybe by drafting behind my journey it helps people go on their own journey through the process. That's the point of the pod. I don't know if it's doing that or not, but, you know.
Ilan Gur: I love it. Keep it up.
Jason Jacobs: Anyways, Ilan, we did it.
Ilan Gur: Yeah.
Jason Jacobs: Take two was a success, so thanks so much for coming on the show.
Ilan Gur: Yeah, this was fun. Thanks.
Jason Jacobs: Hey, everyone, Jason here. Thanks again for joining me on My Climate Journey. If you would like to learn more about the journey, you can visit us at MyClimateJourney.co. Note that is .co, not .com. Someday we'll get the .com, but right now, .co. You can also find me on Twitter @JJacobs22 where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode or suggestions for future guests you'd like to hear. And, before I let you go, if you enjoyed the show, please share an episode with a friend or consider leaving a review on iTunes. The lawyers made me say that. Thank you.