Stanford students turn oil wells into batteries, bring solar to Nigeria in energy entrepreneurship class
The Stanford Energy Ventures course helps passionate entrepreneurs develop novel energy solutions and has launched almost 20 startups worth more than $30 million over the past three years.
In the winter of 2019, Kemp Gregory, a graduate student in Civil & Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, got a call from Walker Colt. Friends since childhood, they had both begun their careers as petroleum engineers in Houston, Texas, but hoped to transition to something greener. Now, Colt had an idea for how they could do that.
“He said we should take inactive oil wells and turn them into energy storage devices,” recalled Gregory, who at first thought his friend’s idea was a stretch.
But the more the pair researched, the more sense it seemed to make. The United States has 3.1 million inactive oil wells. Decommissioning these wells is hugely expensive, so oil companies are eager to pass them off. Also, oil fields are connected to power grids, so the infrastructure for bringing in electricity and sending it back out already exists.
Colt was inspired by something called a Gravity Light, a reading lamp for off-gridders powered by a descending weight. With a bigger weight, he suggested, they could use the same principle to store power on a large scale. Gregory pointed out that one piece of oil-drilling equipment, the electric submersible pump, generates power when it accidentally spins backward. By exploiting this flaw, they could potentially create a system similar to pumped-storage hydropower, he said.
After several weeks of back-and-forth, the pair settled on a few promising designs. With some quick calculations, they discovered that their plan could generate just enough power to work.
It was time to get serious. Gregory knew about a course on energy entrepreneurship at Stanford, one that taught students how to create a viable business, get advice from industry experts and, ultimately, attract funding.
A spark for energy innovators
That course is Stanford Energy Ventures, which is organized by Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy and offered through the Department of Energy Resources Engineering in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. Every fall, winter and spring term for the past four years, the course’s teachers – energy entrepreneurs Dave Danielson, Joel Moxley and Stuart Macmillan – have guided teams of students in developing creative energy solutions. (Sadly, Macmillan passed away on April 9, 2020). The 30 class projects between fall 2016 and spring 2019 have produced 16 startups that collectively have attracted $33 million in investments.
“To solve climate change, we need an army of clean energy startups,” said Danielson. “That’s the goal of Stanford Energy Ventures, to create a home for students passionate about energy entrepreneurship and give them the skills and relationships they need to change the world.”
Last summer, Gregory pitched his project to Danielson, hoping to get into the class. Danielson was intrigued, and Gregory enrolled in the fall, recruiting fellow graduate students Berk Manav, Stefan Streckfus and Yuval Tamir for his team. As with many teams, they continued to develop their project for an additional term this winter.
“The class, to me, is exactly what graduate school should be,” Gregory said. The course has just one main metric of success, he explained: interviews. Students constantly refine their ideas by vetting them with industry experts eight to ten times per week.
Here, the teaching team’s network of industry connections is invaluable, Gregory said.
“The instructors know everyone in the energy world: businesspeople, venture capitalists, former U.S. secretaries of energy,” Gregory said. “They don’t just give them away indiscriminately, but once you show them that you’re onto something, they’ll reciprocate.”
Equally important, the instructors share their own first-hand knowledge of the dynamic complexities of the energy business in weekly lectures – normally taught in person, but held over Zoom in Spring 2020 due to COVID-19.
“Building an energy venture is a steep hill – and a very specific one,” said Macmillan, who was interviewed for this article in March. “Our big focus is scalability. How do you deploy your technology on a national or global level, and how do you do it fast enough to make a major impact?”
Gregory’s venture – eventually named Renewell Energy – has some tough acts to follow. One is Fervo Energy, a startup launched by Tim Latimer, MS/MBA ’17, and Jack Norbeck, PhD ’16, who took the course in 2017. Fervo was one of the first investments of Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund, where Danielson works. The startup aims to modernize the generation of electricity from geothermal hotspots deep in the Earth, an old technique that is due for a major technology update, Latimer explained.
“There’s been a ton of innovation in oil and gas in the last decade, and much of it can be applied to geothermal,” Latimer explained. “By using techniques like fiber-optic sensing and horizontal drilling, we can unlock a round-the-clock renewable energy resource that could shoulder 20 percent of America’s power load.”
Shortly after taking the course, the Fervo team won an Innovation Transfer grant from Stanford’s TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy. A year later, they joined Cyclotron Road, an incubator for science-based startups at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which they learned about through the class. Latimer made Forbes’ attention-getting “30 under 30 in Energy” list for 2019. Now, they are gearing up for launch.
“We’ve raised the money we need to test our key ideas. We’ve built a team of some of the most talented people at this intersection of oil and geothermal. We’re in the process of doing tests that will get us actual field results,” Latimer said.
Scaling solar in Nigeria
Not all success stories are so linear, however. Before coming to Stanford, Ugwem Eneyo, MS ’16, never imagined becoming an entrepreneur. But in 2015, she enrolled in Energy Transformation Collaborative – the precursor to Stanford Energy Ventures – and pitched her classmates on a critical problem she had seen first-hand.
“In Nigeria, the grid is so unreliable that almost every home and business has a diesel generator,” she explained. “There are 70 million in the country, and people are running them for up 20 hours a day.” Figuring out how to bypass the grid and bring reliable, low-carbon power to Nigerians was a business opportunity, she said.
One classmate, Cole Stites-Clayton, BS ’14, MS ’15, was intrigued. That quarter, he and Eneyo developed a solution: an internet-connected “smart switch” that allows buildings to integrate many different power sources, including battery-backed solar power. Their startup, Shyft Power Solutions, combines this switch with their mobile app and data platform to reduce electricity costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
Like Fervo Energy, Shyft Power Solutions won a TomKat Innovation Transfer grant. Eneyo and Stites-Clayton followed Latimer in Forbes’ list of rising stars in energy for 2020. Shyft now has more than $1 million in investments and a newly-certified smart switch. It is expanding the market for independent renewable energy providers in Nigeria, Eneyo said.
Still, Eneyo remembers the class when they pitched their first set of investors, who “tore us apart,” and then staying up late into the night to hone their business plan. “We were working so hard, but we were enjoying it,” Eneyo recalled. “It was exciting. That’s the moment I realized that we could actually do this.”
Recently, Gregory had a similar moment. As he and his team pitched their final set of investors for the class, they were nervous. But when they finished their pitch, instead of laying into them, the group of investors was silent. After a moment, one mumbled: “This could work.”
Right then, Gregory decided to go all-in on Renewell. Since graduating in March, he and Stanford Energy Ventures team member Streckfus have joined Colt in working full-time on the venture. In April, they won a $50,000 TomKat Innovation Transfer grant. They are currently building a demonstration system and are in discussions with two large oil companies in California to install a pilot project, said Gregory.
“For a long time, I was hesitant to say I had a startup – it just sounds so cliché,” Gregory said. “I never thought this was going to happen to me. But it has, and it’s taken over my life in the best possible way.”
Stanford Energy Ventures is funded by Tom and Johanna Baruch. The TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy was established in 2009 with a gift from Stanford alumni Kat Taylor and Tom Steyer.