Want to Invent a Cleaner, Greener Future? Reinvent the Past

Two entrepreneurs on the front lines of green energy discuss the challenges of inventing new technologies.

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The second session in the Energy Revolution track at the Aspen Ideas Festival, entitled "Inventing the Future," brought together Jay F. Whitacre, founder and CTO of Aquion Energy and Tom Schuler, president and CEO of Solidia Technologies.
 
The session was moderated by Meghan L. O'Sullivan, the Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs and director of the Geopolitics of Energy Project at Harvard University's Kennedy School.
 
Here's what these two entrepreneurs on the front lines of green energy had to say about key aspects of inventing the future.
 
On What it Takes to Innovate
 "The first innovation is the process of innovation itself," Whitacre said. With Aquion, which he founded in 2008, Whitacre took the battery--a 100-year-old technology that we rely on every day--and fused it with new ideas. He wanted to find a new method for stationary energy storage at a very large scale, because without efficient storage it's difficult to scale renewable energy sources.
 
Whitacre first identified the key attributes of a better battery: low cost, ubiquitous and non-toxic materials, and simple assembly. Then he made a list of possible products and processes. His result: a saltwater-based, pH-neutral battery made from very common materials.
 
Like Whitacre at Aquion, Schuler is leading a business that is reinventing a well-known, widely used product: cement. In Solidia's case, sending his team out into the field to listen and learn was critical.
 
"You can't do it by yourself," he said. "If you're going to have an impact on an industry like this, you need to collaborate."
 
Cement is the second most utilized material on the face of the earth after water, and Solidia Technologies uses a sustainable cement to produce concrete that is stronger, more durable, more flexible and less costly than conventional concrete--using the same raw materials and equipment but with less water, energy, and time.
 
Solidia's technology also sequesters CO2 by injecting it into concrete during the manufacturing process, transforming CO2 into a usable element that gives large- and small-scale concrete producers a competitive edge.
 
"If you're going to invent the future, you better get good at helping the past transition--especially with a 2,000-year-old market like concrete," Schuler said.
 
On the Need for Speed
 According to Schuler, start-ups are built for speed and are set up to be impatient: "Start-ups rarely fail for lack of smart people & good ideas--they just run out of time."
 
Along these lines, Whitacre described how Aquion's approach to innovation relied on chaotic, haphazard experimentation. "You have to learn to fail quickly and move on," he said. 
 
His analogy for the innovation and experimentation process: "painting without tape." Whitacre explained that if you paint a lot of walls, you'll eventually become adept enough to do it without tape. You paint knowing that you may need to go back and fix a few mistakes, with the understanding that it takes less time to make those fixes  than it would to tape the walls in the first place.
 
On Green Start-Ups that Fail
 When O'Sullivan asked about the impact of failure on Solyndra and other start-ups in the green energy sector on the venture capital environment, Whitacre said it had been devastating.
 
"The venture capital community has gone from extremely bullish to stand-offish," Whitacre said.
 
Schuler said he's in a similar situation because of other "green" cements that have struggled in the past. Solidia is now focused on commercial traction first and foremost, to ease the process of looking for investors.
 
"We have to be viable whether there are carbon credits are not,"  Schuler said.  

On Being Disruptive
 Although both companies are driven by the desire to contribute to a cleaner, greener future, both Schuler and Whitacre said their main focus is on being disruptive from an economic rather than an environmental standpoint.
 
In fact, both companies are finding many initial customers overseas, in large part because of the volatile U.S. policy environment.
 
"Energy policy technology is an incredible hot potato. We don't allow ourselves to rely on policy, so we have to rely on a sound economic model," Whitacre said. "We are disruptive for economic reasons, because the political waters change so quickly."
 
Schuler concurred. "Industry guys don't care about green cement because they can't sell that right now - we have to show them how it's better as a product."

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