Michael Crabb [00:00:58] Welcome to another episode of the Energy Impact Podcast. Our guest today is Mike Lin, the General Partner of Dangerous Ventures. Mike, great to have you on.
Mike Lin [00:01:08] Hey, thank you so much.
Michael Crabb [00:01:10] So excited to hear about Dangerous Ventures and everything involved with that. But before we go there, tell us about yourself. Where are you from?
Mike Lin [00:01:19] Well, I'm a child of immigrants from Taiwan and China. Before that, they were refugees finding their way to the island nation of Taiwan and then making their way eventually to the United States where I was born. I grew up in a small suburb in northern New Jersey, not too far from Murray Hill, where there's Bell Labs. And so if you're not familiar with it, this is where the transistor was invented, the laser, the first photovoltaic solar cell. All sorts of great things came out of that think-and-do tank called Bell Labs way back in the day.
Michael Crabb [00:02:00] And was there a connection as to how your family ended up all the way across the country in New Jersey. For Bell Labs, or it just was happenstance that was in your backyard?
Mike Lin [00:02:10] So my dad was a chemist by background and had gotten his Ph.D. in the States, which is what brought him there. And then, work brought him to that part of New Jersey where he was working on all sorts of interesting things, microelectronics and those sorts of things that we find in everything from smartphones to satellites today.
Michael Crabb [00:02:30] And so, is that like your playground? Some kids had Play-Doh and toys and you had circuit boards? How much did that really influence you as you grew up, or did he leave work at work?
Mike Lin [00:02:44] Yeah, very much. It was kind of having a full set of tools in the basement and garage. And when the VCR stopped working, my dad encouraged us to sit down together and take it apart and peek inside and see what made this thing work and could we fix it? And shortly after graduating high school, I had a fantastic summer internship working at Bell Labs. Being alongside Nobel Prize winning researchers and being an 18, 19-year-old recent high school grad is just a mind blowing experience. Being able to do some fundamental science and research really got the gears turning in terms of, "Well, what might I be able to do with my work and career?"
Michael Crabb [00:03:34] Fascinating. Do you feel like you could appreciate that content? Did the magnitude of that work really sink in at the time, or is it more looking back you're like, "Holy cow. I was on the lab bench next to this guy." Like, you're some 18-year-old, right? Sometimes it doesn't feel as serious, I guess, at that age.
Mike Lin [00:03:54] Yeah, I very much took it for granted that classmates in this modest suburban town, taking classes with friends and neighbors that, "Oh, so and so won the Nobel Prize in Physics, and so and so is this incredible researcher that invented X." It was a huge privilege to grow up with friends, colleagues, family members who were in the mix and yet all very humble and modest and grounded and just doing really important and necessary work.
Michael Crabb [00:04:30] Yeah, awesome. That's fascinating. Okay, so you had this internship experience. You grew up around people with the knack, fiddlers and sort of solving problems. Did you go into engineering? What was the path then into college and ultimately, career?
Mike Lin [00:04:49] I was always interested in tinkering and building model rockets and airplanes and in the sketchpad, drawing and very much appreciated art. I had this incredible opportunity where I applied and got into Stanford. I didn't know much about it. My parents being immigrants just didn't know how to navigate the US college system. And so, my high school college counselor... I'd say, "I'm thinking about this place, Stanford, I'd heard about." And they said, "Oh yeah, that's a great school in Connecticut." And they didn't quite put two and two together that, "Oh, there's this other place halfway around the world."
Mike Lin [00:05:27] But yeah, there's a program there. It used to be called product design, and now it's just design. And so, this is the nexus of design thinking and user-centered design and this methodology of an inquiry-based, need finding and user-led kind of approach to figuring out, "Well, how do I bring new solutions into the world?" And it could be physical products, but now increasingly more digital products and services, UI/UX, that sort of thing. And so, it was a great blending together of my interests of both art and science and engineering together.
Michael Crabb [00:06:06] And that's interesting. Can I ask which came first? Because I've now met a number of folks that come out of sort of the Stanford, what I call, school of thought around business, which is that demand-pull framework that you just described. And I think it's quite unique to have people that come up from an engineer design, right? They're about the widget... To then transition to be about the problem. And so, which came first? Did you identify that you needed to be about the problem and that program was what would get you there, or was that part of that experience and that education through Stanford that took your technical background and married it with that business demand-pull sense?
Mike Lin [00:06:49] Yeah, I certainly did not have any foresight into, "Oh, gosh, you've got to be need-driven and have pull." It was rather, I had all these interests. And if you've ever met young children, they're creative. They're just doing and just exploring. And so, I think as a child, as an adolescent, I was curious, but didn't know what I didn't know. And so, I was very fortunate to find myself in that environment. I was drawn by the allure of California and palm trees, but was very fortunate, delighted to find myself in this community of folks who didn't just have an engineering mindset. "Oh, I've got to build something better or more complex," or just solving problems for problem's sake. It was very much, "Well, there's a whole host of problems out there in the world, and they deserve solving. Find what you're interested in, what your passion is, and then go pursue that."
Mike Lin [00:07:52] And far be it for you to design in a vacuum. You don't want to go out there and toil away in the lab just to pitch it over the fence and say, "Hey, I made this thing." Maybe you would want to prototype something. It might be a very crude, rapid prototype. It doesn't have to look great. It could be Foamcore and rubber bands and hot glue and just piecing whatever together, putting it in front of people and then getting their input and feedback. And it's this rapid prototyping process and iterative express test cycle design process that gets you very rapidly and incrementally closer to the solution. And hopefully you, as they say, fail fast, fail forward, and we'll add hopefully you could fail inexpensively and make new mistakes not old ones. And so in that way, getting yourself closer and closer to whatever your goal might be.
Michael Crabb [00:08:43] Yeah, fascinating. Okay, so which problems did you then seek to solve first? So you had this framework, you had this education. What then?
Mike Lin [00:08:52] So I was always very much interested in the environment and society at large. This came from just a wonderful, supportive family and community and upbringing where I was in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts when I was little and hiking the Appalachian Trail, growing up on the East Coast and getting an appreciation for nature that way. I had wonderful high school and middle school science teachers. I remember doing a fifth grade science project on renewable energy and building a passive solar house out of cardboard and that sort of thing. And so, it was always an area of interest. But curiously enough, at Stanford at the time... I went to university in 1999, right as the dot-com bubble was forming and graduated in '03, so a lot of the energy and a lot of froth was around the dot-com, but I was almost totally unaware of it. I was in my own little bubble and all of this stuff was happening around me while I was focused on energy and the environment.
Michael Crabb [00:09:57] Yeah, I mean, that was a very nascent industry at that time. There's maybe a little bit of solar happening. Probably not that much. Really not that much wind. Maybe still a little bit of peak oil fears, right? Tell us a little bit about how that industry evolved. Take us through the specific path that you took but give some context to sort of what that actually meant in the broader sense of the market. You were sort of blazing your own trail in more ways than one, I think.
Mike Lin [00:10:32] Yeah, yeah. I think there was a lot of early activity happening at Stanford at the time. One of my heroes and mentors is a professor, Gil Masters. He was an electrical engineer by background and launched a course, I think in 1973... So quite literally about 50 years ago, that I think was called Alternative Lifestyles. And it was about energy efficient building design. And it was this hippie-dippy class that has since been renamed basically green building and energy efficiency, energy efficient building design. But he was the vanguard. He was at the forefront of being up there on rooftops, installing photovoltaics at the time in the late '60s, early '70s, and drilling through people's roofs. And then, he would get a phone call when the winter came around, they'd be like, "Hey, what's going on?" And he realized that there was this whole host of new engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs who he could train as an instructor and maybe leave the general contractor work to somebody else, to the roofers.
Mike Lin [00:11:40] That got me down this path of, "Might I actually design my own curriculum, my own coursework?" I had enrolled as a Stanford mechanical engineer, and that was more traditional, looking at thermodynamics and fluid mechanics and that sort of thing. And it didn't really ever touch upon these applications of sustainability. But that's how I found that design program that was a bit more human centered and more integrative, you could say. And so, it was taking a combination of courses in different departments, civil and environmental engineering and ethics and society.
Mike Lin [00:12:22] I took a gap year between undergrad and grad school and ended up at Yale. I took courses in gender studies, in forestry energy systems where I studied under Arnulf Grubler. And that brought me to a nuclear power plant and longwall coal mine and went down the mine shaft and then to a GE wind turbine factory. So it was kind of a choose your own adventure but putting together an academic experience that only in hindsight does it really make sense, but at the time, again, it was curiosity and inquiry based and just following my nose to where I thought my interests might kind of align.
Michael Crabb [00:13:03] I have to tease you. I'm not sure you understand what a gap year theoretically means. You took a year off to go study at an equally prestigious and challenging university. No, that's fascinating. Well, okay, So you had this very unique experience. I think you also dropped casually that then you went to graduate school. It was presumably building on this curriculum. Focused around teaching, or did you have some particular goal in mind when it came to graduate school?
Mike Lin [00:13:34] Certainly not. I think graduate school's a way to delay... For me, at least.
Michael Crabb [00:13:40] I couldn't say it. You had to say that. I couldn't volunteer that.
Mike Lin [00:13:45] Yeah, yeah. I think, very humbly, I had no idea what I was doing. I was in the middle of a quarter-life crisis, as I'm sure a lot of folks, especially Gen Z today... And so, I had the great fortune of being able to go back to Stanford and do a master's continuing to study mechanical engineering. And I thought perhaps design for manufacturability and how we make stuff might be an area of academic pursuit. I didn't exactly know what I wanted to do, but this could be, just again, putting one foot in front of the next and all of these things, directionally correct, might give me some more perspective, build some skills that I might be able to apply in the future.
Mike Lin [00:14:32] And so, I ended up working in the Product Realization Lab as a grad student, as a teaching assistant, which is the student machine shop that's been around for decades. And there, it's a real hands on and again, experiential lab where students from any major, any department can get in there and learn how to use a mill or a lathe and do welding and CNC machining. There's a great prototyping facility with 3D printers and laser cutters. And so, that was a great way to be immersed in this really creative and hands on environment where people are doing really interesting things.
Mike Lin [00:15:12] I vividly remember the day when J.B. Straubel rolled up into the courtyard of the PRL, the Product Realization Lab with his bright red Porche 944 that he had modified. And of course, J.B. went on to co-found and be the CTO of Tesla. And so as you said, it was still early days in the clean tech movement, but there was that incredible, vibrant energy and the DNA... There was just incredible people in the mix, all doing really interesting things and as I'm finding out now, have been for decades. Really led by Gil Masters, who's now gone on to teach quite literally thousands and thousands of students who are now at the Department of Energy and the US Green Building Council and named this or that other utility or public-private partnership, developer. He's really helped create many generations now of change makers.
Michael Crabb [00:16:07] Yeah, fascinating. Do you have a favorite prototype or thing that you saw get built, even if it wasn't ultimately successful? Is there anything in particular that sticks in your mind? What's the party story that you tell about your time there in the lab? I imagine you saw so many cool things, right?
Mike Lin [00:16:28] Oh, man. Yeah, lots of really interesting things. And the wild thing is that... Maybe this is said a bit too often, but Silicon Valley and California, broadly, but certainly Stanford embraces failure. The number of failed prototypes well outnumbers the successes. But even I had built an electric skateboard back in the day. And this is when batteries are nowhere near as wonderful as they are today. They weren't as energy dense or safe. And so, I had built a big clunky electric skateboard, having hacked apart an old electric scooter and stolen parts from electric wheelchairs and that sort of thing. But the thing must have weighed like 50 pounds, because it was basically lugging around a huge lead-acid battery. And it could go for at most, maybe a mile or two. And so, certainly a failure by all accounts, but wonderful to see all these great electric mobility solutions that now exist.
Michael Crabb [00:17:37] Yeah, that's funny. I mean, a failure-ish, but you were able to ride it. I mean, that's Frankenstein's skateboard. You probably weren't able to carry it very many places, but you know.
Mike Lin [00:17:50] Exactly, yeah.
Michael Crabb [00:17:51] That's awesome. So from that experience, what next?
Mike Lin [00:17:58] That last year in grad school, I was able to land a dream job. So I was actually able to finish a lot of coursework early and continue to experiment in the lab. But also, I landed this job at Apple working in their Environmental Technologies group. It was a small team, and I was tasked as a 24 or 25-year-old with coming up with Apple's climate change strategy, believe it or not. And so, I just was totally over the moon. I could not have imagined a better place for me to land.
Mike Lin [00:18:31] I thought to myself, "Gosh, who am I to craft on my own this strategy?" I'm surrounded by the brightest minds, these Nobel laureates who ultimately ended up actually winning the Nobel Prize with the IPCC and along with Al Gore. And at that time, I guess it was 2005, 2006, Al Gore was on the speaking circuit giving his Inconvenient Truth keynote presentation as just a lecture before it became a film. And so, he had packed an auditorium at Stanford and I had the privilege of attending. And I thought, "Well, of course, I've got to reach out to Al Gore. Who better else to to help advise than this prominent figure?" And of course, he's using the Mac laptop all throughout the presentation.
Mike Lin [00:19:17] And so, I sent out this email and I get a response back from his chief of staff. We get the ball rolling; there's a lot of excitement. Again, this is while I'm still a student. A couple days later, there's graduation. I get my newly minted diploma. I'm excited to hit the ground running when that Monday morning, I get called into my boss's office and he quite literally says, "S-H-I-T rolls downhill, and you're at the bottom of that hill. You are fired." And I'm just totally caught off guard. I'm like, "What are you talking about?"
Mike Lin [00:19:51] And so, I get lectured, "You went over my head. You went over my boss's head. You went over Steve Jobs' head. You went straight to a board member. Al Gore is on the board, and you cannot go over all these people." And so, I got let go for circumventing the management and insubordination. And so, I learned pretty quickly how the real world works, unfortunately.
Michael Crabb [00:20:16] Right out of the gate. Yeah, they waited until you were eligible. They let you walk right into the trap.
Mike Lin [00:20:21] Yeah, I had no idea what major folly I had committed, but it turned out to be, quite literally, the best worst mistake I've ever made. Because after that, I found myself working in the startup realm where there is this notion of, "Ask for forgiveness, not for permission." You really have to take the initiative to get things going. And really, it turned out to be a much better cultural fit than big Fortune 500 culture.
Michael Crabb [00:20:53] Yeah, yeah. Okay, so tell us how did you transition from basically a standing start the Monday after graduation? How did you progress from there?
Mike Lin [00:21:07] After licking my wounds and really just having another existential crisis like, "My God, I really screwed up here," it was through the great community and really the network of people who were very much values-aligned who said, "You know what? There's this startup that's just coming together. It's a bunch of folks between MIT and Stanford who formed an organization called SQUID Labs."
Mike Lin [00:21:33] So Saul Griffith, who's a MacArthur Genius Fellow recipient. He's been working closely with numerous administrations from Obama to Biden and so on and now the Australian government. He formed think-and-do tank working on all sorts of interesting projects, consulting, and also spinning out their own companies. And among them are Makani Power, which is a high altitude wind energy startup that was acquired by Google and folded into Google X. And I joined another startup called Potenco, which was developing small power generation systems that were tied to this One Laptop per Child Initiative, also known as the OLPC. And they were developing a $100 laptop for kids in frontier markets across Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere.
Michael Crabb [00:22:22] My sister was in that program. She went to Brazil, maybe? Somewhere in South America, I can't remember. But she did that for a summer or something, so I know what you're talking about.
Mike Lin [00:22:31] Yeah. So it was a cute little green laptop that had two little antenna that would pop up. They had innovated all sorts of amazing things from low-energy, E Ink displays to wireless mesh networking. And actually, to tie it back to earlier, in a way, it was an engineered solution that was kind of like a hammer looking for nails. No one ever really said, "Hey, what we need is a $100 laptop." With all due respect to the folks at MIT, it's a brilliant piece of technology, but what they missed the mark on was did they really engage with the stakeholders in the communities like the children and their families, the teachers? Like, "Hey, is this the thing that you all need?" And as it turns out, when I was traveling overseas we found that incredibly, maybe it's not actually the thing that people need.
Mike Lin [00:23:24] Instead, everywhere we went, in the most far flung villages people had cell phones. They had these little $10, $20, $30 Nokia candy bar phones that were ubiquitous all around the world. Eventually they would get a little banged up and they would find their way, second-hand, to Africa. And these entrepreneurs, small corner store owners and fishermen, farmers, teachers and doctors and nurses, they were all adopting cell phones because it enabled them to, of course, communicate. No surprise there. But in a way, it enabled them to leapfrog the wired telephone grid.
Mike Lin [00:24:03] Before you had to put down a pole every so many feet and string up all these wires. Of course, really capital intensive and in low income countries, they just couldn't do and build out that infrastructure in the same way. So it wasn't for lack of wanting communications or even the ability to pay, the infrastructure just wasn't there for them to have a phone quite literally go to every home. And so, wireless enabled them to totally leapfrog straight through that whole wired telephone system. That actually led to the ability to think a little bit more creatively about energy access.
Mike Lin [00:24:39] And so, after working at Makani and building a team out, we were able to launch a company called Fenix in partnership with Google, who was at the time developing the Android phone. So before it was available in the US, their engineers were actually piloting and prototyping, working very closely with farmers and maternal health workers, nurses, to explore, "Well, how might the Android phone help lift up these communities out of poverty through giving them access to information, helping them generate more income for themselves and all this good stuff"
Michael Crabb [00:25:18] Wow. Yeah, super cool. So, you sort of did fall back into tech a little bit, right? Bring us full circle back to energy, then. How did you parlay that into the next stage?
Mike Lin [00:25:38] The business model that emerged was actually in conjunction with Google. There were these massive billion dollar telecoms that were actually building out the infrastructure. It arose that this need existed to actually keep the phones charged. So if you think, "Well, God, if there's no wired telephone service, there's certainly no power going to these villages. And so, how are they actually charging these phones right now?" It was actually leaning on this design thinking methodology that I'd been trained in at Stanford that led us to conduct this need finding process, user observation, meet with folks in the village, talk to these executives at Vodafone and Orange, MTN, the big South African telecom to realize that there's this massive need that's not being met. And it's not because of lack of network now, it's actually for lack of power. They were actually power constrained.
Mike Lin [00:26:32] And as we ran these pilots and studies, we came to realize, "You know what? It takes two to tango. You need to have both phones, not surprisingly, charged and online in order to make or receive a call, send a text, even send a mobile money transfer." And so, they were leaving a lot of money on the table by not having their customers' phones on and online. And so, we found that you could actually enable these telecoms to make anywhere from 10% to 14% more revenue per user, per month, like month over month, if they just provided access to power.
Mike Lin [00:27:01] And so, the premise for Fenix was actually developing, in a way, a micro smart power system. So, think of it as like a miniaturized Tesla Powerwall where it could charge from solar, but actually, quite literally anything. You could plug it into a little pedal-powered bicycle generator. We developed a little micro wind turbine, a water wheel. You could plug it into the grid or even into a diesel or gas generator. But the idea was to safely and efficiently affordably store that power, store that energy and then deliver that power to anybody for quite literally anything.
Mike Lin [00:27:40] But we actually designed it first and foremost for cell phone charging. So little USB ports, little cigarette lighter adapter car charger ports. We bundled these things and actually sold it through the cell phone retail shops. Because we realized the real hard thing to get done is that last mile distribution. How are you going to reach these far-flung places? There are lots of well-intended non-profits, NGOs, and even for-profit startups that were trying to serve these communities, but they were never able to crack that nut of distribution, firstly.
Mike Lin [00:28:10] But then we also realized trust was another major aspect. Who were we, being foreigners parachuting in to convince anybody to spend their hard-earned money on something? And there was also a lot of mistrust because there's a lot of dumping of really cheap, junky solar panels, LED lights and that sort of thing at the time. And this is now... Fast-forward to 2008, 2009. And so, it was in partnership with these big telecoms. We actually co-branded our systems with their logo, we sold it in their shops, and eventually actually even offered micro-finance through their cell phone payment systems. So it became such that you could actually text us $0.20 a day. We would send you back a code, and that would unlock the system.
Mike Lin [00:28:52] And so, we were one of the first pay-as-you-go power companies that are now emerging throughout these markets. We're now in, I think, nine countries across Africa. We were acquired by Engie, the big French multinational power company, and I think powering somewhere on the order of like nine, almost ten million people now.
Michael Crabb [00:29:13] Wow. So what's that in megawatts for nine, ten million people in that part of the world?
Mike Lin [00:29:20] Oh, God. Yeah, it was something on the order of 15 watts per panel. And the great, brilliant part was also that you can continue to build and grow that system as your income might improve. And so, something on the order of like 15 megawatts or so initially for that first million, and then now, keep adding zeros to that. The acquisition went through in 2018, and they continue to roll up additional start ups and they're expanding into new markets. Everything from very small systems to ours, which we're kind of in the middle, to micro mini grids now.
Mike Lin [00:29:58] So yeah, it's a great story coming full circle, but really one about business model innovation. How could you actually align the incentives for all these big players who have the balance sheet to take something like this out there and really with the distribution, with the for sale service and support as well? Being able to dial a toll-free call center and get somebody who speaks your local language in all these various local dialects. There was a lot thinking that went into how do you build a lasting, durable, trusted product and ultimately, a company and system all around it.
Michael Crabb [00:30:38] Yeah, it's almost always about the business model, as opposed to some brand new shiny tech. Yeah, that's really cool. Are you still involved in the business or was it more of a clean exit?
Mike Lin [00:30:53] It was a clean exit. They acquired 100% of it in an all cash deal, and it was a real fantastic exit for the industry as a whole as well. There's been a lot of amazing activity, a lot of great entrepreneurs, a lot of great companies formed. And still, it's early days though. Quite literally, hundreds of millions, billions of dollars have been invested in energy access. And the challenge is how do you actually demonstrate to investors that this is an investible market and segment? And it very much is. There's a fortune to be made at the base of the pyramid. And how are these next billion plus going to come online? I think 800 million or so people still don't have access to to reliable power, and so that's a massive opportunity and market. And hopefully more and more entrepreneur activity will continue to happen, and exits also showing that it's an investible space.
Michael Crabb [00:31:47] Yeah, amazing. And I guess that brings us to what you're building now then, right? I'm making that leap, so correct me if that's not the case. Tell us a bit about Dangerous Ventures, how that idea came about, and what your niche is.
Mike Lin [00:32:03] Yeah, totally. So, with the fortune and benefit of that exit, I was able to do some angel investing myself. And in the course of doing so, connected with my business partner Ward Hendon. We were very much aligned from a values perspective, wanting to use venture and really saw entrepreneurial activities as a way for both doing well and doing good. That you don't have to be like an Andrew Carnegie with steel or the Rockefellers with oil, like do all this great work but also create a lot of harm, and then donate and do philanthropy on the back end. We felt that you could actually make a positive impact while also, of course, making a decent return.
Mike Lin [00:33:03] This thesis began to emerge in early 2020 and we connected up with our third general partner, Gaby Darbyshire. All three of us are entrepreneurs. We've all built businesses and had great exits, each in a slightly different sector. Gaby was a media entrepreneur and had co-founded Gawker Media, and previous to had worked in all sorts of other startup environments from wine to also management consulting.
Mike Lin [00:33:35] Ward had co-founded a company called Axiom Law that really innovated in the legal tech space, enabling greater flexibility and work life balance. In a way, it was almost the Uber for law. It was a gig economy kind of set up where you didn't have to work through the legal grind as an associate, toiling in the mines in hopes of eventually making partner one day. That pyramid scheme is terribly grueling and unfair. And so, the premise was to let people do their best work in a way that's flexible and plays to their strengths. And they built that to a massive business and then had a private equity exit a number of years ago.
Mike Lin [00:34:19] And so, we were all operators first and foremost, and see venture investing now as a way of us working with this next generation of entrepreneurs. We get to live vicariously through them.
Michael Crabb [00:34:34] Yeah, talk a little bit about that transition from operator to investor. The axiom is an investor always wants to be an operator, an operator always wants to be an investor. Tell us about how that mind shift... If it has, how you've had to change your approach. I think when you're an entrepreneur, there needs to be some perennial well of optimism. And when you're an investor there needs to be a healthy level... You need some balance of skepticism and optimism. Talk to us a little bit about how that shift is going for you.
Mike Lin [00:35:13] It's absolutely delightful. I can't imagine a better path for myself and also for Ward and Gaby, where we realize that there's this unique set of skills that you acquire as an entrepreneur. And in a way, many people then apply that to their next venture and then their next venture and their next venture. You get to be a serial entrepreneur. But I think the incredible opportunity to be an investor has enabled us to, in a way, be parallel entrepreneurs. We can drop into critical stages within the company, express that we know what we know and we also know what we don't know, and hopefully we can enable more so than anything the entrepreneurs that we work with, that we've backed, to see around corners to have this superpower of sorts. Because you get the collective benefit of all these other people.
Mike Lin [00:36:13] And not just us, but of course, all the other investors. Hopefully, it enables them to ask the right questions and triangulate to the right answer. Because far be it for us to tell them what to do. In fact, if we did know, we would probably be out there building that company. But we know that they're talented, that they've got that drive, they have that skill or whatever it might be, or the insight that led them to found that company. So, we're here to enable them to do their best work. That, in a way, is our view on what is that role of the investor, which might differ from firm to firm. But we really see ourselves as enabling and empowering them to do their best work. And the best we can do is help them, again, ask the right questions or point out areas that they might not have seen or considered, not because for for any particular reason other than they don't have that same experience or perspective that we might have.
Mike Lin [00:37:12] And that's where we really do, again, value coming from these three different, quite seemingly disparate sectors. But what we have in common was actually disrupting and transforming really deeply entrenched industries of media, legal and, say, energy, and doing so in a way that moves that whole system in a new direction for everybody's benefit. And we were able to do so by identifying pretty key and strategic leverage points to operate, and again, align incentives for everyone along the way to get things to move in that direction.
Michael Crabb [00:37:51] Yeah, cool. And are those the three verticals then that you're sort of targeting for your origination efforts, or is it a broader or more narrow basis for the fund?
Mike Lin [00:38:04] The fund is called Dangerous, and it gets its name from a variety of ways. But we loved this Banksy quote, the street artist, that says, "There's nothing more dangerous than a person who wants to make the world a better place." And we recognize at the same time that the world is an increasingly dangerous place out there. There are a lot of pressing problems to be solved. And so, the thesis for Dangerous is that we're primarily investing in companies that are helping build a far more resilient future for both people and planet. And so in a way, we are quite fond of supply-side solutions.
Mike Lin [00:38:42] We've invested in a company called Overview Energy that's building really novel space-based power generation. They're generating electricity in space. They're safely, wirelessly beaming it back to earth. And I can't tell you more than that at the moment because they are still very much in stealth mode. But the primary focus of the fund is actually looking at the demand side. We see there being a really interesting business there in Overview Energy and it was a wild and really bold, audacious endeavor, so we wanted to back that. But it also comes down to having immediately implementable, very practical solutions that can immediately have an impact in terms of gigatons carbon savings.
Mike Lin [00:39:27] So, we've invested in a company called PowerX that's a Y Combinator kind of company that's looking at the demand side management, particularly and most recently looking at businesses and how with smart sensors and predictive algorithms they can really identify immediate energy and therefore cost savings and carbon savings for large businesses. And that builds for greater resilience by just reducing the need for as much power generation, but also looking at other sectors, be it food or water, mobility. But again, this plays into our strengths of how do you transform these complex systems? And also from my design thinking background, in terms of that user-centered design, what are the users in need of? What helps them to get more for their penny, for their dollar, as well as creating for better quality of life? So, that idea of hot showers and cold beers without any negative impact.
Michael Crabb [00:40:38] From a level of audaciousness, those are two wild ends of the spectrum. Demand-side management is a not a well-trodden path, but that's an industry that's evolved over 10 or 15 years now at various levels and scales. Like, literally interstellar energy beamed back to Earth wirelessly sounds absolutely crazy and super cool to dig your hands into. Do you feel like you're maybe set apart a little bit in your ability to do technical diligence for some of these more forward thinking ideas? Is that sort of a value add that you articulate to limited partners?
Mike Lin [00:41:24] Yeah, I have the benefit of this technical background. Ward and Gaby are actually both attorneys by background, though Gaby was also trained as a scientist at Cambridge before that. And so, we had this foundation, but we certainly built upon that through our advisors. So we're actually very fortunate to have Amory Lovins from the Rocky Mountain Institute and also Joel Swisher, both of whom are faculty at Stanford and are really preeminent engineers, designers, and thought leaders, especially on the energy efficiency and demand side. So, we're very fortunate to leverage them as well as other advisors who have deep expertise in hardware and software both to be able to diligence some of these more technical solutions.
Mike Lin [00:42:12] But also, a lot of these are business model questions. So being able to tap our community of folks who understand the agriculture or the water system. We've invested in a company called Verdi Ag out of Vancouver, Canada. They have this brilliant approach to plant level health care and precision irrigation. The notion that by using satellite imagery and remote sensing data and developing this bit of hardware... So, you do need to touch some atoms in the world as much as you do need to have bits. This combination of bits and atoms to basically use irrigation, use water much more intelligently, and that actually has the benefit not only of just saving water, but actually boosting yield and even improving the quality of their product.
Mike Lin [00:43:05] I think one example they have is working with wine growers. Winemakers, when growing grapes can actually make that wine a whole lot better because they can really attune it for... You're not left to the whims of weather, but rather you can get that perfect condition in the soil and the water and all that to hopefully bring out all the qualities that you want to see in wine. So I think the example is they took, effectively, grapes that would go into a $12 bottle of wine and made it a $30 bottle, and all the while using 10% less water and fertilizer. And actually, they got the harvest to align so that you didn't have to go through and pick the grapes twice. You could just harvest all the grapes because they're all maturing and ripening at the same rate and get them all harvested once. So, driving up their profitability and all that. So, really intelligent, again, alignment of incentives. There's this amazing customer pull from these growers, be it orchards or vineyards or that sort of thing.
Michael Crabb [00:44:06] Yeah, really cool. All I could think of as you were describing that is that the sommeliers that have to remember which vineyard is what... It's going to throw off the whole system of wine recognition.
Mike Lin [00:44:18] Hopefully it means that it's better wine for everyone. They're taking this Tesla Roadster approach. They're going to start at these high value crops where they can really show the quality, but also they're working with Driscoll's, the strawberry, blueberry company. And how do you build for, in a way, more resilience in the food system? As we're increasingly impacted by climate, we want to use that precious resource of water very judiciously and as effectively as possible. And so, they're working both outdoors, but now increasingly indoors as well with their smart irrigation valve and control systems.
Michael Crabb [00:44:55] Yeah, fascinating. That's really cool. Well, I probably asked too many questions and got into too much detail, but what a path. What are you most excited about, sort of projecting forward either in the existing deal pipeline or five years from today? What's the smart irrigation equivalent that we're talking about at that time? What are you seeing around the corner?
Mike Lin [00:45:25] I know there's a lot of activity in basically every sector right now. And I'm actually super enthusiastic. The current macro environment is definitely very, very volatile, very scary. And I can only imagine newly minted grads are terrified right now. But there's no better time, I think, to be graduating because there's just so much more opportunity now than there was even a few years ago.
Mike Lin [00:45:55] I finished my undergrad in '03 and that was kind of the Dot-com bubble bursting. Then I finished my master's degree right around the great financial crisis. And so in a way, I see this recession of sorts that we're in right now as being this Cambrian explosion of all sorts of new products and companies, all sorts of new services that are going to just blow our minds in ways that we can't even predict. And layer on top now, of course, generative AI and large language models and all that, gosh, we can even do more faster, better, with less. And I think that's hard for me to predict, so I dare say, "We're going to have X," but I think that we'll be able to be far more resource efficient, certainly. And name your resource, I think we can do that much more efficiently. And that just reduces the amount of supply side we need to put online. Hopefully, it also means that we can retire a lot of the dirtiest power sources that we have presently.
Mike Lin [00:47:00] The other thing that really inspires me right now, tying into the next generation of entrepreneurs, is teaching. And so, I've actually just started teaching at Stanford again. So, with this new Doerr School of Sustainability, backed by John Doerr, we have just all this exciting opportunity to really get the next generation of entrepreneurs and scientists, researchers, policymakers equipped with the knowledge and background, hopefully the experience, that they need in order to get the job done. There's no time like today. And that was something that I didn't have as a student there. I had to cobble it together. But now with this concerted effort, I think it's just going to really accelerate and magnify things to operate at speed and scale, as Doerr likes to say.
Michael Crabb [00:47:50] Yeah, fascinating. I love how optimistic that perception... Like, are you graduating from something else that we don't know about that you just happened to hit every single sort of major financial crisis over the last 30 years? But yeah, you're so right that those end up being the crucibles for the next stage of growth, right? Are you standing at the top of the hill looking down or are you standing at the bottom of the hill looking up? It's just a matter of perception.
Mike Lin [00:48:25] Totally, yeah. And I think that there's more talent now than ever, especially... I mean, I'm delighted in a way by this sort of a constrained environment that we are in. ZIRP, a zero interest rate environment created so many market distortions. And as a result, lots of companies were getting funded that arguably shouldn't have. Lots of big tech companies, for better or for worse, were just gobbling up talent to secure them and keep them away from the competition. And that meant a lot of new entrepreneurial ventures didn't get started because those folks were on the sidelines. And so, yeah, the hope is these teams are going to be able to do so much in the coming months and hopefully, near-term years to move the needle in the direction that we need to in order to resolve the climate crisis.
Michael Crabb [00:49:17] Awesome. Awesome. All right, well, what have we not talked about that we should have?
Mike Lin [00:49:27] I'd like to pose a question to you since you have so many amazing guests. I'm wondering if you had a magic wand that you could materialize out of thin air anything, what might that be? Because, yeah, you've seen so much over the course of this podcast, and I've really enjoyed listening in the audience. But yeah, if you could synthesize and give me marching orders, if I can use that, again, the privilege that I am so fortunate to have and the access that I have. My goal in life is to really use all that I've been gifted to further things. So what might that be?
Michael Crabb [00:50:13] Well, you win the prize for the hardest question I've ever been asked on a podcast thus far. So maybe I should be more careful bringing on educators and teachers. This is kind of a cop-out, but it's a sideways answer to your question. I think there's a lot of attention on climate and reducing carbon footprint and energy efficiency and even a lot of our conversation today on reducing consumption. And I think that's super important, but I think in the real world, my observation and again, my perspective, is that actually results in more utilization of that product or service. And I wish we sort of tackled...
Michael Crabb [00:51:02] And actually, coming back to Fenix, you were tackling energy scarcity just as much, if not more, than this question of sort of climate change. And so to me, it's those parallel... That needs to be a larger part of the conversation because otherwise it's really... Energy efficiency is sort of a perception from a position of relative privilege and marginal benefit that maybe nominally changes the rate of change of climate change. Whereas, I think if we looked at it holistically from a global scale and said, "We need to get energy access to all of these people for all sorts of reasons. Communication being one, but health care, food, quality of life." How would that change the dialog of how we go about solving these problems?
Michael Crabb [00:51:55] I think it's just such a massive thing to think about. Like, no single group of humans can actually think about something at that scale, so it's hard to have that dialog. And it doesn't make for very catchy political quips. But I think that's a theme that I see and I like to debate with guests. How do we decarbonize in a way that accelerates access globally?
Mike Lin [00:52:26] I love that. Yeah, and ensure that justice, equity, inclusion is a part of that. That we have these just and equitable transitions occurring. That it's not just Tesla Roadsters. That it is hopefully that sub-$20,000 model, whatever it might be in the future. And yeah, I'm delighted to have this opportunity to teach at Stanford and get to work now with Amory Lovins, Bill Swisher who I mentioned mentioned, but also Jane Woodward, who's an incredible educator who's been teaching at Stanford for well over 30-plus years, alongside with Gil Masters and others. Jane has really influenced me and helped me better understand how can we build for a more abundant future? That it's not about scarcity. And it's this mindset and how do we shift it from a Jimmy Carter era of, "Got to put on a sweater," to... I think I stole from Amory Lovins, "Hot showers and cold beers," and getting that done arguably with less, with arguably less if not any negative impact on the planet or society.
Mike Lin [00:53:43] There's this approach of even taking design thinking to the next level. Instead of user-centered design, just thinking about that human in terms of need finding, how do we think integratively and holistically? Who are all the stakeholders involved and what are all those externalities that we can take into account? And as a result then, not "use and abuse" and "heat, beat, treat, and extract," but rather be additive, and again, abundant.
Mike Lin [00:54:11] And so, our hope is perhaps at Stanford to develop an initiative. There's potential for like a flagship destination. It's something that the university is beginning to articulate. There are areas that the university wants to prioritize within the School of Sustainability where we can build into the curricula a systematic way to hopefully teach some of these things so that, again, the next generation of change makers, engineers, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and everything in between can move the needle in the direction that we want to see and build a future that we want to live in.
Michael Crabb [00:54:47] Yeah, amazing. What a way to wrap it up, Mike. Thanks so much for coming on and what a conversation. I can't wait to see all the companies you build.
Mike Lin [00:54:57] Thank you so much, Michael. Looking forward to sharing with you sometime soon.