Danielle Fong, LightSail Energy, Woman Entrepreneur
I am starting to think about WeFestival and a panel of women who are the next generation of movers and shakers. The women that are on the edge of building businesses that will change the way we live our lives. I was pointed in the direction of Danielle Fong who is not only brilliant she is setting out to make sure that our planet is around for generations to come. LightSail Energy compresses heat energy and converts this to mechanical energy.
Danielle grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her Mom was a journalist who studied biology. Writing was not doing as the publishing industry let her down so she began to think about how to get her stuff out there, took up stand-up comedy and ended up on TV. She will writes her own jokes and has also directed a play. Her Mom also went to university at 15 and figured out at a young age how to talk herself into anything. Her Dad studied economics, finance and accounting and became an entrepreneur. He had a restaurant and on the side created a sun shelter and a remote clapping device in their basement.
Danielle was always super advanced. Her parents knew it but wanted to keep her in school for the social piece. Junior High School it became apparent that the material was not keeping up with her. She had already skipped a grade too. There was a particular teacher who Danielle made the mistake of correcting. The teacher put Danielle in detention daily. She decided that she did not have to do this. She had this vision that she’d break out of detention and run thru the hallways to the exit door and people would be chasing her. It did not exactly end up that way. She just got up one day, walked out, went out and told her parents I am done. She dropped out of school at 11.
Danielle spent the next couple of months programming, working on 3D modeling and reading. She began to feel like she was just spinning her wheels and started to think about going to University. Her Mom helped her do it. At 12 Danielle was enrolled at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She bussed it over there every day. What she learned when she got there is the same thing you learn as a female entrepreneur. You have to take advantage of your novelty. Nobody was sure who the kid was in the school because Danielle had a growth spurt before getting there and now she stands 6 feet tall. When she got in her first class she started to ask questions. It was obvious she was engaged and bright and because of her height and intellect she just managed to fit in.
She graduated with degrees in computer, math and physics all with honors. Her parents had not saved for her to go to school at 12 so she worked in the learning center as a tutor. Also if you get A+’s you get an in-house scholarship. Obviously a bright driven young woman.
At 17 Danielle went to Princeton for a PhD in Cosmophysics. Her focus was on nuclear reactors and anything relevant around the climate crisis. The problem she saw was that all the academics were running around attempting to get funding for an expected power plant that might be built by 2050 and in her opinion that was not soon enough to turn around the planet. At the time the entire fusion program was worth $15M and Facebook was worth $14B. Danielle decided she should move closer to the capital.
Danielle dropped out of the program. People even told her that she would be better off as an entrepreneur. She read Paul Graham’s essays and he wrote…if I were going to start a startup today, there are only three places I’d consider doing it: on the Red Line near Central, Harvard, or Davis Squares (Kendall is too sterile); in Palo Alto on University or California Aves; and in Berkeley immediately north or south of campus. These are the only places I know that have the right kind of vibe She packed her bags and moved to Berkeley. At first she wanted to establish herself there. She had zero net worth and zero network. She decided to spend the next two years playing around with a bunch of ideas while searching for the right co-founders. Then something stuck. The biggest sticky factor is in your own head. She had 50 ideas on spread sheets with the challenge and milestones but one of them she could not stop thinking about.
Danielle met her co-founder, Steve Crane, who was in his mid-50’s, went to MIT at 15 and had done a lot of work in physics bringing it into products. Steve told her the most brilliant inventor he had ever met was Ed Berlin who had a machine shop in his garage where he was working on an air compressor. Technically he was working on a compressed air powered hybrid vehicle. It was there that they built the first prototype. They demonstrated for the first time that you could extract the most power from the air if you can combine it with the right amount of heat from the environment. Crane put in the first dollar and with that prototype Khosla put in first round of funding.
LightSail Energy has now raised $70M. The end game that they are building towards is to technologically enable a sustainably powered society. Solar and wind are cheap. They are continually coming down in cost and right now that is the lowest cost of energy in the world. The expensive part is energy storage. You need to have intermittent power when the wind is not blowing. They want to build something that supports local demand and supply. Air compressors and tanks last 5-10x longer than typical batteries and LightSail has increased air compression and expansion efficiency dramatically. There is a huge reduction in cost when you are able to to store energy and put it on the grid. They hope eventually you will have a device in your home that will be the size of a refrigerator that will provide heat, a/c, and sustainable power from otherwise underused sources in lieu of fossil fuel based power from the conventional electricity grid. You would still use the electrical grid but you would also use these devices as the regulator. They are using one in their place right now. They plan to install one in CA, one in the Caribbean and one in Canada over the next 18 months. LightSail has also found a way to use their tank technology to distribute natural gas — reducing emissions and making use of gas that would otherwise be wasted. They are rolling out more of these larger devices in the year to come. Next year they will also be DOT certified.
They have a facility in Oakland and Berkley. The team is 51 people right now. There are customers who want to buy these devices. She had met a variety of interesting people including the Saudi’s who realize that the elements are changing. They are talking to everyone in energy too. Being a woman in the room has been interesting. She has learned how to be respectful and poised but once she starts talking it is obvious who knows more than anyone else in the room.
I thought about Danielle for days after speaking with her. She is super intelligent but also funny and engaging. She will be at WeFestival in April. I am looking forward to meeting this 6 foot tall 28 year old powerhouse woman who is changing the way we will use energy in the decades to come.