Nature's Energy Lessons
Opus 12 Founder, Etosha Cave Talks About Her Journey to Create a Company to Recycle Carbon Dioxide Emissions
December 14, 2018
For Dr. Etosha Cave, growing up as a teenager next to an abandoned oil and gas site helped ignite her passions to become an engineer. From that early stage in her life, carbon dioxide emissions became something more than just another problem to be solved by someone else.
Cave’s appetite for math and science helped fuel her educational path towards tackling the big challenge of carbon dioxide emissions. Cave went on to earn her master's and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. During her graduate studies, Cave worked in a lab at Stanford University studying metal catalysts, at which time she decided with her co-founders Kendra Kuhl and Nicholas Flanders to create a company to scale-up their carbon dioxide conversion technology and bring it to market.
As the cofounder and of COO of Opus 12, a cleantech startup, Cave brought her tenacious mind and problem-solving drive to carbon dioxide emissions, where in the U.S. an estimated 5.14 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere each year, according to research data from Statista. Her research focused on the electrochemical conversion of carbon dioxide feedstock from emissions and water into various chemicals, such as ethanol, methane, and carbon monoxide. Her company’s name, Opus 12, takes its inspiration from the elegance of a musical composition, rewriting the story of waste carbon dioxide at the atomic level. We recently caught up with Etosha Cave to learn more about her work and Opus 12.
Empower Innovation: You started Opus 12 from your graduate research. Can you talk about what figured into your decision to spin-off the technology and start a company?
Etosha Cave: I founded our company Opus 12 with my co-founder, Kendra Kuhl when we were doing our Ph.Ds work in the same lab and Nicholas Flanders who was in the business school at Stanford. Toward the end of our Ph.D.s in the later part of 2014, we decided that if this technology had a place in the world and if it could be scaled up, then we could bring it out of the lab.
We started investigating forming a company, and it was challenging in those days because Silicon Valley had been through a downturn in cleantech funding. So it was hard to go down to Sand Hill Road and raise money. We had to be strategic about how we were going to raise funds.
Then the fellowship program, Cyclotron Road, came along and that was our first big break.
EI: A lot of PhD scientists pursue an academic research career, and you chose the path to start a company. Can you talk just a little bit about what was behind your decision?
EC: As a Ph.D. student, it wasn't clear whether I was going to start a company. But I was probably not going to pursue an academic path. I realized if I wanted to further the technology, academia was not well suited for scaling the technology and doing the repetitive tests necessary to optimize it for commercialization.
EI: Where did you grow up and what inspired you to study engineering and pursue an entrepreneurial career to address cleantech?
EC: Growing up in Houston, the energy industry was around me and on my mind from an early age. I wanted - as a teenager - to develop ways to clean up the waste from oil or gas energy production. So, I had that in the back of mind for quite some time. When I went to Stanford that was definitely the direction I wanted to pursue. I found the research my advisor at Stanford was doing and it resonated really well with what I was excited about. I started in the mechanical engineering department, and my Ph.D. advisor was in the chemical engineering department. He was starting this research around carbon dioxide conversion and utilization and I joined.
EI: Can you talk just a little bit more about what it means to you personally to be taking on such a huge global challenge like you’re doing?
EC: Having a sense of purpose is a big driver and motivator for me. I don't know if it's just my personality or something where I want to tackle big things. Some days I feel like it might just be better to go work for a large tech company or something that might be more trendy. But then I think to myself that I’d probably desire more impact in my work.
EI: As you’ve pursued your entrepreneurial goals of starting a company, what are some of the specific challenges you encountered?
EC: There's a broad range of challenges that I think any startup faces. For starters, it has been a very windy path in terms of being able to get validation that there's a product-market fit and that we can be competitive on cost. Another challenge for me is growing as a leader and a manager. Coming into a corporate world, I had to learn a lot about managing and creating structure. There were definitely times when I was like, “Oh, we should have probably hired someone five months ago for this project.” Other challenges revolve around a lot of uncertainty with raising money to meet our next big milestone.
EI: I'm curious about your process to understand customers and creating a dialogue with them?
EC: For us it’s involved the help of different incubators and ecosystems that have connections and can put us in touch with relevant customers. For example, we got a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant and they connected us with this group called, LARTA, Los Angeles Regional Technology Association, which has built a network of industrial tech advisors, people who consist of industry veterans, many of whom have retired from a certain industry and want to be advisors for small companies. That's been one avenue where we've talked with relevant people who could help us piece together an understanding of our customers.
EI: When it comes to starting a company it takes a lot of drive and determination. What are some of the specific books or things that helped and inspired you?
EC: I am really getting into understanding and increasing my emotional Intelligence. I tend to refer back to the book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, by Marshall Rosenberg. A lot of it is understanding where emotions come from, and that they really come from our needs. Being able to take a step back and say, “Okay I'm feeling frustrated right now,” and then regulating my emotional state, reduces anxiety, and helps me engage with people. All of which helps me learn better ways to converse and feel connected to people. Other impactful courses I took were Steve Blank’s Lean Startup, which was really helpful in seeing entrepreneurship as something fun and creative.
EI: I don't think it's coincidental with entrepreneurs that they have people who inspired them. Who were those people in your life who inspired and influenced you to become an entrepreneur?
EC: My parents definitely had a role in that. My Mom being a teacher and my Dad who even though he worked for the Mass Transit Authority he always had side jobs. One of those was refurbishing homes and then renting them out. Or network marketing, which I was a part of as a kid. We would get involved in and the various projects he had going on. He would purchase homes that needed to be fixed up. We would go in the evening after school and help fix up the house, or part of the network marketing culture that usually had weekly meetings where we would have a table where people could purchase these brochures to attract customers.
EI: I read a quote of yours from an earlier interview, which said, “I find myself in situations quite often where I'm the only black person or woman. I definitely stand out, but because I stand out there are both benefits and disadvantages. More women are in positions of power so they remember me.” Can you elaborate on your quote?
EC: What I try to do is not let any fear or feeling of insecurity affect me too strongly. I try to stay grounded as much as possible. Luckily, I live in Berkeley and there's a big movement around vulnerability and emotional intelligence in general and that's been really helpful to help me.
EI: You referenced the following quote from Buckminster Fuller, the famous American architect, author, inventor and futurist, about pollution in one of your interviews that goes like this: “Pollution is nothing but the resources we are harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we've been ignorant of their value.” Why does that quote resonate for you?
EC: Kendra found that quote toward the end of my Ph.D. My whole thinking around this quote was, if we can create a sort of circular process where we don’t need to generate waste, then we can have it serve as a feedstock for another process. This is the way nature does it; where carbon dioxide is food for trees and thus this cyclic nature evolved. We could do the same thing in the industrial world, by creating cycles where waste from one process becomes something else. His quote is pretty elegant and summed up those points nicely.
Lee Bruno lead this interview and edited the Q&A. Bruno is an author and journalist who has written about technology, business and science for national and international publications over the past 25 years.