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Episode 32 Transcript: Activate: Filling the Pool with Geniuses

This is the transcript for Episode 32.

Episode 32 Transcript: Activate: Filling the Pool with Geniuses

Molly Wood Voice-Over:

Welcome to Everybody in the Pool, the podcast for the climate economy. We dive deep into the climate crisis and come up with solutions. I'm Molly Wood. One of the things you'll often hear people talk about in the climate conversation is the need for big breakthroughs. Like, if we're really going to stop or even reverse the worst effects of human caused climate change, we'll need fusion energy or completely new ways of doing every industrial process on Earth.

You know, little stuff like that. And those breakthroughs, of course, take money. And that raises all kinds of questions about who should pay for research and development and the best way to fund the basic science of innovation. But getting to breakthroughs also requires nurturing the scientists, the people who have these ideas, who need the support and training and funding and encouragement to develop new solutions in the first place.

So today I'm talking with an organization whose whole purpose is to do that. and an organization that's been kind of the quiet foundation for a bunch of companies I've already had on the show.

Cyrus Wadia:

I am Cyrus Wadia. I am the CEO of Activate, and we are in the business of, helping scientists take their ideas to, you know, to scale through entrepreneurship. We support them through a fellowship that, gets 'em out of the gate in terms of, building a company. And able to take their ideas to market.

Molly Wood:

Amazing. I wanted to talk to you specifically. I mean, I have a long relationship with Activate, full disclosure. Love this place. And also because it's sort of a different approach to incentivizing innovation, not only in the climate space, although that's of course what we'll talk about today. Tell me how. Activate as a nonprofit has this kind of special place

Cyrus Wadia:

it's a, it's a good question. And maybe the way I start that is if we think about innovation, ideas don't scale themselves. The ideas aren't self-executing, and so I think. You know, over my time learning about these issues and how, , how these ideas and technologies built in the lab can get to market.

I kind of distill it down to a framework where there are three necessary ingredients. The first is it has to be the right idea, so. Something that actually is solving the problem, you know, future forward. Second, is, you need the right incentives that pull these technologies, these ideas forward.

And we have a lot of work to do there because especially in the space of climate, they're, these are system issues. But the third ingredient is the right people, and so with all three of those, we have a chance at success. And, where I see underinvestment is in the. The person side of this, we, we put a lot. I mean, imagine if we, invested the same way in people that we do in ideas. I, I personally believe we will have kind of maybe, you know, really good outcomes for society if, if we kind of spent a little bit more time on the individuals required to move these things forward.

So you asked about where Activate sits in the innovation stack. We sit right there. We are investing in individuals now. They come to the table with. Ideas that we think are really powerful and we support them directly to be successful,

you know, this activate began in 2015, so I'm already seeing some of our alumni and the things that they're doing, whether it's in business or in policy, and, they're, they're scaling themselves in a way. And yeah, we'd love to talk more about that, but that's where we sit.

Molly Wood:

Yeah, definitely. I definitely. wanna hear more about the success stories, but let's do the nuts and

bolts of, of how the fellowship works. So you identify, or people apply for this fellowship and, and the goal really is to find these kind of. Brilliant, unknown talents. Right. And, and nurture not only, as you said, the idea they have

now, but also the ideas they have

Um, future.

How does the, how does the fellowship

work? Like what does, what's in, what

Cyrus Wadia:

I would, I would just distill it down to two core pieces that are equally important. There's the selection and there's the programming that happens after you've become a fellow. And I'd say Activate is unique in both of these regards on the selection. You know, we cast a pretty broad net and we get excellent candidates.

We are oversubscribed every year and that continues to, to grow. Now selection's just one part of it. And you know, I'd say that. We pride ourselves, not just on , the quality of fellows that are coming into the program, but we view scale through our communities.

And we have, these in residence communities in Berkeley, Boston, New York, and now starting in Houston. And we have a virtual community that. Across the US called Activate Anywhere, but it's through these communities in partnership with, managing directors responsible for those communities where we see the real magic happen, where there's day-to-Day interaction coaching, mentoring support.

You know, a lot of the folks, you know, they're asking questions like, how do I raise money? How do I actually talk to a venture capitalist? How do I hire a team? What does that even look like? What does culture mean to my, I. My new company. There's everything from the basics to some very complicated, areas of starting a new venture and also the support that goes along with it, because I think as most people listening, they'll probably understand and appreciate.

It's a, it's a lonely venture when you're out there, you know, just trying to throw yourself against the wall with an idea you believe in, but you're at the very beginning stage. So I'd say some of the, the magic of Activate and where we are truly differentiated is how. Involved. We are with our fellows on a day-to-day basis.

And that originates from our community, which includes the in-person, communities that I talked about, plus the broad community of Activate a lot, a lot of, you know, mentors and other leaders in other spaces have kind of taken an active interest in us and so they provide support also our alumni part of the community.

So it's a kind of a pretty big community. And then the second is the, the

direct, you know, work of our team on the ground, which is a small little crack team of a managing director. , and a, you know, few other folks that help each of these fellows uniquely.


Money too, right? We shouldn't,



I, I probably glossed over the most important, but yeah, they do. So they. Well, yeah. Yeah. So when they receive the fellowship, they, they receive two years of salary, and benefits, which basically is a way to keep them in the game longer, you know? So, I. Eight years ago, this didn't exist. So if you were a scientist with a good idea and you were kind of working through the tech transfer of your university perhaps, or a lab, it was really hard to kind of either raise funds to go do this or find a place to continue to nurture your idea until you were ready to raise funds.

Activate has filled that gap and yeah, I think we've proven something pretty interesting.


And you know, some of my listeners, may be familiar with the, the kind of incubator model where an entrepreneur can get some funding and go through what sounds like a program like this. What's different here, I think is. And it's important to highlight is that you, you're really looking for researchers and scientists who are kind of in this r and d phase,

funding them and nurturing

them, but not taking equity.


It was never about the success of the companies that they start. It was always about the success of the individual. And so it, it sort of connects back to our values as activate and what we're here to do. Like we're in the business of, you know, investing in

these individuals because I, as I mentioned earlier, see that as a critical ingredient to how technology diffuses.

I think there's a co-benefit of not taking equity too, which is, it helps us establish trust. , and that trust is a big opener for our fellows in terms of their ability to, ask the hard questions. Trust, kind of in the community, trust in the nature of the council that they're getting from us. it's it's all connected.


Yeah, and just to even put a finer point on that, for people who may not be familiar with what it means to have your investor take equity, the people in this program can trust that you're not gonna push them to grow faster than they need to grow, so that you make a lot of money off of them. And I'm not certainly, I'm not implying that every VC does that, but they, at least in this case, feel a hundred percent


Yeah, I think you, you're right. The other side of this too is I. Not every idea in the long run needs to be a company to be successful. There are other off-ramps for good ideas that need to exist in the world. And I think that gives us space to help guide where necessary these young entrepreneurs, you know, kind of getting at this, the right pathways for them.

That could mean starting a company, but there are other ways to, to move your technology and ideas forward.


So are the goals then It sounds like they're sort of a basket of goals that are nurture these individuals because you believe that whatever they do is gonna be great. Sometimes the goal is also to get them across the valley of death, right? To like commercialize a great idea that is sort of at the academic stage


We're in the business of, you know, identifying, nurturing, helping scientists, , in there. Efforts to build companies, you know, around their technology and be entrepreneurial, and we believe just that skillset of entrepreneurship is a.

Massive lever for future change down the road. So wherever they may go, , I think that's a co-benefit of what we do on the ground tactically today. You know, when we talk about the success of our fellows, , there's a lot of ways we talk about it. We can talk about it in the, in the terms of funding that our fellow companies have received to the tune of $1.4 billion, and that's growing.

We can talk about it in terms of the, you know. The, all the companies that have come through about 90% are still going and still, you know, going with the original founders. That's unusual and I think that's speaks a little bit to also the longevity of this

long, like the hard tech space.. Then we could talk about in terms of how they're being recognized.

You know, we had a fellow several weeks ago, , Leah Ellis, she was testifying to Congress and we have, , fellows being named to, the Forbes, you know, 30 under 30. , you know, we are seeing a lot of traction and,, I think a, a gravity that, is identifying the actual leadership qualities of these fellows, which we think is also.

The big societal benefit, and if you look forward 10, 20, 30 years, because the dividends that you get off of investing in people, , they pay out over a long period of time. And, , there's a scaling that's really hard to see or to measure, which is, , the impacts you have on a person then can actually have an impact on other people.

And so there's a bit of a DNA that activate is., pushing through this system and over the long term we're gonna see, exactly how that, kinda manifests itself in different ways.


It's interesting 'cause this is a good segue to kind of activates history because it's, you know, as you're describing it, you sound a little bit like a teacher. Like I will, you know, I

may not know exactly how I impacted the student, but I do know that if they get a great start, they will do great things in the world. Which is a nice segue to the, to how activate got its start as, an ultimately an academic origin


Um, it was, it was founded in, uh, Berkeley lab. So,, the National Lab supported this idea. It was called M 37 at first, and then sort of a brilliance in.

Yeah, to, I mean, that's how I, I read it too. I said, this is amazing. M 37, I wanna be part of that. But then, it became Cyclotron

Road quickly after that, which is, you know, really, , to the heart of the, the origin story of Activate.

And , and it was a test, right? It was a test because the founding team. They had a theory of change, which is we are losing a lot of really good scientists, people who have great ideas and actual technology they've spent years developing in a lab. We are losing these people, , to other professions like consulting or banking, , because just too few places in an academic track to place them.

And, but yet, why aren't we seeing more. Take their ideas and keep going. And those support, support structures went around. Cyclotron Road was our first, you know, shot at, , testing something new and by providing financial support, but also lab and expertise. Support and some of this mentoring coaching was born the current model of Activate.

And you know, there is, , I think it's quite exciting that Activate scaled from there, proved, you know, a model that, , had durability as well as, , future scale. And this is an exciting moment for us as a company because the questions we're asking are, you know, strategic to how we grow and where we go next.


So talk

Yeah. Okay. So, , how far back do you want me to go? Should I go to the beginning?

Maybe not


Oh, I'll tell you that. I'll, I'll, I'll, give you kind of the, the quick version,

but I'll start with when my professional career started. It's the mid nineties. Everybody's cutting their teeth on e-commerce, and I find my way to Silicon Valley and I was an entrepreneur, enterprise software. I was doing it for old, those old palm devices.

Do you remember these? The palm, okay.

Oh yes,

I lived with my trio. I mean, that thing

I mean, we love this technology and I think that really turned me on too. To, you know, product for consumers. I was, I was in, I was in love with it. And, , I got an opportunity though to be part of a startup. We took the company public, I watched the whole rise and fall and all the kind of fun dysfunction that goes along with that.

, and then as at that moment, so now it's fast forward year 2000, 2001, I decide I'm gonna stay an entrepreneur. This actually speaks to maybe my like, deep connection to activate. I'm gonna do it in hard tech science. I wanted to go to a lab and you know, make some new solar technology and then take it to market.

That was my dream and it felt pretty impossible when I started it. But then I. You get into a program, I got to get to go to Berkeley. I started working with some really talented individuals. , we developed some interesting ideas. We got them patented. We got good papers. You know, we were hitting it, I felt, but still, it's too soon, right?

There was, there was no, you know, the next step wasn't a company. The next step was continue working at Berkeley, incubating it now. There's a version of my past where I would've continued to do that, but then my career took a different turn where I, It's a total honor and privilege, but I was invited to come, , go to a DC and, and serve in the Obama White House.

And this is where I, , doubled down on my, like, my knowledge at the time in materials Minerals, helped kind of write the first. National policy on Rare Earths was responsible for this materials genome initiative. There was a lot of work I did to start, , help start SunShot, which is a big solar program. I got, I got the, you know, the chance to do it for six years, which felt it's, it's a, it's a definitely a.

It'll, it'll wear you down, but it's every minute is worth it because you, you, you, spend every second knowing one fundamental thing when you're in those roles that you know that next minute of your life is another minute of an opportunity that will never come again. But I was missing product and I was, I was really kind of intrigued on the topic of climate, how corporates were now starting to move in that direction. So it was natural for me to. Make my next shift and begin part of my career in the corporate space.

And then I went to Nike. I was Nike's vice president for sustainability. I led our sustainability efforts and then, I guess wanted to go even bigger. And so found my way to Amazon, which was really about pushing myself to the edge of scale. And so I was leading Amazon's sustainability in the, the retail part of their business.

And, I did that up until I. This role at Activate. So just this year transitioned. And,

You asked the question, what brought me to activate? I, , I fundamentally believe in the mission. I think that's number one. And there's a, a connection I have to that mission based on kind of where I was. If we go back 15 to 20 years.,

but what I also saw is, you know, going back to this framework right idea, right person, right incentive. I, I kind of have been observing now for a while, a lack of attention and investment in the right person part of the equation. And I. I felt pretty compelled to go sink my teeth into that now and, and join this team and help them grow and scale their impact.

And,, two months in, I've, I feel like I'm, you know, I feel like I'm off to a good start. I, I'm really excited. It's a great team and I'm thrilled to be part of it.

Molly Wood Voice-Over:

Time for a quick break. When we come back, how to find a genius and how to make sure science is embedded in every single climate conversation at every level. Because honestly, isn't it kind of weird to think that it isn't?

Welcome back to Everybody in the Pool. We're talking with Cyrus Wadia, the new CEO of Activate, a nonprofit fellowship program that finds and nurtures scientist entrepreneurs in order to help them make the world a better place.


Yeah. Okay. Talk

more about this right person idea because I think, you know, N bbc, everybody talks about founders and what type of founder they're looking for, and they all tend to be. Kind of the same type of founder. And my

experience with the Activate fellows is not that. So I think there's a different lens that you're using when you


let's, you know, let's get into it. And I, you know, I'm gonna admit out of the gate, some of these thoughts are still formulating in my, in my mind. So like, I don't wanna come

across as having all the answers, but let's start with the clock. Alright. So. On, climate,

we're competing against the clock. And, you know, people new to this space or kind of who have been in this space, they're drawn in by new ideas, science, technology.

'cause these are the things, the substance that inspires us and we've gotta keep momentum on that. But that alone is not our biggest problem. Like I see a leadership gap because ideas, like I said earlier, they're not self-executing or self scaling. It's the people that pull these levers and you know, so I'm making an argument that society benefits from science, fluent leaders in positions of power.

I think that's basically what this comes down to. Here's my question, is the future of our planet in the hands of the right people and you know, people we can trust to

begin making different choices.

Do they have the resolve to do more than just ab bait to bend this curve down? These are systemic challenges and most of our leaders are very focused inward on their institution or their, their role in this. And I think that's wrong. , and I don't think it's going fast enough for

us if we continue in that mindset.

So I believe science fluent leaders as part of the solve. , think about it this way. You know, if you go into any corporation. Trade off denial is real. You know, there's a, there is a fundamental time horizon mismatch between decisions being made in those companies every day of consequence and what we need to invest in for the future of the planet.

And that's nobody's fault. That is more probably speaking to how we govern these corporations. But,, we need leaders who are gonna push back on the system even harder because we're, we're, we're kind of out of time. You know, we can't, we can't just be happy with incremental progress anymore because in the space of climate, what I don't want, and maybe this made me personally, I don't want us to just.

Be comfortable with, you know, a three to four degree planet, because that's better than a six degree planet. That's a disaster. One and a

half degrees is a disaster. So you can feel the passion in my, maybe in my voice, but the, the point I'm trying to make and drive home is, , who are the folks leading us and are they the right people?


Yeah, I love it. And I think it's so interesting because you know, clearly I am making a bet on some level that capitalism is a great incentive system for adoption. And also everything that you said is totally true because if we make the decisions based on. Quarterly profits or the things that have always made us money in the past and we, , engage in conversations that

actually make the science in question. Then we 100% cook.


Here's another stat that surprised me. I wonder if it surprises you that. , less than 1% of attendees at COP were scientists. And,


you know, I, I'd like to actually see the real number, but that really did surprise me. And it just speaks again to, how we get more of these science leaders in these positions and in, in the room.


And able, I would, let me interject too, and, I feel like it's important to point out that they will

be both in the room and able to

speak the language of commercialization

and business, and so they can bridge this gap between what are sometimes seen as competing interests


a hundred percent. You nailed it. You know, I, I feel like we need to dispel this mythology that, . These are at odds with each other all the time. And, and by the way, that was part of my life the last 10 years in the corporate space. I was very deliberate about connecting the interests of the environmental goals that we had to the core business.

And using in, you know, if you go back to my last role. Starting Amazon's first sustainable shopping program as a vehicle of incentive structures for suppliers here. And, and it was working and it's really exciting to see. So I, you know, don't give up on capitalism, but it's not enough. And, , the folks driving the train and government have a role and corporates still have a role.

We all have a role. , we just, you know, we gotta be cautious about who's driving us forward.


So let's talk about some successes from Activate. It's so funny that, , you know, as, as I look back on just the catalog of everybody in the pool, I.

Feel like there are activate alumni everywhere that in my opinion, you don't get enough credit for. Like, who are, some of, you know, who are some of the going concerns that have come out of, of, of activating the cool


Alright, so, are, they'rebringing know, you can never kind of pinpoint one or two, and I'm still getting to know a lot of these fellows, but, I'll give you a few that are on my mind. I, I was just in Houston. I had a chance to meet with, Olivia and Andy with,, limelight Steel. And they have a new way of. All I can explain about this is steel meets lasers meets heavy decarbonization.

And, it's so exciting. Like when you see things like that, it's so exciting. And, one of, you know, folks that you maybe familiar with, uh, vo uh, they, , Tim Vladimir and Jack Norbeck, . They were part of Activate. They recently announced a partnership with Google, , and they're operational. It's, it's carbon free, geothermal, and, , they're based in Houston.

I just had a chance to see Tim and, , some of his team, and it's kind of fun, Molly, because you walk into his office and. It's a company, right? It's you, you might as well be, you know, in Palo Alto walking into, you know, the next big tech company. So that's how it felt., I think, you know, you'd asked about funding earlier.

Noon energy is one that comes to mind. They're flow battery technology. They just closed a 28 million series A. Some folks who have been on the block for a little while, 12. Um. Sublime systems. These are routinely recognized companies and they get awards all the time. They were named TR technology review, MIT's technology reviews, , on the list of 15 climate tech companies to watch.


Yeah. Brimstone actually. Right? Isn't


Cody was with. Yeah. Yeah. Um, so yeah, you may.


Yep. Yeah, but cool technologies, I mean, it's like Super Sci-Fi, all the, the stuff that fellows are working on. I feel like every time I interact with the Activate Fellows, they're like, yeah, I'm just working on this.

Like absolutely bananas, a Maze Balls technology


it's, it's, I think that's the best part of the job. And if my team is hearing any of this, they'll, they'll kind of say the same thing when you, when you sit down with the fellows, you start to really appreciate the work of this company. I. Who these folks are, how they fit with our culture, where they're going.

You know, I am so excited each and every one of 'em. I'm so excited in, you know, five and 10 and 15 years just to see, and I. And I, I, I wanna say one other thing too, which is while,, a lot of our portfolio has been in the climate space, just to be clear, climate isn't the only problem where science entrepreneurship can help society.

And we should all remember that because I think, you may see some of these folks, through their, their career pivot and take these skills they learned in serving other parts of society. And I hope that's true.


Yep, definitely., and then finally, before I let you go,


We, uh, we get our funding from both government and philanthropic donations right now. And so there's a, there's a blend of the two.

, we've been really kind of, really thrilled with the partners who, who do work with us, and that includes National Science Foundation. They've given us a, you know, a really, , nice grant to continue this work and.

You know, with, with some hope and some deliberate work in dc maybe expand that in, , in the policy arena as well. In terms of the importance of this particular topic.


Cyrus Wadia is the new c. EO of Activate, which you can Calling all fellows. I know you're always recruiting, so if


Come join us. Thank you, Molly. What a, what a great day.

Molly Wood Voice-Over:

That's it for this episode of Everybody in the Pool. Thank you so much for listening.

If you’re the type to get excited about scientific breakthroughs … I’ve got some stories in this week’s newsletter about some of the big developments in climate science during 2023 …

And I’ll put up a list of some of the interesting Activate fellows although honestly … every one of them is fascinating and … as Cyrus mentions … not all are in the climate space … there’s healthcare and bioscience and materials engineering and nanotechnology …

it’s a science romp … is what it is … makes me feel like the future is in good hands.

You can find the newsletter at mollywood dot co … or in the podcast description in your player of choice.

And if you’ve got hot tips or guest ideas or feedback please … email me your thoughts and suggestions to in at everybody in the pool dot com and find all the latest episodes and more at everybody in the pool dot com, the website.

See you next week.

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