In a salute to the 1000 solution milestone of the Solar Impulse Foundation, This story is a bit of an hommage to the immensely inspiring 2010 TED talk by Captain Bertrand Piccard titled ‘My Solar-Powered Adventure’.
This entrepreneurship adventure of ours has had many highs and lows. His speech has pulled me out of the depths of despair on more than one occasion. What a great gift to humanity he has given by providing a living embodiment for the Next Generation to tackle one of the biggest challenges of our time. The team at sunE couldn’t be prouder to have been accepted onto this ship.
So without further ado, onto the story
The year is 2011, I had just won best presentation award at the 1st Student Research Symposium of the Helmholtz Alberta Initiative. As the only undergaduate to participate in the event, how exciting it was to be recognized by such accomplished academics for my efforts in trying to understand the nature of the energy tucked away deep below our feet. I asked of one of these men, the head of an experimental forest in Germany, what is my next step? His answer was simple: “Just put your hand out.”
This wasn’t the answer I was looking for. During my studies, I had formed the opinion that if we are going to solve climate change, it will be because we figured out how to make the business work. Besides, I’d just graduated and spent the last couple months touring around southern British Columbia with one of my best buds Frankie (a master baker, painter and one of the most wonderfully caring souls you’ll ever meet). I was in adventure mode and keen to bike down to the Geothermal Resources Convention in California. With all the volcanoes along the way, I was super excited about all the new things I would discover.
I had stars in my eyes, I was on cloud-9. Before I left, I stopped in to see my buddy Frankie, he was not looking so good. Now that summer was over, he didn’t know how we was gonna make ends meet and didn’t know who to turn to. He asked for help.
Here I was, on one side, being given the opportunity to write my dream ticket. On the other side, with a close friend desperately seeking a hand which I had no idea how to give. But my bags were packed, I was hitting the road. I cut the ballast, so to speak.
So I picked up a ‘commuter’ bike (I was on my way to find a job after all) and a bit of camping gear from Lethbridge, Alberta and hit the road. This is the picture of my border crossing. Of course, in earlier times, there was no border and this was known simply as Blackfoot territory. But I was happy to give a salute to all 3 nations represented at the border that day.
The leaves and huckleberry pies of Montana in the autumn are a special treat that few know about. The mountains aren’t as jagged as the peaks to the north in Canada, but the rivers wind through those valleys like the crispest ribbons of silk.
Less than an hour across the border, BEAR! BIG F-ING BEAR! Biggest bloody grizzly bear I’ve ever seen in my life. Bigger than most pickup trucks, I’m pretty sure with its paws stretched out, it would have spanned the entire 2-lane highway. Less than 100 meters in front of me and my little commuter. This picture is not the actual bear by the way, I just found it on the internet.
Now I grew up in Prince George and I’ve seen some big grizzly bears before. But this was something else. I didn’t even know they could get that big!! But he didn’t stop, so he was gone as quickly as he appeared.
On I went, into the Snake River Plane..volcano and ice cave territory. I came upon a geology book with a fascinating theory. That around 17 million years ago a meteor hit the crust so hard, that it cracked right down to the mantle and up came the volcanic hotspot we now know today as Yellowstone. Around the same time, Nevada stared stretching apart like a piece of taffy. This created all sorts of volcanic goodies like hot springs, geothermal reservoirs and lithium deposits (a bit of gold and copper as well, if you’re into that sort of thing).
From what I can tell, that particular theory didn’t really gain acceptance within the academic community to date. I’m sure many alternate explanations are also very compelling, but that one has always stuck with me.
Northern Nevada is a pretty rugged place. Some like to joke that the only water around is boiling hot. It’s also a place for treasure hunters. Probably one of the reasons the casinos felt so at home in the early days.
One morning, after a night spent befriending a group of local bikers at Farpoint Station, I heard them calling out to me. They were worried but relieved when I came from my camp. They showed me all of the fresh mountain lion tracks around my bicycle.
From that day on, I slept wearing my bike helmet, with bike chain around my neck, and buck knife in hand. Thankfully, I made it into California with no more feline encounters and time to spare. I even got to hop in some top-notch natural hotsprings.
Sadly, at the conference, pretty much everyone told me that I would need to go back to school to find a way into that industry. I suppose that made sense. But while speaking to the director of a major power company, I also received what I would now consider my first piece of executive advice:
“Don’t feel bad being a big fish in a small pond”.
My thesis mentor, Jacek also came out. He told me about the great priviledge that comes from the attaining of a PhD and that I would probably benefit from the stability that universities can provide.
So then the trip was over, even if I wasn’t going to have my big break into the clean energy industry just yet, I was still supercharged from the experience and I was sure I would do it…somehow.
On the flight back to Canada, I got a phone call. Frankie was dead… Just like that, my world changed. For all of the potential that I could look forward to, I had failed one of my closest friends.
Suicide is a complex issue at the best of times. Everybody will have their thoughts about what could have been done. Family & friends will each have different memories. Warning signs. Silent cries for help. “Oh, what I would have done if only I’d known.”
In my case, there cry for help was not silent. It was the last conversation that I had with him. I chose not to act and I will carry that with me for the rest of my life.
“This achieving the centre - being grounded in one’s self - is about the highest state a human being can achieve” - Bruce Lee
When we decided to move to the Philippines to start sunE, it was a near-instant decision and we really dived in head first without looking. We rallied behind a vision to usher in a new era of transportation for a country that has grown accustomed to a reality that was due for replacement more than 50 years ago. This was along with all of the pollution, discomfort and hidden costs (externalities, in economist speak) that comes with it.
In our first launch, people were delighted. This was new, exciting and it improved quality of life in several ways beyond the quiet & ‘smokelessness’ of the vehicles themselves. We were hitting our target numbers and people were feeling pretty optimistic about where we might go next.
Contrary to the experience of many early-stage entrepreneurs, I cannot think of a single time that somebody told me that what we are trying to accomplish is impossible. As foreigners operating in a developing economy, it tends to sound more like:
If you can’t make it work, there’s no hope for the rest of us
As I reflect on my life so far, my circumstances have been extrememly fortunate. I have many talents and have always had plenty of access to opportunity. The system works well for me. So I work hard and generally I get good results.
While the modern era likes to promote itself as a champion of equal opportunity, Filipinos have become well-adjusted to a life lived on the margin of that system.
Frankie’s roots were also much closer to the margin. As much as he wanted to keep up with his friends (myself included) in their adventures, the cruel realities of his roots would show themselves.
So here I am again, in the middle to two worlds, to the left is the world that is keen to reward talent and usher in the future as fast as possible. To the right is a world full of people working hard just to keep their head above water and searching frantically for a lifeline. As the waters rise, the number of frantic swimmers will be only increase.
It is through knowing our history that we have the best chance of ensuring that this transition we are undertaking will produce a truly better future. I won’t pretend that I know the solution but I am as committed as ever to keep fighting to make this solution work, whatever it takes.
Captain Piccard is dreaming that humanity will rise to a new level, will trust the winds (and the weathermen) to take us out of the challenges of today. It is people like him that help me to keep my eyes on the horizon. To watch for the silver lining.