Startups in the Climate Space: An Interview with Dr. Lauren Kuntz of Gaiascope
Reflecting on the undeniable advance of climate change, my friend Lauren and I discuss how startups can enter the climate space and make a difference.
This is a conversation between two startup founders about hurdles we’ve faced. We share our advice for startups trying to save the climate.
My interviewee, Lauren Kuntz, is CEO and co-founder of Gaiascope, a Y-Combinator funded startup building software that forecasts price dynamics in the US electric power grid.
My own startup experience comes from serving as CTO and co-founder of the TRASH app for video editing, acquired in 2020 by Visual Supply Company (VSCO).
Lauren and I are also both CCAI core team members and co-creators of CCAI’s Machine Learning + Climate Intro Course.
Patterson: Lauren, you got a PhD in Climate Science before starting a company to forecast renewable energy supply, weather, and grid demand. I got a PhD in machine learning before I started an AI video editing app. We were both arguably well prepared to be founders. But I felt that I had to take giant risks and leaps of faith to succeed as a founder! How much did your education prepare you to run your climate-impacting startup?
Kuntz: I firmly believe that you never are fully prepared to do something; you become prepared by doing it. That said, a ton of skills transferred from my education into start-up life. In particular, my PhD research helped me become comfortable not knowing an answer out of the gate and trusting I’d figure it out as I explored further. Ironically, my education helped me less in the sense of “Now I know what I’m doing”—I never fully feel like I know what I’m doing!—and more in the sense that it taught me how much I don’t know and to be OK with that. You’re going to be uncomfortable and have to take risks and leaps of faith as a founder, and that’s OK! What I’ve found helps the most is building up your problem-solving chops and learning to live with the discomfort of uncertainty.
Patterson: When I started TRASH, I thought, “Yes! Finally I get to be a genius AI inventor.” But then the ML turned out to be only about 10% of my product/company. I had to become a mobile app developer, a backend engineer, a PM, a growth marketer, a fundraiser, and the best uses of my product were still a surprise to me. In a climate startup, it seems even less likely that the fun experimentation part will lead to success. Lauren, how have you discovered what you didn’t know you didn’t know?
Kuntz: I made so many classic mistakes about assuming I understood the problem from the get-go, when really it was so much more complicated. It can be easy to simplify a problem until I can write a nice equation or algorithm to cover it, but the real world is incredibly messy! There’s generally a reason the problem you’re going after still exists. For us—trying to understand wholesale electricity markets—the reason they’re so opaque is they’re so complex. We couldn’t ignore that complexity or we wouldn’t be creating anything meaningful. It is so hard to accept all the complexity of reality, but what really helped us was being on the ground and using our own product. We use our own forecasts and algorithms, so if there’s a simplification or anything that falls short, we feel its impact on our performance. That is a massive push to do better and learn quickly.
Patterson: My startup was in the social media and entertainment space, so compared to the climate space, my success or failure seemed lower-stress. Still, I put a lot of thought into designing an app that would benefit users’ mental health and promote civil society. How can readers entering the climate space convince themselves that their startups are solving a problem that makes the climate crisis better?
Kuntz: Ideally, if you’re working on a climate problem it should be a very clear argument for why it helps. If you find yourself doing mental gymnastics to articulate the impact, you might want to step back and ask why you’re working on it. That said, the impact doesn’t have to be immediate, nor does it have to be trivial to translate into a carbon savings/reduction. I like to think 20-30 years into the future, where the world will need to be deeply decarbonized. Is your innovation one that may not work, but if it does, it will play an integral role in that future decarbonized world? For instance, a breakthrough in cheap batteries or nuclear fusion would make decarbonization massively easier. Alternatively, is this something where a decarbonized world depends on having figured it out? That’s where my work falls: to have a decarbonized grid operate efficiently, you need to have a great forward-looking model of expected prices so assets and loads can be distributed effectively. The best way I know to evaluate impact is to think about these forest-level questions: what does the future world need to look like to solve the climate crisis, and what piece of the puzzle am I working on?
Patterson: On a practical note, I found hiring and developing a strong team to be surprisingly difficult. “Save the World” is perhaps the best mission statement a team could hope for. What other strategies have you used to light the fire in your team?
Kuntz: More than anything else, I really value having a strong team. I’m incredibly grateful that at Gaiascope, I get to work with absolute rock stars. They’re not just amazing at what they do, but wonderful people to work with, learn from, and be inspired by. I’ve found that I actually don’t have to do a ton of fire-lighting, as the team is intrinsically motivated and it’s a positive feedback loop. More of my job is making sure they feel empowered to own their role, equipped to take it on, and secure in an understanding that if anything goes awry I’ll be there to help. That relies partly on making sure they feel like a team member and appreciated as a complete person with a life and values beyond work. If you’ve hired the right people, it’s not a game of motivation so much as making sure everyone is supported to go off and do amazing things.
Patterson: Fundraising gets a lot of attention in startup how-tos. For a climate startup, founders need to promise economic triumph and a carbon coup. How have you inspired investors with your net-zero future vision? And how do you turn investors into evangelists for your business and climate visions both?
Kuntz: My cofounder is an absolute queen for taking on the bulk of the fundraising, so she gets the credit for inspiring investors. As a company, our two top values are planetary balance and profitability. We believe that if you can make carbon reduction the most profitable option and show people how to make money on it, you’ll accelerate a net-zero future. For that reason, our business and climate visions are inextricably linked—we’re not a business with a climate benefit tacked on, and we’re not a climate impact group with a business tacked on. We are very much both, and I think that helps tell the story to investors. You have to believe in your vision to convince others of it—and if you don’t have faith in both the business and climate components, you probably should spend time convincing yourself.
Patterson: Starting a company is intimidating. Even more so when your goal is to get a $1B valuation or change the behaviors of hundreds of millions of people. Many people (you and I included) turn to incubators to help us get started. Do you think incubators like Y-Combinator are set up to help newcomers make a climate impact?
Kuntz: There are many incubators for many different focuses. Some definitely focus on business and impact, while others focus more narrowly on business. For us, Y-Combinator was great at helping us think through building a great business, and we already had convinced ourselves of the impact of the technology, so it was a great fit for what we needed. For anyone considering an incubator, I’d suggest they articulate what they are hoping to get out of the program—is it business development support, climate impact support, fundraising support? Once you know what support you’re looking for, it’s easier to determine which incubator can best provide that.
Patterson: Someday soon, our readers will find themselves at the helm of a company that is making money and changing the human relationship with carbon emissions. How do they evaluate their conflicts of interest—profits vs. climate mission? How are you doing that at Gaiascope?
Kuntz: Honestly, I think it is not helpful to portray these two as being in conflict. We work at the intersection of both by trying to figure out what technologies can help make green energy more profitable. When we do run into questions, we rely on those core values of planetary balance and profitability to guide us. We check in regularly to make sure we’re living up to them, and we also have worked to instill those values in our team and empowered our team to speak up when they feel we are falling short. Accountability is key, and building in that internal accountability from day 1 is a must.
For more insights on how to build your decarbonizing business, please reach out to us on our new CCAI Community Platform and/or subscribe to the CCAI Newsletter!