Climb By VSC: Episode 29

Published May 17th, 2023

Tim De Chant is a Senior Climate Reporter at TechCrunch and Founder and Editor at Future Proof, a publication covering climate and energy. Future Proof helps you make eco-friendly decisions when it comes to the stuff you buy with the goal of helping you to reduce your carbon footprint, one purchase at a time. He is a lecturer in MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing and has written for Wired, the Chicago Tribune, and NOVA Next, among others.

Anyone Can Make A Difference, One Purchase At A Time

Rick Liebling: Tim De Chant is a senior climate reporter at TechCrunch and founder and editor at Future Proof, a publication covering climate and energy. Future Proof helps you make eco-friendly decisions when it comes to the stuff you buy, with the goal of helping you to reduce your carbon footprint, one purchase at a time. Tim is also a lecturer at MIT graduate program in science and has written for Wired, the Chicago Tribune, and Nova Next, among others. Tim, welcome to the podcast. We've had an opportunity to work together in your role at TechCrunch. But I'd love for our audience to learn a little bit about you. You have an interesting life that crosses journalism, academia, and community building. Can you share more about your journey and the common threads across your work?

Tim De Chant: Yeah, it was, to be honest, not a very direct path, which I think a lot of people would understand. I started out wanting to be a professor. I loved environmental science, thinking about ecology and big systems and stuff like that, and figured out how to do that and be able to kind of write on the side, but after a few years in grad school, I realized that my true passion was in journalism, and started to think more seriously about that. So then, when I finished my degree, I decided to switch the whole hog into journalism and went from there. So I had a number of other jobs, of course, before I landed at TechCrunch but I've been thinking about climate and energy and the environment in particular for almost 20 years now.

RL: Where did you go to school, did you study journalism ultimately at school?

TDC: I actually did not. So I went to St. Olaf College as an undergraduate and studied environmental science and English. So I wanted to kind of like to do both as long as I could, and managed to at least carry it through my undergraduate career. And then, I made that switch to focusing on academia and environmental science in grad school. So I went to UC Berkeley, and did my PhD there, studying the oak woodlands in the California Bay Area, trying to look at how urbanism in particular was affecting the patterns that we saw on the landscape as a result of deforestation, and then the king of the gradual grow back as people planted maybe oak trees in their yards and things like that. And then, I also looked a little bit at how the physiology of the trees changed over time. But as I did that, you know, I took a class at the journalism school at UC Berkeley and realized that really that was where kind of things were heading for me. I really enjoyed science, but I really love being able to explore the topics and talk to other people and see what they are doing, and then share those stories with the general public. So I also wrote for the Berkeley Science Review, which is like a grad student line-run campus. And then I did a trip last mass media fellowship with the Chicago Tribune, and that was really kind of my trial by fire in journalism. So I spent two and a half months in the newsroom and did it all. It was a great summer.

RL: Yeah. All right, let's dive a little bit deeper into the journalism aspects there. So climate-related journalism can cover a wide swath at this point. What excites you the most about climate coverage?

TDC: Yeah, I think at this point, climate coverage is a great place to be, and it's exciting for me because it feels like we're finally making progress. You for a long time, it was really kind of taking people through the basics of climate change. Thinking about how we explain the latest IPCC report? You know, really the basics. When it comes down to it, like what's been happening, you know, for the last several decades, what's the future gonna look like? And to be honest, it was a little bit depressing at times thinking about that kind of stuff. That's not to say that outlooks any better these days. But what I will say is that, for the most part, people seem to accept and understand the very basic science of climate change, and so we're able to move on and start talking about solutions and ways that we're going to address the issue.

RL: So Tim, let's dive more broadly into your coverage. What makes the story particularly compelling for you? What do you look for before diving in or researching a piece?

TDC: Yeah, you know, one of the things I do is I look for a fresh take on the topic, right? That might seem like a pretty stalking, stalking standard answer. But I mean, it's really true if it's a story that hasn't been told before. If it's a technology I haven't seen, if it's an angle that appears new that's always something I'm looking for. Another thing I like to do is, you know, is there a story, you know, that could be kind of like a news piece or something that lets me tell a larger story. So one example of this was in the fall, you know, I've been thinking a lot about fusion for a while, and I've been thinking about a fresh way to cover it. There's been a lot that had already been said about fusion over the years, much much was focused on the delays that it kind of racked up, the International Experimental Reactor, you know, and how fusion always seemed to be 2030 years into the future and kind of like would it ever actually happen? By, you know, the last five years, I'd seen a lot more activity in the fusion space through a lot more startups. You know, obviously, scientists that are working on it, were more confident in bringing their work out of the lab and putting it in front of investors and investors at the same time also seem to be more receptive and so it seemed like there was something happening there. And so as I was thinking about it, he kind of reminded me of the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which is kind of one explanation for why the species we see on Earth are what they are. And basically what it boils down to is you get these periods of like, explosive growth in the number of you know, radiate number of species that happened and it could be because, you know, events kind of like come together, to not necessarily conspire, but like create the conditions that cause this, an asteroid or sea level rise or mountain range rising something like that. And as I started digging into it, in fusion, it turned out that there was research done at that how it applies to kind of the Business and Technology worlds by Daniel Leventhal at the Wharton School, and what he says that, yes, this theory does apply, and that you can end up looking at something like fusion and saying, Yeah, we're seeing a lot of these same sort of conditions that you might expect in a punctuated environment, equilibrium environment. In the case of fusion, what we're looking at is there was a rapid advancement in semiconductors. So obviously, chips have gotten exponentially faster. Thanks to you know, the adherence or this following of Moore's law that the semiconductor manufacturers have been able to follow and then along with that, enabled a resurgence in artificial intelligence and machine learning, fusion in particular as well suited to machine learning. You know, fusion is basically like trying to contain these really unstable, hot plasmas and in order to do that there's numerous knobs essentially, that scientists and engineers can turn. And you know, turning them one at a time to kind of create an experimental condition is really challenging humans to be very slow at it, whereas this is something that computers and machine learning excels at. So that allowed them to make pretty rapid progress in recent years. And then the third thing that helped is this rapid development, high temperature superconductors. Now my temperature here is all relative, we're still talking about things that are cryogenically frozen to keep them cold enough to maintain those superconducting conditions. What that meant was that suddenly you had magnets that didn't require as much energy to cool and thus, the power plant didn't require as much energy to run, which makes fusion power much more realistic if you have much lower overhead. And so all of those things didn't necessarily happen at the same time independent of each other. There were certainly reinforcements happening between them. But because of that, then you started to see fusion taking greater and greater strides and investors started matching them for investment dollars. And then as we saw from the National Ignition Facility in December, we finally got to the point where we were able to achieve ignition, as they call it, which was net positive fusion power. So the big hurdle kind of was crossed, and suddenly fusion seems a lot more realistic.

RL: Alright, Tim, I'm gonna ask you to break out your crystal ball here. I'm not gonna hold you to it, but this idea of punctuated equilibrium, where do you think might be the next kind of technology or the or the next thing that has that, you know, special spark, and that may be this time next year, everyone is talking about?

TDC: Yeah, I think we're gonna start to see continued advancements in batteries. In particular, I think you're starting to see a lot more unique approaches on how we design, manufacture and then ultimately implement batteries. So for example, there was a company chemical that recently raised around and they use artificial intelligence to design batteries. A lot of you know, a lot of major companies are doing this. There's kind of the latest example where they're literally just focusing on using AI in the design. process, and then they're going to hand off their designs to somebody else to manufacture. I think more companies are starting to do that kind of thing. You're going to start to see some of the similar advances in battery technology as we've seen in semiconductors. Now it's not going to be quite as exponential as we've seen in semiconductors because we're not talking about a shrinking of a process. We're talking about tweaks in chemistry. So the advances here when we're talking a big advance are on the order of like 20-30%, as opposed to a doubling. But those, you know, compound over time, and so if we can get really significant advances in battery design and manufacturing in a few years, I think we're gonna start to see batteries and electric motors kind of combine to change sectors of the economy that I don't think we've even imagined today. You know, one thing I like to think about is that it's kind of ridiculous, but like, a little hoverboard thing that was all the rage several years ago. Right Like, there wouldn't have been even imaginable 20 years ago because we just simply didn't have the battery or electronics or the motor technology to make it happen.

RL: Are you guys excited about looking forward to it? Let's look back for a second. What's a recent story or development you covered that really surprised you? Or has it stayed with you since you wrote about it?

TDC: Yeah, one of them. That's actually fairly recent is an Irish nonprofit actually called the Energy cloud, which came out of a startup founder basically he has a company currently that makes smart devices that hook up to either your heart here or thermostat, so similar to nest where it's controlling some of the energy that's flowing through your house. And so he was really well versed. In this world and kind of connecting to the electrical grid and thinking about, you know, how does energy come in and leave the home? How do you manage it? And also thinking about the promise of the smart grid, it's always kind of a pen on the horizon. And essentially what he did is he took inspiration from another Irish nonprofit called Food cloud. And what they do is they take waste food, and they give it to people in need. And he was saying, well, we can do the same thing with energy. And so he kind of rather than just try to start this from scratch and kind of work on the problem. itself. He brought a bunch of people and stakeholders into the same room. The people who run the wind farms in Ireland, Ireland's very windy place, obviously and so they have anywhere from like 12-14% Wasted wind every year. He was like, Well, what if we can put that to use and then he went and found a housing nonprofit and said, well, would your residence with your tenants essentially be, you know, happy to use this? And they're like, Well, yes, of course. And then they went to the grid provider and said, Is there a way that we can make this work? You know, we want you on our team and I thought it was an interesting case of, rather than building a solution, whole hog and releasing it to the market. He went and kind of got all of the different parties in the room and tried to sort things out within the framework that already existed. And in the process, he's kind of in a way proving this group. This group is providing smart grid-like work within the framework of existing regulations so that you don't necessarily have to completely rebuild the whole regulatory process around the electrical grid which is very dense and arcane. That maybe there's a way that you can make it work, you know, within those bounds, and I thought it was an interesting case of the nonprofit world potentially informing the startup world. Usually we kind of think about it the other way around, but I thought this was a nice sort of cyclical process. And I don't know if you want to get into another one. I have another one of course, at the top of my head do Okay, sure. Yeah, go ahead. Yeah. So along the lines of batteries. I have been covering this company for energy for a while. There's a startup based in Michigan. And their whole approach is to take two different chemistries, basically two different types of batteries, put them in the same pack and let basically electronics balance which one's going to be used at which time and that essentially allows them to take batteries with very different strengths and weaknesses. So one of which is very durable, can be used and charged every single day, but it's maybe a little bit heavier, but inexpensive, and pair it with a more esoteric, fragile battery. Type that maybe doesn't last quite, you know, through as many charge cycles can kind of serve to be that reserve. So that if you need to drive 500 miles, you can tap into the drive and you just tap into the one that's durable and can be used all the time. And I thought that was a nice example of some of those. Some of those, I guess, different ways of thinking about batteries and how as battery technology becomes more advanced and kind of radiates and diversifies that you're going to start to see some of these unique solutions that come in that we wouldn't have imagined 5-10 years ago.

RL: Yeah, you know, I think a lot of times when you talk about technology in different industries and verticals, it can be a solution in search of a problem. But you know, in general and the two ones you've mentioned here, really our I think solutions for problems, right they are they are very much taking what's out there and saying how can we use technology to solve that existing problem? And I think that's always you know, kind of, I don't know, it's hopeful and optimistic to see that people are doing those things and then it can have that real impact rather than just you know, let's find a new way to buy clothes or something like that. This is really kind of hitting on something that has a deeper impact. How has the discourse around sustainability changed from the time when you began writing about this topic? I know you've been in this space for a while now. So what have you seen change around sustainability as it relates to your coverage and how things are being talked about?

TDC: Yeah, I think it's changed significantly right? If you were to look at this space, 20 years ago, it had a different flavor to it. This was in the run up to the king of the clean tech boom that happened in the late 2000s. And people were, I think, optimistic at the time and dedicated to it and you could start to see it creep into the mainstream. But there also wasn't this, I guess, commitment to it. It was kind of nice to have it as a benefit. You know, and there were still some I would say it was not a complete embrace of the sorts of technologies and approaches that we're seeing today. So there was still talk of natural gas as a bridge fuel, you know, cogeneration and things like that. And I think over time, and as you know, the climate crisis is kind of becoming more front and center in people's lives. I think you've started to see realization for what actually needs to happen. And as a result, I think the focus and coverage has shifted. I think that the solutions that are being presented have shifted, you know, you're not talking about, well, maybe we can kind of keep fossil fuels going for a little bit longer. People are talking about a very serious end date to some of those. And thinking about how we can make direct replacements not only in everyday life, right, it's actually I wouldn't say inexpensive, but if you have the funds these days, it's not it's not totally impossible. to decarbonize large portions of your life, right. But then, of course, there are still some things that it's very hard to decarbonize, right, air travel, cement, steelmaking, things like that. And where I think it differs now is before we were looking for low carbon ways to do it. Now we're looking for completely carbon free ways to do it, or in some cases, even carbon native ways to accomplish those. And they're not ready yet. But you're starting to see founders, investors and regulators looking at it through a very different lens than they would have, you know, 10-15 years ago.

RL: So great segue, I was just gonna ask you, what are some of the most innovative trends you've seen in the carbon market?

TDC: Yeah, I think there are some interesting things thinking about how we can remove carbon from the atmosphere. You know, there are a number of startups working on direct air capture. So those are basically giant fans that low ambient air over some kind of solution and will then pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and then they are usually injected underground for storage. There are companies that are working with minerals that they crush up and spin on farm fields that basically will naturally absorb carbon dioxide over time. And by crushing it up and spreading it you are able to speed that process known as enhanced rock weathering. And then there's another one that I just covered. That's making concrete in a different way than we make it today. And that allows it to absorb carbon either to avoid carbon dioxide in its manufacture and absorb it over time. So I think those are kind of cool. The other thing that I think it's been interesting lately is that it's not really a trend in the carbon market, but thinking about how we can encourage decarbonisation investments, not just in developed world developed countries but in the developing world as well. You know, it's becoming easier now to finance clean energy projects through kind of more traditional debt financing. I think countries are realizing that if they can take the private capital markets and maybe with public incentives or grants that could kind of help developing countries. take that extra step to kind of kiss fossil fuels. Goodbye, right. They've got a lot invested right now in their current generation infrastructure. And really often all that's holding them back is that initial capital investment to replace those. That's not always the case. But in many cases, that's what it is. Because once they're able to do that, the ongoing costs of running that new clean energy infrastructure are lower than their existing fossil fuel ones. So in some ways, it can make a lot more sense. So yeah, not really a traditional carbon market, but I think we're starting to see some interesting ways of using capital markets to encourage decarbonisation.

RL: We mentioned your involvement with future proof. And I'm wondering, what advice would you give to a founder looking to build a media company and brand in 2023? Or maybe another way to look at this would be what do you know now that you wish you knew previously, when thinking about building a media company and brand in 2023?

TDC: Yeah, that's a good question. I think the biggest thing is to think about the diversity of your income streams. You know, when I want future proof, I was really interested in the basics like, how can I get affiliate income? That was really for a while, you know, there were entire publications started and sold off based on that premise. And it seems somewhat promising. Around the time that I actually got around to watching it and memberships started taking off and a lot of people went home hockey memberships, and I'm not saying there's anything wrong with any of those. I think they're all beneficial. But I think the key is that you have to have a diversified income stream. You can't just do affiliate income. You can't just do memberships. You can't just do advertising. I think we're seeing today a lot of companies that are dependent on advertising income, or going through rounds and rounds of layoffs. And ideally, if you have the Diversified income stream, you're maybe not taking as much of a hit. You know, the events business obviously took a hit during the pandemic. But if you have some other legs to stand on, that certainly helps and so thinking about diversification and income is definitely one of them. And then I'll say on the climate side, if you're interested in that I would think very seriously about like, is Wayne Gretzky? Gretzky quote, right, think where the puck is headed, skate where the puck is going, and that's what you want to do. We don't want to necessarily focus on the technologies that are happening today. But those are likely to happen in a few years. Calling that right is tricky, of course. But if you can do it, you know, you're going to have an audience that's going to trust in your judgment.

RL: So you know, the world that you and I live in, we talk a lot about what's happening. In startups in Silicon Valley. But I'd love to hear your thoughts on the inflation reduction and the impact that it can have on climate tech Colossae.

TDC: Yeah, inflation reduction. I think it's been really transformative with all the founders have spoken with. You know, a lot of people like to say they don't found companies, they don't invest in companies that are dependent on regulation or laws, things like that. But the reality is that we all live in a regulatory environment, right? The world has laws and we all follow them. And that creates opportunities and challenges in different places. And when the world changes those opportunities and challenges shift, it's no question that the inflation reduction shifted those. We've seen 10s of billions of dollars invested in battery manufacturing infrastructure in the US for example, in the last nine months, since it's passed or so. And I think we're gonna see even more of that, you know, it's also kind of revitalized the automotive manufacturing industry in this country. But then even less obvious things. Heat pumps have gotten a big bump from that, you know, I'm walking around my house, I see companies that used to install new oil burner furnaces in people's homes are now starting to put out little signs when they're doing work advertising ductless heat pumps, for people's homes. And so that kind of shift I think is going to be felt. Not just in the startup world, but throughout the economy. But of course, it is, you know, startup companies are looking for those new opportunities. And so you're starting to see that as well, right? There's a number of new companies focused on heat pumps both manufacturing them themselves or creating software. around managing them. Same with home battery backups, again, in hardware and software around managing that creating backups for the homes and backup for the grid. And so I think as the law starts to take into effect, you know, as we get further along, and the regulations getting written around that law, I think you're gonna start to see more opportunities for either ways to transform the grid, developing electric vehicle infrastructure, or thinking about opportunities for decarbonisation in homes, commercial spaces, and even industrial uses.

RL: Interesting. Well, you know, this is a really great conversation that we're having. Tim, I loved hearing about punctuated equilibrium and what's going on in the fusion area. As we wrap it up here, anything else that you're working on right now that you want to maybe give us a little sneak preview of or anything, you're looking forward to the second half of this year?

TDC: Yeah, a couple of things. One of which is, you know, I've been thinking a lot about, you know, what are the roles for basically nonwhite men founders in the climate tech space? Unfortunately, you know, the sector does tend to track very similarly to other sectors that venture capital invests in and so I'm working on a story right now thinking about, you know, well, first examining the data, which as I said, it's not great and then trying to find places where black people, Latino and Latina and invest, investors and founders are diving in and seeing with female founders and investors, because they think, you know, everybody brings a unique perspective to it, and especially something like climate tech, which is very broad remit is tackling the largest problem of our time. You know, we're gonna need all the different perspectives that we can to focus on this. And then the other thing I'm working on is just kind of like thinking broadly about 2023. You know, there's a lot of talk about the downturn in the last six months to a year. And we're seeing a bit of that in employment tech by given again, the enormity of the problem, the fact that it's not going away, and then also some of the regulatory and policy changes that we've seen. I think the second half of the year is probably going to look a little bit different. So I'm a

RL: Time De Chant, a senior climate reporter at TechCrunch. Thank you so much for joining us on the Climb podcast today.

Thank you so much for reading our latest update from VSC Ventures Fund I. We're in the early days of our long and healthy partnership with all of you, so please reach out to us with additional questions on anything above. Thank you again for your support for our vision and our fund!

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