CEO of Santa Rosa start-up bets on venture capital to fight climate change
Editor’s note: All across Sonoma County, in boardrooms and on assembly lines, in garages and living rooms, in government offices and schools, people are taking on global warming.
“People here are trying to think big and change the world. We have to try things, even if we fail,” said Geof Syphers, CEO of Sonoma Clean Power in Santa Rosa, itself a climate experiment when it was founded. in 2014 to provide cleaner electricity than PG&E sold.
The Press Democrat launches an occasional series on innovators. We invite readers to submit stories of people locally involved in climate change. Email our editor, [email protected].
Venture capitalists might finally be interested in funding startups working on climate issues.
That’s the view of Keith Rose, CEO of Operant Networks in Santa Rosa, which hopes to attract venture capital funding.
“Over the last year and a half, huge amounts of money have been invested in ClimateTech, because VCs are starting to see that it’s not an existential problem 50 years from now – it’s today. It’s going mainstream, it’s likely to accelerate, and now is the time for them to step in,” Rose said.
ClimateTech companies try to solve climate problems with technology. Operant Networks, a ClimateTech company, is developing a way for solar rooftops, electric vehicles, solar and wind farms, other power generation equipment, and the network to talk to each other reliably, securely, and affordably.
Its customers will likely be utilities and power generation companies.
Since its inception in 2016, Operant Networks has received more than $7 million in government grants, Rose said. This year, it plans to begin the transition from pure research to commercial activities and already has a Fortune 100 client, he said.
This triggers the need for investors to fund growth.
“We are actively pursuing our first round of institutional funding in 2022. We are seeing interest and have active communication with some investment firms who seem excited about what we are doing,” Rose said.
He does not yet have permission to identify the Fortune 100 company, and it is too early to identify a venture capitalist, he added.
Rose gives Elon Musk and his electric vehicle company, Tesla, the most credit for attracting venture capitalists to climate startups.
“They proved that ClimateTech is not only real, but here and now. Tesla really led the charge,” he said.
The roots of optical networking can be found at Agilent Technologies in northeast Santa Rosa (now Keysight Technologies), where in the early 2000s several Agilent engineers talked to each other about the dangers they saw from global warming.
In 2005, some left Agilent to start Solmetric, which manufactures solar products in Sevastopol. Soon other people from Agilent joined, including Randy King who is now Operant’s Chief Technology Officer. Rose came later from San Francisco.
In 2014, Solmetric was acquired by Vivint Solar, a residential solar provider, and King and others began to notice that residential solar providers were struggling to communicate reliably with their solar installations.
In 2016, then friends Solmetric or Agilent formed Operant Solar, now Operant Networks, to solve this problem.
King, a physicist, mathematician and engineer, leads the company’s technology breakthroughs, Rose said. King’s personal goal is to help develop solar power until it becomes the main source of electrical energy.
“Right now, we could build a grid that’s one-third solar, one-third wind, and one-third natural gas, if only we added intelligence to the grid. That’s where Operant comes in. Eventually we can get to 100% distributed renewables,” King said.
Operant has seven full-time employees working remotely in five states, Rose said. They are mostly software engineers, sitting in front of computers, developing software code and having lots of video meetings.
King and Rod Sugiyama, vice president of operations, are in Sonoma County. Rose is in New Jersey. The other four are in Washington, Texas and Iowa. Chairman Dave Bass is also in Sonoma County.
Operant has benefited from working with programs that help early-stage startups, including Clean Tech Open, Alchemist Accelerator and currently Creative Destruction Lab in Vancouver, Rose said.
“What we are tackling is very large and complicated from a technological point of view. They have been very, very helpful to us,” Rose said. Operant has partnered with University of California Los Angeles, National Renewable Energy Lab, Sandia Labs and others.
Over time, Operant’s focus changed, Rose said.
The team believes that replacing fossil fuels with carbon-free energy to power the power grid is an important response to global warming. They say much of that energy will be decentralized away from today’s giant power plants. Think solar and electric vehicles on rooftops, tapping and feeding into the grid.
The industry calls these distributed energy resources, or DER. They are part of a movement called Electrify Everything.
In this scenario, a combination of solar and battery farms, wind power, biofuel and hydrogen plants, rooftop solar and electric vehicle charging stations will join geothermal, hydropower, nuclear or otherwise to provide clean energy to the 21st century grid.
How do they communicate with each other and with the network, securely, reliably and economically?
“That’s when the light bulb went out for all of us,” Rose said. “Now you have to coordinate all these distributed assets as if it were a single power plant. You will have a huge communication and cybersecurity problem on your hands that no one knew how to solve. In the end, the power grid needs to work. We believe we have the technology to solve this problem.
“That’s why the Department of Energy gave us so much funding,” he said. “They see a huge tidal wave of networked devices coming onto the network in the future. They recognize that some pieces of the puzzle are unsolved, and this is one of them.
Geof Syphers, CEO of Sonoma Clean Power, where most Sonoma and Mendocino counties buy their power, said while he’s not familiar with Operant technology, he agrees the future of the grid lies in much more distributed energy resources, with less emphasis on giant power plants and the ability to control devices will be essential.
In 2015, Sonoma Clean Power created GridSavvy to encourage customers to coordinate the operation of their electric vehicle chargers, smart thermostats and heat pump water heaters with the needs of the grid.
“It’s a long research project to build a much more sophisticated grid,” Syphers said. “Since then, we have been learning.”
Operant has funded his software research through several grants from the United States Air Force and the Department of Energy.
Mary Fricker is a retired Democratic newspaper business reporter. She lives near Graton. Contact her at [email protected].