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Stanford students on the cutting edge of the new energy future

Power Up

Molly Dicke, ’18, was thrilled to get a summer internship with an energy startup through the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy; 114 Stanford students had applied and only 14 were accepted.

“It was pretty amazing to get this kind of experience as a freshman,” she says.


PHOTO Credit: Berkeley Lab - Roy Kaltschmidt, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory© 2010 The Regents of the University of California, through the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The TomKat Center’s energy Startup internship is a chance for Stanford students to participate on the cutting edge of the new energy future. These startups are advancing big ideas, such as converting a greenhouse gas into a marketable commodity, streamlining solar installations, reducing the cost of liquid sterilization, and making the trucking industry greener.

These immersive 8- to 12-week-long internships are located throughout the Bay Area, from Redwood City offices to space in Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Most of the placements are designated exclusively for undergrads; however, in 2015 the program expanded to include some positions open to both master’s and undergraduate students.

It’s a symbiotic setup for the startups. They welcome another set of hands for their lean business operations while students get real-world experience in applied engineering and entrepreneurship.

A Glass of Clean Milk, Please

Takero Sone, ’16, MS ’17, (top photo) and Molly Dicke, ’18, spent their summer immersed in labwork for two different energy tech startups, Opus 12 and Vorpal.

Molly interned for Vorpal, an energy startup creating a device that could transform water purification and milk pasteurization.

While Alexander Bell would be mystified by an iPhone today, Louis Pasteur would know exactly what had happened to a glass of milk. The pasteurization process has changed little since he invented it in 1864.

“Molly was really helpful last summer with the prototyping results,” says Luke Raymond, PhD ’16, co-founder of Stanford's Vorpal.

As the technical intern, she was tasked with running milk (with added pathogens) through the electrodes being developed by Vorpal. The technology uses quick bursts of electricity to kill harmful bacteria, while avoiding the energy demands of heating the entire vat of milk to boiling. She also ran separate experiments to treat unsanitary water.

The results were very encouraging. The experiments achieved a 100- to 1,000-fold reduction in E. coli and coliform bacteria in the treated liquids compared to the controls.

Pulsed electric fields have been used in industry before, but typically in wastewater treatment on an industrial scale, where the equipment is the size of a 2,000-pound refrigerator and costs $250,000.

What Vorpal has in mind is much more portable and cost-effective, the kind of technology that could change lives in developing countries, where 30 to 50 percent of milk spoils before it even reaches the market.

With pasteurization equipment about the size of a loaf of bread, Vorpal hopes to create a product that makes milk safer to drink, feeds more people, emits less methane into the atmosphere, and helps dairy farmers improve their profit margins. In Pakistan, for example, the increase in profit would be enough to send a child to school.

“The most valuable part was being able to work in a lab and see firsthand all that goes into developing the new technology,” says Molly.

Greenhouse Gas to Gold

“Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.”
—R. Buckminster Fuller

For Takero Sone, ’16, MS ’17, the energyStartup experience opened his eyes to a world of startups beyond hackers and coders. Before he learned about the TomKat opportunity, he says it was hard to find startup internships geared toward chemical engineers, like himself. Most in Silicon Valley are looking for computer science majors.

Through the TomKat Center’s program, he had a chance to live in Berkeley and work for Opus 12, a startup that takes excess carbon dioxide from oil refineries and corn ethanol plants to create useful chemicals and liquid fuel from it.

It’s using a business tactic called “arbitrage”—essentially taking a product and upselling it—in a kind of environmental judo that could dramatically decrease global warming if the technology can scale up.

Founded by Stanford alumni Etosha Cave, MS ’11, PhD ’14, Kendra Kuhl PhD ’13, and Nicholas Flanders, MBA ’16, Opus 12 has already won awards for its venture. While the commercialization of technologies tied to large industrial plants can be challenging, if it works, this could be a game changer for climate change and a multi-billion-dollar market.

Lessons for Next Quarter

For both students, the summer with energyStartup informed their career goals and provided insights into the day-to-day challenges of developing technologies.

Takero has had an affinity for chemistry since his childhood in Hong Kong. Now as a senior who will complete his master’s in chemical engineering next year, he is trying to figure out his first professional move, and the energy field is one he is considering seriously. Opus 12 gave him a flash introduction to electrochemistry that may turn into a lasting interest.

“This internship has inspired me to pursue a research project on catalysis,” he says.

Watching his mentors spend hours writing grants and drumming up investments gave him a taste of the financial constraints of being a new startup in the energy sector. Limited resources meant he had to be patient and frugal with his experimental process, which he says was frustrating but enlightening too.

Molly struggled with the daily grind of lab research. The most onerous part? Failure. A professor recently told her that “in research, failure is the default state,” and that rang true as she dealt with scalded-milk experiments.  However, the failures also made the successes that much sweeter.

As someone who grew up hiking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with her family, Molly has a strong interest in sustainability. Her time interning for Vorpal on the Stanford campus aligned with her interest in product development that helps people and the environment.

“That’s so broad!” she laughs about her academic interests, but says the internship affirmed that she is on the right path as she tries to choose a major in engineering.


A partial list of companies participating in TomKat’s 2016 energyStartup program:

Aerial Intelligence The next generation of crop yield maps

Alveo Energy Developing better batteries for stationary and transit applications

Aurora Solar Simple, sophisticated solar design and sales

Autogrid Turning big data into a new source of energy

Bone Structure Air tight, energy efficient, zero waste shell construction for the built world

Ceres Imaging Aerial photography meets spectral imaging to improve crop health and efficiency

Citrine Informatics The data platform for the physical world

ClearMetal Predictive analytics for shipping container logistics

Cuberg Enhanced lithium-ion batteries

D2 Solar Experts in time-sensitive design, development, and manufacturing of photovoltaic technologies

eMotorWerks High-Performance Charging Solutions for Electric Vehicles

Geli A platform for the rapid deployment of energy storage and microgrid systems

Halo Scaling solar deployment

Keewi Personal power management

Off Grid Electric Making clean, affordable energy for everyone possible

Opus 12 Recycling carbon dioxide into chemicals and fuels

Primus Power Smart grid storage, flexibility, and security

Spark Thermionics Efficient electricity generation, scalable from watts to megawatts

Spectrum Sustainable building design

Summer Technologies Tools that make ranchers’ lives easier

Vorpal Revolutionizing milk pasteurization for developing nations

WaterSmart Using behavioral science, neighbor comparisons, and customized efficiency tips to drive water conservation

XStream Trucking Making trucking greener and customers more profitable

View current internship positions here

Learn more about the energyStartup summer internship program>>

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