Some years ago, Daniel Burrows, MBA ’16, was road-tripping from Los Angeles to Seattle when he pulled into a truck stop for a nap. He found a shady spot, reclined the seat, and settled back for some much-needed rest, when a semi-truck rumbled up next to him and left the engine idling. Awake and annoyed, but also curious, Burrows got up and knocked on the door of the truck’s cab.
“Excuse me, why are you running your engine?”
The trucker explained that the large truck diesel engine was powering a mini-fridge and television during his break. An awful waste, thought Burrows. Why not run the appliances off a small generator instead of the truck’s main engine? It would be much more efficient and also quieter for the driver.
As a master’s student in physics at the Imperial College of London at the time, Burrows says the exchange stayed with him and he began designing just such a generator. When he went to file for a patent, however, he discovered that someone had beat him to it by a few years.
Still, the experience had changed how Burrows viewed transportation. He wondered what other inefficiencies he could solve in the trucking industry.
Despite the aggressive fuel economy standards adopted for passenger vehicles, trucks have changed little over the past few decades. An average Class 8 truck typically gets 6.5 miles to the gallon, a number little improved since the 1990s. New federal standards in 2016 will begin to change this, requiring big tractor-trailers to cut their carbon emissions by up to 25 percent over the next decade.
As it stands now, truckers spend $106 billion on fuel annually in the United States, and although these trucks account for only 4 percent of vehicles on the road, according to a federal report, they are responsible for more than 20 percent of carbon emissions from U.S. traffic.
Burrows began to dig deep into trucking industry data. He discovered a paper showing that at highway speeds, two-thirds of truck fuel consumption is spent overcoming wind drag. The gap between the cab and trailer was a leading cause of this inefficiency. So he set out to minimize the drag created by this space, giving the British saying “Mind the Gap” a whole new meaning.
For four years, he developed the GapGorilla on the side while working at a venture capital firm in the UK. The device is an articulated covering for the gap that deploys at speeds above 40 miles per hour. By plugging directly into the truck’s computer, the speedometer, and the pneumatic brakes, the design allows the GapGorilla to open on highways and retract on city streets so the truck can make sharp turns like usual.
Encouraged with his results, but struggling to break into the U.S. market from across the Atlantic Ocean, Burrows started the MBA program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2014. He was soon splitting his days between classes at Stanford and a hardware incubator called Radicand in Redwood City, the headquarters for the venture that has come to be known as XStream Trucking.
While Burrows knew running his own startup would be demanding, the mission of XStream Trucking makes it easier to stay the course. GapGorilla has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by 7 million to 24 million tons per year—greater savings than the entire solar panel market combined in 2014—which makes the long hours worth it. Today, XStream has five full-time employees, paying customers, and a vision for making a difference in the trucking industry.
The jump wasn’t easy. Silicon Valley investors are slow to warm to business-to-business hardware products and trucking fleets only want to buy a fully tested product. Burrows confesses that he nearly ran out of money twice. Connecting with the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy changed everything.
“I cannot say enough good things about the TomKat Center. They have been critical to bridging a different gap: the gap between a great idea and an investable idea,” he says.
The TomKat Center Innovation Transfer grant helped XStream pay for a third-party independent testing firm to run rigorous tests on the GapGorilla at the Auto Research Center (ARC) wind tunnel in Indianapolis. These tests showed the device saves as much as 4 percent in fuel consumption—results that have held up in road tests, when the firm ran trucks alongside each other, head to head, on the highway. With these concrete results, the venture was able to land its first two customers with fleets of 200 and 300 trucks.
“I don’t know where else we could have received that funding.”