Andrew Ponec sold his first startup after just four years. Now he has raised $80M to tackle climate change in a $100B a year industry in USA. His venture, Antora Energy, has attracted financing from top-tier investors like Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Lowercarbon Capital, and Energy giant Shell’s venture arm.
In this episode, you will learn:
- How Antora Energy is helping tackle climate change
- Raising tens of millions of dollars, even as a pre-revenue company
- Team building
- Andrew Ponec’s top advice when launching a business
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For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend, Peter Thiel (see it here) that I recently covered. Thiel was the first angel investor in Facebook with a $500K check that turned into more than $1 billion in cash.
The Ultimate Guide To Pitch Decks
Moreover, I also provided a commentary on a pitch deck from an Uber competitor that has raised over $400 million (see it here).
Remember to unlock for free the pitch deck template that is being used by founders around the world to raise millions below.
About Andrew Ponec:
Andrew Ponec is a cofounder and CEO of Antora Energy. Antora is building an ultra-low-cost energy storage product to enable renewable, reliable, and affordable electricity for all. Antora Energy is supported by ARPA-E and the California Energy commission, among others, and Andrew and his cofounders Justin Briggs and David Bierman are proud to be Activate fellows. Prior to Antora, Andrew previously founded Dragonfly Systems, which developed power electronics products for the solar industry and was acquired by SunPower in 2014.
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Connect with Andrew Ponec:
Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro Cremades: All righty hello everyone and welcome to the dealmakerr show. So today. We have a very exciting guest someone that has build scale. You know, exited companies in the past. So all that good stuff that we like to hear so I think that we’re gonna find you know this story very inspiring. You know. Also. Very timely with everything that we have going on around climate change. But I guess you know without further ado let’s not make anyone wait any longer. Let’s welcome. Our guest Andrew Ponack welcome to the show. Hello. So originally you were raised there in Oregon.
Andrew Ponec: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Alejandro Cremades: So ah, give us a little of a walkthrough memory lane. How was life growing up. So.
Andrew Ponec: I had a really nice childhood I really enjoyed growing up in Oregon it’s ah a beautiful place I’m actually back here at the moment for the holidays and enjoying the the snow and the mountains and the forest so it was a great time.
Alejandro Cremades: So so tell us how how did you get? you know into the whole thing around climate change and.
Andrew Ponec: Yeah I became very convinced that climate was the problem I wanted to work on back in middle school and early high school when I started reading about climate change about the way that the way we use energy is impacting climate and so that that was a big passion of mine I didn’t really know what I was going to do with that passion. Ah, you know I was interested in engineering and math and science when I was younger but still still didn’t really know how I was going to help solve this problem that I really cared about it was only later you know once I got into my undergrad that I I saw a bit more of a path for how I might help.
Alejandro Cremades: So how did the um excitement or the interest around climate Change Spark I mean what what was there for you that you were like oh my God This is super interesting.
Andrew Ponec: Yeah, it was it was ah you know reading a number of articles from climate scientists that ah laid out a very compelling case for why this is something we needed to care about I think it was also something really exciting ah to me at that time because of the moral clarity of It. You know there are a lot of things that you can go and and and put your. Put your life toward. Ah you know some of them you have to kind of wonder am I doing the right thing or the wrong thing did I truly make a difference for the Better. Ah climate change is one of those sectors that I was able to to feel very confident early on if we could solve this problem that would be unambiguously good. And so it kind of removed all of those secondary questions from my mind so I could just put myself Toward. Ah you know the the technical and and market problems that I cared about.
Alejandro Cremades: So I know that they going to Stanford as well to study you know, definitely that they lighten you up. You know when he came to the venture world. So so how was that experience of going there. You know the Lando of innovation. You know, like all they. Big cofounders that we see on the media and all that stuff they went to Stanford and they’re like the dropouts of Stanford. So so how was that you know for you like being part of that the incredible innovation you know and that movement that they have going on there.
Andrew Ponec: I.
Andrew Ponec: Ah, it was absolutely overwhelming when I first got to Stanford it was incredible to see the the number of projects going on the the integration with the entrepreneurial ecosystem around Stanford. I you know was ah I was a kid in a candy shop for sure just trying to you know, take every class I could join every group I could that was related to energy. And yeah I got I got very deeply embedded in the Stanford energy community within the first couple years I was there.
Alejandro Cremades: So tell us about that moment where you know ideas start you know to come and then all of a sudden you know one of those you’re like you know what this one is interesting I think I’m gonna drop out.
Andrew Ponec: Yeah, yeah, yeah, um, you know I had started working closely with a professor in the electrical engineering department Bill Daey who was an incredible mentor and and really taught me in a few other undergrads electrical engineering. Ah, both through his course but then afterward through a series of breakfasts where he would just ah, essentially give us private lessons in engineering and that was an incredible experience. We were working on a project to improve the performance of ah solar arrays solar panel arrays. And ah, you know it. It was an exciting project to me because I knew it had some practical application but I wasn’t sure for the first while that it was going to turn into anything. Um and I do remember the moment maybe a year into that when I was a sophomore that I sort of looked at it and and and realized ah. Wow! This could really be valuable in ah in a big way to the industry. It turns out I was totally wrong about that. but but I do remember the moment when I thought that you know exactly the idea we were pursuing at the time was going to be really valuable.
Alejandro Cremades: So in that case, the um obviously the project ended up being dragonf fly and so you know here you are you make it to one of the top universities in the world. So how is that you know chatd with your parents hey guys you know I think I’m gonna I’m gonna draw out and I’m going to go after this thing I.
Andrew Ponec: Yeah, that that conversation didn’t go particularly well ah my parents were ah you know very happy to have me at at Stanford and you know I I made some promises to them that I would go back eventually and and finish my degree which I did um. But at the time it was there were definitely some tears and and you know it was ah it was a hard moment for them. But for me, it was actually not ah a hard decision and this is the advice that I you know people sometimes ask me who are undergrads and thinking about dropping out I often tell them if it’s a hard decision. You should probably just stay in in school. It’s only when you just feel so compelled there was just no way I I felt that I could stay at Stanford and not pursue this idea because the the idea the team I was pursuing it with it was all ah just too exciting to to let go.
Alejandro Cremades: So tell us about what happened next.
Andrew Ponec: Yeah, so we so we me and ah, a couple of others dropped out of ah Stanford after ah at the end of that that year which was my sophomore year we hired ah 1 of my tas. Ah, for the electrical engineering class I’d been taking with this professor Bill Dley who is you know the best electrical engineer that we knew and and that’s probably still true to this day. He’s an incredible engineer and and actually works ah with me ah at the the current company that I have. Ah, but yeah, we we dropped out and and started started making prototypes of the the solar power conversion device that that we had and you know had a had a blast. You know we were really you know young learning a lot about business learning a lot about you know the the technology itself learning a lot about the industry. And actually what what was what was really challenging was it was only maybe three or four months in after we had dropped out. You know we’d been working on the project for more than a year before that. But after it was only three or four months after we dropped out that we realized that the the idea that we thought we had the the technology the patents all of this. Wasn’t solving as big a problem as we thought and so we we had this real crisis of confidence where we said man you know what? what is the company if what we thought was ah the core value that we were bringing is maybe not as big as we thought it was.
Alejandro Cremades: And what was how how was that product Market fit and and team you know side of it and I guess before even answering that you know for the people that are listening what ended up being the business model of dragonfly.
Andrew Ponec: Yeah, so the the first thought that that we had for dragonfify.. The original idea was just to improve the efficiency of solar panel arrays by what’s called a maximum Powerpoint Tracker So something that will. Allow you to optimize each panel in an array individually and and you know therefore ah boost the output a little bit you know so it was it was going to be a play of hey can we make something that that improves a few percent the performance of all sorts of solar energy systems and you know the the key learning for me at that time is we had based our um. Estimates of how much value we would be bringing to customers based largely on our competitors. So. There were some other companies that were trying to do something similar you know and and we were looking at you know their white papers. We were looking at their you know press to to get an understanding and you know the the model in our mind at the point at that point was. Hey these people are solving this problem in this way we can do it better therefore therefore we will be successful. The the problem was our competitors also didn’t have good product Market fit and so we were saying we would be better at something that wasn’t actually that valuable. And the only way that we we found that out was by going to the end customers going to the larger solar companies and and pitching it and it was only then that that we started to to realize that what we had wasn’t as important as we thought and and one thing I’ll I’ll just mention along that those lines is we We were very young and people were very excited to.
Andrew Ponec: You know, give us positive feedback and so it took a while before we learned ah to to listen you know, read between the lines. You know people were always really positive I love what you’re doing It’s so important you know, but when it came to actually saying will you buy this? Will you put money on the line for this. All of a sudden people. You know I don’t know about that. Maybe we can wait a little bit see see how things develop so that was the the the key challenge for us in the first few months
Alejandro Cremades: So then in this case, you know like how how was that process of you guys really knowing that you had product Market fit at what point did that happen. So.
Andrew Ponec: Yeah, so so we we we had to go through this this you know, kind of purgatory when when our first product and technology didn’t have product market fit and there was actually a moment where we considered just dissolving the company. We thought oh you know everything that that we have isn’t what we thought? um. You know of course my parents were really excited to hear that we might be stopping because then of course we just go back to go back to school. Um, but you know there was a moment where we just made the decision. You know we have an amazing team. We love working with each other. We’re learning a lot and now we do understand the market. We think we do understand the customers and what they need. And and so kind of a ah light switch flipped that was hey we still have value even if our technology didn’t have value the the team and the mission that we have still has that value so we went back to the drawing board. We scrapped the first product that we were making completely. You know, based on the understanding that we then had of the industry made a new product and that was one that was focused. Not so much on increasing efficiency but reducing capital costs and all of a sudden you could see overnight a lot more uptake from larger customers. So. The the big solar companies were were taking our meetings were starting to get into commercial ah discussions and it was only maybe six or nine months after that that we started hearing the word acquisition get thrown about with ah one of our our largest potential customers at the time which was sun power 1 of the largest.
Andrew Ponec: Vertically integrated solar companies. So um, it it was a great lesson in you know how how how much you have to really go to the end customers and and be persistent in trying to figure out what what they really want and what they don’t want to get to that product Market fit.
Alejandro Cremades: So then how did you guys go about capitalizing the business.
Andrew Ponec: Yeah, we were. We were pretty lean so we didn’t need much we we managed to fund everything up until the acquisition with ah you know angel investments so it was largely through the Stanford network that we found various angel investors. Ah, you know people putting in $50000 hundred Thousand dollar checks um and that was able to get us there we we actually raised less than $1,000,000 in total before acquisition.
Alejandro Cremades: Wow! So then tell us about the acquisition. How did that come about and and and tell us all that process. How was that journey like.
Andrew Ponec: Yeah, it was. It was ah a really great learning experience. You know Sun Power was ah a friendly acquiir they ah you know were a potential customer of ours and what we were realizing. You know we didn’t have a real concept for Ah, things like supply chain at the time and the idea that you know Sun power was going to come to this you know group of undergrads with no you know product or or technology experience and and and base a a critical part of their product on our product was just not realistic. So it became clear that we were. Ah, likely to have to go in in some way either to partner with a larger company to produce our stuff do some sort of licensing model or ah, you know, just be acquired straight up and you know at the time we had started that company not because we wanted to be entrepreneurs not because we wanted to to have some huge company. Really started because we we just cared about making some improvement in the solar industry because we cared about ah about climate change and and we saw I think correctly, ah that if we were acquired by Sun Power we would have access to significantly more resources to put this product into the field. Um, and so that was how we made the decision when those different options were on the table to to pursue the acquisition path. Um, and and I think it it worked out well in in that we did manage to get to scale and get into manufacturing and deploy megawatts of of these units in the field.
Alejandro Cremades: So how was how was that the you know and finally the the acquisition you know ends up crystallizing I mean it’s like the full cycle. What kind of disability did that give you on the whole journey. You know from building to scaling to really getting it all the way to the finish line.
Andrew Ponec: Yeah, yeah, I got to see sort of yeah exactly like you said the full cycle from sort of idea creation to prototyping to you know, kind of early deployments and then and then manufacturing all within you know about a 4 year period you know, but you know including the the time immediately after the acquisition. And that that was just invaluable learning because you you start to see the things in the later stages where where where you where you regret making some decision in the earlier stages. Um, you know? So Oh you know we made this decision early on thinking that it wasn’t going to be a big deal or or something like that and then you’d see how that played Out. Um And. Ah, you know you’re you’re able to to to kind of connect the dots on that learning in a way that I think if we had only you know stopped partway through that Journey. We wouldn’t have gone that learning.
Alejandro Cremades: So tell us about the because after you did the integration. Finally, you went back to school and you fulfill on your promise. So how was that you know now going back to school I mean you probably knew more than your teachers. So how was that they like.
Andrew Ponec: Um, yeah.
Andrew Ponec: I I might have known more in some very narrow areas than than the the teachers but than the professors but certainly I just loved being back in that learning environment. Um, you know was ah yeah, it was a great a great time to to be creative to have a. You know fewer of the demands of the professional world ah put on you and and just kind of explore wherever wherever the mind wanted to go and it was really during that time the the most important thing that happened during that time was meeting one of my 2 co-founders of my current company on torah energy and that that was Justin Briggs and ah we were able to to get started thinking about you know what we wanted to do next in our lives you know I had come from this, you know you know, short entrepreneurial background. Um and he was finishing up his ph d at Stanford and ah, you know we we started looking out into the world for how we could make the most difference on climate change and. You know we we really had quite a wide range of discussions on things we could do which was yeah one ah, one of the most fun periods that that we’ve had and then came to ah to believe what we believe now which was ah better energy storage. Ah, is one of the most impactful things that could improve our our climate energy picture.
Alejandro Cremades: So let’s talk about on Torah your next baby. So at what point that’s the idea you know come to to to you guys and and at what point are you guys like okay you know, let’s let’s roll.
Andrew Ponec: Yeah I think there are a couple things that went into the the idea if we want to call it that a a vantora um, you know the first thing was for me personally being at sunpower I was absolutely convinced that solar and wind were going to continue to get cheaper. And and so that was kind of a ah fundamental hypothesis of of mine and and and became ours that these were going to be powerful tools to decarbonize the economy. Um, another thing that I I had started to see at Sun power though was ah. The overproduction of solar in the middle of the day already in California in the middle of the last decade you were starting to see curtailment. You know where there was so much solar power that you were having to sort of spill it or waste it because there was nowhere to put it and you know you could do some pretty quick napkin math and see if we really wanted to decarbonize. Ah the economy. There were going to be times when we had massive massive amounts of renewable energy wind and solar that we wouldn’t have something to do with and so that that was a little bit of the the backdrop. Um, you know the other thing that that just and I were looking at was essentially where the emissions were we we knew that we wanted to work on something that was going to have a big impact. And so we just went back to the to the pie of of where emissions come from and 1 of the things that was pretty clear was that industry is ah you know one of the largest if not the largest sector for emissions about 30% of global emissions. Ah come from industry and so we we had this, you know potentially huge decarbonization problem of how do you make industry cleaner.
Andrew Ponec: And this huge decarbonization solution which is cheap wind and solar some of which are going to be spilled at certain times and for us it was you know how do we put those 2 things together and and the answer and and sort of the the founding of of antora at least for us was energy storage. You know. Renewables have so much going for it because they’re they’re clean and they’re cheap. They’re now the cheapest source of energy on the planet. Um, but the 1 thing that they didn’t have with was consistency. You know the wind stops blowing the the sun stops shining sometimes so you have to have something that can smooth that out and. Ah, so that was what antora was meant to be how do you How do you couple an intermittent but cheap and clean resource to an industrial decarbonization problem like heavy industry.
Alejandro Cremades: So tell us about Antora Then what’s the business model. How do you guys make money.
Andrew Ponec: Yeah, well ah before I get ahead of myself. We don’t make money yet, we are still a pre-renu company but ill I’ll describe exactly exactly so’re. Um, you know what? what we do is we deliver 0 carbon heatating power to industrial customers.
Alejandro Cremades: In development go ahead. Okay.
Andrew Ponec: And there’s there’s really 2 different models 1 is where we go and we put our energy storage system at 1 of these sites we own it. We operate it and we’re just selling energy to the customer. So we’re replacing the natural gas for instance that maybe they were burning instead. The other way is where we’re actually selling our system. To the customer and then they they own it rather than than we own it. So it could be an equipment sales model or it could be an energy sales model. Um, you know that’s something that we’ve gone back and forth on which is better and and I think the answer so far has been There’s not one that’s universally better than the other. So. Ah, you know some customers in some markets. It may make sense to do one and and some the other but but the core of it in either case is you know we’re taking cheap solar and wind electricity. You know, procuring that one way or another and then selling. You know, consistent heat and power to an industrial customer with our technology. Being the thing sitting in between that that makes that possible.
Alejandro Cremades: So and for the company Andrew how much capital have you guys raised to date.
Andrew Ponec: Um, we have raised ah probably closer to $80,000,000 including private ah money and public money. Ah, we’ve been fortunate to receive a number of grants from the department of energy the California energy commission and then you know pretty pretty substantial private investment. You know through seed rounds and the series a that we did about a year ago so um
Alejandro Cremades: I mean the the 1 thing that I wanted to ask you there. Andrew is that the series a was a a pretty big one I mean we’re talking about fifty fifty million plus so you know typically when when you would get to a series a you know like the the investors they’re expecting you know some type of. Of traction or validation or you know perhaps like some type of revenues in your case, what made it an exception for you guys to be able to raise so much money when the monetization is still not there yet. Okay.
Andrew Ponec: Yeah, yeah, it’s a great question. Um, it really comes down to to 2 things. 1 is the the technology validation that we had done up to that point you know and that and I would include both the you know prototypes of our system that we had demonstrated and the performance coming off of those. But also the technoeconomic models that that kind kind of go along with that. So so that’s 1 aspect of it and then the other is just the the product market fit and the size and and growth of the market that we’re going into. You know there’s you know, $100,000,000,000 spent on industrial energy every year in this in this country alone. So. Ah, you know if we are successful. We have ah an enormous market ah to to make a splash and so I think you know it was the validation up to that point and the size and growth of the market that we were targeting that got the investors excited enough to to do this very large investment early in the company’s history.
Alejandro Cremades: How big of a market are we are we talking about? yeah.
Andrew Ponec: Yeah I mean it’s it’s you know one of the largest sectors in the us and and 1 of the largest in the world. So you know globally hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the the types of products we’d be selling.
Alejandro Cremades: I Mean if they say being at the right time in history and having the wind you know behind your back is is definitely Borton It sounds like you guys are riding that wave with all the consciousness around climate change right now. Yeah.
Andrew Ponec: People.
Andrew Ponec: Absolutely Ah, you know and I think you know we we are very Lucky. We feel very lucky about ah the the timing of Antora you know when we’re going to be coming to market with this solution. The amount of ah you know focus. Ah you know, globally that’s on climate right Now. You know my my previous company was also ah a climate company. You know, but you know started in the 201314 time frame and let me tell you there was a lot less excitement. You know at that time it was much harder to raise money and and many fewer people were were focused on that. So. Um, yeah, it’s a great thing for antorin. A great thing for the world that there’s so much focus right now on this sector.
Alejandro Cremades: So now tell us about and Tora I mean imagine you know you were to go to sleep tonight and you wake up in a world where the vision of antora is fully realized what does that world look like.
Andrew Ponec: Oh great. Um I hope that happens because there’s going to be a lot of work between now and then and I’m sure it’d be fun to just ah Zoom right? to the end but no it. It’s ah you know the the core of that vision is that we’re replacing fossil fuels in industrial applications. So. You know, right now. All of the places where you’re burning coal oil natural gas to provide heat and power in an industrial setting. You know every one of those industrial plants instead you have an antura box. You know, an antoro thermal energy storage system that is converting. You know cheap wind and solar power when it’s available. Into that consistent heat and power for industry and displacing that fossil fuel. So I’d love in that vision that whether you’re in the us or or around the world when you go to a big industrial facility. Ah you you know that the the core source of energy for that facility. Is wind and solar through an antoro system rather than a fossil fuel combustion.
Alejandro Cremades: And in terms of the of the team now Andrea I mean how are you guys going about building the team and and because obviously team is everything so so how are you guys thinking about structuring and building the team now that you’ve raised such a big series. A.
Andrew Ponec: Yes.
Andrew Ponec: Yeah I love the way you put that team team is everything and actually our our first core company value is is team and mission first and and again that was some of some of the learning that I had from dragonfly that’s really where the core of the value of a company is is is the team. Um, but but not just a team in isolation but a team that is motivated by a shared ah shared sense of mission and what they want to do in the world. Um, yeah, it’s been It’s been a wonderful journey building up the team. You know we we built slowly over the first few years and then we’ve been growing very rapidly over the ah the time since the series a. Um, I think you know in addition to this overall consciousness that that you were mentioning around climate that that’s happened in you know in business and governments. The same thing is happening across the board and in individuals in the in the talent market. You know when people are looking for what they want to do with their lives and so it’s been really gratifying to see the number of people. That are flowing from other areas of tech other areas of entrepreneurship and and who want to get involved in climate and so you know we we feel very fortunate that we’ve been able to build a team quickly. That’s full of incredibly high quality individuals that are really there to solve climate change. Not just because they think you know antor is the hottest new thing and they want a bunch of stock options and you know of course we do all of that. But but we really wanted to make sure that we were building a team of committed individuals. Not mercenaries. So ah, you know the the way we’re doing that right now. Um, you know we we actually just brought on a head of people recently.
Andrew Ponec: Um, who is ah doing an incredible work. Ah, kind of laying the laying the groundwork for this period of Rapid growth. So that means everything from making sure we have the recruitment process in place to you know a really smooth onboarding process and then also making sure that the internal company culture. Ah, remains. Ah, you know the good culture that we feel like we’ve had up to this point now that was another learning for me at a Dragonfly You know we had an incredible culture at at the time and it was sort of Accidental. It was not um, it was not part of a really conscious effort on on my or or my cofounders parts. Um, and so with this company. You know from the start. It’s been a very high priority for us to to get our our mission right to get our values right? and then keep building the team in a way that’s aligned with that that mission and those values.
Alejandro Cremades: So they say say Andrew you’re second go at it now with with building a company I mean if you had the opportunity of going back in time and you were able to sit down that younger Andrew. That younger graduate that is in Stanford you know I just arrived to Stanford that is now getting immersed in in this incredible you know innovation that is going on everywhere and you were able to to go back in time and have a chat with that younger self and. And give that younger Andrew one piece of advice before launching a business. What would that be and why given what you know now.
Andrew Ponec: Yeah I think the advice I would give would be about about the team and the culture. You know it’s it’s so easy to just get started to have an idea that is really exciting. Um. And and and sort of run before you walk. But I think it’s so important at the earliest stages of the company to really define. You know what? you’re doing why you’re doing it who you want to do it with and and and how the company should go about executing that mission. And you know that was something that really wasn’t on my mind when I was ah starting the first time around I think things went well anyway, but I think that um you know if we had rather than be be acquired if we’d wanted to grow into ah a very large independent company. It would have been so important to have that sort of foundation from the earliest days. So I think that’s that’s the advice that I would give you know the the young Andrew.
Alejandro Cremades: I love it so Andrew for the people that are listening that will love to reach out and say hi. What is the best way for them to do so.
Andrew Ponec: Oh wonderful ah would would love to hear from anybody who’s excited to get involved in in climate. Whether that’s through antura or anything else. 1 thing that you should know about me is that I love all aspects of of climate and energy. Not just what what Antora is doing so. Always excited to have those conversations. Um, definitely I would invite people to come to our website. Ah and ah also to just send me an email directly my emails Andrew at antora energy. Is pretty ah, pretty easy to to to remember and pretty easy to guess so I get a lot of a lot of inbound.
Alejandro Cremades: Amazing. Well hey Andrew thank you so much for being on the deal make maker show. It has been an honor to have you with us.
Andrew Ponec: Wonderful. Thank you so much for having me and and thanks for all the questions it was ah it was a pleasure.
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