Brenden Millstein is CEO & Co-founder of Carbon Lighthouse which is on a mission to stop climate change by making it easy and profitable for building owners to cut carbon emissions caused by wasted energy. The company has raised over $130 million from investors like Elemental Excelerator, CEAS Investments, Cox Enterprises, SV Tech Ventures, The Social Entrepreneurs Fund, JCI Ventures, and GRC SinoGreen Fund to name a few.
In this episode you will learn:
- Why Brenden and Raphael took themselves off the payroll
- What he does in the morning to stay calm all day through the chaos
- How to find out about the 65 positions they are hiring for now
- His top piece of advice for new founders
- How their Series A was 2.4x oversubscribed, despite scraping and starting again during the round
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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 Brenden Millstein:
Brenden Millstein is CEO & Co-founder of Carbon Lighthouse, where he is responsible for corporate growth, engineering, and long-term planning.
Under Brenden’s leadership, Carbon Lighthouse became profitable and began reducing emissions within 6 months of operations. Brenden previously worked for NYSERDA, the State agency charged with addressing New York’s largest energy and environmental issues.
Working with a small team comprised of leading energy experts, Brenden co-administered a budget of $87 million, executing energy efficiency and demand response projects at 250+ manufacturing plants and high-rise office buildings in New York City.
Brenden’s clients included Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase, CBRE, and many other banks and property management companies.
Additionally, he also worked as a research fellow at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, investigating both Li-ion batteries and advanced building materials.
Brenden obtained an MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and an MS in Renewable Energy Engineering, also from Stanford. He holds a B.A. in Physics, cum laude, from Harvard University.
Connect with Brenden Millstein:
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FULL TRANSCRIPTION OF THE INTERVIEW:
Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today we have a very interesting founder. He’s a founder that is tackling a real problem, a problem that certainly has come to light during the past couple of years, and now more than ever. I think that the timing is really incredible, with everything that is happening with climate change. We’re also going to learn about the full cycle, about running out of money, about walking away from investors, you name it. So without further ado, Brenden Millstein, welcome to the show today.
Brenden Millstein: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Alejandro: Originally born and raised in Berkeley. How was life there? Tell us about it.
Brenden Millstein: Berkeley was a wonderful place to grow up, and it is where I became very passionate about climate change and solving it. It’s where I met my co-founder, Raphael Rosen. When I grew up in Berkeley, it was well before the first dotcom boom, so it was a very different place. It was not yet part of Silicon Valley. Raphael and I grew up five blocks apart. We’ve been best friends since we met in kindergarten. At the time, he was the only person that could beat me in Minute Math. He’s a wonderful person, despite that. I became very passionate about climate change in high school. Berkeley High, back in the 90s, was different than it is today. It was a lot of sons and daughters, professors’ kids, and a lot of kids from parts of town who were struggling and very little in the [0:02:53]. I spent a lot of high school failing to help those around me. In my four years, we had six principals, 20 fires, one of which burned down the B building. I was in low-income tutoring programs and after-school programs where I felt like I could not move the needle. But my senior year of high school, I took a nuclear engineering class at UC Berkeley, and here is this way to use math to improve the lives of billions of people by stopping climate change. And completely, unlike education, the financial incentives were totally light. We could just hand people money to do the right thing for the planet. So, figuring out how to hand people money to stop climate change has been my cause ever since.
Alejandro: Wow! And we’re talking about years and years ago, way before all this incredible movement that has been happening the past couple of years. What did you see there that almost nobody was seeing? Now, there are still people that are not aware of what’s going on, but back then, it was not front and center. What happened?
Brenden Millstein: This nuclear engineering class was really good. It was split into three parts. One was on medicine, stuff like X-rays, MRIs, which actually aren’t radioactive at all. One was on electricity and nuclear power. One section was on how to deal with the waste. In the section on electric power, we learned about climate change. Specifically, we learned about the human elements of climate change. The professors showed us research from El Niño and La Niña, so we have a ton of good temperature data going back decades as well as data on malaria. As temperatures increase, you can see rates of malaria expand, and geographies of malaria expand. Then when La Niña comes back through and cools things back down, malaria retracts. What’s going on there is mosquito-breeding seasons are actually temperature-dependent, and they expand when temperatures go up. We learned about a lot of health impacts like that. Hurricane wind speeds are correlated with ocean surface temperature, so as the climate gets hotter, and the ocean gets hotter, hurricanes get worse. We had Katrina in 2005, which was one of the earlier hurricanes that was completely catastrophic. That happened a few years after this nuclear engineering class. We learned a ton of ways. Like, flood damage is made worse by climate change. Storm surge is made worse by climate change. The wildfires in California are made worse by climate change, and not just California, but the Mid-West, Montana, the Mountain West. There are a lot of human problems, and the research underpinning them was all shown in this class. It was shown in a way where it was also combined with the fact that there were profitable things to do to solve climate change. That combination of, “Here’s something we can do where we don’t have to win hearts and minds, but we can just give people money to do things that will help billions of people. That was what was so appealing to me.
Alejandro: Very cool. In your case, rather than sticking around on the West Coast, you decided to go to the East Coast, and you studied physics. Why physics?
Brenden Millstein: I studied physics largely because Harvard, at the time, had a completely world-class physics department, whereas there wasn’t even an engineering school. I knew I wanted to try and solve climate change. At the time, we still did need technological progress. I absolutely love math, so physics and engineering seemed like the most practical, fast ways to be able to stop climate change. I was at a place where physics was the stronger of those two.
Alejandro: Got it. You’re like a Swiss army knife. You’ve studied at Harvard, then Stanford. You’ve gone to the best universities, and more importantly, the places with the best networks. Why did you decide to dive more into the business side by doing your MBA? What was there for you to learn?
Brenden Millstein: After college, I had followed a girlfriend, at the time, to New York. I highly recommend that it is a wonderful place to follow a girlfriend or a significant other. I did energy policy for the state of New York. I was incredibly lucky. I had three bosses at the same time, which you’d think would be a disaster, but each one was an incredible mentor, a wonderful engineer, and both were so dedicated to helping me and stop climate change. It was an incredible learning experience for me. However, the challenge with energy policy as part of state government is that you can’t do anything out of state. One of the things that was made very clear to me while working in state policy in New York was that there’s a serious limit with government that doesn’t exist for the private sector. In the private sector, if you can figure out something that’s profitable for customers and profitable for you, you can do it everywhere in the world. That is what is needed to stop climate change. I went off to Stanford to get an MBA and learn how the private sector worked in more detail. While I was there, I was enjoying the university so much that I added an engineering degree as well. That was a very helpful background for starting Carbon Lighthouse.
Alejandro: Tell us about those conversations because Carbon Lighthouse was immediately after you got the degree from Stanford. Tell us about some of those discussions, maybe with Raphael, your friend from kindergarten. It’s amazing that you guys are doing this together. Tell us about those conversations. How did those conversations between the two of you spark about envisioning a future where you were fulfilling a need, a concern?
Brenden Millstein: Raphael, like always, was a bit ahead of me. We had talked since college or even during college about starting various companies based on technologies, we were seeing in the physics lab together. After college, he was the first non-founding employee at a solar company. He helped grow this firm from three people and no revenue to, I think, 15 people in 25 million in revenue. A couple of years ago, this firm cleared 100 million in revenue. This is not at all surprising at all to anyone who knows Raphael. He is the world’s most methodical, intelligent, but also an earnest person you could possibly meet, and he is effective in basically everything. While I was finishing up at Stanford, we were continuing our discussions about starting a company. I was trying to convince him to co-found Carbon Lighthouse with me. Ultimately, I wrote his name as co-founder into a grant application because, based on the literature, it seemed like we were much more likely to win as a partnership rather than as an individual founder. So I wrote the application and sent it to Raphael, and said, “Hey, Rafi. Please edit. You’ll note you’re listed as a co-founder. That is because I want you to co-found with me.” That kicked off the most egregious part of the recruitment effort to get Raphael to officially co-found with me. Then, three months later, he agreed.
Alejandro: Before you sent him the application, were you warming him into this idea that you were thinking about, or was it out of the blue that you sent it to him?
Brenden Millstein: I was warming him, but that implies a level of tact and subtlety that is not foremost in my nature. We were discussing everything together.
Alejandro: Okay. What was the trigger there for him to have three months pass of making you suffer until he said, “Okay, Brenden, let’s do this thing.”?
Brenden Millstein: That’s a better question for him. Raphael also loves math, and he was evaluating Ph.D. programs in applied math, applied physics, and other areas, and he got in. We specialize here at Carbon Lighthouse at getting people to drop out of their Ph.D. programs. I think it took a little time for him to take the mental plunge away from academia and into the business world. His dad is the chief scientist at Livermore National Labs and runs the U.S.’s research efforts into fusion energy. He comes from a very academically-efficient family, I shall say. So joining the business world was something he needed more than an hour or two to contemplate.
Alejandro: Yeah. I can imagine. Brenden, tell us what happened? Now, three months later, Raphael says, “Let’s do this thing.” What happens next.
Brenden Millstein: I was still in school. We founded during my second, the last year of business school. I ended up condensing my MBA and engineering degree into two years. Then, during the second year, we launched Carbon Lighthouse together. So that period of time was a little nutty. This will resonate with every entrepreneur and maybe be new to some of the non-entrepreneurs: most of what we did right at the beginning of the company was recreate the wheel. You have to open bank accounts. You have to set up Quick Books, and learn accounting, and set up an accounting system. You have to incorporate. You have to learn what the difference is between a LOC and a C-Corp, and an S-Corp, and a partnership. It’s all of this work that doesn’t actually benefit the planet but is vitally necessary. So there was a learning curve there. We wrote business plans. We applied for a ton of grants. We lost almost all of them. We applied for all of them again, and on the second or third try is when we started winning. Then importantly, in the last two months of school is when we started calling customers. Thankfully, we had the insight as a physicist, but we figured we could basically figure out how to make the technical system work. But we needed clients. We started calling everyone we knew asking them if they owned or managed commercial real estate, asked them for introductions to anyone they knew who might own or manage commercial real estate. In those first couple of months, we made well north of 1,000 phone calls. We called a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend and exhausted everyone in our network and their network. Part of the challenge here was that it’s really hard to sell when you have no sales experience, no track record, no case studies, and the world’s worst website. We were good at physics. We were not good at making web sites. If you want to venture into the way-back machine and look at CarbonLighthouse.com from 2010, you can witness for yourself. So it took us a long time to win a customer. When we finally did — this was totally foreseeable, but we didn’t foresee it at all. The challenges that the person who was willing to sign with us when we had no track record and no real idea what we were doing, this was someone who cared deeply about the mission and who wasn’t risk-averse. That person had already signed with ten other energy-efficiency companies because they cared about the mission. When we got to their building, it was a nightmare. It was the world’s most efficient building. We had just made 1,000 to 2,000 phone calls. We had $10,000 to our name. We realized we had to make it work at this building even though there was no low-hanging fruit, and no medium-hanging fruit and all the equipment was brand new. We were two panicked, nerdy physicists. In that case, what one does is get $2,000-worth of sensors, measure everything, and pray someone missed something in the data. Our entire technical system was unplanned. But what happened was, out of this panic, we knew we had to measure everything and hope someone missed something. Sure enough, they had. We were able to eke out 3% whole-building savings, which wasn’t very much, but it was enough to now have one happy customer and a reference, and it made it slightly easier to win the next building, and the same exact thing happened. The next building, low-hanging fruit gone, medium-hanging fruit gone. Now, we had $20,000, so we got four-grand-worth of sensors and measured everything. This time, we were able to get 4% savings, and the whole technical system built out of this panic and necessity of 2010.
Alejandro: Very nice. One thing that happened as well there is that the first couple of projects did not go so smoothly, especially with technical systems. What happened there?
Brenden Millstein: We had a couple of large misses. In that second building, we thought we were able to turn off the pump all the time. There were a couple of pumps supplying cold water to the various air conditioning units throughout the building. We thought we were pumping more water than we needed. It turned out that was true almost all of the year. This was a building Sacramento. When it was more than 100 degrees in Sacramento, you did need that second pump, which was too bad because we had turned it off. When that pump was off, the next time, which was like a week later, it was 105 degrees, and all of the air conditioning in the building shut off. What was particularly painful about this was on the sixth or ninth floor of this building, there’s a federal court. It turns out that if you turn off the air conditioning to a federal court on a 105-degree day, you can be held in contempt of court, which was something I learned the day of. Thankfully, we weren’t, and thankfully, we were able to fix everything relatively quickly. The contracting firm we worked with was really good at that building, so they were able to get the building back up and running. Then we were able to install an algorithm that did real-time monitoring of the actual temperature in the air conditioning group and could kick on that second pump when it needed it. Yeah, that was not what I would call a smooth implementation.
Alejandro: Nerve-wracking, for sure. So, Brenden, for the people that are listening so that they are able to get it, what ended up being the business model of Carbon Lighthouse?
Brenden Millstein: From the very beginning, we thought it was very important to align the financial incentives with the environmental benefit we were trying to deliver. We wanted to deliver profitable climate solutions. What we do is, we charge a fixed monthly fee. In exchange for that fee, we guarantee we’ll deliver savings above a certain amount. For example, we might charge 100 grand a year and guarantee we’ll deliver $250,000 a year in savings. If savings are greater than expected, the client keeps it. If they’re less than expected, we write a check to cover the difference. This adds up very significantly. Across a portfolio of 50 or 100 buildings, we might be saving the client 10 million dollars a year. The way buildings are bought and sold is they’re valued like a perpetuity, so that 10 million bucks get a 10x or 20x multiple on it. So we’re worth anywhere from 100 to 200 million dollars in profit for the landlord. They don’t have to do anything because there’s no major construction. It’s all using sensors and controls to make the existing equipment work better, and we take the financial risk.
Alejandro: Then, how does this impact all of the carbon emission?
Brenden Millstein: The reason we started with commercial buildings is that commercial and industrial buildings are responsible for about 40% of U.S. carbon emissions and globally, 30%. It’s this huge source of emissions. Importantly, about 70% of those buildings are third-party owned. Namely, a landlord owns the building and leases out space to tenants. Because of that third-party ownership, there’s a lot of split incentives and challenges in the market, so there were no firms that are effectively able to sell energy savings to this market segment, but it’s a huge source of emissions. That’s why we tackled that market right from the get-go. It was awful, by the way. There are no other firms that are able to serve this market because serving this market is a nightmare. There are a lot of problems. The first one is, in most commercial leases, the landlord has to pay for everything, and the tenants get the benefits. So, you have to solve that. The landlord doesn’t care about energy in the first place, so the value of the building is $300 or $500 a square foot, but the utilities only cost $2 or $3 a square foot. You have literally two orders of magnitude to cross before anyone cares. Then if that’s not bad enough, it’s a multi-party transaction. The landlord usually outsources property management, so you need to get the property manager on board. The property manager out-sources facilities engineering, so you need to get the facilities engineer on board. So, you have three different firms, all of which can say no. Only the landlord can say yes on a topic no one cares about where there are misaligned financial incentives, to begin with. We didn’t know any of that when we started the company. We just knew no one was selling successfully to that sector, and it was a huge portion of global carbon emissions, so we ought to figure it out. That took us six years to figure out.
Alejandro: You were talking about lack of alignment, and obviously, people were failing in the past from being able to fulfill or be able to succeed in doing this. What do you think you guys did differently in order to get it right?
Brenden Millstein: Here, I would say our environmental mission is what was different about us, which is any large Fortune 500 firm is going to give up on this challenge after losing a bunch of money and years on it. And any reasonable startup is either going to go bankrupt or pivot and sell to a different sector. We were unwilling to do that because this was a huge source of emissions, and it was unaddressed. So we kept at it when everyone else was giving up, and we figured out how to make it work. Part of this was we ran really lean. We were profitable every year from 2010 through 2014, and we never raised funding during that time specifically so that we could stay focused on this problem until we felt we had cracked it enough.
Alejandro: By the way, that is just the mentality of a founder of San Francisco. This is where growth is everything. It’s unbelievable.
Brenden Millstein: When we finally did start talking to investors, I had to say that like six times because it wasn’t clicking with people that there could be a profitable firm out here. It was amazing. In many ways, we’d be a better fit with New York investors.
Alejandro: This is super interesting because now, when you hear, “No. Our company’s profitable.” Investors think, “They’re not doing so well, and they needed to cut cost, and they needed to extend one way and that way; they’re profitable.” In this case, it’s because you guys were right off the bat. It’s not because things were wrong; it’s just the nature of it, which is amazing.
Brenden Millstein: Yeah, thank you. Well, call us crazy running a profitable enterprise out of Silicon Valley, but it seems like it worked for the rest of the world for thousands of years. So, it seemed like a good approach.
Alejandro: Absolutely, which is amazing. Let’s talk about the fundraising. You guys did your first round in 2014. You were profitable, so why did you guys think about raising money from outsiders?
Brenden Millstein: A couple of reasons. The first was we finally had enough proof to ourselves that the technical system was working. We had made all these predictions, nitty-gritty engineering predictions, in buildings going back to 2011. By 2014, they were all still coming true. We were confident that our software platform was viable. The scale of climate change does not merit patience so well. It does to some extent, but there are seven trillion dollars spent per year on fossil fuels. If we are going to stop climate change, we need to capture or eliminate all of that. This is a mind-boggling big market. We could do a trillion dollars in revenue and be a mere 14% of the way towards our goal. We didn’t see a way to scale up large enough to matter and quickly enough to matter at the pace of growth that we could go while needing to manage profitability and cashflow. Those are the reasons.
Alejandro: 2014 also was an interesting year for you guys. You had a little of a cash-crunch there, and actually, the company was off payroll. So what happened?
Brenden Millstein: Yeah. 2014 was a profitable year, but a profitable year and having enough cash every single month turns out are not the same. What happened was, at the time, we used to work more with utility-incentive programs. A couple of those programs paid us anywhere from 6 to 18 months wait. So we had a cash crunch. Raphael and I started the year in 2014. On January 2nd, we took ourselves off payroll. By February, we had taken off all of the VPs. That meant six of the ten of us were off payroll, so we had 60% of the company off payroll in February and March. In April, we got the VPs back on, and by June, everyone had been paid back the back pay they were owed. We were back to having strong cashflows. We were back in a position of good financial health. Then in July, we started a fundraise as soon as we were through that. We were very fortunate. Not a single person left the company during that time. We were starting on January 2nd, very transparent completely. We had a monthly check-in on our financials and on what was going on with everyone in the company. Everyone knew what was going on, and we toughed it out.
Alejandro: How many people did you have at the time?
Brenden Millstein: Ten.
Alejandro: Ten people. It’s amazing when you’re able to have people for the right reasons, and they’re tackling the problem more than trying to get the paycheck, it’s where you can create an incredible culture. What do you think those tough moments and having that uncertainty made for the culture of the business?
Brenden Millstein: Certainly, for Raphael and me, we had a takeaway of always having far more of a cash runway in the bank than we’d been operating on the previous four years. That was a nice lesson. We were fortunate in that we had always, from the very beginning, hired people who were extremely smart and hard-working and nice, but also very driven by the problem. That payroll policy where we went off first, we didn’t come up with that. We took that from Toyota Motor. That was a policy Toyota had always had. For one hundred or something years, they had never laid off or terminated anyone except for cause. Then just after WWII, Japan was in tatters, the global economy was in tatters, and Toyota, for the first time ever, had a cash-crunch. At the time, Mr. Toyota fired himself first before he laid off so the company could continue on. Raphael always thought that was a great model. When he shared it with me, I immediately agreed. We had actually shared that with employees from the beginning. When they started, we said, “By the way, we have this policy in the event of something bad.” We started that in 2011, and then in 2014, we actually needed to use it. It wasn’t new to anyone that we were doing it, although it was known that we had to implement the policy.
Alejandro: How much capital have you guys raised to date for the business?
Brenden Millstein: 73.5 million in corporate equity and 65 million in project finance. 133.5 million, total.
Alejandro: Got it. Going back to the early financings, and obviously, you know there are different trenches in which you guys have done this, but at the Series A level, there’s something that you did that is incredible. You walked away from an investor. What happened?
Brenden Millstein: Yeah. The environmental motive is, that is the whole reason we started the company. Raphael, at one point, was working at a high-frequency trading fund, in New York, printing money. There are other places anyone at this firm could be. But we are here because we want to stop climate change. Because of that, we were always very cognizant of who our investors were. So that was a big reason we didn’t have investors at all from 2010 through 2014. Then when we finally did take investors in 2014, we did not give up control of the company. So Raphael and I still have voting control of the board, and we have control of the majority voting shares, as well. In our Series A, we were continuing to look for investors we trusted. There was one firm where there were a couple of different partners at the firm. Our main exposure had been with one, and he had been absolutely amazing. There was another person at the firm that we had less exposure to. We had already signed terms and were moving forward, and then that person, we gained more exposure to, and it just wasn’t going to work out. Because our mission is so sacred to us, it is so important who we have involved in the company. So we had four months of cash left, at the time, and we chose to walk away from the deal and start the round over. That was a bit of a nervous period of time, but completely the right call. I’m excited to say that we ended up — we did make it work that firm. There were some personnel reshuffling, and so now we do get to work with that guy who is so phenomenal, which has been really great.
Alejandro: That’s amazing. It’s a remarkable story and situation as well because in many instances, especially when you’re dealing with the clock, and you see the money going down and down on the bank account, you make very stupid decisions that are triggered by desperation. What founders don’t realize is that when you apply a band-aid to a problem, you’re going to have to require surgery down the line. Sometimes, like what you guys did — because the way you raise money today impacts the way that you can do it tomorrow. It’s amazing that you guys were able to do this. I’m sure that you and Raphael needed to have a serious discussion to understand what was going on. You were talking about that there was not a clear alignment with where you guys wanted to take things forward. Was there a specific moment where you said, “That’s it. We’ve got to part ways here.”
Brenden Millstein: Yeah. There was. Raphael led very well here. I had been leading the discussion with that firm, and I was filling Raphael in on what was going on, and saying I was having second thoughts, and he didn’t waver for a second. I think I had been much more willing to try and figure out how to make things work. He was like, “Absolutely not. We will be successful. I have faith in us. We can walk. We can start over. It’s going to work out. He had complete faith and confidence in that and was completely correct. That round ended up being 2.4x oversubscribed, I want to say.
Alejandro: Very nice.
Brenden Millstein: It was a huge success. So he had the correct read on that both short-term and long-term. I’m really glad we followed his unwavering compass there.
Alejandro: Did you guys have parallel conversations going on, or did you have to activate from nothing and have new conversations?
Brenden Millstein: We were already under the exclusivity period, so we had to start over entirely. We had to reactivate from nothing.
Alejandro: Wow. During those times, because the clock is ticking, how did you quiet down the voices, and how did you focus and execute?
Brenden Millstein: That’s a great question. I do it through exercise. I was not a morning bird by temperament or nature. But my wife is. She was one of those women in college who even though it was college, she still woke up at 6:30 am and went for a run every day. She had three days, every day, by the time I woke up. Over the years of our marriage, she had slowly converted me to be more of a morning person. So I wake up really early and get a ton of exercise, and as long as I lift very heavy things every morning, I can be perfectly calm all day. I’m delighted to have discovered that about myself.
Alejandro: Very nice. If I’m ever moving, I’m going to call you up to move some heavy things.
Brenden Millstein: I highly enjoy picking heavy things up off the ground and putting them back down. It’s literally one of my favorite things to do.
Alejandro: Very cool. Brenden, how big is Carbon Lighthouse today? How many employees do you guys have?
Brenden Millstein: There are 135 of us now, and shameless plug, we’re trying to get to 200 by the end of the year. We are hiring for almost every role, so please visit our careers page.
Alejandro: Very cool. Let’s talk about the vision. Let’s say that you go to sleep tonight, and you awaken five years later. All of a sudden, when you awaken, the incredible vision that you guys headed out to accomplish for Carbon Lighthouse is realized. What does that world look like?
Brenden Millstein: Five years is an interesting time. Five years from now, we should be doing a billion or more in revenue, but still growing very quickly and very profitable, which means we should be seeding tons of other companies. I don’t consider us an energy-efficiency company. That just happens to be our first product. The way we look at the world is similar to how an oil or gas firm looks at the world. Oil and gas have oil reserves. Carbon Lighthouse had efficiency reserves. Roughly two-thirds of all of the energy used is wasted. Up to 50% of energy in buildings is wasted, but there’s waste at the power plant before it even gets there, there’s waste in the transmission system before it even gets there. There is this huge reserve in buildings and throughout society of wasted energy where we can go make it more efficient and capture that waste for ourselves and our clients while fighting climate change. Five years from now, we should be in residential buildings; we should be helping to address transportation issues. We get about 1,000 times more data in every single building than has ever existed before, so we have this huge amount of data, which lets us do all sorts of different things, and we should be leveraging that data to drive additional savings and buildings, and more types of buildings like that. We need to be international five years from now. The U.S. is only 15% of carbon emissions, which probably means we’re licensing the software we use internally to lots of firms all over the world so other firms can put energy use in buildings as well.
Alejandro: We’ve been discussing this, and climate change is definitely top of mind. Greta Thunberg, for example, the cover of Time — there’s more consciousness around this. My question here is, do you think we still have a shot at saving the planet?
Brenden Millstein: At saving the planet? Absolutely. I think two degrees is going to be really hard, but there are worse consequences beyond that like a next ice age, and I think we can avert those. The thing that makes me so excited is how much technology has changed, and costs have changed just over the past decade. I studied physics in college because we needed technological change. I’m pleased to say we don’t need that anymore. To put real numbers behind this, since we launched in 2010, the cost of solar has come down 90%. Ninety percent. This is insane. This is like being able to buy a sweet Ford F150 pickup truck, but instead of costing $50,000, it costs 5k. That is unbelievably different. Everyone will be driving different cars, and yet people don’t know this because the cost has changed so quickly. If you’re using numbers that are even three years old, you’re hopelessly out of date. Batteries, for example, we actually had batteries back to around 1802 or 1803 was the first battery, which was 100 years before the electric grid. The cost of batteries from 1805 to 2005 came down roughly 3% per year. Then starting in 2005, 2006, it’s been far higher, more like 10%, 20%, or 30% reduction in cost per year, depending on the year. This is driven not just by electric cars, but first by phones and laptops. These price changes have been unbelievable fast. Solar in 2005 was something like 500 times more expensive than a natural gas power plant. Now, it is significantly cheaper. The world has changed almost entirely in the past ten years, and no one knows yet, which is amazing. But we don’t need technological change. Carbon Lighthouse, I think we’re in one building that pays something like three cents per kilowatt-hour. This is cheaper than almost any part of the world. It’s much cheaper than the grid in China. We have a completely profitable project there that’s saving something like 30% of the whole building energy use without replacing major equipment.
Alejandro: That’s amazing.
Brenden Millstein: Yeah. I’m extremely bullish. Solar has come down. Wind has come down. Batteries have come down. Efficiency has already five to ten times more cost-effective than anything else. Electric cars are not just getting more cost-effective, but they’re really fun. If you sit in one — electric motors have constant torque. It’s like you’re always at 5,000 rpm. You touch the gas pedal, and the thing just takes off. It’s like driving a mini rocket. I’m very optimistic right now in our ability to get at the problem because it is so profitable to actually solve it.
Alejandro: For sure. Brenden, this is a question that I typically ask the guests, and I’m going to send it your way here. Let’s see how you respond. Imagine you had the opportunity to go back in time, and you had that opportunity to go back in time knowing everything that you know now and everything that you have gone through with Carbon Lighthouse, which is amazing — through the financing, through the walking away from investors, to the cash-crunch, you name it, everything that you’ve learned. If you had that opportunity to have a conversation with that younger Brenden that was at Stanford thinking about changing the world, thinking about launching a business. If you could give yourself one piece of advice before launching a business, what would that be and why?
Brenden Millstein: In my particular case, I think the advice would be to try and relax a little bit more. I can be a bit intense. It’s not exactly that I would want to work less. Work ethic has been probably 90% of our success. But I think I could take things a little less seriously. It’s not that everything will always work out, but as long as I’m working hard, that’s all that matters. Either it will work out or it won’t, but there’s nothing else to do. So, work hard and try to relax. There’s no way to enjoy all the parts of the ride. It’s tough being off payroll. It’s worse having your employees off payroll. Fundraising, obviously, has ups and downs. It’s stressful knowing you could be held in contempt of court. But there are a lot of enjoyable parts too. So, relax more, work plenty hard, but try and enjoy the enjoyable parts of the ride I think would have been my advice. I wouldn’t have listened to it all, but it would have been helpful if, somehow, I could have.
Alejandro: I love it. The other day, I heard from someone that said, “At the end of the day, once you have removed the problem, guess what? You’re going to have to deal with another one.”
Brenden Millstein: Yep.
Alejandro: Good stuff. Brenden, for the people that are listening, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?
Brenden Millstein: If you’re looking for work, go to the careers page, and apply. Otherwise, we have info at CarbonLighthouse.com, and the team that reviews the emails does a good job routing internally.
Alejandro: Amazing. Brenden, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.
Brenden Millstein: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me, Alejandro. It’s been a real pleasure and an honor.
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