Origin Story Interview W/ Ryan Kushner, Third Derivative

Origin Story Interview W/ Ryan Kushner, Third Derivative

Brighter Future

 / 

Oct 4, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #energyinnovation #renewableenergy #acceleratorprogram #cleantech #environmentalimpact #ecoentrepreneurs #energy #CleanEnergy

Brighter Future

We’re here with Ryan Kushner, of Third Derivative and the New Energy Network. Ryan’s work helps energy entrepreneurs get the resources they need to grow their businesses.

Thank you so much for joining us, Ryan. Over the last three years, you’ve been founder and co-founder of two different organisations. One of them is the New Energy Network, and the other is Third Derivative.

That’s right. Third Derivative is my primary focus, while the New Energy Network, which preceded Third Derivative by a year or so, is the larger global network. The New Energy Network’s goal is to create a place for energy entrepreneurs to find resources to help them advance their enterprises. We modelled it to be similar to Y Combinator's Hacker News, which is a larger community of folks in the program but also those not in the program while working on their businesses. New Energy Network is our open global network, with over 5,000 people and organisations representing a large open community.

On the other hand, Third Derivative is one of the many great accelerator programs that use that community to make announcements and share information and opportunities with entrepreneurs.

What are the goals of both organisations?

It’s good to talk about goals, as I approach my work from a mission perspective. Specifically, my life mission is to hasten the energy transition and democratise it as much as possible. The great opportunity of our generation is to replace all fossil fuels and related infrastructure with 100% clean, renewable energy. Fossil fuel is the world's largest and most profitable industry, generating over $5 trillion annually. The wealth transfer resulting from this shift could benefit as many people as possible, distributed as widely as possible.

Seizing this opportunity is my life mission, and I orient my work and activities around it. The New Energy Network is one of the largest communities dedicated to clean energy entrepreneurship. Third Derivative is an accelerator program I co-created and focused my energy on, supporting entrepreneurs in creating products and services for the new economy and energy transition.

My work involves providing entrepreneurs with the necessary information, financing, and services to traverse the valleys of death and scale their enterprises, which are generally for-profit scalable enterprises that reduce fossil fuel use.

Do you think you could tell us about the early stages of your career?

I have always been curious, and after college, I went around the world on a boat as part of a program called Semester at Sea. During this time, I focused on exploring the world and understanding people and cultures as much as possible.

Afterwards, I had a meandering path that led me to become a film editor in Hollywood, working on shows such as "Weeds" and "Californication." However, during the George Bush era, it seemed like the entire world was getting dumber, and I felt compelled to do something different.

I had always understood that the base of any society is food, water, community, shelter, and safety, and that if you don't have a livable earth or a stable climate, you don't have anything. So, I became interested in the environment and enrolled in the Presidio Graduate School, a green MBA program in San Francisco.

During the program, I had trouble understanding some aspects of the environment, but energy made sense to me. I subsequently focused on energy and found my work in this field incredibly meaningful. I worked at a clean energy startup and then transitioned to a job at Elemental Accelerator, an accelerator program based in Hawaii.

At Elemental, I had the opportunity to work with 45 different energy entrepreneurship companies, which broadened my understanding of the field. Finally, after three years, I got the chance to create a new program called Free Electrons, an accelerator for international electrical utilities. This was a creative and fun process, and I enjoyed the experience.

After working with the New Energy Nexus as a partner, they hired me to write my book, "Accelerate This: A Super Not Boring Guide to Startup Accelerators and Clean Energy Entrepreneurship." The book focused on the best innovation systems for clean energy entrepreneurship and was funded by the World Wildlife Foundation, Asian Development Bank, and the World Bank.

The title of this book sounds very interesting. Has it been successful?

It's a fairly specific book that one would only read if interested in the subject matter, so definitely not a Dan Brown novel. However, I'm happy to report that it's been widely read and successful in the world of accelerators. I receive notes from people who are always pleased to have found the book or had it recommended to them. They're looking to solve a particular problem set, and the book presents an opportunity to understand what they might be doing.

After the book's publication, I hoped to develop programs with Danny Kennedy and the rest of the staff at New Energy Nexus. We were approached by RMI, formerly the Rocky Mountain Institute, to collaborate on a program which became Third Derivative. It's been my project for almost the past three years. This program is exciting because it allows me to take all the best practices I've learned and implement them effectively. For example, we have an open curriculum and approach, and we created a program that doesn't just serve the companies that get into the program, but the entire ecosystem, effectively growing the pie so that there's a larger and healthier ecosystem that benefits everyone. We provide feedback to all the companies that apply, regardless of their selection.

Additionally, the companies chosen for the program don't need to take the $100,000 convertible note offering to be in the program. If all the company wants is to get in the program and work with our global partners, brands, and venture capitalists, and they don't want us on the balance sheet, that's fine; we still want to help. My instinct is always to be macro-inclusive and to pursue the mission above everything else. That's why I love Third Derivative, which is the child of two amazing, globally focused organisations that are dedicated to promoting clean energy entrepreneurship and keeping the world within a 1.5 degree Celsius climate target. The program benefits from the network and intelligence of both organisations taken together. It's an exciting program to work on and typifies both my mission and the book's philosophy.

When did you first become aware of the climate issue, and what prompted this awareness?

Several factors likely contributed to my awareness of the climate issue. However, a particular moment occurred while I was living in Los Angeles and had taken a trip to Joshua Tree National Park, located two or three hours east of the city. Our plan for the day was to visit a canyon with a stunning view, but upon arrival, we were met with a disappointing sight: the entire canyon was engulfed in thick brown smoke. We soon learned that this pollution had travelled many hours from Los Angeles and settled in the canyon. This experience was a stark reminder of humans' impact on the earth. While it may be difficult to see on a small scale, the macro effects were impossible to ignore. Witnessing pollution in this way was both real and visceral, and it shattered any illusions I had that we can continue to live without consequences.

Did your interest in working in the climate space stem from that experience, or did it gradually develop over the next few years?

That experience gave me an understanding that the environment is fragile and significant. However, coupled with the realisation of the potential and excitement of being a renegade and disrupting the world's most powerful and wealthiest companies, who have had the most damaging impact on our democracies and quality of life, is what really interested me in clean energy. I saw it as a righteous cause that would eventually happen due to fundamental economics. When I got involved in clean energy, I benefited from the significant financial and human investment that had been made into advancing solar and wind technologies up to that point. Clearly, they would eventually become cheaper and renewable energy would eventually prevail. This made it an attractive opportunity from a mission and a "screw you" perspective to fossil fuel companies.

When and how did you create your mission, and how did it happen?

At some point in our lives, we experience a midlife crisis where we realise that we have been effectively pursuing something imposed upon us by culture, family, or friends. We realise that what we have been pursuing may not be aligned with our goals and perspectives. Around this time, I had a similar realisation and wanted to set a high bar for myself. I wanted to have my own input and ambitions, and I knew that if we were to disrupt fossil fuels, we needed to raise the bar. I understood that setting ambitious goals was the only way to achieve them, and I wanted to be a part of something aligned with my values. This was my work midlife crisis, where I matured and set my own goals to be in control of my destiny. More importantly, I wanted to understand what I did not want to do.

What do you consider to be the most fulfilling aspect of your work currently?

For me, it's not just about collaborating with my team and building relationships, attending conferences, and seeing friends, but also realising that my work involves amazing people who are passionate about their mission and are also fun and interesting.

What truly excites me is the opportunity to delve into new technology and envision what the future will look like daily. As a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which portrays a world where replicator technology has been discovered, and anything can be produced in abundance, leading to a shift away from violence and towards more meaningful pursuits, I am fascinated by the possibilities. In addition, our innate curiosity as humans drives us to explore technology and understand how we can move towards a future with 100% clean energy and what that life will look like.

Have you ever made a decision completely different from what you had planned or what others had planned for you?

Absolutely. I wasn't born with a clear life mission, and it took me some time to figure out what I wanted to do and be, especially regarding my career.

At one point, when I was a filmmaker working in New York City, a college friend of mine who had just completed his medical studies called me up and said, “Ryan, you don't really care about your work. Let's travel to Australia.”

This was a conflict for me because my filmmaking job was a steady source of income, and my mother could sleep better at night knowing I had a stable job. However, deep down, I knew my friend Zach was right. So I reluctantly told my mom I would quit my steady job and travel to Australia. Of course, she was concerned and mad at Zach, but we still joke about it.

Ultimately, this decision led to many twists and turns, but it taught me the lesson to do things I truly love. If I don't love something, I should travel and explore other options until I find what I truly enjoy. So now, Zach is a successful cardiac surgeon in Seattle, and I do my own thing too.

Did you experience any other big “Aha!” moments in your life journey besides the one you just shared with us?

From a human development perspective, realising that the earth is not the centre of the universe and that I am not very special was a significant realisation for me. Human development is a process of growing up from thinking that the whole world is inside your head to developing empathy and realising that you could have been born at any time, anywhere. This understanding humbled me to realise that I am special but must also be humble about not being special. The ultimate form of empathy is treating others as if they could be you. There's a story I like called The Egg by Andy Weir, who wrote the book The Martian was based on, which talks about a person who goes to heaven and realises that they have been every person that ever lived and that the highest purpose is to serve all of humanity as if it's you.

Did this realisation give you a different perspective on your privileged life growing up in the US and give you a sense of responsibility to others? How did this “Aha!” moment change your view of your life?

Absolutely. After travelling the world for a semester or two and realising that nothing is normal, it's just what you're used to, I realised that growing up in the United States during a time of peace with loving parents who provided for me and invested so much in my education was an extreme privilege. So I felt my responsibility was to give back and level the playing field as much as possible. If I were in someone else's shoes, I would want someone like me to be doing what I am doing.

I have noticed from your biography that you have founded several businesses. As you have mentioned, what were the major challenges you faced as an entrepreneur and founder?

As an entrepreneur and founder, the challenges often involve persistent determination and enduring failures while striving to discover product-market fit and establish a functional business, even in a small capacity. As you scale, there is potential for the business to flourish significantly. However, you consistently grapple with failure and self-doubt that often accompany the entrepreneurial journey.

How have you learned to deal with it over time?

I have dealt with it well and poorly, depending on the situation. It's important to understand that even the most successful people in the world have faced failure. However, they kept going. For instance, Buckminster Fuller dropped out of Harvard, experienced multiple failures, and faced unfortunate circumstances. But he dedicated his life to creating a better world and eventually invented the geodesic dome, his only successful product. As an entrepreneur, it's crucial to remember that success might not come quickly, and you might have to endure failure for a while. So really, it's essential to have a growth mindset, learn from mistakes, and appreciate the journey and the relationships you build along the way.

You have accumulated a lot of knowledge over the years, which has enabled you to write your book. But, despite your experience, did you encounter any mistakes or failures while running Third Derivative? Were you able to learn from them, or did you manage to run it smoothly?

It’s been a learning journey that has been both rewarding and challenging. At times, you have to reevaluate your approach and start from scratch. Nevertheless, our approach and mission have remained consistent, which is encouraging. But, of course, adjustments must always be made along the way. So the program was not flawless from the beginning, but we have listened to our stakeholders and ensured that we delivered something valuable while staying on mission. This process has been fantastic.

What kind of future do you hope to help create through your business?

In the broadest sense, I envision a 100% clean and sustainable future, with a democratically owned structure as much as possible. However, in a more practical sense, I aim to assist cleantech entrepreneurs in navigating the "valleys of death" and understanding where and when to seek support so that they can progress with greater knowledge and ease. Let's strive to ensure that as few promising ideas and technologies as possible go to waste. While only some ideas or businesses will succeed, I want Third Derivative to be at the forefront of supporting clean tech entrepreneurs to scale as quickly as possible.

What advice would you like to give to young entrepreneurs who are just starting or those considering starting a business in the climate space?

First, do not feel ashamed about being new to the industry. Not only has everyone been new at some point, but right now is the best time for new entrants into clean tech entrepreneurship due to the industry's growth. You are welcome, and your talents are needed, so jump in. Secondly, consider joining the New Energy Network or other similar communities to find companionship in the journey. Finally, do not be afraid to ask silly questions or admit that you do not know something because it is a reasonable starting point. Finally, be bold and tenacious. Do some math and understand that everyone starts somewhere.

If there was one lasting message that could reach everyone on this planet, not just entrepreneurs, just everyone. What would that one be?

Let's all have fun.

That sounds pretty good to me. I want to thank you very much for spending a little time with us; from all of us at Brighter Future, we hope your efforts succeed immensely.

To learn more about Ryan’s work, see www.third-derivative.org and his personal website www.acceleratorguy.com.

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