End of summer

We have officially reached the end of summer and it is already starting to get chilly in the bay area. Incredible because this past Monday it was so warm I had to go swimming after work. Now it is getting chilly and will probably continue that trend, although not to the same levels as the northeast. I just wanted to recap what a summer it’s been.

It started with finishing the TPP thesis in May. After that it was straight cruising to graduation. It was nice to have Erik come out to Boston to see my stomping ground and show him around. The Acadia trip with the group was amazing that weekend and I gained a new appreciation for natural parks in the northeast.

Then my family from both sides rolled into town for graduation. I had to somehow split my time evenly between the family and the little miss. For the most part it was a success. Played my last soccer game, went out to a nice dinner with both families, traveled to Nantastket for the first time (and loved it!), and finally had graduation from MIT. It was a whirlwind of an experience and the next day I was already on the plane back to Boise for Erik’s graduation.

After crashing (mentally) on every single flight back to Idaho, we finally made it back on time for Erik’s graduation. Later that week my mom hosted an amazing graduation party for the both of us at home and we had a nice turnout of friends. I never expected people would give us so much money as a graduation gift. We were definitely grateful and spent the time to hand write thank you notes to everyone.

The next day I was on my way to San Jose for my third and final round interview onsite with Flex. I was so excited and had a new business suit ready for the experience. The day before the interview however I took a trip to SF to see a friend and get a good taste of bay area to see if it was really my thing. It was. The next day I nailed the full day interview and flew back to Boise with Jamba Juice in hand and happy how it went.

A week later my bro and I were on the road for our north Cali trip which I blogged afterwards. What an incredible experience. From Boise to Tahoe to Yosemite to Santa Cruz to San Jose and SF to Highway 1 past the Golden Gate Bridge to Redwoods to Medford, OR and back to Boise. We took plenty of pictures and were left with awesome memories of Cali. I was even more excited about hearing back from Flex.

The rest of the month was spent in Idaho going to Redfish lake and McCall for the 4th. There were startcraft sessions, gym time, movies, and good evening walks. It was perfect. Then after the fireworks I took a one-way flight back to Boston, still unsure what would happen. I honestly thought I would end up staying in Boston. There seemed good prospects. However I would never guessed the turn of events that transpired next. The call in Maharaja with Danny changed everything. Flex offered me the job and after my positive impression of bay area from the trips and my overall strong desire to move back to California, I accepted it.

The move out of Boston began and slowly I began to peel away as I sold my wonderful bike, gave away clothes to goodwill, and found a sublet for my room. There were final parties and get togethers, final sunset walks, final soccer practice, final bike rides, and final trips to the Trader Joes down the street. When the day came I was somewhat sad, somewhat excited, and somewhat nervous of beginning my life in the “real world.” I took a final deep “bowl of Bostonian air” and quit it.

I left to Ohio first to spend some time with Tata and my dad. There we played plenty of golf and more golf. I also got to see a video of my parents from 1989 when they first moved from Argentina to the US, and out of all places to the bay area in Gilroy. Watching that movie from the past was incredible to say the least as I saw all the places I would be seeing soon. A few days later I jumped on the plane San Jose and made the final leap.

I moved straight into my new apartment with my new roommate hoping everything would work out alright. It did. I struck out lucky with a super roommate and apartment complex. Indoor and outdoor gyms, parks, pools, running trails, and wonderful sunlight… I had found my heaven. I was happy. The ORJINAL came next, as well several trips to IKEA and ComedySportz (I love that place!), and within a few weeks I was well settled in.

Work started slowly and I came to love my new team, company, and job. It’s all a new phase of development and I am embracing it and all its opportunities and challenges fully. I was lucky to be the “energy guy” and be staffed purely with the energy solutions segment of the business. I would learn a lot within the first few weeks ramping up on how to succeed at work. Being proactive with work and networking was my biggest immediate takeaway and I have made it my focus since.

The first weekends were mostly all road trips with a good buddy from MIT. I went to Mt. Diablo and then we went to Santa Cruz, SF and Palo Alto, and Monterey. Then after all our discussions on how awesome Cali is he moved to New York! Luckily that week I had Neha’s company and we spent an unforgettable week doing wine tasting in Napa, parasailing/jet skiing/casino-ing in Tahoe, and hitting up Half Moon Bay. The week went by too fast and I refocused back on proactivity at work.

That leads to now where today was the last day of summer. In Facebook there was a beautiful photo of the Charles at sunset with everything glowing red. Slowly its sinking in me the great life and community I had in Boston. Being in a new environment I have to actively make a new social network and put myself out there. Nothing is coming at me like it did in Boston where everything is thrown at you and shuffled around in that dense and tight setting. Now it is much different but I am happy in other ways. I have my early morning workouts early at the company gym, Skype and starcraft sessions, and sunbathing on the weekends. That however will probably start changing as I move into my first “fall” in the bay area. It is starting to get chilly outside.

When I think of this summer I warm up inside. It has been one of the best summers I’ve had. It always amazes me how much can change in one year. I would have never guessed I would be here right now last year when I was starting my 2nd year at MIT. It always makes me wonder what I will be doing one year from now. In any case I will have another wonderful summer to look forward to. Good bye summer. Until 2017.

Flex

After nearly 10 months of interviewing and sending out dozens of job applications, I have finally found the right company and team for the start of my post-MIT phase: Flex (formerly Flextronics). I will be based out of the company’s US headquarters in San Jose and working with the tight knit and diligent strategy group. I could not be happier with this move and I am extremely excited to begin doing high impact strategy work with a massive 200,000 employee company with global reach, and exploring any and all connections to cleantech. I start in mid-August.

It all started from a serendipitous email I received from a manager back at the beginning of May when I heard my resume was forwarded to the team from HR. Although I didn’t remember sending any application recently I immediately jumped on the opportunity and went through two rounds of case interviews done face-to-face on Skype and right before graduation was given the chance to interview onsite. The proposed date was June 3rd, graduation day, so I had to push it back a week and flew out June 10th. I met several members of the team, went around the bay-facing office, and left with an overall fantastic impression.

Unfortunately by the time I had interviewed the two open slots were filled so I had no opening. The team really liked and wanted me to join so they tried to make a third position but after a month nothing was realized. I was recommended to the corporate leadership development program and (somewhat disappointedly) began interviewing again for a spot in the next annual cohort. I had thought at that point I was staying in Boston so I began looking at housing in the area and called off plans of subleasing my place.

On July 14th I was eating lunch at the Maharaja in Harvard Square with my good friend Danny, telling him what happened over the course of the two months, when I noticed my phone vibrating. I was being called and the number was from Milpitas, CA. I knew it was Flex and tried to remember if I had another interview scheduled for the leadership program. I was wrong. Over the next 10 minutes I had learned that a spot had opened up with the strategy team over the last day and that they were rolling over the position and offer to me. I was looking at Danny the whole time smiling in disbelief. After the phone call I told him what had happened and neither of us could believe the serendipity. Everything had come full circle. I was on cloud 9.

Two weeks later I officially accepted the formal offer and began looking at housing the bay area. I found a sublease for my wonderful home on Chalk street and began doing final rounds with friends in Boston. It still hasn’t hit me that I am moving back to California and working with an amazing team and company that is exploding with opportunity. Looking back these past 10 months I would have never have guessed the post-MIT job search would end like this, but it did. As one of my good soccer buddies told me, sometimes the best only comes at the very end, and I could not agree more.

Now I look forward to jump starting my career with the Flex strategy group and making the greatest impact possible. Living in the bay area will be a different experience from living in LA but I am extremely excited. This next phase will bring on new challenges, new experiences, and new people but I am ready and open to embrace it full heartedly.

NorthCal graduation road trip

In over 2000 miles and 6 nights of traveling, my brother Erik and I completed an incredible road trip around Northern California. We went from Boise to Tahoe, Tahoe to Yosemite, Yosemite to Santa Cruz for two nights, Santa Cruz to Arcata, Arcata to Medford, and Medford back to Boise. In between we saw everything from wild bears to vintage Ford Mustangs to the Golden Gate. After living in Los Angeles for four years, I can safely say that Northern California is definitely the most beautiful half of the state.

The amount of different geography we passed was amazing. The mountains and pines around Tahoe were thick and dark green, but then between Tahoe and Yosemite there are some beautiful dry rolling hills filled with cattle and horses (what I called “Mustang Country”). Then there is the agricultural valley of central California and then back to smaller mountains closer to the coast around Santa Cruz. On the way up we went through the Bay Area and its native fauna, San Francisco, and then up north through Santa Rosa along Highway 1 where you start to hit wine country. Lastly there was the utmost north where there’s the giant Redwoods and the pine-filled Oregon boarder. The different geographies really amazed me.

I was also surprised with the amount of development there was in Tahoe and the Bay Area. California has grown a lot in population/tourism and we could tell. It took us nearly two hours to go 7 miles from Daly City to the Golden Gate bridge and Tahoe had casinos up on the Nevada side of the border. People are fighting for every single plot of prime land near the beach in Santa Cruz or anywhere in San Francisco. The Mystery Spot isn’t even a mystery. No wonder the cost of living has gone so high. California is a beautiful state and everyone has flocked to get a piece of it. The cycles of boom and bust really haven’t settled ever since gold was discovered throughout the northern part of the state.

Overall it was a memorable trip. We laughed, we shouted, we talked a lot about cars. It was great. I will always remember this special trip with my brother. Now onto other fun summer adventures before the job hunt comes to an end.

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What do you want to accomplish in the next 5 years?

Classes finished up last week and my incredible time at MIT is coming to a close. It makes me wonder if I will ever take another university class ever again… either way I’ve probably had enough school and need to move on to the real world. We were left with a provocative question in our last sustainability capstone class when we were asked what specifically do we want to accomplish in the next 5 years. I thought about it and came up with these three accomplishments:

  1. Be involved in reducing 100 tons of CO2 equivalent or 100 tons of toxic pollutants
  2. Be involved in the creation of 100 jobs
  3. Inspire 1 or 2 others to do the same

It wasn’t easy thinking up some concrete accomplishments but these came to mind as actionable and measurable goals. They are very helpful in my plans going forward since now I can evaluate any job against my ability to meet these goals. I don’t know if I will reach them or if my next job will allow me to meet them, but the direction and purpose they provide is very helpful. We are all passionate about something so being able to identify concrete accomplishments that takes that passion to an applied level is important for us to internalize. It’s worth thinking about although it’s not easy.

My hope is that my next job keeps me on the cleantech trajectory that I started at MIT. There is incredible opportunity in the sector right now so it will be interesting and exciting to see what finalizes (the documentaries Catching the Sun and Time to Choose capture this perfectly). Now I’ll just enjoy the long awaited sunshine and warmth in New England while doing some interviews and other miscellaneous closures. Graduation on June 3rd is approaching quickly so a few fun trips in the meantime will be perfect.

On Creating Cleantech Confluences

After two years of an incredible journey the show is coming to a close. Today I had my three copies of my thesis printed (one for the library vault, one for the library stacks, and one for the TPP stacks), signed and submitted. The experience of producing a masters thesis has been a good one and I have grown a lot personally and professionally from the process. It is exciting to see a finished product after months of hard work. Hopefully On Creating Cleantech Confluences provides some useful insight for entrepreneurs, investors, and policymakers in cleantech. The field is exploding and undergoing a radical reformation. Cleantech 2.0 is on the horizon and I am excited and hopeful it will bring the change we need in time.

In any case, the work would not have been possible without the help of all sorts of people, including my advisor Jason Jay who has been a tremendous mentor and advisor during my time at MIT. It has been a privilege to work with him in the Sloan Sustainability Initiative and I am looking forward to the day I am the one presenting at the Thursday Sustainability Lunch talk! Other thanks are in the acknowledgments. In the meantime we’ll push this forward and see if we can land it in the Harvard Business Review for some good exposure! Stay tuned… I am excited for everything that comes next.

 

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2016 Sustainability Summit

This past Friday on tax day was the 2016 MIT Sustainability Summit. The organizing team spent the last five months (toiling) organizing for the one day event and we were extremely happy with the outcome. The sun was out on a non-cloudy and not too chilly Boston day to make for a energetic event. Over 250 people showed up to the 6th and 7th floors of E52 at MIT to hear the latest on Sustainability-Oriented Innovation, the theme of the conference.

The morning started with a lively introduction from the one and only Professor John Sterman and then a great tripod keynote on sustainability at MIT. The sustainability leadership panel followed with powerful testimonies from a few chief sustainability officers, and then we headed into structured networking. As co-director of the content team, I was particularly pleased with the structured networking event. The idea came from the MIT Stex conference in December where tables were set with topics for people of like interests to mingle. We adopted the idea for the summit and it was a hit. Many people spoke about it afterwards. It is a great session for any type of conference.

Vegetarian lunch proceeded and then we headed into the afternoon panels. I had organized the three Finance Track panels, which included one on alternatives to venture capital funding, one on metrics of SOI investment, and one on policy levers. I was very happy with all three. The discussion and content was rich for all of them, and the moderators made each its own unique experience. It was also nice to reconnect with familiar faces since many of the panelists were interviewees for my masters thesis. The last panel was my favorite and Sterman had everyone in the room howling again. Dave Miller of CEVG also brought up a good point that a carbon tax should be called a “carbon fee” or a revenue-neutral price on carbon as a way to find bipartisan support. After months of email correspondence my three hours of product delivered and it was fantastic.

The summit finished with a solid keynote from Professor Esty of Yale University. One controversial comment was whether humans can suppress the need for consumption and dematerialize our economy. Esty argued that it was not at all possible and ran head on with Sterman’s philosophy that it is absolutely necessary. It was an interesting point to consider because the morning session alluded to the leverage points necessary to make a sustainable economy, including dematerialization, decarbonization, and decentralization, with each preceding the next. Maybe the chain could work the other way around starting with decentralization but either way it was a significant sustainability point to consider.

Overall the summit organizing and final day experience was well worth the effort. It was a pleasure to work with amazing colleagues throughout the process. My content team was head over heels spectacular and the summit organizing team was one of the funnest groups I have worked with. It was an experience worth remembering, and I will never forget the 3D printed Jason Jay chia pets we made to top off the decorations. It was a beautiful touch to a beautiful conference.

 

 

Kill the Crows? Forget Policy, TernTech is the Solution to a $65B Bird Conservation Effort

For years the American crow has been an unmanaged pest in society. They are some of the smartest animals on the planet, and have adapted to thrive in urban environments. While they have mostly used their intellect to collect waste food in cities and suburbs, they have also threatened endangered species of birds by eating their eggs and offspring. Unfortunately, the best management practice to date has been to kill the crows. There have been attempts to control the crows using non-lethal methods and technologies, but they have been ineffective, until now. One product that has taken my breath away is TernTech: a new crow management technology developed at Loyola Marymount University. TernTech has captured my fasciation because of its nearly 100% efficacy in protecting an endangered shorebird site in Los Angeles. If successful on a larger scale, this technology could have widespread conservation impacts. It may be the type of technology required to protect endangered species of birds and other animals across the globe.

Every year in May a small shorebird called the California least tern returns to a special nesting site on Venice Beach. They come from unknown places and for unknown reasons to nest and rear the next generation of terns in the same sands where they were most likely born themselves. They have been nesting every year at Venice Beach unabatedly since records began in 1894. It wasn’t until 1977, however, that the nesting site was fenced to minimize human interference in the area. This was driven partly by the bird’s relatively new status as a federally endangered species in 1970. The fenced area has since remained the same nesting site for the terns.

As the Marina Del Rey area surrounding the site became more developed and populated, it also brought along with it corresponding increases in human traffic and waste. Though the terns were mostly protected from human traffic, they were not protected from the critters that came with the increased food waste and shelter. A whole new problem and externality arose from the development and that externality came primarily in the form of the notorious American crow.

The crows’ diet ranges from insects to seeds to eggs, so naturally the crows were inclined to prey on the terns’ eggs. They were first noted as a tern egg predator in 1983, but it was not until 1999 that the tern colony hit an inflection point. For the first time in the site’s recorded history the crows ate the entire colony of tern eggs. None survived. The same result then followed again in 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2008 through 2013. There was cause for alarm by the local Audubon Society and conservationists in the area who had long volunteered to help care and maintain the nesting site. The terns were dying. With decreasing numbers of adult terns and nesting densities, the colony was slowly loosing its fighting power, and was growing more susceptible to crow predation.

Local groups responded promptly with predator management systems, such as baiting and trapping the crows, but it worked to no avail. The crows returned shortly after being captured, or had competing factions take control of the territory. A new solution was necessary, one that hit the root problem

Although it was proposed, the solution was most definitely not exterminating crows in the area. Everyone knew there were better, more humane solutions for the long-term. The solution had to be smart, scalable, and not depend on volunteers to show up on the weekends. The solution was not policy but rather technology, and one I was fortunate to be able to co-develop with a team from my alma mater, Loyola Marymount University (LMU). It is now an upcoming conservation product called TernTech that could save millions of dollars in outdated predation management systems, and potentially help protect endangered species of birds everywhere. It is a product I hold close to heart and a product that I will always remember for how it took my breath away the first time it work successfully.

The thinking behind the technology is simple: if we want to stop the crows from eating the eggs, how do we train them to do so? If we can train them to not eat the eggs then the biggest burden on the terns’ survival is removed. But how do you train a large number of crows to stop eating tern eggs?

In 2013, Ryan Ecological Consulting teamed up with bird expert Dr. Peter Auger at LMU and the LA Audubon Society to test one approach that had showed some promise in research elsewhere. Leading up to the nesting season the team deployed quail eggs infused with Methiocarb—a non-lethal emetic—to fool the crows into thinking that the eggs were undesirable. It was a form of taste aversion. When the May nesting season began, however, the crows were quick to return to their old ways, and they consumed all the tern eggs that year. None survived.

Though the taste aversion tactic failed to work, the logic behind it still remained compelling. In 2014 the team began to ideate other approaches that used the same logic of conditioning the crows to not eat the eggs. This time they recruited eager students like myself through an Environmental Studies Capstone class to provide more physical and creative man-hours to the solution process. As an engineering student, I was assigned to the technology team to devise a solution.

We thought of the possibility of deterring the crows by shocking them with a non-lethal electric current. It was potentially problematic with animal welfare groups, but our worries subsided after doing some research on electric shock-based pest management systems. These systems are ubiquitous and wouldn’t harm the crows at the right amperage. I started to work on designing a simple system that would make the idea a reality.

Using just copper wire, a wooden stake, quail eggs, steel wool, and a battery-powered electric fence shocking pack (one used for small animals like rabbits), we rigged up a system that would deliver a shock to any critter that bit the bait. Initially we were concerned that multiple variables would impede the system from working, like the shell being too thick or the crow’s beak not being conductive, so we had some doubts going into field-testing.

After a few rounds of trial and error, we finally reached a working proof of concept. On a video clip stamped April 10th, we saw a crow circle the egg, bite it, and jump back in surprise. It was the video we had been waiting a long time to see. We urgently enlisted the other technology team students to help build and deploy more units. We were running out of time because it was already mid-April and in only a few weeks the terns would be returning for the 2014 nesting season. We rushed to deploy the systems throughout the area, hoping that in a few weeks time they would effectively condition the crows to not eat the terns’ eggs.

To make the conditioning even more effective, we enlisted our partner—Ryan Ecological Consulting—to seek permission from the Wildlife Service to use a few tern eggs as decoys instead of quail eggs. These eggs are extremely difficult to obtain since the bird have a federally endangered status, but we ended up getting several dozen to use as proper decoys.

For the first time in decades, the 2014 nesting season resulted in nearly all the tern eggs and fledglings surviving. We had produced something that had solved the crow problem like never before. The technology, which we called TernTech, was heralded and applauded by several groups as a viable long-term solution to crow predation of tern eggs at Venice Beach, and the success had us start thinking about commercialization potential and market opportunities. After all, the solution’s scope was not only limited to the terns at Venice Beach—a comprehensive and well-designed product could help protect countless numbers of endangered species of birds and other animals across the country and the world.

The market opportunity to protect endangered species of animals is massive. Since the signing of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, all species of plant and animal wildlife in the U.S. have been identified as species of important “esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.” As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have been granted the authority to take measures to protect certain segments of wildlife that have been classified as “endangered” or “threatened.” Billions of dollars are being spent on wildlife conservation so the market for our technology is incredible.

Birds require the highest costs for conservation out of all animal species. They make up about 7.65% of all threatened species on the global IUCN Red List, and have about 1/8th of their species considered as endangered, threatened, or vulnerable. A 2012 study in Science estimates that protecting and effectively managing all terrestrial sites of global avian conservation significance (11,731 Important Bird Areas) would cost US$65.1 billion annually. This is 4.2 times larger than the median cost of conservation for other taxa. And in the United States, the federal and state governments spent just more than $1.7 billion to conserve endangered and threatened species under the ESA in fiscal year 2013. This number is only expected to rise as extinction rates across the globe accelerate due to climate change and other related factors.

Out of the FY ’13 ESA budget, $336,540 went to protecting the California least tern. This means that by protecting the terns’ eggs and the eggs of many other birds, we could enter and capture a billion dollar market opportunity in the United States. Furthermore, it is a market that we could easily penetrate with a simple and scalable technology solution like TernTech, which offers a cost effective alternative to outdated predation management systems.

By protecting the endangered least terns at the Venice Beach colony, our technology is one of many trying to address the significant challenges we are imposing on our natural environment. Through hard work and technology designed for scale, we are trying to prove that we can and should protect the natural world, and can do so in non-lethal and effective ways. Thousands of follow-on sites exist for us to sell TernTech, so the number of markets to capture is endless. In the near term, however, what we hope to capture is the breath and fascination of the public. TernTech took our breath away when it finally worked because it signaled that the California least terns, and possibly thousands of other species across the world, may actually have a chance at survival. We want others to feel this same inspiration and know they can also make a difference on the natural environment. If TernTech takes their breath away like it did ours, and the lucky American crows of Venice Beach, then we know we are making a positive impact on our community.

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2016 – Arrival

I started and ended 2015 in Boise, Idaho, and in good company both times. The whole year was full of good company actually, like a parallel of the beginning and end of the year, some company was lost and some was gained. The TurnUp team was amazing company even though the actual company didn’t pan out ultimately, and we ended up going our separate ways. The Optibit team was also great company while it lasted. I left them to focus on TurnUp, and as a lesson to make me think twice about my commitments again, they went on to win the MIT Clean Energy Prize and moved out to Silicon Valley. But there was new company to replace the old. I ended up finding a fantastic house (with a fantastic landlord) in west Cambridge to move-in with three of MIT buddies. I became part of a new research team and family with the Sloan Sustainability Initiative, which has been invaluable company for my personal and professional development. I’ve joined the passionate company at Aligned Intermediary for an indeterminate time, and I’ve forged deeper connections with a few individuals, which has become wonderful company all in itself. Whether company lost or gained, 2015 was about change of direction and acceleration.

I see 2016 being about arrival. The year will bring the arrival of a new life, new destinations, new missions, a new president, and old conclusions. With my graduation right around the corner in June, and my brother’s graduation from high school as well, much will be arriving soon. Being in school until now has both taught me a lot and taught me little. It’s taught me about the economic, political, social, educational, and technological systems we have in place. It’s taught me the importance of discipline, diligence, and diversity. It’s taught me to critique the theoretical pros and cons of our society from the vantage point of the “Ivory Tower”, but it hasn’t given me the boots-on-the-ground experience I need to have a rounded viewpoint. It’s taught me little about the value of earning a salary and standing up for a particular set of economic and political values with that salary on the line. It’s even taught me little about the value of my education. Finally putting my education to the test and beginning work is both exciting and scary, but I welcome the arrival in 2016 with an open mind and heart. It’s a new bend in the journey.

2016 will bring the arrival of a new president! Although I haven’t been able to do a full analysis or make a fully informed opinion of my views yet, I do know a few simple rules that would change government for the better, so I’m looking for the candidate that does not represent status quo corrupt government and embodies some of these simple rules. I want to see a ban on lobbying, a simple one vote one tally system counting directly towards candidates and not through some electorate, people with incomes between $25,000 and $250,000 having the same one vote as those earning above $250,000, a cap on political campaign contributions, a flat income tax rate, no tax on businesses earning less than $1M annual revenue, a revenue-neutral carbon tax, and immigration laws that are equally considerate to those who live, work, and die for this country as they are for those coming from other countries. If a candidate announces and brings some of these changes then I will vote for them. This presidential election is going to be a thriller for sure.

My new year resolutions are:

  1. Graduate
  2. Land a cool job
  3. Write in the website once a month
  4. Read one book every other month
  5. Wear more sandals in summer

And as always, I will continue to seek God in 2016. He is the guiding light for us all, and we must continue to find him in our hearts to see his intent in this rapidly changing world around us. Happy new year!

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The Journey to MIT

I haven’t updated for a while so it’s about time! Here’s my story leading up to MIT TPP that will be featured in the quarterly TPP Alumni eNewsletter:

My journey started in Boise, Idaho, where I was born and raised. Both of my parents immigrated to the U.S. from Argentina, and arrived first in Northern California before my dad’s work with Syngenta sent him and my mom to Boise. There I started playing soccer—the national sport of my parents’ country—almost every day of every year without fault since I was three, and traveled around the country to play in competitive regional and national tournaments in my teens (at one point I got to play the national youth team of Iraq!). I also traveled to Argentina almost every year to visit family, and learned to speak Spanish fluently. Later, my parents separated and my dad moved to Brazil and Switzerland, so I also visited him there as well, but soccer always remained the constant.

After taking engineering and environmental science classes throughout high school, and learning about my mom’s work with an environmental engineering firm, at the end of high school I decided to pursue environmental engineering in college. The decision came one day during a field trip to a local wastewater treatment plant when I was amazed to see the treated water flow back into the Boise river, knowing that it still contained harmful pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals. By that time I had become very health conscious, customizing my training for soccer and reading all sorts of health articles from Dr. Mercola (THE health guru!), so the moment really inspired me to find a solution, and to learn more about the environmental technologies that could solve the problem.

A year later I ended up in Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, following a series of events that started with a drive around the campus and digging up an important scholarship offer in my junk email the day before college decision day (watch your junk mail!). I turned down athletic scholarships at other schools with the hopes of playing Division 1 soccer, but unfortunately got injured during my first week of tryouts. I reluctantly decided to focus solely on my academics rather than keep spending time fighting for a place on the team. My drive for fitness did not die, however, and during my first year I wrote a personal fitness book called ProNature Fitness: Unlocking Radiant Health Through Smart Exercise. The pain of not playing competitive soccer was tough, but it improved over time as I slowly began to excel in my academics. I won a fellowship and internship with the EPA, did a research internship in upstate New York, and topped off my college career with some university wide awards. When it came time to choose the next step, I concluded that solutions to environmental problems were not just technological, but also financial and political, so graduate school was the right choice. I was choosing between MIT TPP and Stanford MS&E, and ultimately decided on MIT TPP because of the warmer vibe Ed and Barb gave during the application process, and because a flip of quarter (that happened to be a Massachusetts quarter!) said I should.

At TPP, I’ve gravitated towards the business and entrepreneurial part environmental technology solutions, focusing on Sustainability-Oriented Innovation with the Sloan Sustainability Initiative. My thesis will be on best practices, partnerships, and policies to push early-stage clean technology companies past the commercialization “Valley of Death,” so they can among many things better treat the water we send back into the environment.

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Sustainability-Oriented Innovation

A small piece on SOI:

The surge of industrial capitalism has successfully lighted up the homes of billions, extended human lifespan internationally, and connected the global community. Visionaries like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Edison helped pave the way to this modern world with their revolutionary new enterprises. Little did these visionaries foresee, however, was that as their businesses scaled and their technologies became widely adopted, a network of resource-intensive systems would grow across the globe. These systems, like the grid and highways, provided extremely valuable services to many people, but at the same time it threw the world’s climate and resource distribution into massive imbalance. And the uneven rate of industrialization between North and South, and East and West, drew stark contrasts between the hemispheres. It has led to widespread impoverishment and global warming, and exponential population growth has only made the problems worse.

The challenge of the 21st century then has become one of sustainability: finding a way to carve out Raworth’s “safe and just operating space for humanity” on a planet with finite natural resources and an ever growing human population. But the real challenge of sustainability goes beyond Raworth’s moral plea though: the real challenge of sustainability extends to creating a healthy and thriving society that is prosperous for the long run. It is positive rather than defensive goal, and most importantly, business will play a key role in meeting this challenge.

The problem, however, is changing traditional mindsets around the purpose of business in society. Maximizing profit at any social and environmental cost has, intentionally and unintentionally, brought us to the crossroads we face today. Events like the BP oil spill and Monsanto farmer litigations have brought business ethics to forefront of the public’s mind and scrutiny. Reducing environmental impact through new efficiency initiatives like replacing lightbulbs, and starting new corporate philanthropy initiatives like educational outreach, have been noteworthy improvements to the otherwise narcissistic past of corporate business practice. But even when done in the name of corporate social responsibility, these initiatives do not suffice either—they are still grounded in the same age-old ideologies of business as usual.

The question therefore is how will society progress into Raworth’s 21st century vision—a noble one that any one would want—if the only equation business optimizes is a profit maximization equation? It is time for business to redefine itself, and do so quickly. Much more is at stake than reputation, and much more possible than financial profitability.

A new era of business and society is dawning, one where profit maximization is being rendered insufficient. The technologies and practices that brought us to the 21st century are being re-evaluated through a wider, systems lens. Surviving in this new reality will require adaptation. Thriving in this new reality will require innovation. But not just any innovation, as we have already haphazardly innovated our way into raising mean global sea levels around half a foot. Thriving in this new reality will require sustainability-oriented innovation (SOI).

It is a change in perspective and realization of purpose, on a systems level. It is not just a corporate means of risk mitigation, but an entrepreneurial means of creating business opportunity. It is not just about measuring footprints, it is about measuring handprints. It is not just about protecting the environment, it is about advancing human flourishing. It is not just about technological innovation, it is about new organizational and system innovation. It is not about tradeoffs, it is about pushing the frontier. SOI is about embracing the constraints of a planet with finite resources and a growing population. It seeks to maximize economic, social, and environmental profit equations. It sees our collective experience and expertise as a force to transform the 21st century challenge into a 21st century opportunity. SOI is a change in perspective.

Changing perspectives is not easy, however. Elon Musk created an entirely new car company to get his sustainability message across; Patagonia told its customers to purchase fewer jackets to get its sustainability message across; and Opower had to lobby government before it could even begin to get its sustainability message across. Incumbent businesses, technologies, and beliefs simply carry tremendous inertia counter to change. They are hard to redirect, and especially so when the world is imagined to be full of never ending resources. But rather than waiting for a reality check and push come to shove, SOI-thinking says why not embrace the constraints? This change in perspective sees constraints not as a threat, but rather as a driver of new innovation.

“If we do not discipline ourselves, the world will do it for us.” – William Feather

“With self-discipline most anything is possible.” – Theodore Roosevelt

This change in mindset is a powerful first step towards SOI, but it is only a step. Embracing and balancing the constraints in practice comes next, and it is no easy task either. It requires a high degree of discipline, and sometimes even the guts to take on extra costs upfront before more fruits can be realized later. Ben & Jerry’s is a case-in-point example of this when in mid-2015 they announced they were placing an internal price of carbon on all their products and processes. The $10 per ton price will spike all their product and process related costs at the outset, but both as a signal and as a constraint, will drive the Ben & Jerry’s team to innovate in ways they would not have otherwise. Surely they will payback the short-term costs with newfound efficiencies and revenue streams, but the real gain will come from the long-term value their creative new innovations produce, and the resulting strategic jump forward the company and brand will experience because of them.

Placing an internal price on carbon is one example of leveraging an economic or business constraint for innovation, but business constraints are just one of three dimensions of constraints involved in SOI. The other two are customer and system constraints. In order to maximize economic as well as social and environmental profit, what is good for business has to be balanced with what is good for customers and what is good for larger social and environmental systems. Finding the sweet spot between all three is SOI.

As examples of the other two constraints, Patagonia sought to leverage a (voluntary) customer restraint when it told customers to purchase less of its apparel. Although it accomplished the complete opposite, the idea was to sell less quantity and drive innovation to produce higher quality recyclable and reusable products. Opower, on the other hand, sought to remove a system constraint altogether when it lobbied for new utility energy policies. They were successful in their endeavor and IPO’d in April 2014. In all these cases, when one constraint is pressed, the others are relieved, and over time the result is often the total value of all three dimensions increase.

Still not convinced? Look no further than the Sustainia100 awards for what are essentially the top-ranked 100 SOIs nominated each year around the world. Each one is measured on the social, environmental, and economic value it produces. As shown in the 2015 edition, they cover the widest range of industry and societal segments. It includes entrepreneurial, corporate, nonprofit, and governmental innovators all seeking to balance a unique set of business, customer, and system constraints to successfully produce and scale their SOI.

There is a reason this international competition for SOIs has exploded in popularity, and a reason there is no such award for best ISO, GRI, or OSHA standard compliance. Sustainia’s mission rests on “giving people insights to how their everyday life could be improved by sustainable practices and routines,” and “shaping a new narrative of optimism and hope for a sustainable future that seeks to motivate instead of scare people with gloom and doomsday scenarios.” Society wants visions of a positive future, not a risk mitigated doomsday one. Business should therefore too if it wants to thrive in this new era of innovation and changed perspectives.

One such company doing exactly that is Patagonia. Their director of R&D, Testuya O’Hara, was delighted for example when he saw his Yulex bio-rubber wetsuit listed as a 2015 Sustainia100 finalist in the fashion sector. Years of hard work and belief enabled him and the Patagonia team to create something the surf industry had never seen or imagined before: a plant-based wetsuit. Although not 100% plant-based yet, Tetsuya and the team are determined to make it that way. Their hardwired sustainability perspective enables them to innovate in ways the rest of the industry simply cannot. It is forward thinking and tenacious, not boring and stagnant.

It also goes without surprise that the Sustainable Apparel Coalition Patagonia organized also had a Sustainia100 finalist nomination (Higg index tool). Patagonia strategically plays the “circular economy” megatrend, and as a result produces customer- and award-winning SOIs that are socially, environmentally, and economically profitable. But whether the circular economy or the sharing economy, these sustainability megatrends are real and growing in power. Patagonia and the other most innovative and forward thinking firms are capitalizing on them by changing their mindsets and values to match their underlying sustainability themes.

Balancing customer-business-system constraints in order to produce successful SOIs is quickly becoming the differentiator between average and outstanding companies. But just as Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Edison would argue, they will are useless unless they scale. They must scale to make meaningful impact, and must scale to replace the systems that the 20th century giants scaled to bring us to this crossroads in the first place. It will not be done through moral pleas of responsibility or through risk mitigation, but rather by the belief that a positive future can be created. Embracing constraints to produce ingenious SOIs is what will propel business to the forefront of the 21st century, and redefine its purpose and potential in society.