Backstories: Antora Energy
The story of how this startup was born, the path it is making for a cleaner electric grid, and why it’s already a Cyclotron Road success story.
On the surface, Andrew Ponec, Justin Briggs, and David Bierman might seem like an unlikely trio. Andrew: a wunderkind who put Stanford on hold to co-found a solar startup, which he sold when he was barely old enough to buy alcohol. David: a high school athlete and indifferent student — until his interest in engineering was sparked in college, and then burned bright and hot. Justin: a treehugging energy wonk, whose love of science and nature emerged when he was a kid, exploring the Colorado mountains with his dog.
But all three men have a shared passion and singular focus: to advance long-duration energy storage to enable the large-scale transition to renewable energy. They are pursuing that mission through Antora Energy, a startup commercializing ultra-low-cost, long-duration energy storage systems for a cleaner electric grid.
Antora Energy already represents a Cyclotron Road success story: It’s a merger of two different projects within our program. David Bierman joined as a Cohort Three fellow in 2017 with his initial project, Marigold Power, aimed at turning his MIT grad school research — a record-setting thermophotovoltaic (TPV) converter — into a commercial product. Justin and Andrew joined as part of Cohort Four last year, with the goal of using thermal energy storage coupled with TPV to solve the intermittency challenges that wind and solar represent to the energy grid. Another sign of success: The startup won a prestigious ARPA-E award soon after launching and is part of the first cohort of the Shell GameChanger Accelerator powered by NREL.
What follows are excerpts from our Backstories interviews with the three fellows, edited for brevity and clarity.
David, when you first read Andrew and Justin’s Cyclotron Road application, you were a bit skeptical. Tell me about that.
[David] What they were proposing was quite similar to what I pitched to Cyclotron Road a year earlier. Except that everything was better in their system, performance wise, which … my first reaction was “that’s gonna be really hard.” But then I asked myself where my doubts came from and that forced me to think through each piece. In the end I was like, “wait a minute…maybe it could work.”
That was during the time Justin and Andrew were being interviewed. Then, as they were in the running to join Cyclotron Road, we had a couple meetings that were so productive, fun, and interesting. At that point, in my head, it was starting to crystalize: This could be a great team, there is something very powerful here. The decision to join Andrew and Justin made itself.
[Andrew] Even in our first meeting, I realized that David was someone who is also thinking really deeply about the technology and its limits. And he is right on in that Justin and I were aiming for something that’s never been done before. From early on, Justin and I kept asking: What’s truly limiting this? And if there’s nothing that is truly limiting, then we should go out there and do it. I think it was really healthy to have David’s experience on the experimental side. We had these fantastic early discussions around different applications and different technology options and all of that stuff, to say, “let’s make sure that we’re not missing anything.” That was so productive.
You are all very clear that Antora Energy exists to solve a real problem in the energy landscape and, thereby, improve human lives by addressing climate change. But you’re doing so through the mechanisms of capitalism, the main goal of which is to produce returns for stakeholders.
[Justin] For a long time I was — and I still am — pretty skeptical about capitalism as it currently exists. I spent many years trying to improve things outside of that system. Like, what if I try to get everyone around me to drive less, fly less, buy less stuff, and eat less meat? That’s a fine approach, but it’s hard to scale it up to the global level needed to make an impact.
[Andrew] Startups have an ability to scale that is unusual compared to other types of organizations. And if we tried to do this project as simply an academic project we would not be able to scale it as well. If we tried it as non-profit we’d also not be able to scale. The ability to leverage public research funds and private investment, and eventually get to self-sustaining profitability, allows us to move a lot further and a lot faster than we could in any other way. That was the key thing for us. As you mentioned, we’re really mission focused. The problem we’re trying to solve is so pressing that we can’t wait around in an academic environment and slowly develop the technology.
Andrew, this isn’t your first rodeo. After early admission to Stanford, you dropped out to co-found Dragonfly, a power electronics platform for solar panels. SunPower then acquired the company and you went back to finish undergrad. Have you always been so ambitiously focused on energy?
[Andrew] When I was seven I was growing up in Oregon and learning a lot about electricity. California was having an energy crisis, and I knew we had all this hydro power up there and I was convinced I could just string wires down to California, from Oregon, to give them some of our power. I didn’t have a real strong sense for how far away California was [laughing]. It just seemed like, well, we have it here. And that’s how you move it. Seemed like a really easy problem to solve.
OK, yep. That’s some very early focus! David, what were your earliest aspirations?
[David] I wanted to be a professional athlete. I wasn’t thinking hard about anything in life so that just seemed like it would be the most fun thing to do. In high school, I had no interest in academics but by the time I got to college, I was blown away — in a good way, even though I got my ass kicked at the beginning. In calculus class, and chemistry class, I was like I’m so behind everybody. But what I was learning was so fascinating. So, I basically lived in the library for much of the next four years. I’m still catching up. During grad school I got more interested in not just technology but application of technology — particularly the ARPA-E model of pushing hard to move from concept to product.
[Justin] I was always interested in energy and the environment. Studying physics in undergrad was a way of getting a good foundation for understanding. But my interest really deepened when I decided to go to grad school and study applied physics with the explicit intention of advancing renewable energy technology. That was my whole objective.
What are some big lessons you’ve learned so far on this entrepreneurial path?
[David] You need to have a guiding light. A north star that drives the day-to-day work. When I first started it was easy to fall into the thinking of “it doesn’t matter what the big vision is, I just have to find the easiest path to commercialize an interesting technology solution.” Counter-intuitively, that type of thinking can easily lead to a meandering path full of distractions. So, find a big problem that is important to you personally, and work your tail off to find an impactful solution.
[Andrew] When I was working on Dragonfly, I had a bit of a fear that, you know, these big companies with thousands of people and billions of dollars, working on the same thing that we were working on, could crush us. It seemed logical. But it was only after we were acquired by one of those big companies — SunPower — that I learned that a couple of big companies had tried to do exactly what we had tried to do and had failed. And we’d succeeded. We were five people, most of us in our early 20s, not very experienced engineers. But we had a great team, great culture, and we were incredibly motivated to get it done. Everything we cared about was tied up in finding a solution and getting it to work.
[Justin] What I’ve learned is the importance of the team. Working with Andrew and David and Tarun* is just an absolute pleasure and delight and I’m so inspired by them and their drive and their passion and their values and their intelligence. When we have good days and things go our way, it’s so great to celebrate with them. When things don’t go our way, it really helps to have that team to move through those challenges.
*Tarun Narayan, Antora Energy’s first employee.