Etosha Cave is Revitalizing Our Approach to Carbon Emissions

By Kassidy Brown

Global CO2 emissions spiked in 2017 after a steady three years. The United States alone experienced a major decline, but for Dr. Etosha Cave, there’s more work to be done. In her world, carbon emissions is a personal matter. As the cofounder and of COO of Opus 12, an environmental starup providing incentives to reduce industrial greenhouse gas emissions, Cave brings valuable insight into the world of renewable energy. Long before pitching her company or earning a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University, an abandoned site near her childhood home in Texas led Cave on a lifelong path to becoming a global change agent.

“I grew up adjacent to an abandoned oil and gas site. My family was not directly affected, but I saw all of it taking shape when I was a teen. It got me very passionate about environmental waste and reusable energy. That led me to become an engineer,” she said. “I figure I’d use my personal talents, which were interests in math and science, to create an impact. I liked the structure and understanding that came with science and math.”

Through the influence of an advisor, she began her research to spark environmental change.

“I gravitated towards my Ph.D. advisor, (who studied) mimicking catalysts in nature to replicate the reactions that occur.”

This newfound interest and drive for climate change prompted Etosha to create her own initiative to improve the way we see CO2 fuels. She partnered with Nicholas Flanders and Kendra Kuhl to bring a fresh approach to carbon emissions.

From Left to Right: Dr. Kendra Kuhl, Nicholas Flanders, Dr. Etosha Cave

“I met Kendra when we were both working towards our PhD. Nicolas, I met at an MBS program at Stanford. They hosted a networking event and at the end, people could pitch their ideas to start a company. I pitched my idea and Nicolas was interested. We did a few competitions and incorporated the company,” she said.

Opus 12 launched in 2015 aimed at producing specialized technology to address waste from fossil fuels. The company name can be likened to a supernatural spaceship of endless possibilities.

“Twelve is a homage to carbon 12. Opus represents an elegance sophistication to rewriting the story of waste co2.”

Their technology is described as, “Enabling industries to reduce their CO2 emissions profitably.” Using thorough research, the Opus 12 team developed a valuable algorithm for solving our CO2 problem. They start by electrocuting carbon dioxide and water alongside a metal catalyst. When this occurs, the carbon and water essentially break down, thus forming a new compound with the metal catalyst. With the proper conditions, researchers Opus 12 have developed 16 new compounds that can be created by using this process. Their cleantech solution takes everyday waste and creates something of value that can be reused. Opus 12 opens the door for endless opportunities for reusable energy.

Cave manages the overall function of the company, ensuring that human resources responsibilities are taken care of as well as maintaining the overall morale of the company. After transitioning from Chief Science Officer, Cave says, “A lot of my day-to-day consists of writing and managing grants to those. Working on finances of the month and forecasting our financial growth.”

One of the primary components that make Opus 12 revolutionary is their search for good metal catalysts that can be used to create new compounds. These include properties such as nickel, iron, platinum, and palladium. The primary goal is to limit the amount of greenhouse gas emissions and instead, convert those emissions into reusable resources such as plastic.

“In the next five years, our goal is to have at least two products on the market and to continue to convert significant amounts of CO2 into high-value products.”

This utterly conscious and innovative approach to recycling energy has provided Cave with countless accolades. The Fortune Brainstorm E Conference held a Cool Companies Competition in 2015, which seeks to find fresh and new start-ups to showcase. Opus 12 won with flying colors, making it “the coolest Eco-friendly company.” In 2016, Opus 12 won the FORBES for-profit Change the World Competition. Cave was also named a 2016 Climate Fellow at Echoing Green. Cave says her feature in the April 2018 issue ofVanity Fair is one of her greatest professional milestones. This particular issue focused on 26 captivating women of color who are making valuable changes in the world of entrepreneurship. With her years of research and accomplishments, Cave admits that being a minority in STEM presents unique challenges.

“I find myself in situations quite often where I am the only black person or woman. I definitely stand out. But, because I stand out, there are both benefits and disadvantages. More women are in positions of power so they remember me.”

One of the disadvantages, she explains, is sometimes being confused for the wait staff at certain events, however, Cave chooses to focus her energy on more important matters.

“I try to navigate as much as I can to find my allies. There are people from older white men, to white women, to other people of color who see me and get excited and want to help out,” she said. “I don’t have the bandwidth of energy of any more to fight that fight. I choose to nurture the allies that I have.”

With vision comes sacrifice. As she laid the early foundation for Opus 12, Cave remembers sleeping in her car for months in order to start her company. She saved her money and focused on her unique blueprint for renewable energy. Although Opus 12 has reached insurmountable success, Cave admits she would have counted the costs prior to jumping into full-time entrepreneurship. Much like her business model, Cave developed a personal way to convert stress into value. During the beginning stages of Opus 12, she recalls the emotional toll of starting a company as she endured chronic-anxiety and “an ever-present feeling that something needs to be done.”

One of the primary ways she manages stress is by cultivating a sense of understanding surrounding stress.

“Self-care has been a big thing this year. I’ve been doing some deep diving into psychology. This whole idea around how anxiety and stress manifest within the nervous system is fascinating. The way you can communicate through your nervous system is not through conscious thoughts or words,” she said. “You have to remove anxiety through healing and amplify that calmness. I’ve been practicing self-compassion. I was a huge self-critic, but by being more self-compassionate, I’ve been able to maintain calmness and anxiety. In addition to lot’s of self-care and resilience.”

Instead of allowing her thoughts to overwhelm her vision, Cave follows the principle of minimalism. During a 2016 panel discussion for budding entrepreneurs at Standford, Cave shared her lifeflong mantra, “Anything that doesn’t bring any value to my life or has a functional purpose, I try to get rid of it.”

This principle guides her mental clarity.

“I minimize the number of goals I ascribe to. I also minimize my thoughts. Instead of having random dialogues in my head, I focus on breathing and the outdoors,” she said.