This week in our Startup Spotlight blog series is our 2024 Deep Tech Climate Innovations Startup Challenge Winner – EarthEn!
Interviewed and Edited by John Martin
Six Questions for Karthi Chakaravarty, Co-founder and COO of EarthEn
Growing up near Sacramento, Karthi was always super-high energy and “deep geek,” going through the International Baccalaureate program in middle and high school, while completing most of his school’s AP classes by the time he was 14. He went to Arizona State University with aspirations of becoming a neurosurgeon. But while there, he got turned on by commerce and industrialization and so went on to get Supply Chain and General Management degrees from the ASU Business School. His friends call him a fixer and setting solving global problems as his north star led him to studying the ins and outs of climate change, while he traded equities with a small trading firm across the next 1.5 years. At the end of his sophomore year, he theorized that the use of CO2 was the missing link for power generation, leading him to build his first company with a team of engineers. He designed a CO2-based methane solid oxide fuel cell, harnessing the Sabatier Reaction over his junior year. After talking to investors, he realized this wasn’t the way to stop climate change, leading him to join VU Venture Partners in Silicon Valley. While there, he feels extremely privileged to have been mentored by early investors in some of the most legendary startups-turned-giants in IT and invested in 10 startups himself. He returned to a skunkworks lab as a team lead at ASU where he worked on microgrids and CO2-based desalination plants. While he was doing this, he met members of the EarthEn team at an ASU-hosted pitch competition and joined as the last co-founder. He has been fully dedicated to EarthEn since his graduation in 2022.
1. What problem is EarthEn solving and how?
In short, buffering the intermittency of renewable energy in a grid that must be sustained for demand 24/7. I want to emphasize that this is a critical issue, as the entire world is dependent on energy. We are currently experiencing rapid growth in renewable energy supplies. Simultaneously, we are in the process of retiring and reconfiguring slow-continuous or inertia supplies, including generators. This transition is crucial as we confront the challenge of rapidly increasing power demands. Large-compute-power services are penetrating more broadly throughout society. Additionally, “enterprise” compute and bandwidth demand are expanding, especially with the widespread adoption of hybrid work, extending from a few business districts to nearly every home across the continent. All of this requires significant energy capacity that the grid is unable to support and provide.
2. What is your background that led you to founding EarthEn?
My family and my team. Mine is the classic “child of immigrants” story. My parents worked unbelievably hard and sacrificed massively to gain education and come to the USA. My father put himself through college to become a PhD Engineer, despite being born in poverty. My parents’ relatives and friends were mostly engineers, so at an early age I had a deep appreciation for pushing the boundaries of the possible through science and math. My mother grew up working in a coal mine and poverty and instilled in me the values of hard work and perseverance. I was driven to be such a voracious reader that my school principal and teachers thought my reading logs were fraudulent. My parents had to disprove the accusations with my library rentals.
My insatiable curiosity and striving family led me to be extremely competitive in music, academics and athletics, even becoming a nationally ranked MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighter for 12 years (4th degree black belt). Being awakened to the threat of climate change, I was not going to settle for lame solutions. There are many important puzzle pieces, but the power grid is the backbone and aorta of all societies everywhere, and mankind needs a vastly better, renewable grid that can be scaled globally to provide electricity to all those who need it most. BUT I am only 1/3 of EarthEn. It would not exist without my amazing co-founders Manas Pathak and Palash Panja, who are also children of Indian immigrants who clawed their way to the American dream from rural birthplaces. Finding kindred obsessives was enormously gratifying and motivating. We are widely different individuals with complementary strengths and weaknesses but unified by a shared vision to strengthen and enable Earth’s electrification. Our team forms a lean, mean, hungry fighting machine that will stop at nothing to win against climate change.
3. What is unique about your technology and what is its validation status?
Let’s start with the technology’s flexible and future-proof abilities. It’s not batteries. There have been many solutions for putting batteries at renewables sites, but those rely on ever more exotic and supply-chain constrained materials, some of which are toxic, have runaway or explosion risk. Our functionality is akin to “flow batteries,” but those can only store 6-12 hours at a time due to inherent density and cycling limitations.
What we’ve developed is a novel thermo-mechanical energy storage solution called the PCP cycle, which uses supercritical CO2 in a closed loop to store 4-100+ hours of energy. We have designed it in a relatively compact module that can be mass produced and stacked like LEGO® blocks to add or subtract capacity as needed for different deployments. This is especially desirable so customers can incrementally grow storage as they expand, upgrade and retrofit renewable sites, what we consider future proofing. Historically, the key to most breakthroughs is to move beyond bespoke exotic material-based technologies to standardized components going down a steep cost curve. Our solution will be among the first to hit the Department of Energy’s Levelized Cost of Storage target of $50/MWh. The paths are already in place to demonstrate the lowest cost solution with our first-of-a-kind pilot.
This entire configuration unlocks a much larger market than all our incumbents, as we can provide solutions for data centers and factories, at small sites such as EV charging stations and remote locations such as oil and gas carbon capture, usage and storage operations. Our unique value proposition is in providing a flexible and future-proof solution at an incremental low cost in a scalable, modular and cost-effective manner that leverages a changing generating-portfolio for true resiliency. It’s safe and has much longer lifetime values than anything else on the market. Our base technology can and will be used to accelerate numerous other electrification technologies beyond energy storage.
4. What are your Go-To-Market ideas and traction received so far?
We have two target markets: power generators/utilities and oil/gas sequestration facilities. We’re still in the prototyping phase, so we’re focusing on pilot projects to completely validate our schema. Traction? Wow, we have received more traction than we can scale to right now. We’ve been awarded two Department of Energy grants, one of which we did not even apply for. The DoE Office of Electricity heard about our technology and funded us directly through the Lab-Embedded Entrepreneurship Fellowship under Innovation Crossroads at Oak Ridge National Lab. The DoE has never done this before, and it’s a first for the Office of Electricity. We also received a first-of-its-kind DoE grant to design 3D-printed heat-exchangers for our CO2. We did apply for the second grant that we received. We’ve won numerous competitions in 2022 and 2023, and now this XTC competition to start 2024.
5. What’s next?
Our strategy is first and foremost to execute our pilots in the best possible manner – providing the customer the best experience they’ve ever had, while providing the best energy storage technology they’ve ever experienced. We now have two committed pilots – one with a leading utility provider and one with a global oil/gas major with several more in the pipeline. We also partnered with Orsted in September of last year.
These pilot cases are only the beginning. Our thermodynamic PCP cycle can and will be applied to nuclear, geothermal, waste heat and propulsion. We are working on hardware and software solutions to decentralize the entire system for the distribution and sale of electricity. But for now, we’re working diligently to deploy the best projects our customers have ever seen.
6. Tell us about your experience with XTC and what were the benefits/takeaways?
XTC was great for us! Coming from the energy production industry, a lot of programs and partners in that space are slow-acting, risk-averse and can be frustrating for lean, mean California fighters. Extreme Tech Challenge and its ecosystem are grounded in the high-energy, breakthrough-focused culture of Silicon Valley, and we immediately met investors and corporates we haven’t met elsewhere. The CES show in Las Vegas has an energy and ecosystem that is, let’s say, not your usual utilities and chemistry conference. It has certainly been a valuable validation for EarthEn.
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