Austin Stack, a student in Stanford’s Hacking for Climate and Sustainability class this past quarter, thought he had a simple solution to prevent mega wildfires. He was convinced that incentivizing private landowners to preventively burn trees and plant debris before they could fuel the fire was a “no-brainer.” So were Stack’s project teammates in the class, a new academic offering aimed at developing the skills of a mission-driven entrepreneur by using lean startup principles to tackle a critical environmental challenge. The students envisioned a novel online training module that would help landowners get started with prescribed burns and related reimbursements. Then, idealism collided with reality.
“Believe it or not, people were not down to try prescribed burns on their property near their homes,” said Stack, an undergraduate majoring in civil and environmental engineering.
The sobering realization that fear of damage and liability outweighed incentives to prevent fires illustrates the class’s premise: effective solutions require deep analysis, as well as feedback and buy-in from those most affected.
“The main idea for the course was to begin to bring more innovation perspectives to sustainability problems,” said Brian Sharbono, programs director at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “The key insight was that solutions must reconcile with stakeholder demands and the broader systems within which these problems persist.”
Listening as a pathway to solutions
Sharbono co-teaches the class with Woods Director Chris Field, Radhika Malpani, and Steve Weinstein. Malpani is founder and former lead of Google Images, and Weinstein is director of H4XLabs, a company that helps tech entrepreneurs develop companies. The teaching team instills the class with the lean launchpad approach developed by Weinstein and Steve Blank, an adjunct professor in Stanford’s Department of Management Science and Engineering. The methodology tests and develops business models through customer interactions.
In the class, students from a cross-section of academic disciplines take a hands-on approach. They engage closely with their project sponsors, as well as other stakeholders, such as policymakers, technologists, government officials, NGOs, foundations, and companies with the shared aim of solving climate and sustainability challenges while building iterative prototypes to test and advance their conceptions of the problem and solution hypotheses.
Solutions might be products, services, or training programs delivered at scale by companies, NGOs, or government policy. A network of problem sponsors, advisors, mentors, teaching assistants, and instructors help accelerate students’ learnings. Teams in last quarter’s class focused on challenges ranging from decarbonizing buildings to transitioning vehicle fleets to electric powertrains.
With others in her team, Claire Lior Rosenfeld focused on ways to incentivize carbon storage in Mexican agricultural lands through sustainable practices, such as no-till farming and planting cover crops. Rosenfeld, a master’s student in management science and engineering, learned that connecting farmers with carbon markets was less of an obstacle than providing training and technical assistance, which the team set out to do through a collaboration with Mexico’s International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. Through this partnership, the student team will pilot a soil carbon storage tracking technology across agricultural fields in the country.
“The class gave me practice in understanding and addressing real-world problems,” said Lior Rosenfeld. “I chose it because I wanted to dive into the climate space – a space that was fascinating but unfamiliar to me, and I was eager to do something more creative and collaborative. Now I feel like I better understand the mindset of an entrepreneur in this space, and I’m much more well-versed in climate tech.”
Some students, like MBA candidate Sarah Johnson, continue to pursue their teams’ ideas beyond the class. Johnson collaborated with her team to increase access to quality electronics repairs in emerging markets by addressing the needs of small businesses doing the vast majority of repairs. The team worked in Kenya to sell about 5,000 spare parts to over 400 customers, pilot a financing program for technicians, and forge a partnership with one of the country’s biggest e-waste recyclers to offer verified refurbished parts, among other accomplishments.
The team’s efforts led to several grants, including one for $25,000 from Stanford’s TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy. Johnson is continuing to develop the business full time in Nairobi, and hopes to raise a first round of funding soon.
“I am passionate about developing products and services that change people’s lives in a sustainable way,” Johnson said. “The class directly matched my career goals, and was one of the most important classes I took during my graduate career.”
Ten weeks of iteration led Stack and his teammates to shift their focus dramatically. By the end of the course, they had decided to partner with land stewards, such as land trusts and tribes, to issue non-fungible tokens – financial securities of digital data stored in a blockchain – based on the stewards’ properties. Proceeds would go towards funding land conservation projects, including prescribed fires. The team has spoken with a few potential partners about a pilot project.
Before Stack’s team and others gave their final presentations, Pat Brown, a Stanford professor emeritus of biochemistry, and CEO of plant-based foods pioneer Impossible Foods, urged the students to continue striving for ambitious sustainability solutions. Brown reminded the class how digital technology had replaced the once-might camera film industry in a matter of years. “Giant leaps are possible,” he said.
Stack got the message, and remains inspired to keep trying. “I still don’t really know what I want to pursue career wise, but I know it will be in sustainability,” Stack said. “This class was a great sampler of what that could be.”