Need Inspiration in 2020? Listen to These Harrowing and Motivating Founder Stories

This will mark our third year of Watt It Takes, the live interview series produced by Powerhouse and Greentech Media. Part of The Energy Gang podcast, Watt It Takes features founders and CEOs of the most innovative companies in clean energy and mobility — their backgrounds, their passions, their struggles, their deals, their management philosophies and their near-death experiences.

We’ve sifted through all 24 of our interviews with these founders to bring you some of the highlights. All of the episodes are embedded below so you can dig into each story.

You can find Watt It Takes every month on The Energy Gang. Subscribe to that podcast feed for all the updates from our founder interview series. And you can find out more about attending a live event here.

Dick Swanson, founder and CEO, SunPower

  • Recorded: September 2017
  • Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
  • Major: Electrical engineering
  • Animal: Penguin
  • Companies fail because: Arrogant founders
  • "Watt it takes" to succeed: Stubbornness
“We were at death’s door three or four times. [...] We were looking for investors when Elon Musk came by and said that we weren’t thinking big enough; now I know what he meant.” [34:25]


Dan Shugar, founder and CEO, NEXTracker

  • Recorded: November 2017
  • Hometown: Albany, New York
  • Major: Electrical engineering
  • Animal: Wolf
  • Companies fail because: Too much hubris and not enough listening
  • "Watt it takes" to succeed: Working hard with like-minded people who have shared values

Iceland Is Doing Things Right. If you are looking for the top country using renewable energy, you might assume it’s one of the big dogs. While China leads the world in hydropower production and Germany has its finger on solar energy, there’s no country doing things quite like Iceland. Yes, that little northern country famous for pop-culture exports like Bjorn has quietly been doing renewable energy right. Hydroelectricity makes up over 75% of Iceland’s power production. The rest comes from other renewable sources like solar, wind, and geothermal. Since there are plenty of volcanoes around the country, they have no shortage of heat to keep themselves warm all year long.

“What else in your homes or businesses [besides solar] has a 30-year design life? Maybe your spouse; I can’t think of another damn thing.” [20:15]

Nancy Pfund, founder, DBL Partners

  • Recorded: January 2018
  • Hometown: Bethesda, Maryland
  • Major: Anthropology
  • Animal: Cat
  • Companies fail because: Bad management
  • "Watt it takes" to succeed: Assume that you're wrong but do it anyway; grit, vision and determination
“I worried so much about spinning out of JP Morgan and starting my own firm, and I realize now that I should’ve done it a lot earlier and embraced it.” [49:45]

Jigar Shah, founder, SunEdison; co-founder and president, Generate Capital

  • Recorded: March 2018
  • Hometown: India and Sterling, Illinois
  • Major: Mechanical engineering
  • Animal: Hippo
  • Companies fail because: They don’t make good products
  • "Watt it takes" to succeed: Humility about what you’re really trying to do

“I would’ve thought that the customers would’ve been harder to get than the financing, but it was the other way around.” [17:18]

Billy Parish, co-founder and CEO, Mosaic

  • Recorded: April 2018
  • Hometown: Manhattan, New York
  • Major: Forestry
  • Animal: Firefly
  • Companies fail because: They hire the wrong people or they run out of money
  • "Watt it takes" to succeed: Rapid learning cycles

“We are a team, and A players attract A players, and B players attract C players, and if you don’t have very high standards for the people that you’re working with, it’s hard to do anything.” [35:32]

Tech Corporations Are Fighting To Be Leaders In Green Energy. From Apple and Facebook to Google and Microsoft, big technology firms are in a race to help build a green internet. This means a commitment to powering the company’s initiatives and business operations through green energy. In the latest 2017 report, global brands like Google, Apple and Facebook were graded A in the clean energy index.

Leila Madrone, co-founder and CTO, Sunfolding

  • Recorded: May 2018
  • Hometown: Berkeley, California and Berkeley Heights, New Jersey
  • Major: Math/electrical engineering
  • Animal: Great blue heron
  • Companies fail because: They don’t know how to see or communicate the truth
  • "Watt it takes" to succeed: You really have to care

“The part that always came easily to me that was really important was always seeing what the impact could be of what I was doing, and that fueled the passion I needed to get over all the fears and setbacks.” [30:13]

Ryan Popple, CEO, Proterra

  • Recorded: June 2018
  • Hometown: Elgin, Illinois
  • Major: History, finance, ROTC
  • Animal: Wolf
  • Companies fail because: Bad management
  • "Watt it takes" to succeed: Great people

“If you’re the founder or the CEO of an organization, you shouldn't be surprised if most of what’s brought to you is bad news.” [14:35]

Lynn Jurich, co-founder and CEO, Sunrun

  • Recorded: October 2018
  • Hometown: Tacoma, Washington
  • Major: Science, technology and society
  • Animal: Owl and phoenix
  • Companies fail because: Their market is too small
  • "Watt it takes" to succeed: Endurance

“I’ve always been really drawn to how...you [can] really do something generational…not just be a great economic opportunity, but...shift our society for [the] better.” [13:30]

David Crane, former CEO, NRG

  • Recorded: January 2019
  • Hometown: Cleveland, Ohio
  • Major: International relations
  • Animal: Dog
  • Companies fail because: They don’t look over the horizon
  • "Watt it takes" to succeed: Passion

The majority of renewable energy is used as a source of electricity.

“I was actually fired on December 1, 2015, my 12th year anniversary. When they came into the board meeting and said, ‘You’re out,’ I said, ‘Oh, I thought you were going to wish me a happy anniversary.’” [39:20]

Kathy Hannun, co-founder and CEO, Dandelion

  • Recorded: March 2019
  • Hometown: Durham, New Hampshire
  • Major: Civil engineering
  • Animal: Dolphin
  • Companies fail because: Wrong mixture of vision and pragmatism
  • "Watt it takes" to succeed: Persistence and a willingness to work hard for a long time

“The very first thing which for us was to show [that] if we could offer geothermal to consumers, would they even want it. […] Luckily for us, the answer was definitely yes.” [9:15]


Matt Rogers, co-founder, Nest

  • Recorded: June 2019
  • Hometown: Gainesville, Florida
  • Major: Electrical and computer engineering
  • Animal: Dog
  • Companies fail because: They spend too much
  • "Watt it takes" to succeed: Perseverance and timing
“My boss is like, ‘Let’s throw the new guy (me) on this skunkworks thing that may or may not ever ship.’ And at the time, [it] was the prototype for what would eventually become the iPhone.” [17:56]

Laura Schewel, co-founder and CEO, Streetlight Data

  • Recorded: July 2019
  • Hometown: Richmond, Virginia
  • Major: Literature and environmental engineering
  • Animal: Sea otter
  • Companies fail because: The founders don’t care enough about the actual product
  • "Watt it takes" to succeed: Complete comfort with failure at every level, and using that as a reason not to fail

Solar power may account for the world's main source of power by 2050.

“I used to track my mom as my sample data. [...] I would experiment with geotagging, [and] when she would go to the gym...I would send her a text like, ‘Mom, I’m so proud of you.’” [18:02]

Mateo Jaramillo, co-founder and CEO, Form Energy

  • Recorded: November 2019
  • Hometown: Salinas, California
  • Major: Economics
  • Animal: Dog
  • Companies fail because: They don’t have a vision that fits for everyone
  • "Watt it takes" to succeed: Excellent, talented people

“To go after the biggest opportunities that are out there for energy storage, you need to run a marathon...not a sprint.” [37:01]


Etosha Cave, co-founder and chief science officer, Opus 12

  • Recorded: November 2019
  • Hometown: Crestmont Park, Texas
  • Major: Engineering
  • Animal: Hippo
  • Companies fail because: Loss of working capital
  • "Watt it takes" to succeed: An amazing team, amazing ecosystem and working capital
“Our first unit is in our lab in Berkeley, and it’s about the size of a dishwasher. [...] It [arrived] an hour before Bill Gates came into our lab. […] We were scrambling to get it off the truck and get it inside.” [31:30]

Still haven’t had enough of Watt it Takes? Join us at the live recording with Robyn Beavers, founder and CEO of Blueprint Power. Get your tickets here before they sell out.

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Ry Storey-Fisher, Edward Yang and Levi Rhoades all contributed to this piece.