Big wave surfing and swimming against the tide in cleantech

Guest Author

Starting a hard-tech, climate entrepreneurial journey is like big wave surfing: if you fail to prepare, you’re asking for a beating.

I recently watched the HBO series ‘100 Foot Wave’ staring Garrett McNamara, the father of big wave surfing. It’s an exhilarating show that prompted me to reflect on the parallels between Garrett’s journey and the journey of an innovator.

It’s a journey I’ve been on for the last two years as founder of Furno Materials. We’re working to decarbonize one of the hardest to abate sectors: cement. Our technology enables a step change in the way we make cement by developing smaller, capital light, more efficient and carbon-neutral cement plants.

In ‘100 Foot Wave,’ McNamara is his own kind of entrepreneur. In 2008, he ventures off the beaten trail to carve his own path and he finds his passion: surfing the biggest waves in the world.

Garrett is an underdog and struggles for years to get recognition, but he is patient and lets his love for his craft guide him.

These are struggles any innovator can relate to, especially those of us working in climate tech, where the incumbents are strong on unit economics, the engineering demand is high stakes and the required scale is massive.

Take cement. It’s 8% of global CO2 emissions. Today’s cement plants are massive and have had 100 years to dial in their operations and bring down their costs.

At Furno, we’re not looking to compete directly with those massive plants. Instead, like McNamara, we’re charting our own path with smaller plants that are capital light.

After years of searching, McNamara comes upon an opportunity and an undiscovered wave: Nazaré, Portugal, which would later be determined the biggest wave on Earth. He instantly realizes his life’s mission is to share this with the world.

He spends 10 years studying the waves, building a safety protocol team, practicing, surfing the wave again and again, honing his craft and ultimately developing foundational safety practices that shaped the sport.

Today, the sport draws on McNarama’s lessons. Surfers who prepare well and charge with humility live to ride another wave. Those who don’t—who are overconfident and seek glory without exerting the right amount of discipline—risk failure, injury or even death.

I see similar dynamics playing out in the cleantech innovation community in which I work: some entrepreneurs rush ahead with too much ego and too little discipline, while others build solid foundations of understanding the market and move forward with humility.

Companies that express a bias toward action at the expense of meticulous preparation and testing key assumptions are like surfers attempting to ride Nazaré with little preparation or safety protocols in place.

These companies overlook or dodge fundamental questions such as: What is my core value proposition? Is there a customer, and if so, who? What do my economics look like against the incumbents? Is this new solution competitive in the marketplace regardless of public policy, or am I solely dependent on government regulations?

Instead, some of my colleagues in this ecosystem focus on the technology, team growth and raising more capital to sustain that growth. These are important, of course, but we can’t consider them in the absence of core questions. These types of innovators may not realize they’re missing targets until a few years down the line.

The other type are innovators that seek depth in understanding the core problem and exert discipline in their action—akin to understanding everything about the big wave before getting in the water.

Like Garrett’s meticulous preparation for Nazaré, these early stage entrepreneurs seek to understand by patiently testing both business and technical hypotheses, and only when they are confident do they execute their plan broadly. These approaches are more likely to hit their targets.

These are the hard-tech climate bets we need to tackle climate change, and these are the innovations that will survive the inevitable big waves coming our way.

I’m just two years into what I hope is a long entrepreneurial journey. I’m seeking to keep a sense of humility while building a disruptive and impactful solution by going after one of the biggest, baddest waves in cleantech: cement.

Editor’s note: Nagra is a participant in the Fellows Program at Breakthrough Energy, which also supports Cipher. The Fellows Program identifies and supports individuals and teams around the world working to develop, scale and commercialize technologies that have the potential to reduce carbon emissions by at least 500 million tons per year by 2050.