Dan Miller '78 offers advice for making an impact in a changing climate
Dan Miller ‘78 is managing director of The Roda Group, a Berkeley, CA based clean tech venture capital group he co-founded with fellow Cornellian Roger Strauch ‘78. Roda’s portfolio includes carbon capture company Svante, energy storage company Gridtential, and water technology company Axine. Dan co-founded TCSI corporation which became a leading provider of telecommunications software. Before that, he designed communication satellite payloads at Hughes Aircraft (now Boeing) Space & Communications.
Dan received his B.S. in electrical engineering from Cornell and his M.S. from Stanford, and he’s served on the Cornell ECE Advisory Council since 1995. Dan is a leading advocate for the need to take urgent action to address climate change including putting a price on carbon.
What role do you think climate change plays in motivating engineering students today?
I think it plays a large and growing role. Students today are quite aware of the threat of climate change — often more aware than their parents — and they know it is their life that will be impacted. So more and more of them are looking to see how they can use their talents to help address the biggest problem facing the world.
What are the top skills ECE students need to make an impact?
When it comes to climate change, we need all skills. Of course, we need engineering skills to develop and deploy renewable energy and energy efficiency systems, but we also need people skilled in architecture, agriculture, labor relations, physics, meteorology, veterinary sciences, psychology, communications, and on and on. In other words, Cornell University is the perfect place to bring people together in a multi-disciplinary way to tackle climate issues!
The Roda Group focuses investments on technologies to address the consequences of climate change. Which of Roda’s many current investments do you feel has the most potential for real impact?
One company that I’m particularly excited about is Svante Inc. Svante has developed a carbon capture system based on solid sorbents that can be structured into filters that capture CO2 (the traditional approach uses liquid sorbents). Svante systems is used to capture CO2 from hard-to-decarbonize industrial sectors such as cement and steel production, which account for about 25% of all emissions. Svante's sorbent material will also be used in Direct Air Capture systems that suck CO2 out of the air.
How did you come to serve on the board of Gridtential?
Gridtential developed a new “Silicon Joule” battery architecture that replaced lead grids in traditional batteries with plated silicon wafers that function as the anode and cathode. This leads to batteries that have high depth of discharge, rapid charging and discharging, long cycle life, can operate over a wide temperature range, and are highly recyclable.
I met the person who would become the CEO of Gridtential at a Cornell event 10 years ago, and that started a discussion that resulted in The Roda Group investing at that very early stage, when it was a three-person company. Now Gridtential is producing and licensing its battery technology and announcing partnerships with battery manufacturing and automobile companies.
How is Gridtential’s approach to energy storage and battery technology unique?
Gridtential leveraged the growth of the solar energy business to make their advanced batteries affordable. Gridtential replaced the lead grids in traditional batteries with silicon wafers, but those wafers used to be very expensive. However, because of the amazing growth of the solar photovoltaic market, the price of silicon wafers has plummeted resulting in wafers that cost about what the original lead grids cost. Also, because Gridtential did not change the basic battery chemistry, manufacturers of traditional batteries can switch production to Silicon Joule batteries with only moderate changes to their factories.
I’ve been a member for over 20 years, and I see my role as giving an alumni and business perspective on issues facing the school. One issue that I have been pressing for many years is how climate change will impact all of our lives, and the need for the school and Cornell at large to focus on solutions.
What advice do you have for ECE students looking for careers with the kinds of companies that The Roda Group invests in?
Focus on what you are passionate about and work on solutions that will make the world a better place. An engineering education teaches you much more than details of a technology or formulas for calculating things; it teaches you how to look at problems and how to use systems thinking to come up with solutions. That is more valuable than detailed technical knowledge.