Interview with Gia Schneider, CEO of Natel Energy

Interview with Gia Schneider, CEO of Natel Energy

Gia Schneider, CEO of Natel Energy


Catherine: I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me Gia Schneider. Gia is joining us from Natal Energy. She’s based in the Bay Area. Thanks for joining me, Gia. 

Gia; Thanks for having me on your podcast, Catherine.

Catherine: Congrats on recently being featured by Time and Bloomberg, as well as being named this, hopefully I get it right, Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas 2022 lists alongside a host of other Breakthrough Energy venture companies for so for those of you who don’t know, can you briefly explain like what solutions Natel provides and how your solutions are unique? 

Gia: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, first off, it is definitely an honor to be included in those lists. And really a testament, frankly, to the work of a whole team, that the team that we have here at Natel. That is really the reason why we’ve had these accomplishments. So just in terms of what we do, we were founded with a focus on making hydropower, which is a renewable energy source that we’ve had for a long time. It’s actually the world’s largest source of renewable energy today. And we wanted to bring it, modernize it, basically address some of the sustainability hurdles that hydro faces. And specifically we do that through fish safe turbine. So if you think about a wind turbine, the blades that spin in hydropower, similar water moves blades, and what we have developed is a really cool way to make those blades safe for fish to pass through, without compromising on power output or efficiency. Okay.

Catherine: So how exactly is Natel enabling hydropower to become more sustainable and fish stay safe? There was an example that was conducted like a series of DOE supported studies in the Pacific Northwest? Can you talk a little bit more about that? 

Gia: Yeah, absolutely. So what happens in hydropower, is I put turbines in the water, I move water through them. And so of course, whatever is in that water, I either need to be able to pass through my power house, or send it around. And so the conventional turbines that we have today do a mixed job, frankly, at that passing for some, some do pretty well, others not not quite as well, what we saw there was an opportunity to really focus in very specifically on the ability to have turbans safely pass fish through the turbine. And the reason why we want to do that is because if we can pass fish safely through the turbine, then we can put more of the water through the power house and generate more energy with it. And we can also reduce the complexity of the project. And we don’t have to have screens and some of the other things that can add both capital cost and ongoing O&M cost to hydropower projects. So the way that we accomplish this is the design of the blades basically, has been modified, they are specifically designed is one where we have a very thick leading edge. So conventional blades are very thin. And our design basically has a very thick leading edge. That thick leaning edge basically creates like a pressure field, if you will, ahead of the blade as it moves to the water. And that basically helps to deflect fish around the blades as opposed to a thin blade, where I end up with a direct strike. And that’s kind of the core in a very simplistic way. And then in terms of proving the results. We have done a number of tests at this point with independent third parties, including Pacific Northwest National Labs, Management Associates, Alden Research Lab, anyhow, testing, eel, trout, and some type of river herring in both field and lab conditions. So kind of range of data range of test conditions range of species, and we’ve consistently demonstrated greater than 99% safe passage for different types of fish across a very broad range of operating conditions. 

Catherine: Amazing. I want to talk a little bit about your upbringing. It sounds like you had an  interesting upbringing. Having lived in a log cabin in Texas, I don’t always associate log cabins with Texas. So learn something new every day that your dad built and I believe your dad was also a doctor, an inventor, a farmer, a sailor and you and your brother formed. It’s held together by leveraging technology that your father developed. Can you talk about how your upbringing influenced your career trajectory and the challenges you face at Natel? 

Gia: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the log cabin was only a log cabin in the sense that it was built from logs and  it had a somewhat rustic appearance but in other cases it was fairly modern. I think from an upbringing perspective, one of the big influences was the fact that my father, like as far back as I can remember, was very focused on climate change as being, frankly, a serious challenge that we, as a Whole Earth, would have to address. And so I like to remember having conversations with him that were probably when I was like, mid 80s. So it must have been like seven or eight where he would talk about climate change as being hotter, wetter, colder, drier, is, like, there’s all these things, and ultimately, warmer air holds more water, and therefore we’re gonna have more velocity in our water cycle. And then that has a whole set of impacts. And the bottom line is, it means some places will get hotter, some places colder, other place drier, and it’s all just a lot of change. And it’s funny, in the last year, I feel like I’ve started to see articles which talk about exactly that, put those words in the same phrase. So that, for me, was the grounding focus for wanting to spend my work or my life focused on tackling climate change. 

Catherine: Right. And I guess your brother shared the same feelings. 

Gia: Absolutely. We grew up together, obviously, we grew up together. And, we both went through this. And I think that we expressed our interest in tackling climate change in slightly different ways. We both are technically engineers. I say, technically, in my case, because while I have an engineering degree, my career has been focused more in the finance and business side of renewable energy. And where’s my brother stay focused on the engineering side, but in some ways that kind of gave us very complementary skill sets is going forward to start starting to sell sometimes. We used to joke with my dad if he planned this in some way. But yeah, so I think similar motivations for us, and then we’ve expressed it in different ways. And then that’s helped us as we partner together to build Natel, it’s been, frankly, I think, really, really helpful to have those different perspectives and different strengths. 

Catherine: Where does the word Natel come from? 

Gia: Natural Electric. Yeah. So when we were starting the company, we had definitely had a discussion as everybody does around like, what to name it. And it’s not, I honestly, I think some people love names thinking. I was like, it was one of those ones where it’s like, Okay, I think this will work. It kind of encapsulates what we do, we can talk about really quickly. And then like, we need to get on with figuring out what we’re doing. And that was the genesis of the name. 

Catherine: Oh, my gosh, I’ve named two companies. And it is like, the hardest thing ever. And then when you do it, you’re like, Oh, that was so obvious. Yeah. Why did it take me so long to think of it? But your dad must be super proud, obviously, of you guys. 

Gia: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, he was a part of getting this all going. 

Catherine: Awesome. So I noticed that you guys are working out in Africa. And you’re working with a hydropower startup called My Hydro, to provide greater energy access to places like the Congo. You also worked with Apple in Oregon? What are some of the projects that you’re most proud of and why?

Gia: I think that those are two to start with. I’ll start first with the project in Oregon. The things that have been really transformational for us about that project are that we actually installed the turbine there in the summer, late summer of 2020. And it’s a testament, I mean, lots of cool things have happened at the project. But just getting this just the fact that we were able to as a team execute and get that project installed and online within two weeks of the original date, when obviously COVID happens amazing, was just again, really a testament to the team doing an incredible job managing through some very obviously, thinking back to like March April of 2018, it’s a little mind boggling now. So that’s one, I just call it that accomplishment, and then we’ve been able to, at Monroe, like show that the turbine is reliable and that it’s generating energy as expected. We’ve been able to do several different fish passage tests there in the field with Pacific Northwest National Lab. And so that’s been really great because that has been given us the data, some really conclusive data around very high levels of greater than 99%, safe fish passage.

And then looking forward to the project coming up in Africa with My Hydro, we’re really excited to get going on that. I think My Hydro’s vision is to build hydro-backed micro grids. To bring much needed electrification to some areas that are obviously very, don’t have very good energy access right now. And so that’s going to be super exciting, in a really, really great way, Africa has a ton of hydro potential, huge amounts of energy potential. Most of it today has been developed in really large mega projects. And those projects, while they’re good at generating energy, they tend to not bring the benefits of electrification to rural communities, and smaller communities. And so, we’re really excited to work with my hydro on addressing that part of the market. 

Catherine: Yeah, it’s just so important as it’s like corporations come in and solve one issue but necessarily aren’t inclusive, which is just such a shame. So as you tell us, the first company you have founded and been the CEO of, how did you know what to do when it came to running and growing your business? What advice would you give others who are also looking to do their first start build their first climate tech companies? 

Gia: Yeah, I think I’d sum it up. And this will sound very obvious from the beginning. And I think that’s maybe a first starting point is that it’s not all obvious at the beginning. So a core thing is to learn and adapt. And to be kind of fairly relentless about asking yourself constantly the question of do I understand my problem? Do I understand my customers? Do I understand the solution? And do I have a good fit for how? Because that is very fundamentally what we’re trying to do, ro solve a problem with a product, get that out to customers? And, and that has to match? And so like, you have to constantly question that and make sure that there’s a good fit. I think the other piece is that we’ve done that from the beginning. So I think that’s been an important element. There are times when I wish we had pushed when we been more aggressive in our questioning, because I think it would have helped us make certain adjustments more quickly. But again, that’s something that you just learn over time. And that leads to my second point, which is that inevitably, there you will make mistakes, and there will be things that you’re like, Oh, I wish I’d done something. And I think the key there is to not get bogged down- to take the learning without regrets. 

Catherine: Without beating yourself up!

Gia: Because it’s an emotional energy drain that there’s so much that you need to do in building a company. You have to learn and keep moving. 

Catherine: I hear you. You learn more from the mistakes. It’s just irritating that you have to wind up learning more from the mistake. You’re probably similar to me that you’re probably a little bit of a perfectionist. And so you want everything to go right all the time. And unfortunately, it just doesn’t always happen. So just not beating yourself up about it for too long. So how has your management style changed over the years? And can you share anything you’ve learned about what it takes to be an effective leader?

Gia: Yeah, so we definitely have changed quite a bit. We’re now 65, maybe a few more people now. And that brings a lot of change. Right. So one important thing for me that I think I’m still learning from, or evolving in, is the fact that my role changes over time, from, in the early days, I did a lot of things. And now it’s much more about enabling people on the team, finding good people, and then enabling great people to shine. And that I think, is ultimately then more of my job. And I know that is hard; you just have to learn that. I would rate myself as like I’m figuring that out. And I think the other really important thing for me as we’ve grown as a company is to really focus on finding great people like people who are better than me at those specific things, because, again, that’s the only way you build a strong team that is actually able to scale. On the leadership side, I think that’s again, something that for me is kind of evolving. Where there’s a lot of outward facing leadership, increasingly, in terms of telling our story. So it’s like one thing to lead and another thing to manage. Right? And so another kind of evolution for me is understanding the difference between those two and then being more intentional about, the things I need to do to be a good manager versus the things that I need to do to be a good leader. 

Catherine: And has that come from experience? Or do you utilize any sort of tools? Because I get asked all the time, but companies, everybody seems to be using a different kind of assessment on how they work well with others, or how they play in the sandbox together? 

Gia: Yeah, I think that we’re so we do have some, we’ve kind of have done a couple of different uses of some services with respect to the coaching and manager training. And I would say it’s, in general, unbalanced, what I mean is there’s no great one answer, and you see a lot of things because at the end of the day, it does come down to like, I have to do work to figure out what works. And some of some of what works will work well for one part of the team, but not for other parts. And I think that’s also a constant evolution. And, I think there are some key grounding principles that you can take away, which is that, I would say for us, we’re at a point in our journey, where, which I think every startup, finds where you have moments where you’re growing fast, and you’re just like so stretched. So you don’t necessarily have time as a team to do as much of the cleanup organization around processes and tools. And so we’re definitely in a state where we have some process organization debts to dig ourselves out of in order to close. And we’re in the process of doing that now. And I think that’s also just something that you’ve got to constantly figure out how to bounce. 

Catherine: So yeah, it’s hard when you’re so busy to do the reflection. So looking back, what would you have told yourself 10 years ago? Is there anything that you would have done differently?

Gia: Oh, I think my answer to that will be that Absolutely, from a learning perspective, but it’s very hard. I think the maybe the key things are make sure that you question because, as I mentioned, there were a few times where if we had questioned ourselves a little bit more rigorously, on our product market that specifics, we would have made adjustments more quickly, and would have helped accelerate our path into the market. And that’s kind of the core, you gotta keep that questioning. And the more that you can because that’s how you validate that you’re matching that your hypothesis is that you’re gathering data that’s moving towards a conclusion that that’s not enough. 

Catherine: It’s not enough to just be a mission driven organization, there has to also be a need that you’re filling in the market, like you said. 

Gia: And that you need to go to whoever those the stakeholders, customers, client, however you would characterize the external parties that you are delivering value to make sure that you’re getting feedback from them. And again, it’s a balance, right? Because you have with this energy transition, we’re definitely a whole host of innovators across the space are trying to do big things to change fundamentally, transform the way our economy works, right? We’re trying to electrify everything, we’re trying to move away from fossil fuel. Those are massive changes to the foundational elements of our economy. And so there’s an element of, if you think back maybe 10-12 years right when Tesla was just early early Elon Musk, lots of different things and opinions, but at the end of the day with respect to electric vehicles, like fundamentally, the view on EVs has 100% transformed. And like there are things like that, as we make this transition where it’s like there’s one element that you have to have belief. Which is something that we need to do. And then and then there’s an element of are we making progress? As I do that hypothesis testing. And there’s always a bit of a mix there. Because you could have said in the early days of EVs, perhaps the hypothesis testing would have said, You need to stop. But the reality is actually that there’s a balance there. 

Catherine: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. And I wish you all the best, and everything that you’re doing for the clean energy economy, and women being a woman CEO.

Gia: So yeah, yeah, it’s funny, because I don’t actually think it’s interesting. I am hopeful on that front. I think there’s a lot of good positive change, because I am not always as conscious actually, of the label I need to apply. And I think that’s really good. From the perspective of it’s one of the things we pay attention to, because we want to continue to build diversity intentionally. And it requires intention. But at the same time it’s also good that if that can become the norm become more of like a common thing. 

Catherine: Yeah, yeah. I agree with you. But I think that there are definitely women who, when they see companies, or evaluating companies that are led by either a woman CEO, or just women leadership in general, are confident in the knowledge that those companies are going to be a certain way. And seek out those organizations. And I think what’s nice is there are, like you said, there’s more organizations out for them to look at. Because everyone’s hiring, so the candidate is running the show, so they can choose where they want to go. And if that’s important to them, then that gives you a really good USP because I see a lot of companies trying to retroactively trying to diversify, it’s easier just to do it in the beginning. Diversity begets diversity. 

Gia: Absolutely. And that may be another point, like in terms of recommendations to start is, focus on it early. You will hear sometimes from investors and other folks that you just need to go and it’s sometimes easy to have a default profile, particularly of having like experience of having done it before and knows how to scale a business. And it again, it’s a balance, but I do think that as your company grows, you will be trusting the people you hire the senior leadership team to hire more people. And it just is so much harder to retroactively fill in. So Yep.

Catherine: All right. Well, thanks again for your time Gia. 

Gia: Thank you. Have a great day.