Caltech and Sustainability

When I can find the time, I jump at the opportunity to visit universities. It stimulates the same pleasure center that brainstorming does for me! The universities I visit tend to be full of students and faculty committed to doing important and innovative work.

My recent visit to Caltech was no exception. Of course, I have a soft spot for Caltech, having gotten my two degrees there. It was a class at Caltech that prompted me to first think of making reading machines for blind people, my personal jumping off point that led me to found Benetech (hmm, name similarity probably not a coincidence!). I no longer do any of the scientific work I was trained to do. But, Caltech taught me how to size up a problem and model how a system works: skills that have been indispensable in both my entrepreneurial and social entrepreneurial pursuits!

The most exciting thread of the day concerned sustainability. I was turned on to climate and energy issues six years ago by reading Caltech professor David Goodstein’s book, Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil. Caltech faculty and students are especially focused on sustainability. Caltech even has the new Resnick Institute established to address this issue. This is an increasing area of interest for me and Benetech, so these were great connections to make.

My student host, Cole Hershkowitz, demonstrated this sustainability focus. Although he’s a few weeks away from graduating, he’s spending a huge amount of time on the SCI-Arc/Caltech joint entry in the international Social Decathlon competition. It’s so cool! Teams from around the world build houses that are expected to be zero in net energy usage: they should generate enough energy to sustain themselves, and be built for less than a certain sum (I think about $350k is the limit).

Getting into the design of a net-zero house was a cool thought experiment for me, but the team is actually building their house right now. They’ve already raised $800k of the $1.1-1.2 million they need to build the house and transport it to the Mall in Washington DC for the judging. In my day, an expensive student project cost a couple of thousand dollars. I think their biggest issue is trying to find a transportation company who would be able to move their net-zero house from LA to DC. If you know a trucking company with a sustainability urge, send them towards Cole and his team!

The students are, of course, the treasure of a place like Caltech. I was able to meet those Tech students who really want to make a difference in the world, more than just figuring out the latest science or tech breakthrough (wonderful as that is). I was able to meet with three separate sets of students, both undergraduate and graduate students, and get into conversations about how to get started in social innovation.

And lastly, staying in Caltech’s faculty club, the Athenaeum, is a real treat. The first big dinner held there was in honor of Albert Einstein’s extended visit to Caltech in the 1930s. You just to have to imagine thinking better and more creative thoughts while dreaming in a place where Einstein once slept!


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