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The Sleeper Must Awaken

“A person needs new experiences. It jars something deep inside, allowing them to grow. Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.”

-Duke Leto Atreides, Dune
Star Wars: Binary Sunset

I know I’m mixing references here but the key message is that, with incredibly mixed emotions, I must share that I am leaving Third Derivative to pursue my next climatetech [ad]venture.

You may recall my Third Derivative origin story and first progress report. I was brought in to found, launch, and lead a game-changing climatetech startup – the most ambitious (in terms of both speed and scale) accelerator ever attempted. Our founding hypothesis was that our deeply integrated ecosystem approach would bridge key valleys of death in the process of commercializing, deploying, and scaling hard climatetech, attracting the USD $Trillions that need to be invested in the sector.

And . . . we’ve done it. I am incredibly proud of what we’ve built during two [very challenging!] years:

  • a diverse, world class team that performs at the highest level despite the challenges of being forged in the crucible of multiple global crises
  • an unprecedented ecosystem of corporate partners (worth USD $4T+ in market cap), investors (with $7B+ in assets under management), and startups (the largest cohort of climatetech startups in history)
  • $300M+ invested into our 60+ game-changing climatetech startups in the year since we launched our first cohort
  • a financially thriving venture with $Millions ARR (annually recurring revenue) and multiple years of runway
  • the people, systems, processes, and tools in place for scaleup

Although winning at all is crucial in addressing the climate crisis, I also believe that how we win really matters. Through this lens, I am most proud of several key aspects of “the Third Derivative way:”

  • Urgency and Purpose – we launched in the midst of a global pandemic but we didn’t let that deter us. We lived a mantra of “the climate isn’t waiting so neither can we.”
  • Positivity and Hope – we worked to be a shining beacon of optimistic light in a field that can be consumed by darkness and pessimism with each new climate report.
  • Humility and Learning – in a field (venture capital) known for everyone purporting to be the smartest people in the room, we tried to be upfront about all the things we don’t know and we open-sourced / shared our learnings along the way.
  • Gratitude – we began each week sharing all the things for which we were grateful; these meetings mostly turned into lovefests for our teammates and was an incredibly energizing way to kick off each purpose-driven week of ambitious mission fulfillment.
  • JEDI as a feature, not a tradeoff – we put JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) front and center, driving not just our hiring but also our strategy. Much more than just “checking boxes,” this approach was key to our success. This is a presentation I gave last year about our JEDI failures, learnings, and aspirations:

Some good summaries of our model and accomplishments: this recent episode of the Freeing Energy Podcast and this wrap-up / goodbye video log.

All of these not-so-humble-brags belong not to me but to the entire Third Derivative team and it has been one of the great privileges of my career to have been entrusted with its leadership. Of all the mixed emotions I referenced above, the most significant is gratitude to have worked with such wonderful people. The outpouring of love and support I received from my colleagues after announcing this transition has been moving beyond words. I treasure our time together and earnestly hope we will work together again:

Third Derivative’s Leadership Team
Third Derivative’s Diverse, Talented, Motivated, Global Climate Warriors

My gratitude, though, extends far beyond the boundaries of the Third Derivative team. Our “parents,” RMI and New Energy Nexus, were critical to our success through their expertise, networks, and support. As an entrepreneur I always look for an “unfair advantage” in launching a new venture and these awesome NGOs have definitely been that unfair advantage for Third Derivative.

Don’t misunderstand me that Third Derivative has achieved all of our aspirations. There is still a lot to learn and do . . . but it isn’t really a startup anymore. A startup is a temporary organization searching for a scalable, repeatable business model (and impact model, in this case). To paraphrase Yoda, “Searching? Found something, you have!”

Third Derivative has everything it needs to take the next step and my skills as an entrepreneurial builder are less additive at this point. My leadership style is to build an incredible leadership team, trust and empower them, and keep myself out of the critical path. Accordingly, my transition out of the CEO role is going very smoothly.

We have already begun the search for my successor so please send us great candidates! This should be the easiest job in the world, stepping in to lead such a capable, bonded, high-performing team!

Now that Third Derivative is in such a great place, I feel the call to start building the next game-changing climatetech venture. I’m not sure what that will be specifically yet but I have been inundated with opportunities (See previous post about this amazing time for climatetech.) and I haven’t been able to free up any capacity to evaluate them while heads-down building and growing Third Derivative.

As I step back from Third Derivative, I am intending to take some time off to reflect (Stay tuned for blog posts about lessons learned while building Third Derivative.), recharge (Building Third Derivative has been a sprint!), and reconnect with family, friends, and colleagues before bringing my focus to my next venture. This will hopefully be a good time for me to catch up on reading, fitness, and reclaiming some of my e-sports world records too. We’ll see, though; I have a notoriously poor track record when it comes to taking time off! Please help keep me accountable if you notice me diving headlong into a new venture too quickly!

As for Third Derivative, although I will no longer be the CEO, I will always be a founder. I believe deeply in Third Derivative’s mission and especially its team. I will always be cheering for it and even working actively to continue increasing its success, but now in the background – like a Force ghost!

It has been an incredible journey, Third Derivative, and climatetech is a small world so . . . I’ll see you out there!

The Third Derivative Team’s Only Ever In Person Get-Together In 2021

Big Challenges In Climate Tech

Someone recently asked me what were the big challenges in climate tech and what were the areas where I personally hoped to help. Following is a high-level overview that won’t be earth-shattering to anyone already in the field but should be a decent synopsis for outsiders and neophytes. If you’re someone looking for the right on-ramp into climate tech, I hope you will see below that there are lots of possibilities – pick a lane and let’s go!

Challenges

There are many challenges in the way of building the sustainable, prosperous, equitable future and we need to be working on all of them simultaneously. Actually we need to go back in time and start working on all of them decades ago! Physicists haven’t yet solved time travel yet, though, so we’ll have to settle for making very rapid progress in the present. As they say, the best time to start working on these problems is decades ago, the second best time is today, and the worst time is in the future.

Back to the Future

To borrow a bit from fellow Rice alum, John Doerr, in his book Speed & Scale, our efforts need to fall into several categories:

  1. Electrify everything that can be easily electrified: vehicles, of course, but also buildings – especially heating and cooling – and production of some materials. As a bonus, electrification of vehicles and homes dramatically improves the quality of the air that we breathe.
  2. Completely decarbonize electricity so that all of these electrified goods and services are running on green energy. This will take more than just deploying more renewables; it will also take innovations in electricity storage, smart grid optimization, and distributed energy resources. As a bonus, this improves reliability and resilience of our power infrastructure.
  3. Fix food & agriculture, which right now are incredibly inefficient, carbon-intensive global supply chains. We need to transition to more sustainable agricultural practices (eliminate food waste, increase land use efficiency, deploy regenerative techniques, farm vertically in urban areas) while also developing new scalable technologies. I am particularly excited by advances in synthetic biology, such as lab-grown meat.
  4. Protect nature – forests, peat bogs, coastlines, etc. We need to protect and restore these existing carbon sinks and find nonintrusive ways to introduce new ones. This is an extra challenge because climate change tipping points are already working against us – e.g. increased wildfires are depleting our stock of forested trees. Although these are referred to as “natured-based” solutions, technology can be a huge help, for example by using drones to plant seeds and satellite data to monitor and optimize the growth of new forests.
  5. Decarbonize air travel and shipping – these modes of moving people and goods are hard to electrify due to the high density and weight of batteries. Of course battery technology is improving daily and new paradigms for electrified logistics are being developed but, in the meantime, carbon-neutral and carbon-negative fuels such as green hydrogen and ammonia are being explored.
  6. Decarbonize industry – another hard-to-electrify category is heavy industry: the manufacturing of steel, concrete, and many chemicals. The raw materials for these products often have a high carbon footprint and then the manufacturing processes require very high temperatures that are historically hard to achieve with electricity. There are interesting innovations under development that use carbon-negative materials for cement and concrete, green hydrogen for smelting steel, and point source carbon capture to reduce chemical manufacturing emissions.
  7. Scale up carbon removal. Because it will be hard to power some sectors with carbon-free electricity, we will likely find ourselves still contributing a surplus of greenhouse gases (GHGs) for a long time – possibly indefinitely. And even if we achieved zero GHG emissions tomorrow, there is so much accumulated GHG already in our atmosphere that 9 out of 16 predicted climate change tipping points are already active. The clear conclusion is that it won’t be enough for us to slow down or even stop our GHG emissions; we will need to get really good at pulling GHGs out of the atmosphere and possibly the ocean as well if we want to keep anthropogenic global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. These technologies are in their infancy right now so we need a moonshot-caliber approach to improve their efficacy, efficiency, scalability, and costs as quickly as possible.

Note that nowhere did I suggest austerity measures or people needing to forego things that improve their quality of life. My vision of the sustainable, prosperous, equitable future is one of abundance. Technological innovation is not a panacea but, not only can it help ward off climate change, it can improve the lives of many at the same time. Insomuch as these are challenges, they are also incredible opportunities.

I will add one more challenge/opportunity than must not be ignored: equity. It will take investment of more than USD $100T to address everything I have listed above and the returns will be exponential – the greatest wealth creation opportunity in the history of human civilization. If we do it right, many people and communities – including and especially those most affected by climate change – will participate in that upside. If we do it the way it’s traditionally been done, though, it will concentrate wealth even further in the hands of mostly White, mostly male people who are already rich. Sociofinancial innovation is needed to share climate wealth more equitably.

My Role

As for the big challenges I think I can personally help with, much of my career and expertise (including my patents) have been in smart grid and smart building innovation. There is still a lot of work to do there, but I think we have pretty clear pathways to success in those areas now.

In optimizing my time – the one resource of which I can never raise more – for impact and additionality, I think I add the most value now by focusing on the much harder and ambiguous challenges of decarbonizing industry and carbon removal. These are crucial challenges with incredible opportunities for innovation and we are already behind in addressing them.

To paraphrase JFK at Rice Stadium as he exhorted a nation to achieve the similarly hard and ambiguous challenge of putting a person on the Moon:

We choose to decarbonize industry and scale up carbon removal in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.

Challenge accepted – now LFG!

Saturn V launching to the moon

2022 Winter Olympics Wrap-Up

I could get used to the Olympic Games on an every six months cadence! Another Olympics has come and gone so it is once again time to take a look at who “won” the Games by several different metrics. Per my previous posts, I continue to use a weighted scoring system to tally up Olympic medals by country. This year I once again tracked not just the medal counts but also economic and demographic metrics for each country – you can see my full spreadsheet here.

20 more medals (327 in total) were given at these Olympics games than were given four years ago (307). That continues a strong trend (291 in 2014 and 217 in 2010) of more than 50% growth over a little more than a decade – talk about inflation!

Norway has benefited from the added events and repeated this year as the clear victor in weighted medal score, total medals, and gold medals. They weren’t quite as dominant as they were in 2018, when they also won the most silvers and bronzes, but they were still way ahead of second place. The top performers by weighted medal score were:
117 – Norway
95 – Germany
80  – ROC*
77  – USA
60   – Sweden
60 – Austria
Russia is still banned from Olympic competition and for good reason as they have at least one doping controversy already. If they lose a medal due to that instance, their athletes will slip from third to fourth but they really shouldn’t be counted anyway; Allowing Russia to compete as “Russian Olympic Committee” is a farce of a penalty for their systematic cheating.

Because Norway is so small, it crushed the competition even (especially!) when normalized by population. The top performers by weighted medal score per million citizens were:
21.59 – Norway
10.10 – Slovenia
6.67    – Austria
5.94    – Sweden
5.32    – Switzerland

These countries are mostly pretty affluent, though, so how do things change if we normalize instead by GDP? Not much! The top performers by weighted medal score per $B GDP (PPP) were:
0.31 – Norway
0.24 – Slovenia
0.12 – Austria
0.10 – Sweden
0.07 – Finland

We can mix up the leaderboard a little bit if we normalize by GDP per capita. The top performers by weighted medal score per $1,000 GDP per capita were:
3.19 – China
2.70 – ROC*
1.70 – Norway
1.68 – Germany
1.12 – USA
1.10 – Canada

Many congratulations to Norway, a small country that absolutely crushed much larger and richer countries than itself at this year’s Olympics – well done! Keep up the good (and, as far as we know, clean) work and we’ll hope to give you more competition in four years!

Joe Montana Is The Greatest Quarterback Ever

Another Super Bowl has come and gone. The end of the season always leaves me reflecting on the greatest games, teams, and players of all time. Tom Brady’s recent retirement has many people talking about his legacy as the “Greatest Of All Time,” or GOAT for short.

First off, can we agree that GOAT is a terrible and unflattering term with which to honor someone? I prefer the term “Greatest Ever To Play The Game” or simply the “Greatest Ever.” Second, that designation doesn’t belong to Brady; as I demonstrate below, Joe Montana is the greatest QB ever to play the game.

Joe Montana, #1
  1. Montana Did It Better When It Was Harder – It’s always hard to compare players of different eras and we can always wonder how well Brady would have done at a time when QBs and receivers were beat to hell. Brady benefited from numerous rule changes meant to protect QBs and receivers, increase their passing productivity, and increase scoring. To Brady’s credit, he fully capitalized on those rule changes – but it makes Montana’s accomplishments in a tougher era all the more impressive. It’s hard to imagine Brady, who established a reputation for lobbying refs for penalties, having much success against the punishing NFC defenses of the 1980s.
  2. Montana Did It Better Faster – We can also wonder how much more Montana would have accomplished had he not been so beat to hell / injured and if he hadn’t had a really bizarre QB controversy foist upon him by coaches. With the advantages of the rule changes above, a coach committed to his longevity, and advances in drugs and physical therapy, Brady played for 22 seasons while Montana was limited to only 13. It only took Montana 10 seasons to earn his four Super Bowl rings, though; while it took Brady 14 seasons to earn his first four.
  3. Montana Was Perfect When It Counted – Brady won the most Super Bowls in history – but he is also #3 for Super Bowl losses. Brady made many mistakes on the biggest stage, tossing six interceptions, while Montana was perfect, not throwing a single interception during his 4-for-4 Super Bowl wins. Tom Brady had a cumulative 98 passer rating in his Super Bowl appearances; Joe Montana blew him away with a 128 Super Bowl passer rating. And again, Montana outperforming Brady is even more impressive because he did it during a time when it was even harder to be a passing QB.
  4. Montana Earned All Of His Super Bowl Wins – Brady got away with lots of crazy wins attributed to his kicker (2001, 2003), the opposing team’s ineptitude (2003 out of bounds kickoff, 2004 McNabb 3 INTs, 2014 end zone INT, 2016 offense implosion), etc. while Montana was the deciding factor for all of his wins.
  5. Montana Beat The Best Of The Best – Brady mostly took on forgettable teams and was out dueled by so-so QBs while Montana out dueled NFL MVP QBs and Hall Of Famers in his Super Bowl wins. Let’s look at Brady’s opponent QBs:
    2001: Beat Kurt Warner, an elite QB and HOFer
    2003: Beat Jake Delhomme, a forgettable QB with nearly as many INTs as TDs
    2004: Beat Donovan McNabb, a good QB who never shined on the big stage
    2007: Beaten by Eli Manning, a mediocre QB who outperformed Brady when it counted
    2011: Beaten by Eli Manning, a mediocre QB who once again outperformed Brady when it counted
    2014: Beat Russell Wilson, who didn’t make the Pro Bowl that year
    2016: Beat Matt Ryan, an elite QB that year (but limited by Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s trademark choking in big games)
    2017: Beaten by Nick Foles, a forgettable backup
    2018: Beat Jared Goff, who?
    2020: Beat Patrick Mahomes, probably an elite QB in the making but still too early to tell
    Now let’s look at Montana’s opponent QBs:
    1981: Beat Ken Anderson, NFL MVP that year, 2x NFL passing leader, widely regarded as one of the best NFL players not in the HOF
    1984: Beat Dan Marino, NFL MVP that year, HOFer, NFL 100-year All Time Team, retired as all-time NFL passing leader
    1988: Beat Boomer Esiason, NFL MVP that year
    1989: Beat John Elway, former NFL MVP, HOFer, two Super Bowl rings
    It really isn’t close; Montana stepped into the ring against the best of the best every Super Bowl and beat them every time.
  6. Montana Was a More Dynamic Player – Brady was an immobile pocket passer throwing route trees – more of a game manager for the first part of his career – while Montana was elusive, mobile, and able to stretch plays / improvise.
  7. Montana Was Iconic – Montana is responsible for multiple signature plays (“The Catch“) and drives (“The John Candy Drive“) that have been immortalized whereas the signature big game moments associated with Brady are attached to his opponents (Atlanta’s second-half collapse, New York’s helmet catch, Seattle’s interception in the end zone).
  8. Montana Was A Leader – Montana’s physical attributes weren’t the best of all time – or even of his time – but his leadership was a force multiplier that made everyone on his team – even on defense – better, especially in big moments. Brady, by comparison, was known for having his wife publicly blame and disparage his teammates when he lost.
  9. Montana Did It All Cleanly – Brady will always have an asterisk next to his name due to Spygate, Deflategate, and who knows how many other instances of cheating that were never discovered.
  10. Montana Won At Multiple Levels – While Brady was a good-not-great college QB, Montana led his team to a national championship.
  11. Bonus: Montana Won In The Recording Studio Too – Montana’s off-the-field endeavors met with great success as well. He, Dwight Clark, and other 49ers sang backup on the 1985 Huey Lewis & The News #1 Hit “Hip To Be Square.” Brady’s off-the-field endeavors are more known for pseudoscience, such as “The TB12 Method.”

In general, I think people overemphasize the importance of QBs in American football and underemphasize the importance of other players – especially linemen. If we really wanted to debate the greatest football player of all time, I think it likely wouldn’t be a QB. It might be a running back like Jim Brown or a linebacker like Lawrence Taylor – players that were so dominant that they changed the way the game was played.

If we’re going to focus on QBs, though, it comes down to this: the NFL changed the game to help QBs like Brady be more successful. Montana, on the other hand, was so successful that he changed the game.

Joe Montana is the greatest QB ever to play the game. If you would like to learn more, I recommend watching “Joe Montana: Cool Under Pressure,” a six-part series about his magical career.

Get Back Review

Last week we finished watching the marathon Beatles documentary series, Get Back. It’s really slow and probably not for anyone who isn’t a die hard Beatles Fan. As I am such a fan, though, I really enjoyed it! It pulls back the curtain for an intimate view of how one of the most accomplished bands in the world made an incredibly successful album in just a few weeks – with many surprises [to me] along the way.

My first impression is just how insanely talented the Beatles were – as individuals and as a group. Every one of them was able to play all the instruments and it was inspiring to see them effortlessly change from one to another depending on what was needed. It was also incredible to see just how much the music was in each of them. They really couldn’t sit still and had to be jamming, strumming, playing, singing, etc. at all times. Well, except for Ringo, who seemed to be asleep much of the time but then he would just wake up and rip off perfect drum fills! They were in their mid-20s and absolutely at the top of their game.

Still, it was apparent how, by this point, they were all already heading in different directions. Ringo was doing movies, George was quitting to explore his individual creativity, John was throwing himself into a partnership with Yoko, and Paul was evolving from a bassist to a piano troubadour. The tensions were quite evident, especially with Paul’s “one more take” perfectionism, which was a fantastic note (pun intended) on which to end the film.

Although they each went on to have successful solo careers, their real magic was as a group and, indeed, it was magical to watch them build on each other’s ideas to create songs in which the whole was greater than the sum of their individual contributions. Here the addition of Billy Preston seemed catalytic in unlocking their group dynamic, as if his presence collimated their previously incoherent energy. This effect had been observed previously when Eric Clapton joined the recording of While My Guitar Gently Weeps so it would seem that, by this point, the Beatles needed this sort of kick in the pants to focus. The music was truly in Billy too and it was a joy to watch him riff.

The other major catalyst seems to have been the forcing function of the concert. With their backs against the wall, they really seemed to gel in the days leading up to the rooftop concert (And, by the way, the movie catching the epiphanic moment of Paul considering the rooftop as a venue for the first time was sublime.) such that they only needed one further day of recording to complete the album. What can you say – the Beatles were gamers. It was incredible to watch what began as aimless chaos take form, focus, and substance into an iconic performance and album – all the more so because they built so much momentum that they were back in the studio three months later to record yet another album!

A few other observations:

  • So. Much. Smoking! I don’t think there was a single shot without at least one cigarette or cigar butt. It’s amazing they could still nail their vocal harmonies.
  • The Beatles looked . . . old. They were in their mid-20s with crow’s feet, pasty skin, and bags under their eyes. Their meteoric rise had clearly taken its toll – also see previous note.
  • John seemed high much of the time, with unfocused eyes and zany antics – or maybe that’s just how he was?
  • Yoko was a ghost – always there, never interfering, just kind of hanging around (and occasionally wailing or dancing with John).

They say you don’t want to see how the sausage is made but this labor of love from Peter Jackson and team shows sausage making at its finest. At more than 8 hours in length, there is a high temporal cost to watch Get Back but, to me, it was more than worth it. Let It Be isn’t one of my favorite Beatles albums but the opportunity to be a fly on the wall while arguably the greatest band of all time does its thing is truly priceless.

Getaways in the Mountains

The last two weekends we have escaped to Colorado mountain towns and they have lived up to the hype!

Two weekends ago we visited some dear friends in Beaver Creek. We found Beaver Creek to be a small, secluded town with a real feeling of getting away. The architecture was very Swiss-inspired, which took us back to our time en suisse many years ago. This was a quiet weekend for us, spending time with our friends, watching the Olympics, and hiking and eating our way through charming Beaver Creek.

Last weekend we traveled to Breckenridge, which in many ways was the opposite of Beaver Creek: big, very commercial, and very American-feeling (in contrast to Beaver Creek’s more European feel). This was a more extended vacation for us and we spent the time hiking, biking, and participating in summer mountain activities (gondola rides, roller coasters, alpine slides). I even bumped into a beach volleyball teammate of mine from Houston – what a small world!

Although we are still largely keeping to ourselves during this COVID resurgence, it has felt very liberating to begin exploring our environs. We moved to Boulder more than a year ago and only recently are we starting to access the rest of Colorado. Suffice it to say that Colorado offers a lot of natural beauty; driving to/from is almost as breathtaking as the destinations themselves. Many aspects of this state remind me of my time in Switzerland – which is a very good thing! We are very much looking forward to continuing our adventures here!

2020 (2021) Olympics Wrap-Up

Another Olympics has come and gone so it is once again time to take a look at who “won” the Games by several different metrics. Per my previous posts, I continue to use a weighted scoring system to tally up Olympic medals by country. This year I once again tracked not just the medal counts but also economic and demographic metrics for each country – you can see my full spreadsheet here.

The USA was the clear victor in medal scores, winning in every category: golds, silvers, bronzes, total medals, and weighted medal score. The top performers by weighted medal score were:
351 – USA
304 – China
207 – ROC (Russia)
195 – Great Britain
194 – Japan
Japan went from a weighted medal count of 37 in 2008 to displace Germany in the top 5 this year for the first time – how gratifying for the host country! Meanwhile Russia continues to hold a top spot despite technically being banned from competition this year for doping . . . it’s kind of hard to take any of their athletes seriously as clean competitors at this point.

The leaders in these summer Olympics are all large countries; the leaderboard changes quite a bit when normalized by population (or by GDP). The top performers by weighted medal score per million citizens were:
12.00 – New Zealand
9.50  – Slovenia
9.00   – Jamaica
6.50   – Croatia
5.88   – Netherlands
Kudos to these countries for high performance despite having small athletic talent pools.

It was a fun Olympics to watch this year – full of surprises, records, and inspiring performances. Moreover, it was the first Olympics I have been able to watch with my kid, which made it all the more fun! Due to the COVID delay, the Winter Olympics are now only months away and the next Summer Olympics just around the corner – we can’t wait!

A Week And A Half In The Mountains

I spent the back half of June in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. This was the first trip I’ve taken since moving to Colorado a year ago in the midst of the COVID pandemic. Although the trip was for business, my family managed to join for part of it and the change of scenery was beneficial for all of us.

We drove up on a Wednesday evening to give our 3yo a chance to fall asleep in the car and just transfer into our hotel. The Basalt Mountain Inn, where we stayed, turned out to be more of a motel – pretty bare bones but just fine for our purposes. It was walking distance from everything in Basalt – including the RMI office – so we were very glad for the location, location, location.

Thursday morning we woke up and had breakfast at Two Rivers Cafe – the only place in Basalt open before 8:00! I was initially very excited about the menu, which featured lots of Southwestern fare – eggs with enchiladas, tamales, etc. – but none of it was very spicy at all. That’s all right, though; it was good diner food and available when we needed it!

After breakfast, I met up with the Third Derivative team and we kicked off our two-day strategy retreat with a hike above the beautiful Roaring Fork Valley. It was amazing to meet in person people I had hired, led, and collaborated with virtually for more than a year. We are enormously privileged to have access to vaccines and we took full advantage.

After our hike, we settled into RMI’s headquarters and innovation center in Basalt. The building itself is amazing and it had been set up for extra airflow plus lots of event space outside to minimize risk of any COVID transmission. We were well catered, including a little sign advising RMI staff who were not part of our event that the food was for us – it felt very much like my IMD MBA experience except that now I was in the group for which the food was meant, not the mooch coming to clean up afterward!

We spent the afternoon talking strategy, sharing out the results of the integrated strategic planning we had done over the prior two months, and soliciting further feedback/refinement from the entire team. Then it was time to kick back with dinner and drinks on the patio right along the Frying Pan River at the Tipsy Trout. It was wonderful social time with people I had been craving time with since we launched Third Derivative!

Toward the end, Katie came out so I split off from the group and Katie and I got a little date night for the first time in . . . ever? That’s how it felt!

On Friday I returned to the RMI office for a day of team exercises, working together to define how we would execute on our grand ambitions. After we wrapped up, we went to take a tour of Amory Lovins‘s groundbreaking energy efficient house in Snowmass, which was an inspiring experience.

While most of the Third Derivative team went to Aspen and Carbondale for dinner, I helped Katie put our 3yo down to bed. By the time they were asleep I couldn’t pin down the team so . . . Katie and I had our second date night in a row! We had a lovely outdoor dinner at Cafe Bernard (The elk tenderloin was wonderful!) and turned in early.

Saturday most of the Third Derivative team returned home so Katie, our 3yo, and my mom went to explore Aspen. We hiked Hunter Creek Trail and then walked around the town center, frequented the farmer’s market, and grabbed brunch with the remaining Third Derivative team members.

Honestly I didn’t love Aspen. It seemed pretty superficial and didn’t seem to offer a whole lot I couldn’t get in any number of other Colorado mountain towns. I was only there for a few hours, though, and not during the winter so maybe my opinion will change in future.

Saturday evening we had an early goodbye dinner for the last of the Third Derivative team and then . . . Katie and I had a third date night!

Sunday was technically Fathers Day but for me it was a working day. My family returned home in the morning and I spent the day preparing for the intense week ahead. I didn’t mind at all, though; for me, every day is Fathers Day!

Monday we held Third Derivative’s Board meeting, at which we aligned on the strategic and operating plan. We’re looking to more than double our activity over the next year so the Board pushed us a bit on our execution risk. At the end of the day, though, we all agreed to pursue an ambitious path – after all, it’s what the climate needs.

I spent most of Tuesday prepping for RMI’s leadership strategy retreat. In classic Bryan fashion, all of my materials came in right at the deadline. It’s a good thing they did too, because, by Tuesday afternoon, colleagues were arriving from all corners of the world. Just as with the Third Derivative team, it was amazing to see them and spend time with them in person. This was capped off by happy hour at a colleague’s place in Carbondale and dinner nearby at Phat Thai.

Wednesday we held RMI program reviews, meaning every program – including Third Derivative – shared out our strategic self assessment and received feedback from all of the other program leads. This was exhausting but also incredibly useful; I learned more about what else is happening at RMI in that one day than I had learned in my prior 15 months. We wrapped up with dinner at Tempranillo and all crashed pretty early to secure adequate recovery before the next day.

Thursday we worked in breakout groups to ideate ways that all of RMI’s programs might better collaborate together. Right now we are relatively silo’ed but there is an opportunity for the RMI whole to be greater than the sum of its parts if we can better coordinate between/among us. I think the content of these sessions was productive but the best part was spending time with these smart, motivated, diverse colleagues for the first time. We wrapped up with a “social” dinner where all we talked about was work at Free Range.

Because my family had already returned home with our car, I had no ride back to Boulder so I decided to test out Colorado’s mass transit. Friday morning I took the VelociRFTA bus from Basalt to Glenwood Springs. There I picked up the Bustang to Denver Union Station. Brant, Third Derivative’s dynamic COO, lives at Union Station so I grabbed lunch with him before taking a Lyft to my house in Boulder. It was quite an odyssey!

Later Friday evening I bumped into one of my RMI colleagues – with whom I had just spent two full days in Basalt – at our mailboxes. It turns out that he has been my nextdoor neighbor the entire time we have lived here and I never knew! #onlyduringcovid could we be on weekly Zoom calls together and never notice that we were physically only a few meters a part!

It was an exhausting, energizing, exhilarating trip to Basalt and I am so grateful for the privilege to have been able to meet safely in person. I’m a technologist and tech tools make it easier than ever to collaborate virtually – but, as the saying goes, ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby!

Back To Basics

So, I’m recovering from massively invasive spinal surgery . . . Wait, wait, wait, OK, let’s back up!

2020-11 In November of last year, I woke up one morning with debilitating back pain. The pain level itself wasn’t incredibly high, but it was so uncomfortable that I basically couldn’t sleep for a week until I finally discovered Aleve PM and melatonin. I had had unexplained pain in this particular spot before but never this significant or this persistent.

Over the next few weeks the pain migrated from my upper back to my left shoulder down my arm, eventually to settle as numbness in my fingers and weakness in my left triceps and pec. Indeed I had had some numbness in my left fingers off and on over the years but it had always resolved itself. Because this wasn’t going away, I asked my doctor for some help; he referred me to an orthopedist and a physiatrist. The ortho took x-rays and couldn’t find anything wrong so it seemed most likely that this was a nerve issue.

2020-12 I met with the physiatrist shortly after Christmas and demonstrated how this fit athlete could barely do a pushup due to the left arm weakness. She ordered her own x-rays and an MRI, hypothesizing that we would see some nerve impingement in the lower cervical spine.

When the MRI came back it did indeed show a slight herniation (bulge) in one of the cervical discs on the left side that was likely causing my symptoms. However, much more worrying was a diagnosis of “critical spinal stenosis” around my C5-C7 vertebrae. That means that my spinal column was being massively compressed there, which my physiatrist found very worrying.

“Critical” compression at C5-C7

In addition to the compression potentially causing nerve damage itself, it put me at much greater risk of much more catastrophic damage, like paralysis, if I experienced jarring movement, like an auto accident. I assumed this compression must be the result of my football playing days but the doctors told me it was likely congenital. Given that 20 years ago my mom experienced sudden and unexpected paralysis, maybe it is even hereditary.

2021-02 My physiatrist agreed that I could pursue conservative treatment for a little while to see if conditions would improve. I did physical therapy on my neck and spine twice a week for the better part of two months but unfortunately didn’t see much improvement.

2021-03 At this point my physiatrist became more insistent that I should pursue surgery with due haste. The longer my spinal cord remained compressed, the higher the likelihood of permanent nerve damage.

I met with neuro and orthopedic surgeons. They reviewed my imaging and mostly gave me two options: 1. fusion, 2. disc replacement. In both cases they would go in through the front of the neck and reduce pressure on my nerve root. These were pretty routine procedures with rapid recovery and low likelihood of complications. Everyone seemed to agree that these were my only options.

My last visit was with Dr. Patrick Curry of Boulder Centre for Orthopedics. Although he thought it likely that surgery would be the ultimate answer, he engaged with me much more openly rather than the “You must have surgery right now and here are your options” approach I had received from others – which I appreciated.

He noted the disparity between the worrisome spinal cord compression evident in my MRI and my symptoms which were much more related to pressure on the nerve root. He presented the same fusion and disc replacement options that I had been presented previously – but he was concerned that they wouldn’t adequately solve my issue since not just the discs but the c6 vertebra as well were providing pressure on the spinal canal. As such, he presented two additional surgical options:
1. c6 corpectomy – which he didn’t recommend for someone my age (One of the unexpected benefits about spinal surgery in your 40s is being constantly told how young you are – I guess it’s all relative!) – 2. posterior laminoplasty.

In posterior laminoplasty, he would go in the through the back and peel back tissue to create more space/room in the spinal canal. While he was in there, he would go around the spinal cord to clean up the anterior disc herniation as well. This would have a longer recovery than other options (having to cut through my muscular back and neck) but he believed it would more comprehensively address my issue(s) – with a lower likelihood of leading to more and more surgeries in future.

In the spirit of informing a decision with more data, we agreed to do a CT scan immediately and another MRI at higher resolution before finalizing a decision of which surgical option to pursue. After reviewing the new imaging together, we decided on the posterior laminoplasty.

2021-05 Unfortunately it took months for insurance to approve all of the imaging and the procedure – not very comforting when I had been told that the longer I waited the higher the likelihood of permanent nerve damage would be!

Finally we set a surgery date – May 20 – and then I began to get scared. I had never had surgery before and this would be really invasive, risky stuff – cutting open my neck and back and messing with my spinal cord! What if something went wrong and I turned into a vegetable? What if I went under anesthesia and never woke up? What if these were the last beautiful moments I would ever spend with my darling 3yo or amazing partner? What if I hadn’t prepared my work team to keep going in my absence?

The closer we got to May 20, the faster time seemed to go, such that all my ability to prepare for what was to come – practically and psychologically – seemed to fly out the window. Multiple pre-op appointments came and went but I always seemed to leave with more questions than answers. Suddenly, the morning of the procedure arrived and there was no looking back.

2021-05-20 Katie and I woke up very early the morning of May 20 and drove to Porter Adventist Hospital just south of Denver. The surgery prep team was amazing! Everyone introduced themself and told me exactly what they were doing before or during the operation. They all gave Katie (who was in constant communication with my brother, Nick) an opportunity to ask questions too.

Ready for battle!

They asked me 100 times who I was and what I was there for so I was pretty confident they wouldn’t get me mixed up with another patient. The anesthesiologist even turned out to be a close colleague of one of my friends from college! All this to say, as I was wheeled to the operating room, while I was still scared, my anxiety was much reduced. In the operating room, as the drugs kicked in, I remember making jokes about the funny looking x-ray protective gear and then . . . that’s it.

2021-05-20 I came to propped up in a hospital bed with a neck brace on and Katie right beside me. The surgery had lasted ~4 hours and everything had gone as expected.

Awake! (sort of)

Now I was hopped up on drugs for pain management, had a drain inserted into my trapezius, a foley catheter inserted into my bladder, and a big incision stitched up on the back of my neck!

FrankenBryan

I would need to remain at the hospital until I could meet a few pre-defined milestones. For the time being, though, it was time to rest. Katie returned home and video called me with our 3yo, which made everything feel much better.

It wasn’t a restful night per se as nurses were coming in and out of the room all the time, taking vital signs, giving me medication, and asking lots of questions. Between my inability to move, the catheter, and a numb finger (where the oxygen sensor was on tightly), it wasn’t terribly comfortable, but I managed to piece together some sleep in preparation for the following day’s work.

2021-05-21 By the time Katie rejoined me next morning, I was already checking off milestones. The catheter was out (Hallelujah!). The physical therapist came and helped me sit up, then stand up, then go for a short walk. The occupational therapist came and helped me go to the bathroom, brush teeth, and take a shower. It was funny how jubilantly the nurses would celebrate each of these milestones – it felt a lot like us at home celebrating the same milestones with our 3yo!

This all seemed relatively straight forward until I had a chance to sit down and catch my breath. Only then did I realize how exhausted I was; I had to take an hour-long nap immediately! And that’s how the rest of my day went: getting up to push the boundaries of longer and longer walks, eating a little bit, and then napping to recover.

After Katie left for the evening, Mom came to visit me and we had some good walks and talks along the hospital floor. The night came and went and suddenly it was Saturday, the first day I was eligible for discharge!

2021-05-22 Saturday proceeded like the day before, with routine functions like walking becoming more, well, routine. Finally the nurse checked my drain and declared that the small amount of discharge being produced meant that I had met my final discharge milestone. They pulled the drain out (which felt like someone was flossing my insides) and I was free to go!

Katie drove me home and I was elated to be rejoined with my pack. I made it home in time for our bath and bedtime routine then turned in very early myself.

Home at last, home at last, thank God almighty, I’m home at last!

Now I’ve been home for a week and every day keeps getting better and better. I’m blessed to have an amazing support team around me: my mom, my sister-in-law (who flew in for the week), and especially my partner. Katie has suddenly found herself a single parent with one wild 3yo and one wild puppy – and now a spinal recovery patient as well! She’s phenomenal, though, and is always making sure I’m nourished, comfortable, and have the right medication at the right time.

I’m still in a neck brace (which makes many things uncomfortable – including sleeping!), still on medication (a little less every day), and still on supplemental oxygen at night (meant to counteract the effects of some of the medication). I’m regaining physical capacity daily, though. Walking is the only form of exercise I’m currently allowed (which makes sense as my HRV is still incredibly low) and up to 11,000 steps / day.

Candidly, this is all very hard for me. As someone who is used to feeling invincible, suddenly I feel very vulnerable. And it will be a long road to full recovery . . . but so far the slope of the curve seems to be positive and pretty steep. With this great team around me, I’m very optimistic and looking forward to this as my next great adventure!

Getting after it!

The Fall of a Titan

With a heavy heart I’m sharing that former Rice Owl, Courtney Hall, died unexpectedly Thursday, apparently of a heart condition.

The only person I ever knew who was in Tecmo Super Bowl!

Graduating from high school as a National Merit semifinalist at age 16, Courtney was an all-conference center at Rice (starting every one of Rice’s 44 games during his four years). Drafted into the NFL at age 19, Courtney was an All-Pro center for the San Diego Chargers while completing his Rice degree in 1990 and captaining them to Super Bowl XXIX (the 1994 season).

Since his playing days he had an illustrious career in finance and public service. While serving on the Association of Rice Alumni board of directors (where I first met him) he earned a joint JD/MBA from U Chicago and was recently named to Rice Board of Trustees. Like me, he married way, way up and, although he built a sizeable family of his own, I would say that he saw every classmate, teammate, business partner, or other human as a family member. Someone of his prominence always had many people asking for something but I never once saw him refuse to lend a helping hand to a fellow in need.

I was proud to call Courtney a friend and mentor and I will always call him an inspiration. If you didn’t have the great fortune to know Courtney, please take a moment to read the articles below (hat tip to former ARA board member, George Webb, for curating them). You will see what an extraordinary life he led and that the impact of his legacy will endure long after he has left this mortal world. We have lost a true titan, but, after all, Rice fight never dies.

https://www.houstonchronicle.com/texas-sports-nation/texans/article/Courtney-Hall-former-Chargers-Rice-football-16142165.php
http://www.hillcrestvp.com/index.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courtney_Hall
https://riceowls.com/news/2020/5/2/football-rice-memories-courtney-hall.aspx
https://nflpa.com/posts/catching-up-with-former-reps-courtney-hall
http://nfl-pe-stage.azurewebsites.net/next/articles/courtney-hall-watn/
https://blogs.usafootball.com/blog/5247/how-former-san-diego-chargers-lineman-courtney-hall-used-his-intellect-on-and-off-the-field