Danielle Fong

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Danielle Fong is the Cofounder and Chief Scientist of LightSail Energy, a California based company developing breakthrough, high efficiency energy storage systems using compressed air. Her impressive career could act as an example to leaders in the energy business and inspire more young ladies into the industry in the future.

Sometimes in the energy industry, it’s easy to forget that we are actually in 2014. Of course, if you look at all of the technology and money involved then you will be reminded of the times but if you look at the workforce, you might be shocked to find out that there are still not too many ladies in top positions.

So why is this? In this day and age, are we still shackled by ideas of the past that females shouldn’t or couldn’t sit atop the pile in the energy industry? Or is it just a legacy if the past that fewer ladies are attracted to work in the industry? One thing is for sure, like all other industries in the world, the mix of male and female in top power positions is sure to change over the next few decades.

Organisations like the Women’s Energy Network, the Association of Women in Energy and the Hawthorn Club all try and encourage female prosperity in leadership roles in the industry but recently the Guardian newspaper said that the lack of women at the top is damaging the UK’s energy sector.

“The global energy and utilities sector has been underperforming for the past five years because of a surprising factor, according to a recent report by EY (Ernst & Young). The lack of gender diversity in senior leadership teams is holding back innovation. No wonder, as the numbers are shocking: just 4% of executive board members at the top 100 utilities companies are women,” reports the paper.

But in amongst that 4%, there are some real gems.

One of them is 26 year old (born 30.10.1987) Danielle Fong – Cofounder and Chief Scientist of LightSail Energy.

Danielle is a remarkable entrepreneur with a fantastic story and her innovations have been called ‘world changing’ by many industry onlookers.

Her story starts in Nova Scotia, Canada where she grew up as an inquisitive youngster.

Danielle dropped out of junior high school at the age of 12 to attend Dalhousie University. She graduated from Dalhousie in 2005 at age 17 with first class honours in computer science and physics, after which she entered the Plasma Physics Department at Princeton University as a Ph.D. student, but later dropped out.

From then on her entrepreneurial spirit began to shine through albeit fairly unsuccessfully. She says: “In September 2007, I realised I’d make a terrible employee.

“Later that month, I realised that I’d starve if I didn’t take matters into my own hands and start my own thing; then I realised that I might have a halfway decent chance at making a difference,” she says.

“Until May 2008 I struggled to launch any of dozens of start-up ideas, while working side jobs and supporting cofounders/friends. In June 2008, I started working feverishly on compressed air technology and for the next four months I was couch surfing.”

Eventually, in August 2008, Danielle cofounded LightSail Energy with Stephen Crane and Edwin P. Berlin, Jr and the company began specialising in the development of a form of compressed air energy storage, which they term regenerative air energy storage (RAES). LightSail changed focus from a vehicle based technology to a grid scale energy storage technology in the course of development.

Danielle’s scientific mind was instrumental in the development of the company, which has won many accolades in recent years.

“We aim to produce the world’s cleanest and most economical energy storage systems. Compressing air creates heat energy. Until now, this was wasted, drastically reducing efficiency,” the company says. “Our innovation: an elegant method of capturing this heat energy and regenerating useful energy from it. We inject a fine, dense mist of water spray which rapidly absorbs the heat energy of compression and provides it during expansion.”

It all sounds very technical, but Danielle says: “It could radically reorient the economics of renewable energy.”

Originally based in an old fire station in Oakland, LightSail moved to an old chocolate factory in Berkeley, California.

And since the formation of her company, Danielle has been featured in Forbes’ 30 under 30 in the Energy category and interviewed by Forbes in a video titled “Danielle Fong May Save the World”. She was named by the MIT Technology Review as one of the top 35 innovators under 35 in 2012. She is a regular guest contributor to the Women 2.0 blog and was a featured speaker at the Women 2.0 PITCH Conference and Competition 2012.

The company itself had attracted much attention and importantly, much investment from prominent industry and global players. Investor include French energy giant Total, global software magnate Bill Gates, leading global financing provider Triple Point Capital, German American entrepreneur, venture capitalist Peter Thiel, San Francisco based venture capital firm Founders Fund, investor in early stage Nova Scotia entrepreneurs Innovacorp and a number of other private investors but one of the main contributors from the very beginning was Khosla Ventures led by Vinod Khosla. You don’t attract names like this without a serious amount of entrepreneurial clout.

In her relatively short amount of time on this earth Daniele Fong has already made a significant impact and it looks certain that there will be more to come from her brilliant mind. And oh yes, she’s female, proving that you can be a lady and contribute to the energy industry from a senior position.

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