December 6, 2019
As a child growing up in Houston, Texas, Etosha Cave ’06 had an ingrained awareness and appreciation for petroleum and fossil fuels. This awareness grew into “a desire to mitigate the waste from them, find alternatives and find a more balanced approach to energy,” she says.
Today, as the co-founder and chief science officer of groundbreaking clean energy company Opus 12, Cave and her colleagues are actively working to contribute to the energy crisis: Opus 12 has developed a device that recycles CO₂ emissions into reusable chemicals and fuels. In addition to reducing emissions, this recycling process also creates a new revenue stream from what is traditionally discarded as waste products.
The spark for Opus 12 was originated by Cave and her classmate, Kendra Kuhl, while working in the Jaramillo Group CO₂ lab at Stanford University as graduate students. The lab was “working with CO2 waste in a way that was compelling,” and Cave and Kuhl ultimately developed key methods for studying CO₂-reducing catalysts and reactions. The pair also published seminal discoveries on the breadth of products that is possible to reduce from CO₂.
In 2015, Cave and Kuhl brought their discoveries from the lab to industry. They met co-founder Nicholas Flanders while pitching their idea to fellow Stanford business graduate students at a cleantech event. Flanders was already an experienced entrepreneur and was the perfect partner to complete the founding trio.
One quality that has served her well in starting a new company is her comfort with uncertainty. “I could have been a trauma doctor,” she jokes. “I kind of thrive and survive in high stress situations. There is a calmness and energetic value in being in high pressure environments. It brings this sense of aliveness, when you have no idea what might happen.” Building a company takes “scrappiness” and in figuring out the best path, an ability to change course and keep reevaluating. Like many, Cave acknowledges she, too, possesses a fear of failure, “but that doesn’t stop me.”
The unknown, she says, is akin to research. Anyone undertaking research in a lab knows how much time and how many iterations and ideations it takes before arriving at a viable product. “I love the unknown of research,” says Cave. And even though most research usually fails, she loves getting really excited about a new idea and testing it out. Cave contrasts those “really high highs” with the daily “Zen” of setting up an experiment. “The flow you experience can feel quite meditative,” she says.
As Opus 12’s Chief Science Officer, Cave has pivoted away from a research role, and now enjoys the uncertainty of financial models and continuing to grow the company. “I enjoy the learning part of it—even though it’s not learning about science or technology. If my job didn’t always change, I might get a little bored,” reflects Cave. “I tend to gravitate toward doing new things.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of her evolving role is the travel and communicating about science, adjusting concepts for people who are not in the field. Part of the joy for Cave is that “in talking about what we do, people get really excited! I like sharing in that excitement.”
During her junior year at Olin, Cave took Professor Ben Linder’s Design for Sustainability course. Her project—repurposing glass bottles into light fixtures-- wasn’t groundbreaking, but she enjoyed the exercise in sustainability. The challenge—how can one think creatively to reuse an existing object to create something new? —is one she continues to tackle today on a much larger scale. “I have had a long interest in clean tech and clean energy,” explains Cave. “Olin was a way for me to continue that.”
Cave’s advice to Olin students? “Just pick a path and go down that path, don’t waffle. You can always change course,” she says. There is real value in deep work, deep learning. “Your learning can and will translate into other things. If you don’t go deep, you can’t walk away with a tangible skill.”