Stanford men find an unlikely home in East Texas at PCDworks’ Hard Tech Base Camp
Stefan Streckfus and Kemp Gregory trade trash talk across a ping-pong table in Palestine, their words flying over the net with every ball-to-paddle connection, and intensifying when one of the duo misses, and has to scramble after the ball before the game can resume.
The two men, one from North Carolina, the other from Houston, met while in graduate school at Stanford University, where they worked to develop and create an innovative energy model through a rigorous, auditions-based course labeled Stanford Energy Ventures.
While in class, they spent hours huddled over calculations or working through logistical struggles, meeting eight to 10 times each week with industry experts who sometimes tore apart their proposals and offered priceless insight on their plan for Renewell Energy, a startup that aims to transform the 3.1 million inactive oil wells in the United States into storage devices for renewable resources.
Now, their ping-pong games are frequent – an avenue for stress relief as they spend their days pitching to venture capitalists and working to perfect a prototype that could very well revolutionize the world of renewable energy.
Their ideas have already garnered the support of top leadership in California, and a steady stream of phone calls pouring in from interested parties across the U.S. is indicative of a solid game plan to harness the oil fields already connected to existing power grids.
But perhaps one of their biggest fans, Mike Rainone, makes a home for himself in the heart of East Texas – and, recently, he’s helped them to settle in here, too.
“I have to say that they spoil us,” Mike Rainone, co-founder and vice president of PCDworks, said. “They live with Donna and I in our big house, and they actually can cook – and cook well.”
With testing labs, engineering shops and 15 employees considered “some of the best and brightest” scientists, engineers and technical development experts in the industry, PCDworks, a new product design and innovation firm, has long been churning out patents and remarkable products.
But inviting the founders of startups to come and live with the Rainones full time? Well, that’s something new.
A bit of awe and serendipity
Rainone and Streckfus first met a few years back. Streckfus was a lead engineer for Burger King, and they’d called on Rainone and PCDworks for help in developing an automated, faster and more consistent-cooking broiler.
“From the outside, a Burger King broiler may not sound like much,” Streckfus said. “But decades of innovation go into the process … and it’s a very large dollar sign project if they’re able to succeed.”
During project development, Streckfus and a team flew out to PCDworks to look at a prototype for a broiler.
“I got introduced to Mike and all of the craziness that comes with Mike,” Streckfus said. “I had a great time out here. They showed us a great test set-up instrumented to the wazoo – which was also a thing that made me really want to talk with Mike.”
Streckfus, who comes from “the middle of nowhere, with pine trees everywhere,” said he fell in love with the place almost immediately.
And as he was shifting his focus in life and in his career, looking toward graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, he dreamt of returning to Palestine over the summers. He hoped to “convince Mike to let (Streckfus) work for him.”
“Weirdly enough, things didn’t work out that way,” Streckfus said. “But we still ended up here.”
That’s because Streckfus knew what a valuable resource could be found in Rainone.
When he and Gregory began mulling over the idea for Renewell Energy, envisioning the type of machinery needed to make it possible, they didn’t blink in turning to Rainone for help. “I knew Mike was brilliant in taking stuff from the ideation phase into something real,” Streckfus said. And when he heard Rainone tick off, on one hand, all the prototypes PCDworks had already designed that spoke directly to the needs of Renewell Energy, he felt as if the stars had aligned.
“It’s one of those things that, once the idea is out and you’re planning to do it, it seems so obvious,” Streckfus said. “There’s a lot of synergies between what they’re doing here and what we want to do.”
Rainone joked that the pair began hounding him with questions nearly a year ago.
“I gave them what little advice I could offer, which was not much, because they really knew a lot about what they were doing,” Rainone said. “But eventually it became clear that, out there (in California), they don’t do big, clunky things like motors and stuff like that.”
Silicon Valley may be the seat of innovation, Gregory jumped in to explain, “but unless you’re building an app, the system isn’t really structured to give you the most help that it possibly can.”
The more incubators and accelerators he and Streckfus reached out to, the more they were faced with brick walls and dead-ends – through Stanford Energy Ventures, they’d already built a strong vision for their startup, and were well-connected with networks of industry leaders. They didn’t need more of the same.
“What we needed was somebody who could teach us how to actually build something,” Gregory said. “We searched far and wide. Stefan’s previous connection with Mike was just serendipitous. The more we talked with him, the more we started thinking, ‘We should just go out there!’ There’s clearly no better resource.”
Hard Tech Base Camp
Rainone had been harboring the idea for Hard Tech Base Camp for years. He’d long dreamed of promoting PCDworks as a think-tank for newer business ventures so that his work and legacy could endure after he passed on.
“The idea would be to have a place where people from around the country could come and be sponsored to work on this kind of stuff,” Rainone said. “But I don’t want to vet them the market. I don’t want to try and figure out whether a product is viable. I want them to have done that and to say, ‘Yep, it’s viable. We just have to figure out the technology.’”
Streckfus and Gregory, fresh out of Stanford, had already done just that.
“They have done a terrific job of modeling, of laying it out, of doing the financial analysis,” Rainone said.
And with a $50,000 TomKat Innovation Transfer Grant in hand from Stanford University, “it all just gelled together.”
Thus was Hard Tech Base Camp born. Hard Tech, Rainone explained, is about physical innovations – machinery, motors, actuators, gearing pumps – as opposed to purely software.
The model aims to provide a “nurturing environment and the equipment, space, engineering and manufacturing mentorship” that is dedicated to designing and building the hard physical innovations of the world, Rainone explained.
Base Camp clients are housed in guest facilities on campus, where they live and eat with other entrepreneurs “to foster team building and nurture the creative problem-solving effort.”
The space is wholly dedicated to 24/7 immersion in the creative process – one that, ideally, will accelerate viable projects to the next stage of development. That is, completion, sale and implementation.
Rainone and his staff of experts work collaboratively with Base Camp clients to determine what is known, what is certain and what must be made certain about products, leading involved parties through an approximately eight-week process that takes client team members from planning and immersion with PCDworks mentors to design and prototype testing.
“It’s all about feasibility, reducing risk,” Gregory explained. “Every single startup is interested in the derisking process. And no one else offered that.”
Gregory and Streckfus, as the inaugural Base Camp clients, could not speak more highly of the experience.
An oasis of immersion
Tucked away on a winding road, beneath a grove of towering pines, a red-dirt driveway leads the way to Hard Tech Base Camp, where slate-gray siding and white rafters prove a trademark of the handful of buildings – office spaces, workshops, guest housing and the Rainone homestead itself – that are scattered across the property and connected by pebble stone pathways and bursts of wildflowers.
The neatly groomed, 80-acre campus, where a friendly dog, a little gray around the muzzle, wanders about in search of biscuits, is not a place you’d find by accident. And that’s entirely by design.
“One of the benefits of coming out here is the focus it allows you,” Streckfus, Renewell’s CTO, said. “Moving away from the distractions of the life I left in California, I’d say these days I’m spending a good 90 percent of my time focused on the technical side of things.”
As for Gregory, Renewell’s CEO, his time is spent in much the inverse way. For 90% of his days, he’ll speak on the phone with regulators, advisers and coaches to give Streckfus the space to focus solely on the hardware for the project – because Renewell Energy’s hardware requirements, he said, are incredibly complex.
“The broad, general premise of our company is based on a lot of research,” Gregory explained. “How can we get renewables like wind and solar to be much more of our market share? How do we run a whole grid off of wind and solar and not natural gas? The answer is you need a whole lot of storage to be able to store the wind and solar, so that when the wind’s not blowing and the sun is not shining, you can still power the grid.”
There are many intricate mechanical pieces involved in retrofitting inactive oil wells to serve as renewable energy storage containers. That’s why Streckfus and Gregory were so eager to take advantage of the Hard Tech Base Camp facilities.
“The machine shop and lab capabilities that we have here are extremely useful,” Streckfus said. “That is exactly what does not exist in that venture capital accelerator incubator space.”
Beyond physical offerings, Streckfus said one of the most valuable advantages of the Hard Tech model has been the opportunity to seek advice and mull things over with PCDworks staff.
“Honestly, some of these things I would spend weeks on, and frustrated weeks, because it’s really hard to find an expert on some of these niche little equipment and technical issues,” Streckfus said.
At Hard Tech, to be able to walk downstairs, consult with a mentor on-site, and then hammer out a problem in 15 minutes or less has been a godsend.
“I cannot put words to how valuable that opportunity is,” Streckfus said.
Rainone added that PCDworks has always valued the power of synergy. He has long sought out expertise from outside sources, because the tacit knowledge that’s brought to the table when different brains meet can mean the difference between a lifetime of struggle and a moment of clarity.
“The little things that they remember are the same things that you can’t figure out,” Rainone said.
That’s why, when the day is done, the work’s still not over. Even over dinner, Streckfus, Gregory and the Rainones will conduct brainstorming sessions with one another.
“There’s nothing like breaking bread to make you feel closer,” Rainone said. “I’m full-blooded Italian American, and it’s sort of like they’re honorary full-blooded Italian Americans, too.”
Except they don’t yell, he clarified: “They’re very well behaved.”
Streckfus said that, as they work, they also have the opportunity to de-stress by working out in the small gym facility on campus, shooting pool or playing ping-pong – and sometimes even taking out their frustrations with an axe.
“The view here is just beautiful,” Streckfus said. “But we told Mike we’re going to clear out some of these trees for him.”
“Our future is to host more of these clients,” Rainone said. “Our only anxiety is that you’ve got to have the infrastructure in place. You’ve got to have the people willing to put up the money.”
He said more groups from Stanford are already lined up to attend Hard Tech Base Camp in the near future, and that universities like Texas A&M and UT Austin are working on models that would allow them to send students to the facility, as well.
But he’ll always remember his inaugural class with fondness.
“I’m afraid they set the bar up really high,” Rainone said. “It’s worked out so well. We’ve had our rumbles here and there, but I think we’re making great progress.”
One of his favorite elements of the entire experience has been the shock on venture capitalists’ faces when they find out where Streckfus and Gregory are working.
“They’ll say, ‘You had to go where to get this thing built? East Texas? What’s in East Texas?’” he chuckled.
As he wrapped up another session with the duo, a whiteboard stained with tidy, geometric sketches and calculations just behind him, he said to host the young men has been a privilege.
“I’m really honored, well, not too, honored,” he said with a laugh, “to have them here.”