The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Henry Elkus and Sam Feinburg. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
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Jim: Anyway, now onto our show. Today’s guests are Henry Elkus and Sam Feinburg from Helena, a quite unusual organization with audacious goals. This is from their mission statement. “We believe the most consequential decisions, threats and opportunities humanity has ever faced will take place during the next 50 years. Helena’s purpose is to find the solutions to these challenges and implement them through projects.”
Jim: “The Helena projects we lead and support are not biased by field or methodology. Our focus is to implement solutions in the most effective way possible, from non-profit and legislative efforts, for-profit investments and business creation, to the development of new movements and technologies.” Fucking audacious. Well, welcome Henry and Sam.
Henry: Thanks, Jim, for having me.
Sam: Absolutely. It’s good to be here.
Jim: We got introduced I think by Daniel Schmachtenberger several months back. We’ve had a couple of nice chats and we both agreed it would be fun to get on the podcast and knock the ball back and forth across the fence a little bit. Damn, that’s about as an audacious mission statement as I’ve ever seen.
Jim: I basically cooked it down to, figure out what are the top challenges facing humanity, whatever the domain? Then let’s figure out how to go fix them. Is that pretty much what you guys are up to?
Henry: Well, look, I think on a concretization basis, if you just go project by project, these are very narrow and quite nerdy and quite specific in some instances. One of our projects that Jim and I, we’ve talked a lot about, called Shield, identifies extraordinarily specific threats to the North American electrical grid, whether they be cyber attack from SCADA systems, coronal mass ejections from the Sun, and then helps writing and advocate for the passage of real legislation, a lot of which has now happened to fix it. And each individual project is highly specific.
Jim: That’s a good point that you’re not just trying to boil the ocean and solve all the world’s problems. You’re identifying specific doable projects that you can attack. But let’s start with, what is your model of the world that helps you identify what these top challenges are?
Henry: I’ll take a stab at this and I’ll have Sam talk about it as well. I think where I want to start is where we are in, our worldview of where we are right now in human civilization. And I think there’s three things that are happening that are unique. The first is the speed at which problems are coming about. We saw this during COVID. We saw this during so many examples, that the speed at which problems are coming about is often outpacing the existing institutions that are there to solve them.
Henry: One of the things that Daniel and also Tristan Harris love to talk about out is the concept of, we have paleolithic brains, medieval institutions and god-like technology.
Jim: From E. O. Wilson.
Henry: The great E. O. Wilson. That’s the first thing.
Henry: The second thing is the globalized nature in which problems are proliferating. This has always been increasing, but if you look at COVID versus perhaps the Black Death, it’s not just how quickly it’s spreading, but it’s the fact that problems can affect the entire world at once and that this is unique.
Henry: And then the third, more on the technology side, I think the Manhattan Project being one great example, but as we are now seeing across CRISPR, as we are now seeing not just in nuclear, but with artificial intelligence and many other modalities, we are creating problems and opportunities via technology that are very hard to undo. We can talk obviously about escape velocity of things like AGI in the far future.
Henry: But we are already seeing this at the beginning stages with biological engineering in many other modalities. And our thesis is that these three things together, the speed at which problems are coming about, the fact that they’re becoming more globalized than ever before, and the fact that they are very hard to undo once created, due to their inherent properties.
Henry: And the fact that we are still relying on a set of old institutions that were built during a society that did not have these three modalities, creates a need for a new type of organization. We think Helena is just one of what many organizations should be structured as, to identify these problems proactively, like the electrical grid, trying to fix it before something catastrophic happens. Although in part, it did with Texas and California, as we saw this year. And then address those problems before they come about. And to try to do that as an institution, where the entire goal of the institution is just to do these project by project implementations.
Henry: So that gives a little bit of a background into the world view we have, why we thought it was important that there’s yet another quote-unquote save the world organization. And why we want it to be designed differently, because we don’t think that just copying and pasting existing legacy models of problem solving institutions will work.
Sam: I think the only thing I’d add to that, and obviously Henry I second everything you said is just to note that that’s not a static worldview. And that certainly we’ve evolved a lot on that since Henry first came up with the idea for Helena back in the dorm room at Yale, six plus years ago. And that one of the things that has been a constant mantra is just accepting the vastness of our own ignorance, of how much exists in the unknown unknowns as Donald Rumsfeld would put it. And the degree to which we’ve leaned on and learned from people like Daniel and others over the past few years, talking about these types of issues and trying to update our models and recognizing that we’ve come a long way, there’s a long way still to go.
Jim: So you’ve got a big picture model of some of the fundamental drivers or the generator functions as some folks call them. How do you then prioritize for your own organization, what’s actually practical for you guys to take on?
Henry: I think this is crucial, and it’s a very simple answer, which is we are not in the business, nor do I think there is anybody that has an empirical answer to ranking the world’s most important problems, and then of course ranking the most viable solutions to them. I think that is an incredibly qualitative goal. And it’s not one that we profess to have any efficiency in.
Henry: The way that we think about choosing projects is, number one, do we have organizationally via our network or via the capital that we have in our hands, or any of the other kind of resources, the ability to actually implement a solution that is at on table? Whether that be there’s a for-profit company that is doing X, Y and Z to solve grid scale energy storage, and we feel that by bringing the right customers, the right amount of capital and the right management resources, that we can make that company be more successful than it was otherwise. Or there is a piece of legislation that if passed will solve this problem.
Henry: If we feel like we have the inherent ability to do it and hopefully do it better than other people, that is the main driver of how we choose a project. There will absolutely be projects on our table that we decide not to do, even though we feel like they’re incredibly viable solutions, because we don’t think that we’re going to be able to implement them. So the practicality element of project selection reigns supreme with us.
Henry: I think once we are looking at two projects next to one another, that we both feel could work, I think we get into more philosophical considerations of how to advocate, or how to use limited time, then I’ll pass to Sam. But I wanted to start with just the obvious answer that a lot of people, I think don’t admit. Because a lot of people have very broad holistic philosophies on which projects to take on and which fields are more important than others. And it’s very hard to agree upon the right thesis for that.
Sam: Second that again. Look, I’ll continue being Mr. Inadequacy here, but I think a recognition of the inadequacy of our bandwidth as an organization to go after all the problems Jim, you mentioned, and some of the ones that Henry ticked off. It’s a question of not just what do we have the practical capability to move the needle on, but also among those things, what feels like it could be the highest leverage activity?
Sam: Not just in terms of addressing problems that seem particularly pressing or particularly, potentially damaging, but also in terms of actually building our own bandwidth as an organization. Can we enhance our operating ability and increase the leverage we have to deploy in the future? Can we raise more money? Can we bring better people onto the team, either as team members or as members?
Sam: I know we’ll get into what that means in a second, but all of these are considerations. I think certainly there’s no perfect way to do this. I wouldn’t claim for a second that we’ve got it figured out, like some sort of magic formula.
Jim: So the boys are outrageously audacious, but at least moderately humble. That’s a good thing.
Sam: We’ll take it.
Henry: We hope so.
Jim: We’ll take it. Let’s go on to the next point. One of the things that, when I was first checking you guys out online, I looked into your list of what you called members. And I go, “Holy moly.” I by no means knew all the people. Maybe I knew a quarter of them, but the ones I knew were all first class in their domains. I figured the numbers were large, that probably means you’re pretty damn good at curating people.
Jim: Why don’t you talk to me a little bit about the idea of your members, what they are, and how you went about finding them? And frankly, getting them to associate themselves with y’all, who when you got started, probably weren’t very impressive.
Sam: Very accurate. Henry, I want to just kick us off by actually complimenting you and then pass the mic over, which is by saying, Jim, that I think the best way to tell the story is actually as a story and to take us back, whatever it was now, six and a half-ish years ago to Henry being in the dorm room. We were students and friends together at Yale, coming up with this idea that you described at the beginning of the podcast. Talking about trying to build an institution that could actually identify and implement solutions to big problems in the world.
Sam: And recognizing that in order to do that, we needed the intellectual capital to think about solutions, and run them through the process that Henry and I just talked about, as far as selecting. But we also needed the financial and the political and the media and the operational ability and resources to actually implement them in the first place. I think the membership, and this is Henry’s brainchild, arose as an answer to that question of sitting in the dorm room as two 19, 20-year-olds, without any of the resources required to do this effectively or without much of them.
Sam: Could we look for the people in the world that as you mentioned were first class in various different domains, from Nobel Peace Prize winning human rights activist, to four star generals, to business people, to politicians, to academics, and what have you, and try and build a kind of alliance and a network of folks who were world class in that respect, and be able to with them as operating partners of a kind? But Henry, I’ll pass to you to expound.
Henry: Well, Jim, the only thing I’ll add is it quite elegantly goes back to your last question, which is how do we choose projects? Part of the reason we choose the projects that we do is because we feel like in the membership are the individuals that can help us execute a project at a world class level. I think we can give 1,000 different examples. I know that’s the main gist of what we’ll spend the next couple minutes talking about.
Henry: But the members sign up for something kind of unorthodox. Instead of a conference that they will pay money to attend or a summit in which they can meet each other and do deals with one another, for example, the members sign up for the sole purpose of discussing and then working with us to implement the projects. It’s an incredibly simple model, but it’s unique in that we don’t sign a contract with the member saying, “You give us this amount of money and we give you this experience.” It’s actually not even a client/clientele relationship.
Henry: The members sign up hopefully to be peers in which we can work together project by project to actually implement a solution. And when you think about the ideation and sourcing of potential projects, the diligence capabilities, because Sam and I are not material science PhDs or plasma physicists to help diligence a nuclear fusion company and the like. All the way to the funding and actual operations of the project, the membership is a huge X-factor in how we get there, but it’s definitely a unique body. I have not seen many folks utilize the kind of membership model to do the work that we do. We’re really proud of it.
Jim: I also, when I was reading in your how you do things, I very much liked the fact that unlike many of these do-gooder organizations, you don’t waste everybody’s time by bringing them together once a year.
Henry: There’s no board meetings. We have not had a single board meeting with members and they can suck. They can be procedural and I totally agree with you.
Jim: Or frankly, even these big conferences with a bunch of talk, maybe 25% of them that are actually good. The way I was reading your description of your process, you can correct me if I got it wrong, is that you essentially only convene groups of people to address specific projects or opportunities or questions that are within their domains.
Henry: Exactly. I think Sam, we should just give a case study here. My favorite example was the COVID network with Will Jack. I think giving that as a live example of how we brought in a member, how that member full time led a project, but how we were able to even ascertain that he wanted to do it in the first place.
Sam: Happy to. So Jim, we remember, it wasn’t too long ago, but March of 2020 when COVID starts to roll across the world’s oceans, we’ve got Northern Italy, videos of food flying off the shelves and the beginnings of lockdowns in the US. As that process was happening, we were thinking about, okay, we’ve as you call it, how have this grandiose mission to try and address big global problems. Well, here’s a big global problem. What are we going to do about it? How’s it going to affect the organization? How are we going to respond?
Sam: And this is interesting, because a lot of the time we’re thinking about stuff that is not being well tended to, that is a future risk, but is not a current pressing issue, and focusing on being proactive rather than reactive. And this was one of the few instances in which we decided to do the infers for various reasons we can get into if it’s of interest.
Sam: But we were working in the beginning on tackling issues related to the medical supply chain and provision of protective equipment. And one of the things we realized was at least in the US, there wasn’t really, to the best of our knowledge, a good system that would allow you to use modern technology, really digital software, to track which hospitals needed what kind of supplies, and predict how the shortages would evolve in the near term.
Sam: And so if you had a situation where a non-profit or a government organization, either federal or state or local, let’s say in the state of New York at the beginning of the pandemic, got a shipment of 100,000 or a million masks, the question is, which hospital do I send these to? Or which care facility do I send these to, to try and save the most lives and have the most beneficial impact? And there wasn’t really a good way to try and analyze that and do it quantitatively, or at least have a quantitative aid to the decision.
Sam: And so thinking about where we might be able to be helpful here, I called up a Helena member named Will Jack. Now, Will built a plasma physics experiment, it was actually a functioning nuclear fusion reactor in his basement.
Henry: A particle accelerator rather.
Sam: There we go. Thanks, Henry. As a teenager in the US. And that’s really the least impressive thing he’s done since that. Just a very accomplished guy, world class intellect who, Jim, you might enjoy talking to on everything from plasma physics to artificial intelligence, to computer programming and much else.
Sam: I called up Will and asked if he would be willing to help work on this problem. And he said, “Let me think about it.” And 30 minutes later, I think he’d taken a sabbatical from his full-time employment and decided to come work with us. Came on board full time, recruited two brilliant friends of his, Simon Hewat and Rochelle Shen, who then ended up managing a team of I think almost a dozen volunteer software engineers, who coded and built an MVP in 72 hours of a platform that could take in information from government and other official databases about the spread of the pandemic. And official information from hospitals that was given by states, and actually bottom-up information from individual hospital employees about where they were seeing shortages.
Sam: Sort that all, and then predictively to spit out recommendations to people in government or philanthropy or just concerned citizens, about where they’d be able to send what types of supplies to have the maximum impact. And that software program actually ended up being used by places like the US Army’s analytics group, teams within the US Air Force, and hopefully did some good in helping them figure out where to focus their logistics response to the pandemic.
Jim: That’s a great example of how the right person at the right time led to a project. Though I would say that’s a tactical and useful project, but not one that was going to save civilization. Let’s get on to some of your projects. I’m not going to be able to get to them all. And for folks who want to learn more about Helena, check them out at helena.org, where they have a very nice website that goes into considerable detail on their numerous projects.
Jim: I think it was Henry who mentioned one of the projects that is indeed near and dear to my heart. That’s your project called Shield. Why don’t you lay that out from the beginning and tell us how that idea came up, who you’re working with from your membership, and what you have done and what you are doing in that domain?
Henry: I’ll tee it up and then I’ll pass it to Sam who led the project, but just with a quick anecdote, which is, Sam and I were actually eating breakfast and Sam read in The Economist a brilliant summary of the, and Jim, this is not going to be news to you, but maybe to your viewers, the considerable vulnerabilities of the electrical grid. The almost laughable problems from the critical transformers that could be overwritten to create blackouts at regional or country level scale, all the way to inadequate protection against cyber attack, all the way to inadequate protection against coronal mass ejection, solar storms that can happen like clockwork. And Sam turned to me and said, “We should really investigate this.”
Henry: And about two years later, it became at the helm of what I would strongly argue is one of the most affectatious projects to address this issue that’s been done.
Sam: So Henry, I’m happy to dive in. I think, Jim, Henry gives the correct story at the beginning. I read this article in the economist that talked about how once every 150 years, give or take, there’s likely to be a huge coronal mass ejection from the Sun that interacts with the Earth’s magnetosphere, in such a way that it could permanently disable large electric equipment. Things like grid scale transformers, electricity, transmission and distribution lines. And that that was one of many threats to the grid, as we know it, from cyber attacks to terrorist attacks like Metcalf incident in 2013. People can go look that up if it’s of interest, and a whole host of others.
Sam: And the picture that the article painted was frankly quite terrifying. It was one of a world that we all know and live in, in which we depend on the continued provision of electric power for pretty much everything in our society, for communications, for the streetlights to work, for food to show up at the grocery stores. And that if that were ever to go out, we’d be immensely vulnerable, because of the fragility of society and our dependence on this continued provision of electricity.
Jim: I was going to say, we sure have built a very high stack of a civilization that’s based on that one single assumption, availability of electricity, 7/24. Our water treatment, our sewage treatment, our logistical systems, our factories, everything depends on electricity, almost.
Sam: 100%. And when you start to game it out, and this article did so in a very narrative heavy, emotionally charged fashion, you think about the little things like people trapped in elevators, fire departments overwhelmed in cities with a lot of skyscrapers trying to go save them. To the big things like the fact that without, as you mentioned Jim, sewage treatment, you’re looking at cholera in the water supply of major cities within two to three weeks. And in places like Chile, I believe, in the ritzy areas of the capital, it only took seven hours for there to be looting in the grocery stores, during an extended blackout a few years ago.
Sam: So you start to think about how thin the thread is by which modern society hangs. Now, that can an interesting thought experiment and that’s it, until you add the second part, which is the number and the probability of threats aimed at that assumption, Jim, you talked about, that small thread. And when you start to think about the ease of a cyber attack, I’m going to forget the exact example, but there was a conference in Miami in which there was I believe an Iranian hacker who went up and I think accessed the cyber control facilities of the Floridian grid in something like five seconds live from stage.
Sam: And then you think about the fact that we know we are guaranteed to have a repeat of 1859’s Carrington Event, where a coronal mass ejection from the Sun had a lot of the telegraph lines spontaneously combust and stop working. And that in 1859 that didn’t matter too much to people, because society didn’t depend on the continued provision of power to the telegraph lines. But as we’ve talked about, clearly a big issue.
Sam: So not to go into too much detail, I’m sure this is a topic Jim that your crowd of listeners is probably familiar with, but clearly a big problem. And one that to use your scale from a couple minutes ago, could see if not the end of civilization, at least a very serious catastrophe.
Sam: I’ll tell you, I was dumbfounded at the moment, I was back in 2017 I think, July or August reading this article, that something like this could be allowed to happen. So where did we start? First thing was we went and read as much as we could possibly find on the topic to try and get smart.
Jim: Did you read that really scary EMP Commission report?
Sam: I sure did. The EMP Commission, there’s stuff from NASA and NOAA. There’s stuff from Lloyds of London actually, is a private insurance company, saying that they would refuse to ensure against a solar flare that took down the grid, because they thought it was too damaging and too likely. I read stuff from Stanford. I read publications from all over and tried to get smart on this.
Sam: And Jim, you mentioned the congressional EMP Commission, which focused mainly on the threat of an adversary or a terrorist group exploding a nuclear warhead in the atmosphere, causing an electromagnetic pulse that would take out not just the grid, but almost everything that uses electricity. There’s a whole suite of threats here of varying probability to be worried about.
Jim: All right. We’ve painted the picture. Dire fucking situation. The whole civilization depends on the grid. The grid is unbelievably fragile.
Jim: I can tell you a little war story here. I one time participated in a red team activity for one of the three letter organizations. And the challenge was, how can you do the most damage to America for $1 million? I submitted my plan said, “100,000. Here it is.” And they looked at it and said, “Don’t ever, ever, ever tell anybody about this,” in terms of the plan. All I’ll say is it had something to do with the grid.
Sam: Well, we’ll stop you there.
Jim: So anyway, this unbelievable fragility, unbelievable high stakes, two dudes recently out of college. What the hell can you do about it?
Sam: I think that was exactly what we asked ourselves. And the first step in answering that question is, who else is working on this? What have they tried? Where have they been successful? Where have they failed and why? And are there areas where we might be able to take the ball a little closer to the end zone?
Sam: I went and looked back at the authors of The Economist article and all those reports I read, and reached out to them and called them up. I didn’t get in touch with everyone, but I got in touch with a good majority of them, and talked to people that were involved in both government efforts, but also non-profit and lobbying external to government efforts to solve this problem. I saw that there were a few common blocks, if you will, standing in the way of progress.
Sam: I think we can go into any arbitrary level of complexity here, because there’s a lot of detail about the tangled regulatory framework and about corporate lobbying at efforts to resist government action, and about the distinction between distribution and transmission lines, and the jurisdiction that split between the federal and the state government. It’s a mess.
Sam: But I think to simplify, a couple key things stood out. One, most people, even people in government who you’d think would be well aware of this problem, didn’t know it existed and were a little resistant to believing it existed, because it sounds so extreme, like something out of a C-list science fiction movie. So there was a lot of education I think amongst the legislative class, and amongst folks in the regulatory departments that were responsible particularly at the state level, that needed to happen. So that was one.
Sam: Two, this was an issue that had been seized upon by a certain segment of the political right. Because of that, as with so many things today, unfortunately, was a politicized and polarized topic, where it felt like people on the left and the Democratic Party saw it as a Republican issue.
Jim: Very weirdly, it’s worth pointing out that the only politician that took this seriously from the get-go was Newt Gingrich.
Sam: Right. Former speaker of the House. He wrote the forward to a novel about it, I think called 60 Seconds After, or something like that.
Jim: One Second After. It’s a totally scary book, but it’s very well written.
Henry: And Jim, one of the things I’ll butt in here on, is exactly what you’re describing, which is back to, how do we choose our projects? One of the things that is catnip for us when we’re thinking about whether to do a project is whether there’s an obvious solution that in actuality is bipartisan, but for whatever reason, on a PR level or on a messaging level, people don’t think it’s bipartisan. People think that it’s a partisan issue.
Henry: I can’t think of a better example of this than the grid, where we’ll fast forward to the actual legislation with Sam, but this is legislation that was supported bipartisan from the get-go.
Jim: How could this be partisan? It’s just so weird. Something like this, it’s like how… One of my favorites, just a total aside is the battle between phonics and whole word style of reading. How the fuck did that ever become a Republican versus a Democratic issue? What a weird country we live in.
Sam: And look, the grid doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, and neither does cyber attacks and neither does the Sun. I think Henry’s spot on there. It was a flag of, “Hey, maybe there’s an opportunity here.” This doesn’t seem like it should be partisan. Maybe there’s a way to have an end run around this.
Sam: So thinking about those types of issues, we then did a deep dive on previous efforts, particularly legislative efforts at the state and the federal level, read the draft legislation and talked to the people that had been involved in working on it. And discovered the reasons or at least their assessments of the reasons why they’d been unsuccessful. We thought, all right, this was early on in the organization. We didn’t have the clout or the financial capital or the degree of membership that we do now.
Sam: And so Jim, we were faced with that problem, what are two college dropout young schmucks going to do about this? And thought that one of the things we needed to do first, going back to building bandwidth and building capacity, was just get a win on the board to build credibility, so that people would take us a little more seriously.
Sam: I was trying to get in touch with, most folks in the media at the time were ignoring the issue. Ted Koppel famously wrote a great book on it I think called Lights Out. I talked to a former congressman who ran a prestigious program at one of the traditional, we’re going to help the world type organizations, I’ll let them remain unnamed, who gave me an extremely condescending conversation about how there were adults in the room who were handling this, and on top of it, and he was sure people had it together, which of course is completely inaccurate, and we had confirmed when we ended up with those three letter agencies you talk about, having these types of conversations.
Sam: So where we started was, let’s try and get a win on the board. One of our members at the time was Senator Bob Hertzberg of California, who Henry actually met with and spoke with about the problem. Bob knew about the issue to his credit and said, “Look, this seems like just the kind of bipartisan practical thing that could make life better for Californians more safe and secure. I’d love to get behind it.”
Sam: And the first thing we did was not try and have some comprehensive legislation that would solve the issue in California, but rather was just to pass a resolution, really a resolution that didn’t have any sort of binding force, but was just an agreement by every member of the California State Senate, that this was a problem and needed to be dealt with. And one of the things that was helpful was that agreement, rightly so, shook its fist at the federal government controlled by an opposing party in Washington at the time, talking about how they needed to do more and act more. We’ll come back to that in a second.
Sam: But in the meantime, what did we accomplish? Well, we had a unanimous resolution that through the help of one of the members, had passed with bipartisan support where every single member of the California State Senate acknowledged, and this was a first, the fact that this was an issue. And that solved problem one and problem two that we talked about, vis-à-vis people not understanding that it was a big deal. Well, now they had signed their names to a resolution saying it was a big deal. So, a good step forward there.
Sam: We followed that up immediately with a piece of legislation that did have some teeth, that instructed, and this was California-based as well, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, which you can think about as a Californian FEMA, which plans for terrorist attacks, earthquakes, all manner of natural and manmade disasters in California, and has plans for how to mitigate and prevent them and also how to respond to them. And curiously enough, had no plan whatsoever for a prolonged blackout or interruption of the electricity supply. Despite the fact that California was the epicenter of the 2013 Metcalf terrorist attack on the Metcalf transformer substation outside San Jose.
Sam: What this bill achieved was changing that, was having Cal OES for the first time, actually produce a plan for how to that, do drills and the rest of it. Now, is this going to solve the problem? Absolutely not. But when faced with two decades really of inability to get anything passed at the state or federal level on this problem, this acted actually like a beacon towards all the people that cared about the issue, that someone had finally been able to break the log jam and had been able to get not just any state in the nation, but a Democrat state and a huge one at that, to unanimously agree that this was in fact a real problem.
Sam: Which depressingly, it sounds like a small achievement, but for the field, it was massive. I guess a small achievement versus the scope of the problem. But big step forward.
Sam: What that, it led to, and I’ll just go quickly because I know we’re spending a lot of time here, but led to us adding a former director of the CIA, Jim Woolsey, to the Helena membership, working very closely with him and his late wife on a number of subsequent activities at the federal level. We were invited to participate in a summit that the Department of Defense held on the issue, and talked with a bunch of folks there. And were part of a group of organizations that supported and eventually successfully saw the passage of an executive order in March, 2019, that on paper at least laid out all of the things from a whole of government response that would need to be done, in order to secure the grid against not all, but very many of these threats.
Sam: And so the previous, or I guess the subsequent two years have really been a story of us trying to work with folks in government, both on the legislative and the administrative side, to try and make sure that we’re providing what support we can, on helping those recommendations get implemented and helping subsequent ones get passed. I think something to cheer was recently the tens of billions of dollars appropriated by the infrastructure bill for upgrading and modernizing the US electrical grid, of which there’s a specific clause in the legislation that speaks to the need to increase security and resiliency and give some examples of how one might go about doing that.
Sam: So one of the areas of future focus on this project will be trying to support the folks tasked with implementing that, and making sure that that money gets spent as effectively as possible.
Jim: Very good. It’s a surprisingly annoying one, because it’s so big, and yet on the scale of things, it’s not even that expensive. Defense against another Carrington Event, the solar flare, is almost nothing. Basically, all you need to do is be able to disconnect the grid down into smaller components, so they don’t amplify in an antenna-like way, the charge. It’s mostly just making switches and cables to produce air gaps. It costs relatively little, a few billion dollars. And having standby resilient equipment, maybe 20 billion, 50 billion at the absolute outside. So the scale of investment relative to the risk, and as you pointed out earlier, or the almost dead certainty that this is going to happen, makes this one of the more annoying, big risks that we’re just sitting there, so far at least, not doing enough. I’m glad to hear that things are happening. I’m also glad to hear that you guys are keeping an eye on some of that money in the infrastructure bill to make sure it’s actually used to address this very dire risk that our civilization confronts.
Jim: So let’s move on, the grid real important. Another area that you guys have clearly identified, based on the numerous projects you have in this area, is carbon neutral energy.
Sam: Yes. And Jim, I actually think there’s a juncture here where we could tie the two together, in a way that’s interesting and speaks a little bit to the model. At the beginning of the podcast, the model of Helena that is. At the beginning of the podcast, you read off from our website how we are agnostic to whether a solution is best implemented by for-profit, non-profit or legislative means. We talked about the grid project, which was non-profit and legislative. We talked about the COVID network, the software platform that we gave away to parts of the US Army and Air Force. That could have been a for-profit company. Maybe we could have made some money on that.
Sam: But we looked at it and said, okay, if we make it a for-profit company, there’s some advantages. We’ll have more funding. We can hire a bigger team. But this is an area where seconds and minutes matter, time is of the essence. And if we have to negotiate a contract and get customers, that’s going to slow us down and maybe get in the way of saving lives. So, screw it. We’re going to make this a non-profit and just give it away.
Sam: I think the way to tie the loop here is, we just talked about, Jim, how islanding the grid and having smaller resilient sub-components, rather than this big, massive machine, where all the dominoes are standing right next to each other, and you knock one down, you maybe knock them all down, is very helpful. I think one of the ways where we’ve also done work both on renewable energy and carbon negative energy, and we’ll talk about that more in a second, also relates to the grid. Because of course, all these problems are interconnected.
Sam: Which is, one of our investments as part of the for-profit arm of Helena, is in a company called Energy Vault that does grid scale renewable energy storage, that is of course an essential component in being able to have renewable, decentralized islanded grids. Because if you imagine a small town or a university or an area of a city or a house, just running on solar all the time, if you can’t store that energy, there’s intermittency problems. What do you do when the Sun goes behind the clouds? I just wanted to highlight that area of interconnectivity, both between the problems and also in the way that the Helena model is designed to speak to that.
Henry: I’ll do you one better on that, which is, so this particular project, Energy Vault, took its form not as, “Hey, we’ve identified this problem that we feel is best addressed through legislation,” but rather there’s a for-profit company that is already doing this, that has shown immense promise, that we think by using the forces of capitalism, we’ll get to scale and address this in a significant way, while also solving other problems. And this company, Energy Vault, we announced a $20 million investment in a little over a year ago. Since then, it’s become a public company. I can’t speak a lot about it, as I still remain on the board, but a multi-billion dollar valuation that we think is a lot of headroom, and an order book that is on five different continents.
Henry: And what this company does in particular is gravity energy storage. Instead of using lithium ion batteries or other chemical solutions, restoring energy, it actually just harnesses potential and kinetic energy by lifting large bricks, and then releasing them when energy needs to go back into the grid.
Henry: One of the things and I think this gets a bit at part of our model that we love about this business is actually that the bricks themselves can be made with remediated toxic waste that comes from retired, legacy non-clean energy sources like coal and fly ash. So you can actually take something that sits on the balance sheet of large utilities as a liability, in which they will actually pay you to get rid of it, because it’s a waste product. And then use it to actually create the mobile masses that are lifted and released, to store and release energy much cheaper than a lithium ion model we believe.
Henry: But also far better for the environment, because it does not require getting rare earth minerals and lithium out of the Central African Republic. It just requires gravity. This is an example of how, if we were just an organization that had the thesis of, we’re going to do policy projects, period, because we feel like that’s the best way to address societal problems, we’d be missing companies like Energy Vault and products Energy Vault.
Henry: But conversely, if we were just an investment firm, we would be missing the policy and non-profit grounding that would actually help us best understand the range of solutions to fix the electrical grid, of which Energy Vault is just one of them.
Jim: Very interesting. And one of the things I find most interesting about your organization is this playing in different arenas, using completely different techniques. Being a essentially research and idea shop for legislation at one extreme, to actually investing in companies in the other, if you’re able to, talk to us a little bit about your entity structure and maybe different bags of money that you have, that you allocate in different ways, and how those different strategies are able to operate fluidly under one, shall we call it, control or ownership structure.
Sam: Sure. It’s a really simple answer, which is we have a non-profit on the one hand that has its own bank accounts for certain projects, that accepts donations from members of the public, from our members, from foundations, predominantly on a project by project basis. And then we have a for-profit LLC that is an investment management company, that also raises money from wealthy individual rules, family offices. In the future, perhaps foundations, corporates, institutions. And both really do the same thing, which is they try and implement solutions to big problems, like we’ve talked about.
Sam: Obviously, there’s the necessary firewalls between the two, and the shared services agreements and a lot of legal mumbo jumbo that we don’t have to get into, to respect the nuances of tax law. But ultimately, I think one of the failings of maybe previous approaches to trying to address a lot of these problems has been unnecessary over-siloing, both in terms of people over-siloing different issue areas from one another. Daniel Schmachtenberger, who introduced us, has a great example of talking to an organization focused on feeding the hungry, who were using nitrogen-based fertilizer near coastlines, which was growing a lot of food, but contributing to dead zones in the ocean, and therefore driving the extinction of the whole planet more quickly, in a way that was markedly counterproductive, long term, to their stated goal of feeding more people.
Sam: I think getting rid of a lot of these artificial boundaries between fields, but also getting rid of artificial boundaries between modalities of how to solve problems, look, for-profit investment firms have a role to play, but they are not adequate to solving the world’s problems clearly. Likewise with governments and legislation and like wise with non-profits.
Sam: And certainly we need to employ all of those modalities and we also need to, Jim, as you’ve been a pioneer in, invent new ones. And I think our goal is, by A, being constrained by and respecting to 100% of the law, the areas where you need to be sensitive about having multiple organizations under one roof, doing all of that. And then doing everything we can to tear down a lot of the arbitrary walls between mechanisms for addressing issues, and the separation between those issues themselves, which of course are really all connected under the surface.
Jim: Very interesting. It’s quite audacious, and I really love what you’re doing. And as I spent some time the last couple days digging into your website, the pictures started to become clear on how you’re seeing the world. Clearly, a lot of your bets are in this alternative energy, and the road to carbon neutrality and even carbon negativity.
Jim: For instance, I saw that you guys, using ye another technique, prizes, had gotten involved with the project for pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Henry: Direct air carbon capture. I don’t want to reveal it yet, unfortunately, because we’re going to do announcement on it, but there’s actually a new project we are doing that will harness one of the byproducts of direct air carbon capture as a for-profit scaled solution.
Henry: But one of the things we’ve been involved in now for almost the totality of the organization has been a thesis that we’ve turned into, actually multiple projects, not just the direct air carbon capture project, Factor in the Sky, that we need to do at scale and at significant global scale, direct air carbon capture, in addition to the carbon mitigation efforts that are underway on preventing carbon from getting up into the atmosphere. And that’s such an excess exists in the atmosphere that if it’s not removed, we are just simply not going to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
Henry: But I think it’s couched in a larger thesis, which is we have to at Helena endorse the idea of proliferating both social technologies and hard technologies. And what I mean by that is, again, going back to the E. O. Wilson quote of having god-like technologies with paleolithic brains. If we do not put together the governance structures and the social structures necessary to actually run a world that has such powerful technology. And we did projects like America in One Room and some of our policy work to bolster that.
Henry: It doesn’t matter how efficient we are as a civilization, creating new tech. We’re going to run into a [inaudible 00:44:36]-esque scenario in which we’re pulling balls out of an urn and one of them is going to be a world destroying technology, or one that at least massively outpaces the reaction times of institutions. I think this goes back to Sam’s answer, and why do we have a for-profit non-profit? And why do we think about legislation as well? It’s because we have to do both. They actually are cousins. And if we don’t, there will be an imbalance.
Jim: Very interesting. Well, guys, I wish we had more time today, but we don’t. Again, for people to want to learn more about the many interesting things that Helena is into, helena.org. Sam and Henry, thanks for amazingly interesting conversation.
Henry: Thanks, Jim.
Sam: Thank you, Jim. Great to talk to you.