Ted McKlveen, MBA ’21: Cutting Emissions in Heavy-Duty Transport

Determined to address climate change with hydrogen-powered vehicles.

November 09, 2021

| by Elizabeth MacBride
Headshot of Ted McKlveen. Credit: Photo by Javier Flores

Photo by Javier Flores

Ted McKlveen was planning to go to medical school after his undergraduate studies at Harvard. But answering questions on med school applications about his passion for medicine made him pause. He realized the passion did not feel authentic.

What he cared most deeply about, enough to put in all of the day-to-day work required to build a career that made a difference in the world, was the environment. He thought back to his college years spent working in a chemistry lab developing molecules for better energy storage, and to his childhood spent reveling in nature.

The acceptance of this new direction made him fearful. He was about to graduate and needed to come up with a plan, and quickly. He wanted to work seriously on the environment, but not as a chemist in the lab. He applied to consulting firms, where he hoped to learn the basics about business. His parents, while supportive, worried the profit-driven culture of mainstream business might seduce him. “We didn’t send you to college to just make yourself rich,” his mom reminded him.

McKlveen was already driven to direct his efforts toward climate change, but his mom’s comment was a powerful reminder that he had an obligation to give his best to make the world better. He left consulting after a few years to work at a renewable energy company. But that was just the beginning of what McKlveen hopes will be a career dedicated to making a difference, given the urgency of the climate crisis.

McKlveen, who graduated from Stanford GSB with an MBA in 2021, is a Stanford GSB Social Innovation Fellow and the co-founder of Verne, a company that aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the heavy-duty transportation sector.

Founded in April 2020, Verne has developed technology that makes it easier and more economical for heavy-duty vehicles, namely trucks, ships, and planes, to switch from fossil fuels to hydrogen fuel. McKlveen founded Verne together with Bav Roy, also MBA ’21, and technical co-founder David Jaramillo. In fall 2021, Verne won support from the Breakthrough Energy Fellowship, a philanthropic accelerator founded by Bill Gates to support innovators in clean technology.

The Problem

Earth is warming at a catastrophic rate, due to the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide that is flooding the atmosphere. Over the past 171 years, human activities, including burning fossil fuels, have raised the level of CO2 in the atmosphere by 48% over pre-industrial levels, according to the U.S. government’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The United Nations hopes to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030. Even that target is proving challenging.

“We’re so far behind when it comes to slowing climate change,” McKlveen said.

In the United States, transport is the leading cause of emissions, producing 29%, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Within that, nearly 40% comes from heavy-duty transport, such as trucks, ships, and planes.

Widespread adoption of battery-powered electric passenger vehicles can cut emissions from smaller vehicles. But heavy-duty vehicles require more energy to move, so powering them by battery would be too expensive and take up too much weight and space.

Enter hydrogen.

The Innovative Solution

McKlveen and his co-founders knew that hydrogen had high energy density and was already being used as a source of transportation power. But they heard of remaining challenges and wanted to figure out how to optimize its use. Per kilogram, hydrogen can store 10 times more energy than a battery. When hydrogen reacts with oxygen, electricity is produced. The only byproduct is water, so the use of hydrogen also eliminates particulate emissions.

The hydrogen storage tank they have designed will be able to store twice as much hydrogen as those currently on the market. Their first market for the tanks is heavy-duty truck fleets, which will be able to go twice as far or carry more payload with Verne’s tanks. On a dollar-per-mile basis, McKlveen estimates, truck companies will save 10-15%. That’s meaningful in an industry with tight profit margins. “Even five percent savings matters a lot to truck fleets,” he said.

Heavy-duty transportation companies have been interested in hydrogen as a power source, and they may soon be regulated into change, as governments reach for zero-emission targets.

Verne built its first tank in fall 2021 and expects to have a vehicle demonstration in 2022. “It will take another few years to demonstrate on a public road,” McKlveen said, noting the regulatory requirements Verne must meet. “By the middle of the decade, we aim to offer the tanks commercially.”

The Innovator

McKlveen grew up in Minnesota, the son of parents who had been reared in the Midwest. His father’s family owned a small lumber company in rural Iowa, which helped give McKlveen a taste for tinkering and building things.

The first time the reality of climate change came home to McKlveen was in 2006. It was an unusually warm winter. McKlveen, then 14, was sitting in the kitchen of his parents’ home, looking out at a brown, muddy landscape. The precipitation that should have been snow was falling as rain, and a ski team trip he’d been looking forward to had been canceled.

He’d just watched Al Gore’s documentary about climate change, An Inconvenient Truth.

“What hit me was this sadness, that my grandkids might not be able to grow up and experience the same joys of nature and skiing,” McKlveen says. “It’s the unfairness of it all. What we’re doing now or not doing now will affect the world for them.”

McKlveen also knows that the consequences of transport sector emissions fall most heavily on low-income communities. “Reducing emissions is critical to avoid a climate disaster, and particularly urgent for communities adjacent or nearby our roadways. They deserve clean air and bear the brunt of the pollution caused by the transportation sector.”

After his change of heart at Harvard, and subsequent career shift, McKlveen went on to work at Bain & Co. in management consulting. “It was a pretty intentional decision,” he said. “I knew I wanted to work in renewable energy, but I wanted to enter the energy industry with some business acumen.”

After Bain & Co., he worked for Advanced Microgrid Solutions. From there, he applied to Stanford. He was drawn to the Bay Area for its strength in renewable energy. In one of his courses, Stanford Climate Ventures, he met lecturer Dave Danielson, an energy investor with Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

McKlveen was drawn to work in areas of climate change mitigation that weren’t getting as much media and academic attention, things like cement, steel, and shipping. That’s when discussions with his co-founders led to the idea for better hydrogen tanks. Jaramillo, whom he’d met at Harvard, was finishing a PhD in inorganic and materials chemistry. McKlveen and Roy met at Stanford. Together, along with their team, they’ve found a business model and a product that’s positioned to make a difference. “I love to solve problems,” McKlveen said. “And I feel a responsibility. If not me, then who?”

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