When he was growing up in Utah, John Foye developed both a love of nature and an awareness of the threat that climate change poses to the environment. That motivated him to embark on a career in which he’s combined engineering expertise and entrepreneurial drive to seek market-based ways to reduce our global carbon output.
While still an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Foye cofounded Invisergy, a startup that commercialized a technology for using buildings’ windows and skylights as a source of solar energy. After graduation, he spent time working for global management consulting firm McKinsey, where he developed a strategic roadmap for a Fortune 500 electric utility and spent time at a geothermal power station in the South Pacific. From there, he went to Fenix International, which marketed affordable solar home systems to people living off-grid in Uganda and Zambia.
After returning to the U.S. from Zambia, Foye enrolled in Stanford’s Emmet Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, where he’s pursuing a joint MS in environment and resources from the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences with his MBA from Stanford GSB. While completing his degrees, he’s in the early stages of working with a team to develop yet another environmental business venture. This one would recruit small landowners to plant trees to sequester carbon and then market offsets to companies seeking to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.
What led a Salt Lake City native to move east to pursue a dual degree at Penn?
Being born and raised in Utah, I spent a lot of my time in the mountains and deserts. That led me to develop an appreciation of the outdoors, but it also got me interested in the threat of climate change and the potential for renewable energy to help. I was attracted to Penn because it had the best option for studying both engineering and business, which are two parts of the equation.
Back then, in the late 2000s, solar contributed far less than 1% of the electricity produced in the U.S. We founded a club, which we called Penn Solar and later Cleantech@Penn, as an excuse to bring people in to talk about the policy, finances, and technology. I was really interested in the space, but I knew absolutely nothing, so it was a great way to learn.
We were already thinking internationally at the time. One of the things that caught my attention was the role that solar could play for low-income people in rural areas around the world. Energy costs are much higher for low-income households. Later, when I was in Uganda and Zambia, I saw that the lowest-income households were spending upward of 10% of their income on energy needs. Many were off-grid, so the money was going to things like disposable batteries and kerosene. Slightly higher-income households, in comparison, were spending only 3% to 5%, which is still significantly higher than rates here in the U.S. Solar energy seemed like a way to help improve their economic situation as well as the environment.
While at Penn, you also became involved in an energy technology startup, Invisergy.
I got the opportunity to work with a recent grad from the same engineering and business program I was in, who was getting his PhD at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They had discovered this efficient way to redirect light when it hit the surface of a window, and the obvious application was to use it as a solar condenser, so that you could have a transparent window or skylight that generated electricity, and could siphon off 30–40% of the incident light. You could put that on the entire glass façade of a building, and it could offset a meaningful chunk of baseline energy consumption.
We built two technology portfolios, and while we didn’t become billionaires, it was my first experience with entrepreneurship. I realized how fulfilling it is to have a team that you’re working with, whether it all comes together or falls apart. It’s fun to be in that type of position. But we had to make a call about whether it was something that we could go full-time on, and there were a number of different issues, so we ultimately decided to ramp down the company.
What did you do at McKinsey?
After Invisergy, I felt like I needed to get a real job, and I’m so grateful I had the chance to go to McKinsey. It was a wonderful learning experience. I spent 60–70% of my time doing electric power work. I learned a ton. But advising people can be a bit frustrating, because you’re not actually accountable for anything when you’re a consultant. I was lucky enough to get placed on a project in a remote island in the South Pacific, providing access to energy to folks living near our site. It gave me a chance to see how much impact that first kilowatt-hour has on a household, and how it affects a community.
How did you end up going to Africa?
When I finished the project in the South Pacific, I started looking for other opportunities. But in 2015, there weren’t a ton of energy-access companies. I tried to meet as many people as I could, and again, I was lucky to find a team at Fenix International that I really enjoyed working with and that was looking for someone to fill the sort of role I was interested in doing. Our product was designed to serve folks who are off-grid. It’s a combination of solar hardware — a small panel, and a battery to plug into it. It enables people to have lights and charge their phones, along with powering small appliances like radios and TVs. There was also a second component: a loan program designed for people with low incomes. For our most affordable product, it required a $10 down payment, and they paid back the loan at a rate of 19 cents per day. At the end of two years, they owned the solar home system and got free electricity. One of the best things for our customers was that their performance on the Fenix loan enabled them to build a credit history, which we used to determine when and how to extend the customer relationship with additional products aimed at improving their quality of life.
After my two years of doing product work in Uganda, I was fortunate enough to get the chance to lead our expansion into Zambia. It was fun to be able to go into a new country and show how our model truly worked. I was there for about three years. We went from not having an office to about 1,000 team members and reaching a million individuals with clean, reliable, and affordable energy. During that process, we started raising our Series C funds and were ultimately acquired by a French utility, Engie. Their investments enabled us to expand rapidly; we now have a presence in nine markets.
What brought you to Stanford and how do you anticipate it will help your next career goal?
It was a combination of personal and professional reasons. My wife, whom I met while running track at Penn, got into her dream program at Berkeley and I was ecstatic to support her in this next phase. Also, I knew at some point that I wanted to start another company and the time was feeling about right. The goal of coming to Stanford was to have the space and the time to figure out what to work on next — to find a concept that I could commit to as a venture. My time from working at Fenix gave me the guiding principles. At Stanford, I want to work at the intersection of climate solutions and social impact. It’s been wonderful to meet a lot of people here who are also working at that intersection.
In addition to your Stanford GSB classes, last fall and winter you took a class called Stanford Climate Ventures through the Precourt Institute for Energy. Would you talk about the startup idea that you developed there?
We formed a team that was interested in natural climate solutions, which was a rabbit hole I’d been going down. The idea is to leverage our existing carbon cycle by increasing carbon sequestration in trees, oceans, and soil. Whenever you plant a tree, you take carbon out of the atmosphere. So the basic idea is that someone plants trees on land, and as the trees grow, you verify how much carbon dioxide is being sequestered, and then you market carbon credits to companies who’ve made net-zero carbon commitments to offset their output. There’s a massive demand for these offsets, but there’s not enough supply of high-quality credits. There are a lot of wonderful companies out there, but they’re mostly focused on larger projects and landowners. We’re looking at how smaller landowners — particularly ranchers — might be a key to scaling up the supply of offsets.
I’ve learned that once you come up with a hypothesis for your project, you need to go out and talk to people. A lot of people. Our team did 100 interviews with academics, players in the space, and so on. We started talking to landowners as well. The primary barrier is getting folks to change their land practices, which is a big decision for them. We’re looking for marginal agricultural land with lower-quality soil, where the economics of planting trees is more favorable. We’re hoping to promote agroforestry, or trees on farms. That way, you can stack revenue, because you have core production, such as food or timber, to combine with the carbon income. We’re now working on testing early prototypes with actual landowners.
Photos by Elena Zhukova