Steve Schell (BS '01) currently serves as the chief scientist for solar energy company Heliogen, but his interests are not exclusive to our solar system (or our universe). In addition to his professional contributions as a scientist, engineer, and CEO, Schell is a self-professed "lover of sci-fi" and even runs a successful science fiction book club.
ENGenuity spoke with Schell to learn how he got into the solar technology industry, his experiences as a scientist and founder of a 3D printer company, and how Caltech lovingly taught him "how to suffer."
ENGenuity: How would you describe what you are doing now and what your professional contributions are?
Steve Schell: My current role is chief scientist at a company called Heliogen. Heliogen is working toward decarbonizing heavy industry by concentrating solar power—basically, using the sun's energy as heat rather than traditional photovoltaics. We use large arrays of mirrors to concentrate the sunlight and create thermal energy, which we use to decarbonize several industrial processes.
As chief scientist, I look at not only what the company's capabilities are today and where they fit our customers' needs, but also what opportunities we see for the future. A customer might have a process that's difficult to decarbonize today, but with a little bit of research and development work, we may be able to go after that new market in five to ten years. That's where most of my time is spent, charting that longer term course.
Professionally, I consider myself more of a generalist than a specialist. Throughout my career, I've worked in robotics, 3D printing, and several different solar energy companies. I think of the envelope in which an industry can operate in terms of the technology that it has or the products that it can offer, and I try to nudge the boundary on that envelope. I think I've done that meaningfully in robotics, additive manufacturing, and solar energy.
The subset of work within the solar industry that I get most excited about is trying to do something that hasn't been done before—to take the basic technology of concentrating solar power and apply it to a problem that hasn't been solved yet. For example, one thing that I'm spending a lot of my time working on right now is using solar thermal energy to supply the power to a process called calcination, which is high-temperature processing of solid materials. It's a process that's used for cement making, in the alumina industry, for lithium extraction, and a lot of other industries that need to take a solid material that's been mined and heat it up to very high temperatures to drive a chemical reaction. This is something that's not really done yet, but there's no reason it can't or shouldn't be done. I would much rather do this with concentrated sunlight than burning a fossil fuel.
ENGenuity: What sparked your interest in the solar industry and what initially inspired you to get into science?
Schell: There are two steps to my progression into solar. The first thing that got me interested in the solar industry was purely that it was technically challenging and interesting. Fifteen years ago, there was an opportunity at a company called eSolar. When I looked at what they were doing, I saw a very multidisciplinary engineering challenge. I liked the idea of taking a systems approach and thinking about mechanical, electrical, thermal, optical, and software—all these pieces need to come together to make a complex technology like that successful. It was only after working in the field for a few years that I became more passionate and mission driven. Now, when I look ahead to the rest of my career, I strongly prefer to stay in clean tech one way or another, whether it's solar or some other aspect of climate and sustainability, because I've come to realize how important it is, and I really value that aspect even more than the technological challenges. For a lot of people who I work with now, it's the opposite. They start being mission driven and then later come to love the technology.
As a kid, I was much more interested in mathematics than science. My father is an engineer, so he raised me thinking about how the world works, how stuff works, how things are built, and how to fix things. I was that kid who was taking apart stuff at home and may or may not be successfully putting things back together. I found the world a puzzle waiting to be solved.
As a high school student, I would read my Discover magazine, or Popular Mechanics, or Popular Science, and everything that got me really excited would end up naming JPL and Caltech. So, by the time I got around to applying to colleges, Caltech was first on my list and there was no looking back.
ENGenuity: How has your Caltech education influenced you?
Schell: There are two ways that I think the undergraduate experience at Caltech prepared me well for my career. Number one, it taught me how to learn. The experience at Caltech taught me how to be a lifelong student and how to always go seek the information that I lack. Caltech is where I developed the skills to let me break a problem apart into manageable pieces and then go find the information that I need to solve it.
The other way that my Caltech experience shaped me, and this is half-serious, is that it taught me how to suffer a little bit. Caltech was hard. It was hard for pretty much everyone I know that went through that experience. But that's also amazing because it teaches you what you're capable of, and it teaches you what real challenges look like and what it feels like to face a serious challenge and to not give up. I often look back on my time at Caltech and think, if I could get through the difficulty that was my Caltech education then I know I can get through whatever I'm going through today.
ENGenuity: Was there a class or professor that had the biggest impact on you at Caltech?
Schell: There are a few people that stand out. I was a mechanical engineering major, and I was absolutely fascinated by robotics. I took as many of Professor Joel Burdick's [Richard L. and Dorothy M. Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering; Jet Propulsion Laboratory Research Scientist] classes as I could take, and I talked to him as much as I could. He really made the content interesting and approachable; without ever dumbing it down, he made it achievable. The work that he was doing—biologically inspired locomotion systems, robots that swim, jump, and slither like a snake—was fascinating. He is such a genuine, approachable, and kind person. I really enjoyed my time with Professor Burdick.
The other was my advisor within the department, Professor Melany Hunt [Dotty and Dick Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering]. She was great. I didn't take as many of her classes, but in terms of guiding me through the process of getting my degree and steering me in the right direction, she always reassured me and reminded me that it was going to be OK no matter how hard things were at any given moment. She always made me feel like it was going to work out in the end, and it did.
ENGenuity: What advice would you give to the next generation of Caltech EAS alumni?
Schell: One thing is to not take Caltech for granted. Caltech is a very special place, and getting a degree from Caltech is a special accomplishment. If I look back on the twenty-two years since I graduated, one thing I regret is that I wasn't as involved with the alumni network early on. I graduated, put my head down, and did work for a long time. It was only in the last five or ten years that I started re-engaging with the alumni association and the campus. So, one piece of advice for people who are completing their studies soon would be don't lose that connection when you graduate. There are all kinds of resources and valuable people in the network that would be great to stay in touch with as you start building a career for yourself.
ENGenuity: Is there a project that you're most proud of throughout your career?
Schell: There are so many projects that I've been involved with over the years that I'm proud of for very different reasons. One thing that stands out happened prior to my time at Heliogen. I had started my own company called New Matter and we made low-cost 3D printers. I ran that company for about four years. Ultimately, it couldn't turn a profit, so we did have to shut the company down. Despite that, it's probably the thing that I'm most proud of in my career because that's when I stopped being the "engineering guy" and started thinking like a businessperson. I had the CEO role, I was doing fundraising, sales, marketing, logistics, manufacturing, and creating partnerships. I had to level up my own career skills very quickly to do all that. Outside of my four years at Caltech, I'd say it was the most intense learning experience I've had in my entire life. I'm so proud of the company that I built, the people who joined the team and went on that journey with me, and the product that we designed.
We ultimately sold and delivered 10,000 of those 3D printers and the feedback we got from customers was amazing. A lot of those printers ended up going to schools; it was a really good product for teachers to use in the classroom. So, the feeling of being in a middle school classroom and watching a teacher and a class full of kids work in 3D CAD software and then bring their designs to life on my 3D printer was incredible.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite story?
Schell: This is like a cruel and unusual punishment asking me to pick just one. I'm a bit of a science fiction geek. In addition to having founded a company, I'm very proud that I founded a successful science fiction book club that has been meeting for six or seven years now. I'm a big fan of Neal Stephenson and his book Seveneves. It's an incredible story. It's big and it's bold, so that one has got to be near the top of the list. I'm also a huge fan of Octavia Butler, speaking of the Pasadena connection. Butler's stories always make me think; it took weeks after finishing the Xenogenesis trilogy before I was sure how I felt about it. She can write about aliens, but she's really writing about what it means to be human and how the perception of right and wrong is more subjective than we might realize.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite destination?
Schell: Costa Rica. I absolutely love Costa Rica. My wife, Regina, and I, have been there a couple of times with our family. It's an amazing country because it's so pristine, the environment is beautiful, the people are wonderful, the food is wonderful, and by traveling relatively short distances, you can see distinct ecologies. There's rainforest, and plains, and the beach. Every time I visit, I don't want to come home.
ENGenuity: What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?
Schell: With engineering and science, there's a lot of time spent on computers. There's a lot of analysis, thinking, and spreadsheets. For me, the thing that gives me the most satisfaction is the hardware payoff at the end. Ultimately, I want to build something in the real world, whether it's a solar power plant, a robot, or a 3D printer. Getting to the end of the journey where you've constructed something and it's operating and doing what it's supposed to do in the real world—that moment is always really special.
ENGenuity: What keeps you up at night?
Schell: These days, I sleep relatively well. Having spent most of my career in relatively young companies, and especially as I started getting into leadership positions, the thing that keeps me up at night is making sure that I'm making decisions that are going to lead to all my employees continuing to get paychecks. When you're working in startup companies, often that's not really a guarantee. I feel very deeply the responsibility that when an employee decides to join a company that I'm leading, their family's well-being is now dependent on me making good decisions about that business and keeping them employed. Throughout my career, that's the thing that's kept me up at night more than anything else.
ENGenuity: What gets you up in the morning?
Schell: These days, it's doing something that hasn't been done before using solar energy. How can I take this amazing source of energy that's just falling from the sky for free and harvest these photons to do something that nobody else has ever done? I find that so exciting, interesting, and awesome that it really does motivate me like crazy.