Nate Walkingshaw is an unusual product leader – he’s a serial entrepreneur who’s spent most of his life in product developing physical rather than digital products. You might even call him an inventor.
Throughout his career he’s developed products that not only speak to him personally but which also align with big ideas. His latest project is a two-and-a-half year-old green energy startup, Torus. Targeted at homeowners and business owners, it’s a potentially game-changing product – an energy storage system that uses a mechanical flywheel to give its customers independence from the electricity grid.
The big idea behind Torus is combating climate change, probably the hardest problem that society faces at the moment. Nate believes we must improve the resilience of the power grid, and work with the coal, natural gas and fossil fuel producers who have built the grid infrastructure. He believes both parties – modern thinkers about renewable energy and old school energy producers – can collaborate and resolve the carbon intensity issues of our electricity supply.
The secret to success
By his own admission Nate’s grades at school weren’t “the best” and he started his working life as an emergency medical technician. “I had a hard time thinking left to right, but I was very good at spatial thinking,” he says. He saw there was a need for better patient transport – which at the time was “really a folding ironing board” and thought he could find a better solution, one that considered carers’ needs as well as patient needs. He formed a company called Paramed which developed ambulance cots, stair chairs and the like, and eventually sold it to Stryker Medical.
He then stayed at Stryker for a couple of years. “I was 29 when I sold my company,” says Nate. “I really had no idea what I was doing. At Stryker I learned about how to ship products on a global scale, about highly regulated industries, hardware, product development at scale, assembly at scale, it was an amazing experience.” After Stryker Nate founded product development company Brightface – which is still going, he then developed a fitness and endurance app for cyclists called Cycleface which was eventually sold to Strava. After this, he spent six years at Pluralsight, first as CPO, and then as CXO.
Nate says his secret has been to surround himself with the right people. “At the beginning of my career, I was a big picture thinker. Now I’m 45, and I’ve become a very detail-oriented thinker, and I definitely can get to the execution and the tiny details. But that’s not where I love to be. The people that I’ve been able to work with are absolutely the reason why we’ve been successful.” His passion when he was younger was “focused on building a solution for me, not for we” and says overcoming unconscious bias is probably the greatest blocker to becoming successful. He adds: “Today I’m really objective. I value critical feedback and thinking as a gift.”
What’s different about physical products?
Working on physical products is similar to digital products in many ways. Says Nate: “That philosophical product approach is identical. What’s different is the cost and time. With software, you can build, ship, get thoughts and reactions on it almost immediately. With hardware products, it’s no joke. It can be 100 days, 200 days, before you get an answer to a problem that costs you a fortune.”
As an example, Nate says that the design of the mechanical engineering components of Torus’ flywheel energy storage has already been through seven complete iterations. Then the power electronics that sit on top of a flywheel have gone through as many as 20 iterations.
“We’re at the edge of science,” he adds. “Our engineers are some of the best around. Our flywheel rotor went to a test lab in Boston where the Falcon 9 rockets are tested, and it is the only rotor to break the speed of sound. We’re achieving huge scientific feats, but using the same methodology you would use for any product.” Nate uses directed discovery – a technique from his days at Pluralsight, and one that puts the customer at the centre of the product. It’s the timing, complexity and the cost that make a physical product different from a digital one.
Down on the farm
A Utah native, Nate is also a tree farmer – his family has run the SaltPyne conifer farm since 2017. His search for ways to run the farm on renewable energy became the impetus behind Torus, because conifers need a lot of water and irrigation systems are expensive to run. He looked for ways to harness the power of the water he had on site as well as leverage wind and solar power in order to offset as much of the farm’s energy consumption as possible.
Nate found that while he could generate enough power from hydro turbines to run the farm, he couldn’t store it. He dismissed chemical batteries, because they only last seven to 10 years, are difficult to recycle and their performance degrades at low temperatures. He says: “Mother Nature does a wonderful job of giving us energy. The idea we had for Torus – and it’s been around for hundreds of years – was to store it in kinetic energy and a mechanical battery and flywheel energy storage device, and we’ve built a world-class energy storage device. I think, as long as we can capture Mother Nature’s energy, what society needs is energy storage.”
The company is off to a flying start. Its storage products are already installed in 355 houses locally and the team is in the process of signing deals with major power companies, as well as planning distribution in European markets next year. Manufacturing has recently moved to much larger premises, and staffing is already up to about about 65 people (of whom over 80% are engineers).
Torus can, says Nate, empower individuals and communities to become their own renewable utility provider. He says it can decarbonise homes or communities by 60 to 80% within the first three years.
The Torus Station product is a quiet, relatively small integrated system for power storage and management with a lifespan of 25 plus years. It’s built to integrate with solar, wind and hydro power. It comes with all the firmware needed to manage the flywheel and an app to give customers all the information they need to manage their electricity supply. The biggest point of failure for a mechanical battery is its bearings. Flywheels can last 25 years, although bearings still need to be swapped out every seven to 11 years, so it still decisively beats the lifespan of a chemical battery, Nate says.
There are other renewable energy storage firms, such as Amber Kinetics, which have developed mechanical flywheels, but Nate says that Torus is the only one focusing on the home market. If the upfront cost of this installation sounds expensive, Nate has a rationale. He says that in Torus’ local market of Utah, once credits, grants and the like are taken into account, the system can be run for less than $50 a month.
Nate calls Torus a company that does energy shaping. Its products integrate with the customers’ renewable energy systems and store this energy so it can be used to power the customers home. There’s an app to manage your energy usage and maximise energy efficiency.
Then by connecting Torus products, customers can create a “mini virtual power station” from renewable energy sources, and join the company’s grid services system so that their energy storage is managed within a smart grid. “It means we decarbonise and decentralise the grid. It also stabilises it,” he says. He says that power from a coal plant loses 40% of its capacity during transmission so the addition of Torus products decentralises the grid and enables energy usage to be more efficient. Says Nate: “It’s more efficient. It’s community based. It’s way more friendly. It’s the way that we get ourselves out of this crisis.”
He gives an example of a bakery using a Torus energy storage system. “You can take energy off the grid during really cheap rates. Then during really expensive daytime rates you can arbitrage power and run your home completely off the grid. A bakery can sip off the grid when no one’s on it and make use of really cheap rates, and then run the bakery for free during the day.” If there are solar panels on the roof of the bakery it could become carbon neutral or even run it for free.
What’s next for Torus?
The next stage for Torus is to scale up. Nate’s most immediate ambition is to show people that they can become their own renewable utility provider. He’s looking to put 5,000 houses on a virtual power plant, and have them generate and store more power than they use and see that those homes are being supported by a decentralised system. “It is going remarkably well for us right now,” he says.”We’ve de-risked the product, and that was the hardest part. We’ve worked through multiple climates and a lot of different use cases. We’ve already had a large-scale utility sign up and believe in our strategy. The next phase of success is to show people that it can be done.”
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