Manik Suri

Founder and CEO of Therma

Reducing Food Waste Through Effective Storage - Manik Suri of Therma

Mar 15, 2022
Manik Suri

Reducing Food Waste Through Effective Storage

Did you know that there are 90 million refrigerators in the business world and 1.4 billion in the consumer world? Imagine the effects of that on our environment. That’s why Manik Suri co-founded Therma, a tech startup driven to prevent food, product, and energy waste, which are three major drivers of climate change, through temperature monitoring and analytics. 

On his journey to founding Therma, Manik shares the many insights he uncovered, some of which were discovered the hard way, such as the significance of finding the right people to work with, how to sell the dream but also stay true to yourself, tips on prioritization and avoiding burnout, plus a useful framework to keep in mind when crafting a product, among others. Listen to this episode to find out more!

Manik’s key lessons and quotes from this episode were:

  • “The journey is always somewhat different than we expect when we get started, at least I've never seen the path to be linear.” (3:03)
  • “We need so many people to be working on socially impactful problems like sustainability and the climate crisis that there's literally no better time to get started than today.” (26:28)
  • “The talent and the quality of the team matter more than anything else… The ability to work with people who are better than you in whatever it is you're not best at is key.” (35:13)
  • “The best entrepreneurs and the best strategists are really good at knowing exactly what they need at any given time and quickly changing when that changes.” (40:45)

In this episode, we also talked about:

  • Addressing the food waste problem to address climate change (8:41)
  • How Therma works (16:09)
  • Bringing out the entrepreneur in you (26:27)
  • The most important lessons Manik’s learned on his entrepreneurial journey (34:02)
  • Finding the perfect balance in life (43:25)

Transcript of the episode

Maiko Schaffrath  00:00

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You are listening to Impact Hustlers, and I am your host, Maiko Schaffrath. I have made it my mission to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs to solve some of the world's biggest social and environmental problems. And for this reason, I am speaking to some of the best entrepreneurs out there who are solving problems such as food waste, climate change, poverty, and homelessness.

My goal is that Impact Hustlers will inspire you, either by starting an impact business yourself, by joining the team of one, or by taking a small step, whatever that may be, towards being part of the solution to the world's biggest problems.

In today's episode, I speak to Manik Suri, founder of Therma, a company with a mission to reduce refrigerant emissions through smart sensors that help customers avoid failure of fridges, reduce food waste, reduce energy consumption, and the resulting carbon emissions.

Therma is now used by large customers such as McDonald's, Marriott hotels, Domino's Pizza, and many others, and it's great to have you on the show, Manik, to share a bit more on your journey and the lessons learned. Thanks for joining.

Manik Suri  02:28

Terrific to be here. Thanks so much for the warm welcome, Maiko. I'm excited for the chat.

Maiko Schaffrath  02:34

Appreciate your time. So, let's start with your personal journey. When I looked a bit through your previous career, I just found that you had quite a diverse career as well. Therma hasn't been the first thing that you've been doing. You've had quite a career already. So, I'd love to talk a bit more about what drives you. Why are you doing what you do now and how did you get here?

Manik Suri  03:01

Absolutely. I think the journey is always somewhat different than we expect when we get started, at least I've never seen the path to be linear, even though I've sometimes imagined what I might be doing two years or five years out.

I certainly didn't think I would be running a clean cooling company 10 years ago or 20 years ago in school. I grew up in California, went to college back East at the time when I really wanted to work around policy and government. I went to Harvard for undergrad and later for law school. 

I thought I might go into government and work in politics and policy. I studied international relations, got a master's in international relations from Cambridge and a scholarship from Harvard, spent a year in England, great time. I ended up in finance accidentally. 

I met someone who made an introduction to a really interesting and creative fund called D.E. Shaw that was building out teams focused on emerging markets, and I had studied India and China in college and my master's.

I went to work at D.E. Shaw for the gentleman who ran the firm, building out investing teams in Asia from '06-'09. Through that experience, I got to thinking about the intersection of capital and policy and decided to go back to law school and then went to work in the Obama White House as a junior guy on the Economic Policy team, doing an internship and then a fellowship. 

And so, I realized, while working in government, that it's very different than you imagine. The pace can be much slower. The politics can be much more challenging than the policy alone, and I think that's where I started thinking about other ways to move the needle to try and have some positive social impact. At the time, I met a woman Beth Noveck. 

She was the Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the US in the first Obama White House. She was also, as she jokes, a recovering lawyer, like myself, had gone to Harvard for undergrad 10 years before me. She was working on ways to leverage technology to transform law and government, and she'd written a book called the Wiki Gov, which I read, and I listened to her talk. 

The thesis and the theme were really powerful. Technology is transforming social and commercial life. But law and government, even though they're so important for our society, are still run like it's 1950, and there's a huge opportunity there to leverage and build better technology for those areas. That's how I got inspired to move to tech.

So, I joined Beth when she left the government. We started a center together at NYU, where she teaches in Manhattan, called the Governance Lab, the GovLab. And then, after helping her get that center off the ground, I had met a gentleman there, Aaron Cohen. He was our third co-founder. Aaron was an internet entrepreneur, who had been working in tech since the late 90s, and he teaches at NYU. 

He and I decided to start a company together focused on this space around compliance and safety and regulation, but using technology to improve legacy workflows. It just so happened that when we started that company, which was called CoInspect, Chipotle, this big restaurant chain in the US, had a food safety crisis, and a bunch of people started telling us, "Hey, you should check out the food supply chain.

Food is a big problem in terms of safety and quality. There's a lot of legacy workflows there. If you can bring a compliance and regulatory product into the market, food is a great place to start."

That's how we ended up in the food supply chain, building tech for restaurants and retailers. And then, fast forwarding a few years into that, we discovered that a big part of the problem in the actual safety and compliance had to do with the temperatures. 

We were working on compliance thinking, "Hey, we can improve our core product," which was a mobile app. And so, we started building a sensor, a way of automating that workflow using IoT sensors and data analytics, and that's how our second product, which is called Therma, was born. Therma's short for Temperature, Humidity, Energy Remote Monitoring Application. That's Therma.

Maiko Schaffrath  07:13

Oh, wow. That took a lot of work just to come up with that acronym.

Manik Suri  07:18

Thank you. Yeah, team of nerds, as we joke. But we discovered as we were building Therma, that was in 2019 in the fall and winter, it turned out that refrigeration was much more than just a compliance issue. It had huge climate implications. There's a lot of waste around product spoilage, energy consumption, and refrigerant leaks.

That's when we realized, "Oh, wow. This is a much bigger social problem than just compliance," and we began working on it from a climate standpoint. So, in the last two years, we've transformed the company.

Now, we're a climate-focused startup building smart refrigeration, clean cooling tools, still advancing health and safety. Our technology does improve safety and compliance, but it's just part of a much bigger opportunity around climate and sustainability. So, that's the journey.

Maiko Schaffrath  08:04

Yeah, and by the way, for everybody listening, food waste is a massive problem related to climate change. I think we focus very often on electric vehicles, and oil transport, and flying, and so on, but I think actually, food waste is a bigger, bigger emitter of CO2 than actually aviation sector, if I remember correctly.

We'll fact check that afterwards. You may know more on the facts on that, but it's a massive global problem, and big leverage. If we fix food waste, we can fix climate change as a result, or at least a big chunk of it, right?

Manik Suri  08:41

I was shocked by just how much food waste is part of the climate crisis. A third of all food that gets produced is thrown out, 1/3, which is just a massive number, and a big portion of that is because of supply chain issues. BCG had a piece a few years ago, a detailed report about the food waste crisis where they said, of the 1.6 trillion in food that's thrown out, about 11% of that is in storage and handling in the supply chain.

So, that's still a big, big number. We're talking about $160 billion of product a year that's actually addressable, that's avoidable, and we're working on that piece of it. We're trying to find ways to use technology to reduce that waste, whether it's up in the farm or down at the fork, all through that supply chain, using monitoring analytics. But, it's not just food waste, Maiko.

I mean, we also discovered that refrigerants, these chemicals that go into cooling, they are often emitted and released when refrigeration assets go down. That was something I was surprised to learn. And when I was growing up in the 90s, the refrigerants that were being used in the world, they used to heat the ozone layer.

They were these ozone-depleting chemicals. And so, we talked about the South Pole having a hole in the ozone layer. Well, the world came together through the UN Montreal Protocol and banned the use of ozone-depleting refrigerants in '98.

But the chemicals that replaced them, though they don't eat the ozone layer, they're ultra-warming, they warm between 1,000 and 11,000 times more than CO2, and those are legal, and they're used pretty much all over the world today, except in Europe, where they were transitioning to naturals that are much cleaner. But most of the world's using these very warming refrigerants, and most people don't know that.

I didn't realize how big a single source of emissions that was. Project Drawdown, which studies climate change, and every year, has a ranking of 80 solutions to climate change, in 2019, they listed refrigerants as the number one addressable solution to climate change in terms of impact potential, out of 80 solutions.

That's when I started thinking about Therma being a climate company, because I read that report in the fall and winter of '19 and said, "Oh, my god. We could actually help reduce refrigerant leaks through our sensors." That's massive. That's even bigger than we thought with food waste alone. And so, that's really when the company started to take off as a climate startup.

Maiko Schaffrath  11:17

Got it. Amazing. And has there been a lot of focus on this? I guess in terms of driver for companies to use this, it's really a money-saving machine if they use your product, right? But, has there been a lot of focus? How has that evolved over time? I think in a general knowledge, I didn't really know that.

I didn't know how dangerous these refrigerants were for climate change. So, I feel like maybe you still need to do a lot of education there all the time, or [are] the companies quite aware of it?

Manik Suri  11:52

No, I think there's a lot of education needed. I was fortunate to speak at the UN COP26 event in Glasgow. I spoke on the New York Times stage last October. My co-founder also spoke. He gave a talk on climate technology. We were amongst the only people at that event that were coming from the cooling industry.

There were folks from electric vehicles and micro mobility, food alternatives and protein substitutes, all kinds of battery technologies, potential carbon sequestration technologies, but almost no one from the cooling industry was there, which is, I think, indicative of how under-appreciated the cooling drivers are in the climate crisis.

I think that's shifting. I do think that's changing. The Washington Post had an investigative piece last year on refrigerants, where they actually had undercover investigators go out to supermarkets in the US, and they documented the leakage rates and showed the leakage rates were much higher than they're legally allowed to be. This was happening all over the country.

And because refrigerants are cheap, businesses don't usually have a huge economic impact with refrigerant leaks. It's not an economic problem for them. And so, it's a classic issue where, unless you can figure out a way to tie a solution to an economic ROI driver, very hard to get people to change unless there's regulation, and the US historically has been very lax on regulating refrigerants.

Europe has been much more strict, which is why they moved to naturals. China, India, most of Africa, Latin America, and the US are still very, very lax on their regulation. We've been really excited to discover that our sensors are able to detect when refrigeration equipment is likely going to go down, and that actually matters to a business owner.

They don't want their equipment to fail, because when it fails, they have service disruption, they have to spend a lot of money on last minute last mile repair. And if it happens on a night or a weekend, they may lose a lot of expensive product.

So, we use the fact that our sensors can help catch equipment downtime to drive behavior change and to encourage ROI-positive investment in these sensors. It just so happens that some of the times that refrigeration goes down are because of refrigerants leaking. It's one of the reasons why refrigeration goes down.

So, in the process of catching equipment downtime early, we happen to reduce the leakage rate that would continue. It's kind of an indirect way of catching refrigerant leakage without selling that as a value proposition directly. We're thrilled about that, because I think that is one powerful way to align sustainability with profitability. We have to be pragmatic about this.

Expecting businesses just to do things because they're pro climate if there's not an ROI is very hard, but I think Therma is taking off and done really well. We went from 100 to 10,000 sensors in two years, and we're going from 10,000 hopefully to 25,000 and 100,000, and we're just scratching the surface of refrigeration.

I think it's because we are easily able to say, "Hey, this is an ROI-positive decision from an economic standpoint. You should put these things in to reduce addressable waste and downtime," and there's dollars around that. So, that's philosophically how I think lots of technology can transform the world. You've got it align with incentives, and then you can get a lot of great things done.

Maiko Schaffrath  15:22

We'll talk about that in a second. I'm really passionate about that topic, combining the profitability, the value proposition for the customer, and why they would buy it with the impact. I love to always dig deeper into the actual technology as well. We haven't covered much of that yet. So, we know it's sensors.

We know it's sensors for basically fridges, industrial fridges, I assume in many cases, or in most cases, but talk us through how the tech actually works. [Are these] multiple sensors that send different things? What are you detecting? And then, I assume there's some sort of software/notification element as well. What is the action that has been produced based on the sensors?

Manik Suri  16:09

Yeah, absolutely. Today, the technology consists of hardware and software, and we're expanding on both of those in this next round of product innovation and growth. The sensors use a type of connectivity called long-range radio, LoRa, to get signal out of the inside of refrigeration.

Historically, you couldn't get a signal out of the inside of a fridge or a freezer wirelessly, because Bluetooth and Wi-Fi don't work. The side of the fridge or the freezer has steel and aluminum siding that acts like a Faraday cage.

It blocks a lot of electromagnetic radiation from getting through. We were able to use a new type of connectivity to get reliable signal to continuously carry using ultra low bandwidth radio. And so, the first focus of our innovation was to make sure we can get a wireless signal out reliably, and that was, I think, really a differentiator for us.

One of the reasons why most of the refrigeration supply chain doesn't have sensors today, the tech just didn't work until a couple of years ago. Generation 1 IoT couldn't get signal out. And so, that's why McDonald's and Starbucks and Marriott and Whole Foods don't have wireless sensors in their refrigeration today.

We were able to take this connectivity layer and then build software on top of that. The software stack consists of mobile apps, and web applications, and then data tools. The mobile apps allow you to see where and when things are set.

It lets you get notified if there's outages or downtime early. We use phone calls, text messages, in-app notifications as an alarm to get people notified, especially when there's critical failure events happening and especially when they're happening outside of service intervals, like on a night or a weekend.

That's one way to catch lots of downtime, getting people to know so they can get in there and fix things or move product around. On the desktop application, we have reporting and threshold setting. That allows you to see what's going on with all your perishables.

From a compliance standpoint, that's critical. If you're preparing product or storing product or serving product, you need to make sure it stays in very tight bins from a food safety and product safety standpoint, and our customers take that really seriously.

We have national brands that make everything from nutraceuticals, to seafood, to proteins, to dairy, all of which are very time-sensitive. Of course, the other opportunity beyond just monitoring and alerting is to actually drive optimization, and that's where our data tools come in.

We've started building out a couple of data tools, one of which lets you get early warnings when equipment is going to go down, a kind of predictive insight, where you can actually get a notification if a piece of equipment looks like it's performing improperly, and we can tell that, because we're measuring temperature and humidity directly.

That temperature humidity time series gives you indications of when the equipment's actually having problems based on the amplitude and the fluctuation, and that's how we start driving predictive insights using time series data. And the more and more locations and more and more assets we track, the better our predictive models can get.

But I'm really excited, Maiko, about where we're headed, which is energy optimization. The new frontier for us is helping businesses identify ways to reduce the energy needed for cooling. Today, most of the world runs refrigeration in a "dumb" way, which is whether you're a business or a consumer, for the last 100 years, we basically bought refrigeration, we've plugged it in the wall, we've set a setpoint, and we've left it until the thing breaks.

That's how refrigeration is run. Well, it turns out that you don't need to have refrigeration running 24/7, and you don't need it to be at a constant setpoint. Product can stay cold for a certain amount of time. It can actually hold cooling effect. And in that sense, refrigeration can be like a battery. The product inside acts like a battery and holds energy state.

In the business world, there are 90 million refrigerators; in the consumer world, about 1.4 billion. We leave all of those assets as fully charged batteries all the time. Today, Therma is experimenting with temporary discharges, where we might turn refrigeration down or turn it off for short bursts of time in response to energy price, in response to weather events, in response to utility markets and electricity grids needing extra demand back.

And so, the idea of reducing load and reducing energy consumption in an asset like refrigeration is pretty new, it's pretty novel. Others have done this with different assets, like thermostats. If you think about Google Nest, it's a smart thermostat that can dynamically turn energy use up and down.

For example, when you leave the house, it might say, "Okay, we don't need to have as much air conditioning. We can raise the thermostat a degree or two," classic example of a smart asset. Well, with refrigeration, we don't do that today. We don't vary and dynamically manage these assets. They're all dumb. They're all plugged into the constant setpoint, but energy is more expensive in the day than it is at night.

If we can cool at night when energy is cheaper and turn it off or partially during the day, the battery effect can let the product stay cold and still save you money as an energy user. What's beautiful, I think, about this idea is it's great for businesses.

It saves money on the energy bill, but it also reduces the carbon footprint of the asset. And with our monitoring product as a base layer, we can guarantee that the product's not getting too warm and spoiling and having a compliance problem.

And so, it builds on top of our monitoring product as a second layer, an energy optimization solution. So, that's some of the direction we're headed. The last thing I'll say is that by measuring the energy consumption of the asset along with the temperature, our ability to predict when it's going to go down gets better.

Our ability to get refrigerant leak caught early will get better, because we're going to be able to get the energy data as well. So, it's actually going to help us reduce, hopefully, all three drivers of emissions: food waste, energy waste, and refrigerant leaks.

Maiko Schaffrath  22:24

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Okay, let's get back to the episode. Amazing, and I heard you mentioned there that the number of consumer fridges is much higher, in the billions. Does that mean that you see that as a future for your company where you may be selling components or technology to those manufacturers of consumer fridges or somehow tapping into that market as well?

Manik Suri  23:21

I mean, it's an excellent strategic question, Maiko. I think right now, we're very focused on business refrigeration, what we call commercial refrigeration. There are 90 million of these units in the world. Almost none of them have sensors.

Almost no one in the world today has optimized these assets. We've got 10,000 sensors in the world. We're barely scratching the surface. If we had 100,000, we'd barely be scratching the surface.

There's so much opportunity. I think one thing I was struck by two years ago when I started working on refrigeration is that there is actually a huge amount of growth going on in refrigeration, and the reason is because more and more people around the world want perishable product that refrigeration enables.

More and more people around the world, in the developing world especially, want fruits and vegetables, protein and higher value content, fresher and locally sourced goods. And then, of course, when you add into that drugs, plasma, blood, and vaccines, all of those require refrigeration too.

So, refrigeration is growing massively as a sector. It's got 15% year-over-year growth happening, mostly because lots of the developing world doesn't have refrigeration today, and that's one of the reasons we got really excited, and I think our investors got really excited.

There's a lot of growth coming. It's already a big source of inefficiency and climate change. We have to make it more efficient if we want to avoid another catastrophic effect. And so, I think there's a lot of humanitarian benefits to making refrigeration better and more accessible. It can enable folks that don't have access to perishables to get access to them, whether those are food or pharmaceuticals.

Maiko Schaffrath  25:04

Got it. Wow, amazing, lots to do still there, and let's talk about that. There's a lot of early stage entrepreneurs listening to this podcast and wondering what role can they play in all this, and I think whoever I speak to, especially related to climate change, just tells the same story.

The problem is so big. We don't even mind having 20 competitors, because the problem is so big that it's going to be very hard for one company to solve all of the problem. I mean, you're not trying to solve all elements of climate change. You're trying to solve one specific problem, and even that is huge. So, I'd love to get your thinking a little bit around people- yeah, go ahead. Go ahead. 

Manik Suri  25:52

No, please. I'm so excited by the remark, because I completely agree, but please continue. I'd love to hear where you're taking it.

Maiko Schaffrath  26:00

That's good. I guess where I was taking it is, what is your thinking for people that are entrepreneurs, either they're in the process of even just ideation and figuring out what they want to build or people that are even earlier, and they're just clear, "Okay, I want to be part of the solution to climate change. I have some entrepreneurial skills and entrepreneurial drive in me, but how can I be part of that solution?," what's your view on that?

Manik Suri  26:27

I love the question. I think we need so many people to be working on socially impactful problems like sustainability and the climate crisis that there's literally no better time to get started than today. Today is the youngest you will ever be, as my dad keeps reminding me. You might as well take advantage of the youth and the energy, whatever stage in life you're at.

We have a podcast that we started two years ago at Therma called Point 01, which my co-founder named. The concept for Point 01 was, we need 1,000 companies to succeed in order to solve the climate crisis. The podcast is a climate tech innovation pod, but it's really trying to celebrate others working on a problem of this magnitude. So, Point 01 is the likelihood of any one of those 1,000 companies making it to being a massive player.

But the point is, I think these kinds of problems are going to require collective action at massive scale, and I think any entrepreneur or any innovator that wants to get started, you can find dozens of interesting companies by going to climate tech meetups, checking out newsletters, like Climate Tech VC, or groups like Work On Climate.

[I'm] happy to connect folks with any of those, if you'd like. I'm friends at all of them, and I'm sure if you just Google for two seconds "climate communities," you'll find folks running or building or joining organizations.

So, I would say there's more work than anyone can possibly do on a problem like climate change. For our generation, if you are looking for problems that matter, that's the reason I got into tech. I was never interested in building tech purely to improve advertising efficiency or purely to sell more widgets on an ecommerce store. That just never appealed to me as a great use of life energy.

I was interested in making regulation and compliance better and helping improve public health and safety, and that brought me into social impact and civic tech. And from there, the climate crisis began to grow over the last six, seven years, and the product we were building moved us into a sustainability mode and allowed us to start working on that. So, it was organic, no pun intended, in the food supply chain.

But I think you can find opportunities to start businesses, to join businesses, to be part of nonprofits, whatever modality works for you. There's a huge ecosystem emerging and lots of capital. There's more capital around climate and sustainability and impact that I think anyone has seen, and I was a former private equity investor.

I have a bunch of friends in VC. I think you'll see the data pretty clearly. We've never had this much funding going into climate and clean tech as we've had in the last 24 months.

Maiko Schaffrath  29:24

It's just exploding. I think the message is probably everybody, whatever role they have in society, can make a change, whether that is policy, etc., but I'm super excited about entrepreneurship. You may not know; I have a background studying politics in undergrad. I didn't make it to the White House as you did, but I made it to some internships with the German Embassy and so on, so I got a taste of that world.

I think there's an important role to play in that world as well, but there's something really exciting about entrepreneurship in terms of actually just developing the solutions. I don't know what your view is on that, but my view is that politics or politicians rarely get the courage to truly lead and push things completely forward. In the end, they usually tend to react to what's happening on the ground as well.

So, there may be some goals that we've been setting, but in terms of actual implementation, it's the entrepreneurs underground that make achieving the climate goals actually happen, entrepreneurs like yourself. I would love to get your take on this, though, because you've seen both the worlds quite intensely as well.

Manik Suri  30:43

I think it's a very loaded topic, loaded because people have very strong views about theories of social change. Half my friends work in the public sector, in government or regulation or policy. I'm a former lawyer and went to law school thinking that that's where the path was taking me. And then, the other half of my friends work in entrepreneurship as innovators, as entrepreneurs, as investors. I grew up in the West Coast, in California, but then went to the East Coast for 12 years.

There's a little bit in the US of an East Coast/West Coast divide about some of these topics at times. I actually think you need both. I believe that there's a huge role for the public sector to play in solving a problem like the climate crisis, just like any social externality. I'm not anti-government. I'm very pro smart government and effective regulation.

I think, many, many, many thoughtful people are trying to build regulatory frameworks, set the rules of the road, advance legislation, encourage and enable social action and private sector action in the government and in the public sector, and I admire those people. It's a hard job, doesn't pay that well, and it's often quite thankless. You don't get a lot of recognition.

Not too many people get invited to join podcasts who are working on policy initiatives for three or four years. At the same time, without unleashing the force of capitalism and the power of innovation, being able to build the future, literally building the future, you have to unleash that at scale in order to take on something as big as the climate crisis.

It's not enough to create better regulation and more effective legislation, we also need to fundamentally change the way we consume and utilize resources and engage in activity. That's going to require a huge amount of innovation technologically and economically. And so, I think there's a huge role for innovation that's driven by and enabled by financial capital and human capital, and that's where entrepreneurship comes in.

You can't create future technologies and scale them without really thoughtful people who are really dedicated, spending lots of time tinkering, experimenting, failing, figuring things out, and then scaling. That's where, I think, entrepreneurship, and technology entrepreneurship in particular, can be a big part of social change on a problem like climate, but other problems.

I'm always amazed by the kinds of technologies that are emerging, whether it's novel ways of doing carbon sequestration or wrapping paper that helps reduce food waste in your fridge. Just amazing the kind of innovation that's available and possible when people put their minds and hearts and energy to it.

Maiko Schaffrath  33:30

Love it, love it. Let's go through some lessons learned in your entrepreneurial journey and what others can learn from those. I asked you before we started recording, what do you think have been some of the hardest lessons you had to learn that were maybe very difficult at the time, or [it] almost seemed like they could have killed the company, or they could have had a really bad effect on you?

Is there anything like painful lessons that you had to learn through building Therma or any of your previous work?

Manik Suri  34:02

Oh, where to start? Where to start? Painful lessons are aplenty. I mean, there's so much I think that you can't really appreciate till you experience it. I think that's one of the reasons why so many entrepreneurs or former entrepreneurs become coaches and mentors and investors. I see it with a lot of my mentors and investors and advisors.

They've been through the trenches, they've been through the battles and journey and have developed all this knowledge and learning, and they try to impart it back, because you just want to help people not go through that.

I would say I'm early in the journey. I mean, we're a 75-person team. We've raised $25 million in capital today. It's still pretty early. It's definitely bigger than when it was just me starting the business, and we had no cash. We had $50,000 of capital that I'd put into the business, so it's definitely further along. But I think one lesson that I've been internalizing is that the talent and the quality of the team matter more than anything else.

I mean, really, the ability to work with people who are better than you in whatever it is you're not best at is key. You have to figure out what your superpowers are, what you're really good at, and focus on those and then find collaborators, find team members, find partners, find co-founders, find advisors who are better at things that you are not exceptional at or you are not best at. And they should be so good at those things that you can just let them run with it.

That's, I think, one of the things that really separates exceptional companies from everybody else. They have this ability to recruit exceptionally talented people who are really good at the things that the team prior to them joining is not as good at as them. And if you can keep leveling up, it has this virtuous cycle effect, where the team just gets better and better and stronger and stronger.

That creates more insights, more velocity, more growth potential, more ambition, that allows more financial capital to come to work, that allows better and more people to join, and then that becomes a virtuous cycle. And then, the opposite happens when you don't do that.

When you hire, or recruit, or join with folks where you feel like you're not sure how good they are or they're not as good as you might be at tasks that you can't be doing, because you're already focused on things you're best at, then you end up having to do four jobs, five jobs, there's a lack of trust, a lot of misunderstandings, then you end up with all this internal politics, things go the other way, and it becomes harder and harder to hire great people, and you have to hire whoever you can get, and that just continues a vicious cycle.

So, I would say, many people told me when I was getting started, "Really focus on who you're working with. Really focus on who you're collaborating with." It didn't quite make sense to me at that time why they focused on that point so much, but that now is starting to make a lot more sense still early in the journey.

Maiko Schaffrath  37:17

And it goes back to that Steve Jobs quote, I guess, on A players and B players, I assume as well, right? It goes hand in hand in terms of A players hire A players, B players hire C players. I'm wondering how you view this on a very operational basis, because I think what I found in my own entrepreneurial journey as well. Before doing Impact Hustlers, I set up another company in helping impact companies recruit talent.

At that point, I had actually done an entrepreneurship program. I learned all the tools, lean startup, everything, but actually operationalizing it as a whole nother level. So, reading the Steve Jobs quote and listening to you now is one thing, but then how do I actually make it happen?

I think the tension there with what you just mentioned is, as a startup, you have scarcity of money, initially, for sure, but most of the time, until you're not a startup anymore, you have not a lot of money to spend.

Then, at the same time, you have a lot of time pressure to actually validate that you have a real solution that people want to buy. And then, you need to hire your team under the time pressure with little money, and you want to hire A players.

So, then, you have this time pressure like, "Oh, I want to hire somebody as soon as possible. I need somebody tomorrow," and you're meeting these people, and they're good, but not great, so they just hire them so you can move at least or should I just wait it out? This tension, how do you manage the tension in operational terms?

Manik Suri  38:58

I think it's very hard. I don't think it ever goes away fully. There's another framework that my colleague, our CTO, Andrew Hager, likes to use, which is you have three buckets, three circles in a Venn diagram: fast, good, and cheap, and you can get two of the three at all times.

Maiko Schaffrath  39:29

That's it. You've just got to accept that reality, isn't it?

Manik Suri  39:32

Exactly. I don't think that really goes away. Even as you get more and more scale under you, I think these underlying tensions are just part of the nature of organizational building and life. So, I think, really understanding where you are and where one is in any given moment is key.

Are you in a mode where you need to show progress even if it's not long-term sustainable, because it's going to require an early MVP product to be rebuilt and refactored, but you can show the progress so you can raise capital, so you can hire folks to rebuild it and scale it and make it more long-term sustainable, or are you in a place where you have a mature offering and you need to really develop refined features that can make the difference between being the number three player and the number one player?

In which case, good probably matters more than fast, because you're trying to really break through and become something novel or something truly differentiated. In that case, you might need to spend more and make it good, but you're not going to get cheap if you really want it fast. So, those are the trade-offs that have to be dynamically managed at all times.

The best entrepreneurs and the best strategists are really good at knowing exactly what they need at any given time and quickly changing when that changes. Sometimes, you need to go from fast and good to fast and cheap. Sometimes, you need to go slow and be willing to spend more but be exceptional. Those kinds of dynamic calibrations are hard.

But I think, sometimes, it's a bit of the philosophical, "Know thyself," the Zen or world wisdom common saying, "Once you know thyself, all is possible." I think it's true in startup land and entrepreneurship as well. If you know yourself and know your organization and where you are, you can then figure out what is it you need, but that requires being really honest with yourself, which is maybe the second thing, I would say, as a lesson learned.

Be candid with yourself, super hard to do, because we have to constantly be inventing the future. We're constantly selling the dream. I spend most of my day talking to investors, or recruits, or my team and saying how great things are going to be and how awesome the future could be and what the potential is.

But then, you have to pause on that to actually ask yourself, "Well, what is working and what isn't?," and being really candid about what isn't can be hard when you spend most of the rest of your day trying to tell people how great things are going to be. So, that tension is, I think, really hard too.

Maiko Schaffrath  42:18

Got it. Amazing. That's a good lesson. I have probably two more questions for you, so brief ones. One thing I was told, you have cracked a code of a balanced life, I'm going to put it out there like that. I don't know if you feel like that, but you have a wife, you have kids, a baby actually and a dog, and you've managed to get a bit of balance into your life where you're able to spend your weekends not working.

So, I'd love to talk a bit about that, especially in the impact space where I meet so many people that are true missionaries in the sense that they really deeply care about the problem they're solving even more than the average startup founder out there, and they really want to see a solution.

So, the danger is that you're burning yourself out in the process, because you can't stop thinking, "I need to work on this seven days a week, 24/7." So, yeah, what's your view on this? How did you manage to get a bit of a balance in your life and still be very ambitious with what you're doing?

Manik Suri  43:25

I mean, I think it's a very thoughtful question, Maiko, and not an easy one. Depending on the day of the week or the month, if you ask my wife, she might give you a different answer as to how well I'm doing on that attempt. We've been together for over 20 years. We met as freshmen in college in 2001, so we've had the good fortune, and I feel very lucky of also being best friends.

We've become really close growing up together, essentially, from college on. We do have a baby who's under a year old right now, so the house is full, and apologies if you're hearing her in the background. She's been playing and jumping around recently. 

Maiko Schaffrath  44:09

No, that's great. That's great. 

Manik Suri  44:10

I think it's really about figuring out what your priority is at any given time in any given phase in life, and that's very personal. Priorities change and can be dynamic, even in the micro. I try and prioritize work for certain hours in the day for certain days in the week. And during those hours, I try to make sure I'm really present, really available, really efficient.

And then, at a certain point, certain hours and certain days, I try and prioritize something else, whether it's spending time with my baby, hanging out with my wife, going for a drink with an old buddy, working out. I see that as the essence of balancing. It's about relative prioritization dynamically managed.

It's not some abstract construct like work-life balance, it's really tactical and really about knowing what and when one is doing things. The times I feel worst and least out of balance are when I can't decide what I'm prioritizing or tell myself I'm prioritizing one thing, but I'm actually acting as if I'm prioritizing something else, whether that's taking a phone call while I'm with my baby, which I try not to do, or missing a work event because some last-minute, personal situation came up.

I think my dad is one of my all-time favorite humans. He's someone I've looked up to since I was a kid, just someone I think has real deep wisdom. He's often said to me, "Life is a marathon, not a sprint." It's something he said to me for as long as I can remember. I do think there's some of that, too. If you want to have positive social impact or just want to be effective, try and remind yourself it's a marathon.

And so, set yourself up for good pacing, so that you can race through the finish line, and that's something that I'm still trying to learn. And as a new dad, it's been challenging this past year also having a startup that I'm building, but my wife is really good at it and, relatively speaking, much better than me. I try and learn from her. She works out five days a week, and she gets up at 5am to do it.

So, she gets the workout in, but she makes sure she takes care of that before anything starts with the day, so she's at least had that time for herself. That's an example of another type of prioritizing, which is being there for yourself, which a lot of us as entrepreneurs don't do. We don't end up taking care of our bodies and our minds, because there's so much else to do.

Maiko Schaffrath  46:50

Yeah, absolutely. How old is your kid?

Manik Suri  46:53

She is eight months old.

Maiko Schaffrath  46:55

Eight months, wow. Okay, yeah, I don't have kids, but I've seen from friends, yeah, it's an intense period. I cannot imagine actually being an entrepreneur founder and having a small child at the same time, I think. Big respect for that.

So, last quick question with a quick answer on this is, how do you imagine does the world look like in 10 years if your company succeeds? If your mission succeeds, how would you like it to look like?

Manik Suri  47:29

I would love if we are part of a movement of companies that are taking the climate crisis seriously and building solutions that might seem obvious or might seem hard to imagine why they didn't exist.

But I would love for us to be one of those solutions that, when people look back on cooling and refrigeration as it's growing, in 10 years and say, "Oh, yeah, we have dynamic refrigeration that doesn't waste product, that doesn't leak refrigerants, that can be turned on and off dynamically to reduce energy load and reduce grid stress to improve resilience."

I would love if Therma is mentioned in the same sentence as other climate innovators and climate technology leaders saying, "Yeah, that's great. They're helping humans and helping advance human health by making food and pharmaceuticals available to more people in the world, but we're doing it without sacrificing the planet's health."

Maiko Schaffrath  48:30

Love it. Thank you so much for joining me, Manik, and I really appreciate your time. All the best for the journey ahead.

Manik Suri  48:38

Thank you. Pleasure to be here. Appreciate everyone listening in. If you want to learn more or chat, don't hesitate to reach out, manik@hellotherma.com.

Maiko Schaffrath  48:47

I love it. Thank you so much.