The Y Combinator startup school is an educational program dedicated to teaching young and breakout entrepreneurs how to best scale a startup in a way that helps it find success as quickly as possible. As the Coronavirus pandemic took its toll on the American economy, schools and other educational programs had to reformulate in order to accommodate to this new normal. We caught up with Maria Fujihara of SINAI, who experienced YC’s first online class.
Grit Daily: You had your own adventures before SINAI. Share those.
Maria Fujihara: Both my parents are forest engineers in Brazil, and I grew up with a deep appreciation for protecting the environment as a result of their profession. As a freshman in college, one of my professors – who knew I was passionate about sustainability – connected me with the Green Building Council, where I began interning. This was back in 2010, and the Green Building Council and its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design) rating system was new then. Now, it’s become the most widely used rating system in the world. It’s a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement and leadership.
After I graduated, I kept working for the Green Building Council, and also took some time off to try my hand at working in sustainable architecture. After a break from GBC for several years, my former boss at GBC Brazil got back in touch and recruited me to help spread the use of LEED certifications in Brazil for both commercial and residential properties, and I worked as a technical coordinator for GBC Brazil for five years. During that time, we launched LEED home certifications in Brazil, and then introduced the new rating system in five other Latin American countries. We also grew the nonprofit organization from a staff of four to 10 employees.
Following my work with GBC, I decided I needed to take a break. I moved from Brazil to California for an extended vacation, which eventually became a full-time stay in the U.S. My heart was telling me to come to California. Before leaving, I sold my car, quit my apartment lease and sold about 80 percent of everything I owned. During my down time in California, I still spoke at sustainability conferences around the world. Eventually, I decided to go back for more education, and I was accepted into a program at Singularity University focused on how to use exponential technologies to solve climate change. I received a scholarship from Google to go through the program and moved to Mountain View (California) for it.
That education program completely changed my perspective of the world. Coming from a nonprofit background in Brazil, I had no clue about technology and how to use it to enhance systems to help us revert climate change. It was an amazing experience. The program that year (in 2017) consisted of 90 people from 47 countries, and the majority (52 percent) were women. It was a super-diverse group of people, and half of the people in the program came from sustainability backgrounds and half were technologists.
After we finished the program (Global Solutions Program), the idea was to create businesses. We took classes on how to create a business, how to prototype an idea, how to create a business model, and how to do everything required to launch a new venture. I had not considered founding my own business prior to that, and the program opened my eyes to that potential.
Following the program, me and my other business partner at the time were accepted into an accelerator program to further incubate my original business concept – which was more focused on software for reconstructing a more sustainable infrastructure. One of the major problems we had is that neither my founder or I could code anything. Eventually, we decided to close that first company, and it became my first failed Silicon Valley startup.
Grit Daily: How much has your company’s “life” changed following YC?
Maria Fujihara: Shortly after closing my first business, I decided to start SINAI. This was at the end of 2017, and I was facing two choices: either go back to Brazil because my visa was expiring, or start a new company, stay in the country and apply for a new work visa. Funny enough, my parents would not let me give up and come back to Brazil. They refused to pay for my ticket back. At the time, I was fairly broke. My parents would only help me with the cost of applying for a new work visa.
The original concept of developing carbon-pricing software that automated the process. Our first customer, the Brazilian arm of ArcelorMittal – the world’s largest steel maker, paid us $40,000 to help fund the development of the original software platform. Around that time, I met my SINAI co-founder and CTO, Alain Rodriguez, who served as engineer #12 at Uber. Meeting Alain was the perfect catalyst to driving the concept of SINAI forward. He was super passionate about the sustainability sector and he’s a fantastic engineer.
After Alain joined, we applied and were accepted to the Y Combinator program. Back then, we literally had no money. The few employees we had were working for equity. Y Combinator taught us to be resilient and aggressive – to keep putting yourself out there and to test the market. It was the first time I began cold emailing prospects about SINAI. During Y Combinator, we closed a deal with our second customer: Brazil’s BRK Ambiental, the largest private water distribution, collection and treatment company in Latin America. And, just recently, we closed a deal with our third customer, Siemens Brasil, the division of the European manufacturing giant.
One of the core learnings from Y Combinator is not to scale at the very beginning so you can understand exactly how to best automate the process — and then begin scaling afterwards. They encourage you to test the concept and the market first, and then build something that is scalable. We are still doing a lot of non-scale things right now. We have definitely grown quickly in a short period of time since graduating from YC in Q1-2020, but we’re still a small company.
Grit Daily: And for the uninitiated, what is “decarbonization?”
Maria Fujihara: Decarbonization is a path to reducing emissions. The eventual goal is to attain a low-carbon economy, otherwise known as a low-fossil-fuel economy, that is based on low-carbon power sources that therefore have a minimal output of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) into the atmosphere. GHG emissions due to anthropogenic (human) activity have been the dominant cause of observed global warming and climate change since the mid-20th century. Continued emissions of greenhouse gases may cause long-lasting changes around the world, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible effects for people and ecosystems. Decarbonization ultimately means to reduce the amount of GHG gases in the atmosphere, by the use of clean technology, non-fossil fuel based.
Grit Daily: What is a hard to decarbonize sector?
Maria Fujihara: Since we “graduated” from Y Combinator in Q1-2020, there’s been a lot of interest from some of the hardest-to-decarbonize sectors, including agriculture and cattle, manufacturing, the steel industry and wastewater. “Hard to decarbonize” sectors are the ones where the technology to meet climate scenarios has either 1. not been developed yet, or 2. technologies exist but they are not commercially viable at the necessary scale. They basically face technical or financial challenges to reduce emissions, and it slows down the pace on decarbonization opportunities.
As of October 2020, our customers include ArcelorMittal Brasil, the Brazilian subsidiary of the world’s leading steel and mining company, and Brazil’s BRK Ambiental, the largest private water distribution, collection and treatment company serving Latin America’s biggest economy. We also just signed on Siemens Brasil, a subsidiary of Germany’s Siemens AG, the largest industrial manufacturing company in Europe. Siemens is a company leading the way to carbon-neutral operations by 2030.
These companies are just now seeing more available opportunities instead of challenges, and SINAI becomes increasingly important for them to align their capital allocation with emissions targets.
Grit Daily: And, what’s behind the “SINAI” name?
Maria Fujihara: After closing my first startup, Urban Intelligence, I was very down, super upset, and had zero energy to even get out of the bed. I was almost ready to go back to Brazil, when one of our advisors, Travis, who has been supporting me since the beginning, met me for a meeting/session to try to cheer me up. I remember it vividly: We were at one of the many rooms in the communal space I’d lived in for two years (all I could afford that time), and he was trying to cheer me up by jamming on names for the new startup (that in his mind, I had to start: no matter what). I wasn’t even sure I wanted to start something new after a failure, but I got into the game. We got a whiteboard, and started playing with words, syllables and letters.
I wanted it to end with AI for Artificial Intelligence. It had to be small, 5-6 letters max. And, it had to be global, or to state something international. When SINAI came up, I remember being a little reluctant since SIN means “nothing” in Spanish, and this wouldn’t fit great for a company that was trying to bring intelligence to data. But, after doing some research, I found that Mount SINAI, a mountain on the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt that is a possible location of the biblical Mount Sinai, the place where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, is actually the most sacred place for the three biggest religions in the world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islamism. I’m zero religious and I follow no religious practices, but I loved the symbolism of union, and the tripod representation that I wanted for the company: the union of sustainability, finance, and technology. SINAI had chosen me.
After that, with a name and a mission in mind, I just kept pushing to make SINAI, the technology company, to become real.
Grit Daily: What’s one conventional wisdom about “zero carbon,” seemingly the “Holy Grail” — that’s just plain wrong?
Maria Fujihara: There is a language issue that frequently confuses people. When we say zero “carbon” emissions, what we actually mean is “carbon equivalent” for every greenhouse gas. The Kyoto Protocol regulates seven gases: CO2, which is carbon dioxide, methane, NOx and others. For all these seven different gases, when you multiply by their global-warming potential, they all become carbon equivalent. You need to transform these gases into a carbon equivalent, so they are comparable between each other. Methane, which is one of the most damaging ones, is 25 times more heavy than carbon dioxide. This is the reason why cattle farming, which produces a huge amount of methane, is so damaging for the environment and why some activists are calling for reduced beef consumption.
Grit Daily: Some environmental pundits have recently said that it may be too late to reverse climate change’s negative impact on the planet already. What’s your take?
Maria Fujihara: (Maria puts her hand horizontally just above her lips.) Today, the water is here. If it goes up a little bit more, you won’t be able to breathe. It’s an analogy for the tipping point we find ourselves in currently. At some point, there will be too much damage done to nature, and there will be no turning back. That time is coming soon.
To use another example: our lungs are the most regenerative organ in the body. For people who smoke for many years, the lungs can actually continue to function and regenerate for about 30 years. So, if a smoker quits smoking, the lungs can still regenerate themselves pretty quickly. But there comes a time, a tipping point, where the lungs are no longer resilient – and you have killed the organ. You simply can not regenerate it anymore. There’s this same tipping point in nature. For example, we’ve already reached that with coral reefs that can no longer regenerate on their own anymore.
There’s a study from the Stockholm Resilience Center in which they present Earth’s seven boundaries. It showcases the biodiversity loss as a result of global warming and climate change. At this point, we’ve crossed three of them. We’ve already killed the coral reefs. If we don’t stop acidifying the oceans by reducing the global oceans’ plastic pollution problem, we’re in big trouble. Everything is connected to the other on our planet, and if we don’t stop crossing these boundaries, soon we are going to kill the planet. And, then, there is no turning back.