Two years ago, I was working my dream job. I quit to start a company working on the climate. You should, too.

From the age of fourteen until twenty-six, I dreamed of a career in aerospace. I had Occupy Mars t-shirts and space posters on my walls. I designed my first flight hardware for NASA at sixteen and worked my way through the industry. My experience culminated in my role at Momentus, where my job was to envision each production block of our spacecraft and write the high-level requirements that the whole engineering team would work to. Along with the rest of the product team, I had the creative freedom to imagine the future of in-space transport and make it happen. I was living most aerospace engineers’ dreams.

In Fall 2021, I visited two close friends from college, an Environmental Engineer and an ocean-research software engineer. They were witnessing climate change firsthand. When I asked them what their plans were for the future, there was a pause in the conversation.

“Honestly, we don’t know. Things are going to change pretty fast.”

How I quit my dream job and started a climate company 2For me, that simple admission turned climate change from a faraway, future problem into an imminent one. That year’s historic cold wave which killed 210 people in Texas and western heat wave which killed hundreds of people on the west-coast stopped looking like isolated events and more like part of a growing trend. I had three sudden realizations:

  1. Climate change is impacting th e world at an accelerating rate
  2. As it is, things will get bad. We have very little time to keep climate change from being truly catastrophic.
  3. I wasn’t doing anything about it.

I felt that the best way to have an impact was to leave Momentus and start a company working to reduce humanity’s impact on the climate. That was scary. Instead, I found a role with another company building small, electric self-driving delivery vehicles. Surely in this role, I thought, I would have a positive climate impact.

As far as I could tell, nobody at that new company cared about the climate, and I couldn’t figure whether the impact of the company would actually be net positive. I called a longtime friend and mentor of mine to vent. His advice was direct:

“Arpan, you need to quit your job if you can afford to. You’ll find it hard to do good while on the steady heroin drip of a Silicon Valley salary.”

I was privileged to be able to quit and live off savings for a time. That day, I put in my two weeks’ notice.

Suddenly, my priorities shifted. I was technically a venture CEO, but in reality, I was an unemployed engineer with big dreams. I had to find a way to build a profitable company decarbonizing an existing industry, fast, or I would run out of money. I leveraged skills I already had. At Momentus, a big part of my team’s job was figuring out how to get from orbit to orbit using only the solar energy available in space. I repurposed that software modeling approach to terrestrial transportation. Where could we replace fossil fuels with energy collected en route?

The answer was obvious: maritime transportation. For me, this was a return to my first love. As a child, I sailed on the inland lakes of northern Illinois, and until I was roughly thirteen I was committed to a future career as a naval architect. I waded through the fundamental physics and identified how a container ship could be profitably powered with purely wind energy, and what technologies would need to be built to make it possible.

As I figured out how I could best have an impact, the reality of my declining bank account was catching up with me. I felt completely alone and knew I wasn’t moving fast enough to secure investment before I ran out of funds.

My luck turned around when I ran into Bailey at a friends’ birthday party. We had worked together at Impossible Aerospace, and I knew her to be a multidisciplinary problem solving machine – one of the best engineers I had ever worked alongside. She had been working on a web startup of her own, but is a hardware engineer. She, too, had a deep desire to improve climate outcomes. When I shared my plans, she jumped on board immediately.

Things moved much faster with Bailey involved. We refined our product, built small-scale prototypes, and searched for a third cofounder as we prepared for our seed raise.

On the personal front, things started to look grim again. I was on California’s state medical insurance and couldn’t reach my assigned primary care doctor for treatment, turning a simple sinus infection into a months-long nightmare. I knew that we had a real solution for decarbonizing maritime transport, but I didn’t know how to fundraise and couldn’t see a path to get there. I was weeks away from throwing in the towel.

Three things changed within a week:

First, Joseph agreed to join the team. Joseph is a crack aerodynamicist and a rare engineer with both deep theoretical knowledge and a willingness to throw together quick hands-on prototypes. His joining the team solved our biggest technical weakness – aerodynamic simulation – and rounded out our collective skillset.

Second, we got into Ycombinator. Suddenly, I could afford health insurance! Ycombinator’s world class coaching was teaching me how to fundraise and how to transform myself from an engineer into a venture CEO.

Lastly, I finally got antibiotics for my sinus infection. I can’t describe how good it felt to be able to breathe through my nose again.

Six months after I quit my job and a year after I quit Momentus, things were finally looking up. I had a real idea of how I could make an impact, a committed team, and our first round of funding. I had transformed from an unemployed engineer into a climate founder.

If you’re in the same shoes as I was – you care about the climate, you have the technical skills to make an impact, and you’re privileged to be able to afford to quit – just do it. The world needs more climate founders. It’s no easy road, but it will be the best choice you ever make.

Until next time,