An Unstoppable Force of Development
Danielle's life and career prove that nothing can stop a person from giving something that can truly benefit the world. She never completed her college studies, but, through determination and hard work, has nevertheless made her mark in history with the success of LightSail Energy, the organization she co-founded.
Danielle was born on October 30, 1987, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. The daughter of two Chinese nationals who immigrated to Canada in search a better life, Danielle grew up in a world of two completely different cultures - the advancement and modernization of Canadian society and the rich, colourful background of her Chinese heritage.
In many of her interviews and writings, Danielle describes the first five years of her life as the 'halcyon' years, as she had not yet experienced formal education. When she entered school at age six, Danielle became frustrated with the fact that children like her were 'forced' to go to school and be taught the traditional way, which she did not believe was productive enough for her.
It was not that Danielle disliked learning or acquiring information; in fact, it was her enthusiasm which caused her to view the traditional teaching methods as limited. This did not stop her, however, from exhibiting her amazing potential and constantly exceeding her professors’ expectations. Her remarkable intellect and brightness made her one of the school’s top students, and she finished every level with high marks.
Entering College at 12
When Danielle was 12 years old, her mother, Trudy, decided she was ready for college studies despite her young age. Trudy, who began college at only fifteen years old herself, saw her daughter’s amazing potential and did not want it to be wasted by simply ‘following’ the protocol of enduring six more years prior to college.
In an interview, Trudy stated:
“Why would I conceivably put my child through six more years of that? I didn’t bring my kid into the world to have her tortured—and be treated like dirt for being brilliant.”
Inspired by her mother, Danielle expressed her own interest in college studies, as well, despite her age. While Danielle’s family and friends were supportive, her teachers were against it, stating that following the proper educational sequence was best. To find out if she was indeed ready for college studies, Danielle took an aptitude test, in which she surprised everyone by topping ninety-nine per cent of high school graduates who take the exam. Danielle’s teachers, unwilling to budge, again advised her parents that advancing to college would ruin her education.
Fortunately, Danielle’s parents did not heed her teachers’ advice, and decided to send her to college. And so, in 1999, at the age of twelve, Danielle dropped out of primary education and entered Dalhousie University, arguably one of the greatest schools in Canada.
Little did Danielle know, it would turn out to be one of the best decisions she’d ever made. During her five years of study in Dalhousie University, Danielle proved to be one of the school’s best students and excelled in all her studies, especially computer science and physics. She graduated in 2005 and earned her Bachelor’s Degree at seventeen years old, earning first-class honours and medals in said subjects.
Arrival at Princeton and departure
Afterwards, Danielle entered Princeton University for her doctorate studies, where she joined the Plasma Physics Department. While she was initially excited, especially about further research of the concept of fusion energy, Danielle soon realized she was not seeing what she expected from her studies and decided to leave the school in 2007.
In an interview, Danielle described the events which led to her decision to leave:
“I guess I became disillusioned. I saw the technical work stretching out, endlessly before me, with no clear fix for our energy problem within sight. I got spooked. There might be ways to solve these problems, but they certainly weren’t known. I didn’t think the right things were getting funded. I saw my professors—brilliant scientists—spending most of their time in a struggle to acquire funding, rather than doing research. I thought there was a better way.”
Unsure of what to do next, Danielle decided to use what she had learned about fusion technology and develop it further, believing that this is the energy future generations will use because of its efficiency and sustainability. But, because of the seemingly-misguided focuses of many scientists (namely, focusing more on funding than conducting research), Danielle decided to work independently to find ways to improve fusion technology.
Founding LightSail Energy
So, in 2008, Danielle founded LightSail Energy, an organization focused on breakthroughs in energy storage technology. The following year, Danielle found Stephen Crane and Edwin Berlin, Jr., two people who shared Danielle’s goals and immediately became partners who assisted in the funding of LightSail Energy.
Danielle described LightSail Energy and its purpose in an interview:
“LightSail Energy is a green energy startup company that’s trying to make it possible, and economical, to power the world with nothing but clean, green energy. We’re tackling what some call the holy grail of green energy – how to economically and efficiency store energy such that intermittent renewables such as solar and wind can reliably and economically power our electrical grid.”
Like most organizations, Danielle and her team at LightSail Energy faced a number of initial challenges. In 2010, Danielle presented the results of LightSail Energy’s work to the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, but the institution rejected her, stating that her idea was not feasible and ‘would not work.’ In spite of her disappointment, and with the support of environmentally-conscious capital group “Khosla Partners,” Danielle continued her work and used their words as fuel to further research and improve her designs.
Danielle described it an interview:
“People get skittish... If you have your own resources and have a real effort, it doesn’t matter what the rest of the world thinks, in its knee-jerk, fight-or-flight response.”
Not long afterward, Danielle and her team began to receive recognition. They again presented their work in 2011, this time to Bill Gates, who offered a slight hint of interest. That same year, Danielle was named in Forbes Magazine’s ‘30 under 30’ list in the category of energy. She was also recognized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and included in their ‘Top 35 Innovators Under 35” list in the 2012 issue of the MIT Technology Review. Later in 2012, Danielle was included as a mentor at the Thiel Fellowship in recognition of her achievements and work in improving fusion technology.
What Keeps Her Going
Danielle continues her work today, constantly researching ways to improve the technology that she sees as the answer to the world’s energy problems. Though she knows there is still a long way to go in both design and practical applications, she nevertheless remains confident in what she holds in her heart. As she says in an interview:
“We know we can sell as many of these as we can make. This has never been achieved in any industrial setting at all. But there’s no other possible energy storage solution that can do that. And if we don’t do it, pretty solid models about the climate—and the way the economy is going to go and what people will do with coal plants—will ruin the world.”
Danielle epitomizes the type of person that fights for her dreams and never lets any obstacle, no matter how huge it may seem, stop her from pursuing her goals. She serves as a tremendous inspiration to those who have fire burning in their hearts to make a positive change in the world, but are held back for whatever reasons. Her life and career are true testimonies to how greatly one can impact the world if they truly believe.
“Physics taught me how deeply one needed to dig in to something before one could say that one really understood it. How tenuous our knowledge was—and is—having our system of the world reconceived by each generation of scientists, over and over again. Physics taught me both to ignore the experts, accept my own fallibility, and to keep asking questions, to keep working!”
- 2003-2005: Undergraduate Researcher, Dalhousie University
- 2003-2004: Teaching/Lab Assistant, Dalhousie University
- 2005-2007: Graduate Researcher, Princeton Plasma Physics Lab
- 2007: Algorithmist, Scribd
- 2008: Hacker, LabMeeting and Mochi Media
- 2009- Co-founder and Chief Scientist, LightSail Energy
- 2011- Advisor, Nomiku/Lower East Kitchen
- 2012- Co-founder and CEO, The Firehome
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- LightSail Energy
- The Firehome
- Mochi Media
Awards and Achievements
- 2005: Awarded the Dalhousie University Medal in Computer Science
- 2012: Became the youngest member of the MIT TR35
- 2012: Included in the “Top 5 Most Disruptive Technologies,” the Smithsonian’s “6 Innovators to Watch” and the MIT Technology Review’s “Top 35 Innovators Under 35”
- 2013: Included in the “30 Under 30” list by Forbes Magazine, the “40 Under 40” list by the San Francisco Times, the “Five Millennial Leaders on the Verge of Greatness” by the Open Forum, and the “30 People Under 30 Who are Changing the World” by TIME Magazine
- Became a member of the “Founders 50” group
- Included in “World’s Top 100 Builders and Innovators” by Goldman Sachs
- Included in “Sexiest Scientists Alive” by Business Insider
Wikipedia (Danielle Fong)
Insights by Danielle Fong (About the Author)
LinkedIn (Danielle Fong)
Wired (Steam Punk Remakes Power Grid With Compressed Air)
Insights by Danielle Fong (‘Ecopragmatist’ — Danielle Fong as interviewed by Dalhousie University)