To clarify: this actually happened to me.
Straits were dire. I had quit my startup gig at the end of spring ’14, and was entering my third month without gainful unemployment. For reasons unfathomable, the Houston job market had received my B-average political science B.A. and ridiculous resume in a less-than-welcoming fashion: “So you worked for an export company… in Saudi Arabia. From your house. We’ll be in touch.” I was scraping the bottom of the Craigslist barrel, searching for odd jobs with a desperation fueled by cheap box wine and sugar-free Monster energy drinks. It was not a high point in my life.
And then, buried in that sketchy pile of unpaid street team marketing “internships” and nude photography model solicitations, I found a diamond in the rough. The ad was titled “Opportunity Knocks!”, and read something like:
Rice grad seeking enterprising young candidates for tech and energy startup. Completed university degree required, most majors considered. Entrepreneurial drive a must. Great opportunity for committed, hard-working recent graduates.
The poster went on to list his credentials and phone number, both of which I verified through some search-engine sleuthing. His name was Roger. He had received his degree in nuclear engineering from Rice University (the closest thing to Ivy League in Texas) in the late 60’s, and went on to work for a couple big-name offshore contractors in the Gulf. He indicated in an email that he had been retired several years, and requested that our lunch meeting venue take into account his diabetes complications. We agreed to meet at a sandwich shop near my house.
I had pictured Roger as a leathered, salt-hardened genius whose brilliance was only matched by his love for the sea. He was not this, at least not anymore. I awkwardly shook hands with the short, rotund man who carried both a cane and a slight stutter, and sat down across from him as he tore into his sandwich. Ignoring the half-masticated turkey breast still occupying his mouth, he began to explain his business plan. Also, he kept eating, so imagine the following scenario punctuated by small chunks of food landing on your shirt and table.
Roger had conceptualized a design for concrete ships. They were huge. I forget the specifics, but something in the realm of 250 yards in length with a 100 yard beam (width). The ship was powered by massive semi-rigid kitesails that were attached to the front of the ship like a reverse parachute. It would be towed from the southern hemisphere to the westerlies that circumnavigate the Earth, at which point the sails would be released and the ship would follow the winds perpetually. It would be automated, and essentially crewless.
Nestled in these behemoths were biofuel plants that created clean energy using an “electrochemical process” that he was reluctant to explain. He implied that the excess energy from the sails would somehow drive the reactors. By Roger’s calculations, the plants would essentially create a self-sustaining source of unlimited energy. The ships were to be built by a Jamaican consortium. At this point, I’d like to add that he was not joking.
To fund this massive enterprise, Roger was hoping to capitalize upon the crowdfunding and social media boom. In my limited experience, both with Roger’s venture and another unrelated “opportunity” involving low-income housing made out of shipping containers, the older generation has trouble grasping the whole crowdfunding thing. Roger’s scheme ventured past confusion into the realm of malice.
He proposed that the company initially be founded as a 501c nonprofit in which donors would receive an ambiguous “token” of ownership. There would also be a social media segment of the project where people could connect and talk about… giant concrete ships, I guess. Roger figured that we could get two million (!) followers in the first year or so, and a solid ten million (!!#&%&*@!) by the three year mark. Once we reached that lofty milestone, the company would transition into a for-profit public corporation, and the donors would become shareholders.
He wanted me to head-up the social networking site and “astroturf” certain websites to drum up support. I was to found the 501c in my name and lay the groundwork for the eventual transition into a for-profit enterprise. I mulled this opportunity over for approximately nine milliseconds before thanking him for his time and taking my sandwich to go. He contacted me via email a few times, but I respectfully turned him down on his offer.
So here’s the thing: taken piecemeal, Roger’s ideas were not insane. The US Navy experimented with concrete ships in both world wars, with some success. Algae-based biofuel’s market viability has been limited more by the low price of conventional energy production methods than the science behind it – the concept has been proven to work. Even his massive kitesail idea was plausible, with the German firm SkySail getting the concept to function at least long enough for a few cool promotional shots.
When you stir it all together and add a dash of questionable charity fraud, you have the delicious batter of a real-life Bond villain. I almost want to put together a screenplay based on what would happen if the company was successful. The action scenes write themselves: picture hand-to-hand combat on top of a colossal ship as it crosses the tip of Tierra del Fuego with St. Elmo’s Fire dancing off the kitesail. Roger’s cane would conceal the blade of a hitherto-thought-lost Masamune sword. The mind reels.
The reality of the matter is equal parts sobering and inspirational. Here was a well-educated man with a lifetime of experience who wasn’t content enjoying the leisure time of his retirement. Maybe too much of his thought fell into the “back pages of Popular Science” category, but I must admit he had a cool idea. With that said, his circumstances also struck me as remarkably sad. Roger was a widower, and expected his eyesight to be gone in the next few years due to his diabetes. This was a last gasp of creativity from a man preparing to enter a dark and lonely preamble to death.
Part of me hopes that this guy’s dream comes to fruition, and that I’ll regret sprinting out of that sandwich shop. It was a cool idea, and under the right market conditions and proper funding, maybe it would work. Sometimes I check the papers for either Roger’s obituary or a business page fluff piece on a new green energy firm founded by an elderly Rice grad and his young protégé. It may not have led to a job, but it’s one interview I’ll never regret taking.