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Notre Dame alumni make Forbes ’30 under 30′ list for energy sector

| Tuesday, January 11, 2022

From self-proclaimed environmental science nerds chatting over coffee to Forbes 30 under 30 Energy awardees, two Notre Dame alumni turned their passion for environmental algorithms into a promising startup.

Each year, Forbes magazine highlights 30 top entrepreneurs under 30 years of age in several industries. Thomas Sherman ‘19 and Daniel Vassallo ‘20 made the energy-themed list this year for their startup CRCL. Sherman and Vassallo met while earning their doctoral degrees in environmental fluid dynamics at Notre Dame and quickly formed a business partnership.

Courtesy of Thomas Sherman
Daniel Vassallo of Louisville, Kentucky attended Notre Dame for both undergraduate and graduate studies.
Courtesy of Thomas Sherman
Thomas Sherman of Fairfax, Virginia graduated from the University of Virginia before attending graduate school at Notre Dame.

CRCL, pronounced “circle”, generates wind energy output predictions sold to energy traders who make profits by accurately predicting energy prices.

“Right now what we provide is a data service. We predict how much energy will be produced at each wind farm in Texas,” Sherman said. “Customers in the renewable energy industry pay for that data to make decisions.”

Energy traders decide whether to buy or sell energy-related shares based on how they believe energy prices will change in the future. If traders think prices are going up, they buy shares and hope to sell them at a higher price in the coming days. If they think prices are trending downward, they aim to sell off shares and buy them back later at a lower price, a high-risk strategy called short selling.

“If they bet the price is going the right way, then they make money,” Sherman said. “That’s who we’re providing our data to right now.”

Historically, renewable energy output predictions and even more basic wind speed predictions have been unreliable.

“One of the problems in the renewable energy industry is poor weather forecasting,” Sherman said. “Basically when the wind speed is off, you can’t predict wind production accurately.”

CRCL is working to change that with their environmental algorithms, starting with wind energy output predictions across the state of Texas. 

While the objective seems simple now, Sherman and Vassallo spent more than three years refining their business model.

CRCL began to take shape over post-lab coffee chats with their peers and advisor Diogo Bolster, who now heads the University’s department of civil and environmental engineering.

“We were all real good friends and talked constantly about science, but basically everything, and we would get coffee every day. I feel like that was really helpful, just to have that group environment and discuss ideas,” Sherman said.

Sherman and Vassallo first talked about creating an app for tracking New Year’s goals or a sports betting platform.

“We both knew we were going to make a company, but we had no idea what that was or what that meant,” Sherman said.

Leveraging their environmental engineering expertise to make this dream a reality, Sherman and Vassallo founded CRCL in 2019 during Sherman’s final year of graduate school.

The energy industry took a while to get to know, so Sherman and Vassallo went out of their way to network and understand the biggest problems facing current renewable energy markets.

“Me and Daniel are both introverted science [and] engineer types, and we’ve kind of forced ourselves into talking to everyone possible,” Sherman said. “It became apparent that there’s a problem in energy forecasting, and part of that is stemming from poor weather forecasting.”

After Vassallo graduated in 2020, Sherman quit his job at a consulting firm and jumped into full time work for CRCL. 

Soon after, the company received grant funding from the National Science Foundation to research and improve their algorithms and joined the Austin Technology Incubator. 

Sherman said the support of these two organizations made the 30 under 30 award possible. He also said the Texas winter storms last February brought energy production concerns to the forefront of the community and showed the relevance of energy predictions.

“There was a lot of need for, ‘OK, how do we make this market more efficient? How do we prepare for future events?’” Sherman said.

Looking to the future, CRCL hopes to expand wind energy output predictions to states across the country and develop additional algorithms to predict solar output. Sherman said CRCL plans to provide this forecasting data to wind or solar farms and utility companies in addition to traders in the future, Sherman said.

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