CleanTechies Podcast

#151 Winning Grants w/ AI, The Palo Alto Effect, Expanding Your TAM, & More w/ Helena Merk (Streamline Climate)

January 28, 2024 Silas Mähner (CT Headhunter) & Somil Aggarwal (CT PM & Investor) Season 1 Episode 151
#151 Winning Grants w/ AI, The Palo Alto Effect, Expanding Your TAM, & More w/ Helena Merk (Streamline Climate)
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CleanTechies Podcast
#151 Winning Grants w/ AI, The Palo Alto Effect, Expanding Your TAM, & More w/ Helena Merk (Streamline Climate)
Jan 28, 2024 Season 1 Episode 151
Silas Mähner (CT Headhunter) & Somil Aggarwal (CT PM & Investor)

There are a plethora of national and local grants available to help companies solving the climate problem, but landing one is a herculean effort. Writing them takes months and can result in absolutely nothing. Half of the battle is picking the right grant to apply for. Well, Helena Merk and her team at Streamline Climate are solving that.

(Take the CleanTechies Listeners Survey to help us better serve you)

Their AI powered tech helps companies identify which grants to apply for and then helps them land them by ensuring every t is cross and i dotted.

Aside from telling us what they are doing, we also got to hear the story of how Helena met her co-founder Douglas Qian and how growing up in Palo Alto impacted her career decisions, among other things.

Enjoy the episode! 🌱🌎

---
🌎 Want the full PodLetter? Go to our substack to see the written content that supplements the audio interview.  
---
🌴 https://linktr.ee/cleantechies
📺 👀 Prefer to watch: subscribe on YouTube
🗣️ Take the Listeners Survey
📫 Get Written Summaries of Each Episode in Your Inbox | https://cleantechies.substack.com/podcast
🌐 Join the CleanTechies Slack Channel 

Topics:
**
3:03 Crash Course on Grants
**5:57 Streamlining the Grant Process
**12:37 Choosing the Right Grants
**19:55 More TAM
**25:33 Finding a Co-Founder
**26:51 GTM Strategies
**42:25 Fundraising Journey
**41:27 VC Funding and Grant Writing
**44:40 Inbound Processes and VC Decision-making

Links:
**Helena Merk | Streamline Climate
**Check out our Sponsor, NextWave Partners
**Follow CleanTechies on LinkedIn
**@Silas & @Somil_Agg on X 

Support the Show.

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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

There are a plethora of national and local grants available to help companies solving the climate problem, but landing one is a herculean effort. Writing them takes months and can result in absolutely nothing. Half of the battle is picking the right grant to apply for. Well, Helena Merk and her team at Streamline Climate are solving that.

(Take the CleanTechies Listeners Survey to help us better serve you)

Their AI powered tech helps companies identify which grants to apply for and then helps them land them by ensuring every t is cross and i dotted.

Aside from telling us what they are doing, we also got to hear the story of how Helena met her co-founder Douglas Qian and how growing up in Palo Alto impacted her career decisions, among other things.

Enjoy the episode! 🌱🌎

---
🌎 Want the full PodLetter? Go to our substack to see the written content that supplements the audio interview.  
---
🌴 https://linktr.ee/cleantechies
📺 👀 Prefer to watch: subscribe on YouTube
🗣️ Take the Listeners Survey
📫 Get Written Summaries of Each Episode in Your Inbox | https://cleantechies.substack.com/podcast
🌐 Join the CleanTechies Slack Channel 

Topics:
**
3:03 Crash Course on Grants
**5:57 Streamlining the Grant Process
**12:37 Choosing the Right Grants
**19:55 More TAM
**25:33 Finding a Co-Founder
**26:51 GTM Strategies
**42:25 Fundraising Journey
**41:27 VC Funding and Grant Writing
**44:40 Inbound Processes and VC Decision-making

Links:
**Helena Merk | Streamline Climate
**Check out our Sponsor, NextWave Partners
**Follow CleanTechies on LinkedIn
**@Silas & @Somil_Agg on X 

Support the Show.

Silas Mähner (00:00)
All right, welcome to the show. How's it going today?

Helena Merk (00:04)
Good, super excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

Silas Mähner (00:07)
Yeah, we're excited to have you, obviously. There's been a lot of buzz around what you guys are doing for several months now, I think. I think ever since Clima Week, people have been talking. I've heard your name and your company come up a lot, so super excited. I guess before we get into it, can you just give us a quick summary of who you are and what it is that Streamline does?

Helena Merk (00:26)
Yeah, I'd love to. So I'm Helena. I'm the CEO and co-founder of Streamline. We help hardware and deep tech climate startups apply for government funding faster. And that involves helping them identify opportunities and apply to them. And we use software and AI to do a lot of that in an automated fashion.

Silas Mähner (00:44)
Nice, very concise answer. I like that. It's very good to be able to tell you what you're doing clearly. A lot of early stage companies can't do that. So I'm assuming you've learned that over the past months. But I guess before we kind of get into too much about the technology itself, can you tell us a little bit about grants and generally like why does it matter? How many companies really need access to these things? Can you just kind of give us a high level summary?

Helena Merk (01:09)
Yeah, I mean, grants encompasses a huge spectrum, as you're well aware. I think the first kind of surprising fact that we learned ourselves as we dove into the world of grants was it's not just something that tiny companies that have any money or revenue go after. You know, you have the boot shop companies that go after it, but so do public companies like Tesla, for example, is going after grant after grant after grant, they have entire teams kind of going after government opportunities. Similar to a company like Rivian and a lot of other

folks kind of in the EV and electrification space. But at the highest level, it's government funding that's non-dilutive. So they don't own part of your company after they give you money. It does have different strings attached, right? There's no free money ever, even though some people like to call grants free money. And I think the biggest kind of critique of going after grant funding is often that it is slower and that you have to be kind of very prescriptive with what you're gonna spend the funding on.

versus if you chose to raise funding through venture capital, should you have to pivot or kind of strategically shift, VCs are your partners. And they would very much understand that you have to veer off of your roadmap or create a new roadmap.

Silas Mähner (02:20)
Yeah, so basically there may be some instances where because you have a grant funding, you're really tied to pursuing what you're doing. Can you talk more about that? How often, maybe you've seen examples of companies that you've worked with or that like, hey, they really did need a pivot and there were opportunities to still do so, or is it really, really strict?

Helena Merk (02:40)
It's really, really strict. And I think the other thing that makes it challenging is that you're planning so far in the future, which isn't new to anybody who's doing something in the world of hardware. But the grant process takes so long that you're applying to get funding six months from now. And maybe within the timing of getting the go ahead that, hey, you've won this grant and starting the deployment, you've learned some things. And the better experiment or pilot might actually be slightly different than what you proposed.

Silas Mähner (02:56)
Mm.

Helena Merk (03:09)
So now you have to kind of go back to the grant issuer and tell them, hey, I have a slightly new plan. Can I get this approved? And it just adds a lot of kind of administrative steps. That said, it's non-dilutive funding and like very much still worth it. It's just, it does add, you know, some of that administrative overhead.

Silas Mähner (03:25)
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I think it's obviously quite valuable. And people talk about hardware being hard, but there's a lot of the funding things when it comes to grant. If you can get grants, you actually may not have as much dilution as you usually think. Because traditionally, I shouldn't say traditionally, but at the beginning of the clean tech or the climate tech boom with hardware, they're like, oh, let's just raise equity for building these projects. But maybe not always a great idea, as I think we've all learned over the past couple of years.

Could you talk about how long does it actually take to apply in most cases? You said it takes a long time, but can you give us some examples of what that process usually looks like?

Helena Merk (04:03)
Yeah, I'd love to. So obviously there's a wide variety of grants, you know, the ones that like, you know, the hundreds of millions of dollars size grants, obviously take a lot longer than if you're going after like a CBERS, small business innovation research grant, I'd say that SBIR grants are probably one of the easiest kind of opportunities to go after and those will take around a hundred hours of just purely applying once you have kind of the, the shape of, of what you're actually proposing outlined. It takes a lot longer.

if you still have to rope in partners. You never kind of want to apply to these opportunities alone. You definitely can, but it's so much stronger of like an application package if you rope in like a community benefit organization or other partners that will collaborate with you. So there's like this BD element that is often overlooked if you're looking just at like the raw numbers of how long will it take me to type this out? Because you're kind of developing a proposal, right? That the of it is really the thinking behind it.

Silas Mähner (04:56)
Mm-hmm.

Yeah, I can't. That would not be the job for me. I already get stressed out writing blog posts. Could you talk about... One thing I'm curious is that, you know, it takes a long time, but is that mainly because of the work that has to go into it or is it just partially the nature of governments and these kind of sometimes probably philanthropic organizations that have a lot of bureaucracy? Is there any effort on the side of the issuer to make things move faster, to change how that's done?

Helena Merk (05:03)
Yeah.

As in, are they trying to?

Silas Mähner (05:29)
I mean, like other proposals for like ways to make it more streamlined aside from the application process. No pun intended.

Helena Merk (05:37)
I mean, you know where the name of our company came from, which is great. I'd say there's efforts to make it better. Everyone I've talked to on the kind of the grant issuer side is very aware of the challenges. They just don't have the solutions, which is part of why we sort of have relations kind of on both sides of like a marketplace, where hopefully, you know, we play a piece in helping accelerate the funding on both sides.

Silas Mähner (05:55)
Mm.

Helena Merk (06:05)
Because to date, the only solution they've had is scaling up reviewers and scaling up support. There's this whole network of what are called technology assistance centers, where first-time applicants to federal funding can basically get a free grant writer or assistance to apply. Which if you think about it, it's kind of saying the government is spending money to help people apply for grants.

Silas Mähner (06:11)
Mm.

Yeah.

Helena Merk (06:34)
That's just like, they obviously recognize there's a challenge and their solution is just rather than solving, you know, the underlying application processes, like let's throw more like human power at it, which works, but it definitely doesn't scale. And if we're trying to accelerate the rate at which we get all this funding into climate, we need something that's scaling way faster than we could possibly kind of hire.

Silas Mähner (06:46)
Mm-hmm.

Yeah, I mean, this is not necessarily the intended scope of the conversation, but in your mind, you have any particular thoughts on ways it could be scaled where it's much more simple, where there's a certain kind of checkboxes that are ticked throughout the application process, where it's verified by some third party automatically that maybe is already an existing third party, some of these kind of tools to really make sure things move faster, or you can at least knock off the top 90% of applications because, hey,

These are just nowhere close, so that way we can spend our time focusing on those. Do you have any ideas on how that could be streamlined on the other side, on the receiving side of it?

Helena Merk (07:33)
Totally. And I would say we already do a bunch of that. So a thing that we've been working on at Streamline is, if you're trying to apply to an opportunity, we run a series of eligibility checks. And if you don't qualify, we just tell you not to apply. I think that's like, if we're looking at ways that we can save our company's time, it's telling them not to apply to opportunities where they have no chance of success. And that sounds weird, but it's probably the number one reason that companies get rejected from grants is because they either miss formatted something.

Silas Mähner (07:46)
Hahaha

Helena Merk (08:03)
or they applied to something that was never meant for them. The only surefire way you'll know if you're a good fit is by messaging or emailing the program managers. But there's a whole series of checks we can run in an automated fashion. And that same set of checks is something we could offer on the grant issuer side. But ideally, it doesn't come to that. You shouldn't labor over this application if it's going to take you 100 hours.

only to then get told, hey, you didn't meet this basic requirement. I'm sorry. Like, um, again.

Silas Mähner (08:30)
Evis.

Yeah. Yeah, that's actually really interesting. It just makes you think of, you know, you only have, especially as a founder, you only have so many hours in a day, right? I'm assuming some of the clients are larger, but regardless, there's only so many resources, right? And you have to use them wisely. You don't want to be spending, like you said. So why don't we get into it then? So who are your customer types? What is the kind of archetype of what they look like? How big are they? What are they doing?

Helena Merk (08:59)
Yeah, so to date, we've worked with people who have an in-house expert on grants. So it's not the super early companies who want their hands held to be guided through the process. Eventually, you know, we want to support people across the board. But because we're relatively new, we can't necessarily offer that level of support. We've built a self-service tool that companies use in-house. So typically, they'd have like one grant writer, if not a full team.

or somebody who is just like full-time writing grants as one of their many jobs. And we help that individual kind of 10x their effectiveness. And we think this is almost like the better approach than if we were to kind of offer everything full service because like I was saying earlier, there's so many aspects to grant writing that go beyond like the mechanics of writing themselves. Like you have to also have like a BD function. And if you don't have the bandwidth internally to...

bring in partners and then shape the proposal, that would be a lot on our end to take on for every client.

Silas Mähner (10:02)
Can you talk more about what is that when you say bd function? Like what does that look like?

Helena Merk (10:07)
Yeah, so if you're, let's say you're an EV charging company and you want to install a whole set of EV chargers, and there's like a government opportunity that's like, hey, go install these chargers in these locations on the curb, for you to actually apply to that opportunity, you probably need a bunch of different partners that you're applying with together. And we can recommend people to you, but we can't have those conversations on your behalf.

Silas Mähner (10:37)
Mm. Yeah.

Helena Merk (10:38)
And that's kind of where that element comes in of like the company itself has to go and build those relationships and partnerships. And then we can make sure that all the boxes are checked and it's formatted correctly. And kind of like, I think, okay, the best thing now to hear might actually be LinkedIn, right? It's like LinkedIn can give you the set of tools to become this like massive networker, but it's not going to have the one-on-one conversations that are needed to actually build depth in my network.

Silas Mähner (11:03)
Correct. Yeah, OK, got it. So there's always a larger team, which is I think it's interesting to know that because I think for a lot of early stage companies, they're maybe not familiar with what a grant team looks like. They're like, oh, let me just spend this weekend applying for this thing. And then they probably quickly realize this is way harder than I thought. Yeah.

Helena Merk (11:23)
I mean, all that to say, I don't mean to scare anyone away from grants. Like a huge amount of grants are won by early stage companies. It's just go after kind of grants that are

meant for that size. And you don't need to hire a grant writer. You don't need to use Streamline. Like you can just hammer it out and you can probably win a grant.

Silas Mähner (11:33)
the right ones. Yeah.

Yeah, yeah. And I guess, so just to clarify then, what is the business model? Is it just purely a software kind of as a service model?

Helena Merk (11:48)
Yeah, so we have various pricing tiers based on the volume of applications they're going after. But ideally, it's just super simple annual plans.

Silas Mähner (11:55)
Yeah. So, and then the thing I'm always fascinated by building companies in general is when people actually start something, right? How do they get things going to get customers? So could you talk about what does the MVP of Streamline look like? What did it look like? At what point did you actually get somebody to start paying you?

Helena Merk (12:14)
Yeah, the MVP, I would say is like secondary to knowing that people will pay. I think there's, if you're looking at building a company, right, there's like B2B companies and there's consumer. If you're building consumer, it's like a shot in the dark. You build things, you see if they stick. Maybe somebody has some kind of framework there, but I'm pretty sure that's still the name of the game. For B2B, you can sell before you build, which ends up giving you higher conviction around what you're even building in the first place.

And what that looks like in practice is like having a bunch of conversations, understanding people's problems and what they're looking for, and building exactly for that. There's obviously a lot of ways of doing that. The approach that we took involved kind of recruiting design partners that we knew had very deep expertise in pursuing grants and winning them and managing them once they won awards. And we took time to shadow them and to kind of see what are their day-to-day workflows, which...

kind of take the most amount of time and are easiest to optimize. Sorry, easiest to automate. And we kind of like chart those out and look at it very much from like a software lens of like, cool, I can automate those like 20 clicks that you just took and reduce that one hour into like 10 seconds. And you do that enough times and suddenly like it's a very high ROI productivity tool because we take every single little workflow that you have and automate it. So we built that out with.

several design partners who were going after grants. And then we started showing this to people who were not a design partner and honored them as paying customers.

Silas Mähner (13:56)
So then just to clarify, how do you go to the paying customer site? So you understood what they were doing. You probably had some method of tracking them. But is it, am I correct in understanding? I'm not a technical person, so this might be a bad question, but is it an LLM that you had to build that you had to train? Like, okay, these things, like, if so, if that's the case, then how do you actually go about doing that? How many hours of kind of footage of other people doing work do you have to understand before you can do it accurately? Because...

That's always the issue with these AI solutions is like, is it accurate? Because if it's not accurate, you might as well throw it out the window.

Helena Merk (14:30)
Totally. Yeah. I mean, I'd say so much of what can be optimized in the grant process doesn't even involve AI or LLMs. It's literally just building better software that lets people do what they're already doing faster. I'd say the software stack for a SaaS founder is entirely built out. You can incorporate your company through Stripe Atlas. You can do payroll through Gusto or Rippling.

Silas Mähner (14:41)
Mmm.

Helena Merk (14:59)
bunch of different companies that fill various administrative needs that make it so easy to start a company these days. But then you look at the world of deep tech companies and they have nothing. There's no tooling that helps them to next themselves. So what I'm saying here is like the bar feels really, really low to build something of high value because nobody's been building for these types of founders before. So like that's like the first step is just like build a product that makes their lives better.

Silas Mähner (15:22)
Mm.

Helena Merk (15:27)
And even without any LLMs, I think we could 10x a lot of their workflows. Then you add the LLM component and it's like, okay, cool. This is an interesting feature. But I'd say at the core, you know, what we're building is like, you know, a workflow task management automation tool. And now with the world of LLMs, it becomes more powerful. So when looking at, you know, the actual building of this, the first was just like let's build the product that helps manage all the workflow parts.

Silas Mähner (15:43)
Mm-hmm.

Helena Merk (15:56)
And then we'll add LLM components and focus a lot on the UX to make sure that if there was ever some kind of hallucination or discrepancy or challenge, we make it very obvious that, hey, these are the things that we're uncertain about. This was generated. Do you approve? Do you continue? And very consent forward approach. So I think it comes down less to the LLM itself and more, how do you design a product that's intuitive enough that

Silas Mähner (16:15)
Mm-hmm.

Helena Merk (16:24)
you can trust. And I think trust ends up being a huge thing, especially with our kind of customers who are all very IP sensitive, just by nature of what you do.

Silas Mähner (16:33)
Yeah. Yeah, OK, that makes sense. One thing you said that I thought was quite interesting, and I don't think we've had the chance necessarily to ask somebody this question is you said that nobody's really built software for these people, right? For this specific, at least use case. And you said the bar is low. How do you kind of mentally guide your team and how you do things? If that is the case, because if the bar is low, it might be easy to say, oh, you know, it's good enough, like it's better than what there was. But.

you know, obviously there will be people following you to try to pursue what you're doing as well. So can you talk through how you navigate that?

Helena Merk (17:09)
Totally. I'd say it's like any other software development life cycle or how I've always liked to build product, which is like ship when you're uncomfortable. It's like, if you feel proud of your product, like you waited too long, and that works in software. That only works in software, probably not in anything that's like physical. But we try to get things out the door as soon as possible. The moment we think it'll provide more value.

than without having the tool. So that can mean a lot of things. If you're building in a crowded space, the bar to providing additional value is higher because you have to be better than the status quo. In our case, the status quo is spending hundreds of hours on grants.gov trying to find an opportunity. So even if our search doesn't cover every single opportunity in the world, it's better than the status quo. So that's like MVP level. I would say an MVP is better than the status quo.

I feel blessed that our entire team is like all perfectionists and go-getters and just super hungry. So everyone's dissatisfied when we just launched an MVP and super motivated to kind of keep pushing that bar higher. So I think that gets to the second part of your question of how do you keep kind of upping the ante? And it's like, we know what good software looks like. We know what good product experiences are like. And that's, that's what we're striving to and pushing at like a thousand miles per hour to kind of get there.

Silas Mähner (18:34)
Yeah, I think that's quite interesting. I mean, being... I don't know that you guys are the first, but they're the first I've heard of in this space. So if you are the first in this space, usually there's a little bit of pressure, right? Because as soon as somebody identifies a new opportunity, like everybody comes chasing after you and says, oh, let me do that better. So I think it'd be really interesting to chat again in a couple of years and see where things are and how you continue to push because it's probably easy with a small team.

everybody's motivated, you were there at the early days. And then as you get bigger, you're like, okay, well, now we've got customers. Like then the maintenance idea comes in, right? And you're just like, okay, we've got to maintain this machine we've built. We don't want it to fall apart. And then you still got to push yourself to innovate. So I appreciate that. One question I have is, I don't know if you have specific stats on this or anything, but when you look at the global market opportunity for this,

Is it much do you anticipate eventually going beyond just helping with grant writing? Is there a lot of other addressable markets for this?

Helena Merk (19:35)
I'm glad you asked. I mean, the way we look at what we're working on is it's kind of workflow automation around getting government funding into the climate and energy transition. Grants is like the tip of the iceberg there. What we've actually been spending more of our time on is going after RFPs. And I think very much, like the type of government funding you're eligible for depends on the technology readiness level of the company, as well as the stage.

Right, so if you're doing a lot of EV charging, you're most likely going after government contracting or city-level RFPs. Versus if you're doing something with, say, like, I don't know, green hydrogen or reimagining steel, you're earlier in that kind of TRL level and going after a different type of capital. If you're building large commercial facilities, maybe you're applying to the LPO. So there's all these different pathways for acquiring capital, all of which come in these non-dilutive forms.

and climate founders in particular have to kind of currently architect this like very diverse capital stock, which at every stage they're creating a new stack and like reimagining where they're going to get funding. And we think that there's room to build a large company that helps them navigate every single step of this process. And by starting with grants, we end up being really, really well positioned to grow into all those other stages of capital.

The other thing we think a lot about is, what additional services can we then start adding to this platform once we've helped a company go through all these stages? And that might be connecting them to private capital, to project financing. And we can do all of that because we've been able to track the company's progress, see how they're winning grants, and see what else they're eligible for. Somebody compared it to like a mint for climate tech companies, which...

When I first heard it, I was like, oh, this is so reductionist. But it kind of landed decently well, because it was like, you have this one kernel of data, and then you can kind of connect it to whatever other services you might need, because you're able to serve with that data.

Silas Mähner (21:45)
Yeah. Okay. I like that. I think it's quite interesting. Something I guess I hadn't thought about until probably six or seven months ago when I went to the ERA pitch day was there's a lot of these companies building in climate that their technology will ultimately be super valuable to companies outside of the climate tech world. And their addressable market is going to be massive. They just starting with climate, obviously, which I think is interesting because it just goes to

climate isn't really a sector, but the climate technology is helping people with everything. So I think it's really fascinating when people start to think beyond just, hey, let me serve the companies in climate tech right now. So okay, going back a bit, once you did those test projects, so I'm assuming it may not be that hard to find a partner who's like, hey, we will literally want to do some work for you for free. We want to follow you around and figure out what you're doing.

There generally weren't too many hesitations, I assume, with people, right? Maybe you had to go through 10 or 20 people before somebody said, yeah, sure, you can shadow us, is that correct?

Helena Merk (22:52)
It was surprising how much interest we got. I think that also helped us build conviction that like, wow, this is a pain point. And part of how we ended up choosing our partners was really just in, we had a lot of agency in deciding who we want to work with based on their experience. But we'd had over 100 kind of user interviews and conversations leading up to that point and really just trying to understand what were the pain points and where should we start building. And you know,

easily proved ourselves within a few meetings that, you know, every meeting, we'd have like weekly calls with our partners and every meeting we'd come with like new designs and kind of new things for them to kind of tear apart and critique. And then we built those into prototypes and MVPs and kind of constantly kind of kept proving that, you know, we, we deserve their like one hour a week in their busy lives.

Silas Mähner (23:44)
Yeah. And then once you did that, what was the, do you have any, I guess people talk a lot about scaling right now. So do you have any go to market wins or strategies that you used or tactics that you were like really, really helpful that you want to share with other people doing also building climate tech software?

Helena Merk (24:03)
Yeah, I mean, I'd say it depends on the type of climate tech software. Um, for us, we end up serving like the entire ecosystem, which I love. I like love building community and like hosting things. Uh, so for us, we've hosted like events, uh, both for SF climate week, uh, and then New York climate week with people that were notable in the industry that like basically provided value for everybody. So if you're going to host an event, like make sure it's just value producing. I'm pretty tired of a bunch of happy hours, but

anything kind of works. And for us, it worked really well because we hosted a panel with people from the DOE and people who won grants and had a moderated panel. That's honestly been very effective at just getting our brand out and then building up a pretty decent wait list of people that we have yet to kind of give access to the product for just because we're bandwidth constrained right now.

Silas Mähner (24:53)
Yeah, that's something that's why I had understood. I wasn't sure about that, but I understood a lot of people have been talking and trying to get access

to the platform at some point. So it's obviously a win when you have more demand than you can service initially. So that's helpful. And then just quickly, I want to go back to what ended up getting you into climate? Why did you decide to start building a climate? Because you had built, I believe, you were working on spirals prior to this, right?

Helena Merk (25:01)
Yeah.

Yeah, and before that, um, spent a few years working on a video track company, um, which went through IC and got me kind of into the world of, of building startups. Um, but I think climate has been like a constant in my life, um, for a long time. I mean, grew up doing all sorts of outdoorsy things, which is, I think, a very common trend amongst people who work in climate. Um, and the first kind of real project I was building back in high school was working with

animal shelters and increasing kind of adoption rates through software for a lot of the volunteers. And that was fun. But I think the gap I really had was that I didn't feel like I could make an impact in the software and climate intersection and that the real impact was going to be booted on the ground. And I spent several years kind of going down the pre-veterinary track thinking that, okay, this is the path to doing it, right? Like if I want to go work with nature and, you know, help.

with biodiversity, like the closest I could get with that, especially with like interest in like biology and anatomy was like, you know, becoming a vet. So, you know, my dream at that time was like, I'm going to go be an elephant vet. And that was amazing. But like halfway through the program, I had this like existential crisis moment where I was like, I'm literally putting bandages on the problem. We were working with elephants who had

like landmines, sorry, their feet blown up by landmines. And we were treating their feet so they could walk again. And I was like, holy moly, like, we can't solve this at a system-wide level. Like, what I'm doing doesn't scale. And I think I can do something bigger at like a massive scale. Ended up dropping out, came back to the Bay, worked at a few startups, and just couldn't get kind of scale.

out of my head and the idea that software could be that level of scale.

But I really just couldn't connect those dots for a while. But then after the video chat company, we ended up selling that to a competitor. I finally had some time to take a step back and look at things from a systems level. And what stood out in climate, when I finally had just months to just read and dive deep and talk to people, was really that they were two mega trends and barriers to scale, which was policy and finance. And...

I looked at those two options. I was like, okay, I'm not going to go into policy. That sounds awful. And here I am kind of at the intersection, but I was like, this is going to be so slow. Like I will go crazy. And then finance was interesting. And we immediately started looking at carbon markets and how we could kind of build more trust in them, because it seemed like at the time, this was like early 2022 that, you know, carbon markets were at the time, the most effective way of getting private capital into nature.

Silas Mähner (28:02)
Hehehe

Helena Merk (28:26)
But there was a lot of concern around trust and volatility of the markets, especially with the VCM. And we use blockchain to kind of enhance transparency there. Turns out there's a lot of other things wrong with carbon markets. Not wrong, just challenges that have to be overcome. And we decided after the wave of policy that was passed in the favor of climate, which is like Bill, Chips, IRA, that the most effective way of unlocking capital for climate companies was actually to unlock...

you know, the hundreds of billions of dollars that are kind of sitting behind a wall of paperwork. And every single climate person I was talking to was like, how do I get access to Iber money? Like, what do I do? And we just saw them spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each on consultants and on, you know, reading papers and papers and papers. And as a software person that just like hurt my soul a little bit, I was like, we can optimize this. So we started kind of

very targetedly experimenting in that space of how do we automate a lot of these policy-based decisions and what else can we do in that space.

Silas Mähner (29:26)
Mm-hmm.

One thing that stands out to me, maybe it's just because of a very different, like, because you grew up in the West Coast, is that correct?

Helena Merk (29:41)
Yeah, in Palo Alto.

Silas Mähner (29:43)
Do you, like, how did you get this idea kind of in your head about scale early on? Because, I mean, this is not something

I would say a lot of people I grew up around in the Midwest don't think about this thing, right? So I'm just kind of curious what led you to always be thinking about that, even at a pretty young age.

Helena Merk (30:00)
I don't know. I mean, probably a combination of like influence of, you know, the people I was around. You know, we were like houses away from like Mark Zuckerberg or like Tim Cook and my dad got one of the first iPhones. So there's obviously that like just background ambience of like, you can build big things, you can change the world. And then also this like expectation that like, I could slash would do something with my life. My parents, we moved here when I was a kid from Europe.

Silas Mähner (30:18)
Mm-hmm.

Helena Merk (30:29)
And they kind of gave up a lot of things to give us, you know, the lives that we had. And they are loving parents and awesome. And I love them to death, but they definitely kind of had this like element of our children will do amazing things. Don't, yeah. And that definitely was very motivating. And it was like, yeah, one thread, the environment I grew up in, and then also just having access to like tinkering on stuff.

Silas Mähner (30:46)
Yeah.

Helena Merk (30:59)
My dad definitely pushed me to try building an app for his iPhone. It was the deal we made. I wanted to play with his iPhone and he said, if you build an app for it, I was like, okay, I'm going to do that. And I don't know if he knew I would actually take him up on it. But that got me into app development when I was way too young, like early, like in grade school. And building apps and then got decent at it. And some of them made it.

Silas Mähner (31:21)
Yeah.

Helena Merk (31:27)
And I bought myself an iPad and then got even more serious about app development. Uh, and then throughout high school started working at, you know, more serious companies, uh, like this cloud security company I spent my senior year working at. Um, so there is like, I think just enough exposure that like something big was possible, uh, and then when everything aligned, it was like, cool, not only is something big possible, like anyone can do it, uh, you just have to like.

Silas Mähner (31:47)
Mm-hmm.

Helena Merk (31:57)
really want it. So we're trying.

Silas Mähner (32:00)
Yeah, I love it. I just think it's really fascinating because it's so different compared to the place and the environment I grew up in. And I think it just makes me think, we talked a little bit about this with Susan Su at one point from Tobacco Capital about the getting people exposure and access to the mindset of Silicon Valley, right? Because it shouldn't be just limited to that area. There's probably many, many capable people who, if they were inspired at a young age...

could be doing other things, right? So I just really, I really find it fascinating. It might be usual to you, but I just, it's not usual, I don't think for further most, most of the country, right? Maybe, maybe the more techie places like Silicon Valley and New York, for example, but I appreciate that. I appreciate the insight. What was the biggest lesson that you learned from building spirals, like on the company side, not about the carbon market specifically, but like building the company?

Helena Merk (32:51)
So I should clarify that Spirals is, as like a legal entity, the same company as Streamline, fly to just a hard pivot. So learned a lot about company building and I continue to learn a lot. I feel like every day is a learning experience in the most awesome way. I'd say I had bigger learnings in Glimpse, which was just like a longer experience. And I think one of those was that.

Silas Mähner (32:56)
Oh, okay.

Helena Merk (33:18)
Yeah, actually the biggest learnings were mostly internal about who I am and like what I want to do in the world and glimpse was working in video chat during peak of the pandemic and things were working well and it was growing and that's Such a thrill, you know, if you've ever built something that people are like pulling out of your hands Like that's wonderful. You feel like you're creating value and people you make people happy and you're solving a problem And I think that kept me going for a long time and at some point I kind of realized

actually, this isn't what I want to spend my life working on. And I'm glad people are getting value from it and we're getting a lot of good feedback and revenue is growing, but it wasn't like value aligned with where I want it to be and who I want it to be in the world. So the biggest learning from that experience was really, I need to work on something that is both solving a problem and people want, but also one that is just like so fundamentally aligned with who I am as a person and where I want to be.

Um, so recovering from glimpse was really just like this kind of soul searching existential journey almost. Um, and I think that's something that is definitely going to vary founder to founder. It's like, I think the term people use is like, are you like a missionary founder or mercenary founder? Uh, and mercenary founders are just like, they'll take, they'll, they'll be opportunistic, they'll go after things and just like build good businesses. Hopefully, right. Like that IPO or whatever. And then there's missionary founders who.

Silas Mähner (34:28)
Mm-hmm.

Helena Merk (34:46)
build from passion and we'll kind of do whatever it takes to build something out that wants to change the world. And maybe they're ruthless in a different way, I'd say. But I think I definitely learned that I can't just build a business that makes money. That's never going to be fulfilling for me and it's going to lead to burnout.

Silas Mähner (35:07)
Yeah, I think it's quite fascinating. I mean, understanding, it's not really what we focus on in this podcast, but it's one of my favorite things to listen to other people's podcasts about is how founders learn things about themselves through building companies and just entrepreneurs. It's like, usually if somebody is crazy enough to become an entrepreneur, they've got something they got to work out deep down, right? Anyways, right? So it's always... Yeah, it's really fascinating. Okay, very cool. One thing I'm really always curious about is...

Helena Merk (35:26)
Yeah, you can't let them off.

Silas Mähner (35:36)
on the talent side is how did you find your co-founder and know that, hey, this is somebody I want to build something with because that is a very difficult thing to do.

Helena Merk (35:45)
Yeah, it's super difficult. When, I'll tell you this in a second, but when I met him, I had pretty much decided a weak part of that, that I was done looking for a co-founder. I like just, I was like, I'm done. I'm gonna do this myself. I can do this. I don't need anybody. And I'm so glad that I have a co-founder. It's just so much easier, so much more fun for the highs and for the lows. But our story is kind of unique. We met through Figma.

And people think that we were both designers and while I like to dabble in design, I'm definitely not a designer. I had put out this fig jam board of all of my research on carbon markets and kind of the ecosystem and kind of all the gaps I saw. Like these things are inefficient and that thing over there looks weird and posed a bunch of questions and I sent that around Twitter and a few different, you know, communities I was in hoping that people would collaborate and contribute or call me out. I was like

this seems wrong, like this, like the incentives around carbon markets don't make any sense to me. Can you help me out? And everybody would look at it and kind of say, Good job, Helena, like, this is a comprehensive map, like, actually, maybe the most comprehensive I've seen. And I had to respond like, Okay, that's useless. Thank you. But I would, I was like, looking for like a sparring partner almost of like, call me out, right. And my co founder Doug

was the first to start leaving kind of comments on it. I log on one day and there's sticky notes everywhere. And they're, you know, on FigJam, you can like label who's written it. And it was labeled like Doug. I was like, who is Doug? Like, why is he on my stuff? Like, I don't know what Doug. And eventually I like log on and like his cursor's there. And I'm like, ah, I caught him. I like hover over to where he is and I start like.

We were messaging each other just on sticky notes and realized this is silly, we should link up. And then we realized we were both in San Francisco and we met up for coffee. And again, I had pretty much just decided I wasn't looking for a co-founder, but I was like, I had to meet this guy. And the second sentence that came out of his mouth was, so are you looking for a co-founder? And I was like, this is so direct. I don't know what to do with this. So we ended up working really, really well together and it was just...

Silas Mähner (38:00)
Yeah.

Helena Merk (38:06)
happenstance that this is how it came up, but I think I had a good amount of experience in what I loved and what was friction full in my first co-founder relationship, not friction full in any like negative way more like Where was there an imbalance in skill set, right? You want like a like personalities that work well together, but then also complementary skill sets in order to like maximize a partnership and With Doug that has been like was true in day one and it continues to be true today

And it's very fun to kind of help each other grow professionally.

Silas Mähner (38:40)
Yeah, I think that's great. I love the story, first of all. That's a really good story. I also think that something you said that may seem kind of usual to you, but I think is worth noting for people listening is the fact of finding somebody who's like a sparring partner, right? That resonates with me a lot because finding somebody that you can build with who's going to challenge your ideas, I think is extremely important because if you guys are all, if everybody's on the same page all the time, just like, oh yeah, we're just going to do it this way.

It's like, okay, well, are you really going to build something great? Because if you're not trying to like, kind of rip it apart and make it better, then you're never going to really, really be better, right? You think about some of the best founders that we think about and talk about, and they usually were really harsh people, but they were also, they really liked somebody who could challenge them and could stand up to them because they wanted to have the best ideas, right? So I really liked that a lot. I think it's fascinating.

We're getting close to time. So just maybe one quick story on, can you talk about the fundraising journey, right? Obviously you started something in the carbon markets and then kind of pivoted, but can you still talk about the major steps that you took there and any advice from that?

Helena Merk (39:49)
Yeah, I mean, don't raise when the market is crashing. No, just kidding. I think there's definitely elements of nuance. And I think the biggest one is like, as a second time founder, everything is easier. And you speak with investors in a different way. You already have a network. Doors are already warm and open. So the experience from my first company with Glems, we went through YCE and we were like lined up to

a bunch of investors who wanted to invest in YC companies. So that helped there. And if it's your first company and you don't know anybody in space, accelerators are a really, really good bet because they open all these doors. With Spirals and what turned into Streamline, I already knew a good amount of people. And I knew plenty of people who pretty much told me that, hey, once you're ready, let me know. I'll be your first check. So it was a very different situation when I was starting the company. And it was more a matter of

What do I want to work on? And who do I want surrounding me to help me get there? Who can I trust? Who's going to build with the same values in mind? And that's for the super early pre-MVP idea stage of a fundraise. And then raising beyond that means you need to have some level of traction and conviction and a plan. But it's similar to any other fundraising process, where it's like you figure out what

amount of money do you need to reach the next stage? And how can you show that what you've done so far lines you up best to do that? Yeah.

So that's kind of how we've run it to date. And obviously right now is probably one of the hardest times to raise in the last decade. So if you're out there trying to raise, good luck. You got this.

Silas Mähner (41:27)
Okay.

Yeah, I do think that for the people who have the right stuff and they have the right products, they will raise. It's just the VCs seem to be a little bit hesitant to write checks right now because of the LP market. But maybe something for another time, but I would be curious if what you're proposing with the grant writing stuff could actually at some point be applied to helping VCs run better.

kind of inbound processes because a lot of them, it's just like opinion, right? Like they have criteria, but from a lot of the VCs we've spoken with on here, it's like, okay, there's no like hardcore like, all right, XYZ equals, we'll give you a check, right? There's some that have streamlined it a little bit more, but it's more like, oh, like, we just like you, like we like you and we think this thing is good. There's some data behind it, but it's not super scientific, right? Except for, of course, there's some on the

actual...

carbon reduction side that's scientific, right? But other than that, it's usually like, oh, you know, how do we feel about it? So I'd be curious for another time, but kind of to wrap up here, looking forward, what are the next big things you guys are looking towards? What does the next six months look like? What are you excited about?

Helena Merk (42:36)
I'm sorry.

Yeah, we're finally going to give everybody on our wait list access. Which is so exciting. I'm so excited. But it's coming after a wave of launches we're doing. So if you're looking at the first phase of a product, there's three sections to grant writing. There's finding an opportunity, applying, and then award management once you've won the funds. We're shipping all of that in the next few months. First in beta stages.

And then.

you know, shape polishing it up. But lots of exciting kind of product launches, and with each of those, we're going to onboard more and more people. So starting to have more volume, which is exciting, and then starting to hire kind of across the board. So the first kind of roles we need to fill. Right now we're at Team F6, and we're trying to hire like three more engineers and then bring on somebody on the policy side as well. So things are moving, things are growing, and we're pretty excited.

Silas Mähner (43:45)
That's great. I'm genuinely excited to see how it goes for you guys. Because again, like I said, it's not just me saying it, but people have mentioned what you guys are doing for a few months now. So it's like, okay, everybody's waiting for this. So it'll either be really, really good or you have a lot of pressure. Yeah, exactly. So I appreciate you coming on and really looking forward to seeing where things end up in a year or so. And we'll probably have you back on at some point to talk about it.

Helena Merk (43:57)
It's coming! I promise it's coming! Yeah.

Awesome, let's do it. Thanks for having me.

Silas Mähner (44:11)
All right, thanks so much.


Introduction and Overview
Streamline's Mission and Services
Crash Course on Grants
Streamlining the Grant Process
Customer Types
Choosing the Right Grants
Streamline's Business Model
Finding the MVP and Paying Customers
Lessons from Building Spirals
Training the AI Model
Addressable Markets Beyond Grants
Finding a Co-Founder
Go-to-Market Strategies
VC Funding and Grant Writing
Fundraising Journey
Inbound Processes and VC Decision-making
Exciting Announcement!