Customer Discovery for Clean Energy

Uncovering the motivations of a unique customer

User Research



June to August 2022


Lead Researcher. Entrepreneurship Intern for the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Technology Transitions, assigned to Sandia National Laboratories.

Skills & Tools

  • Market Research
  • Market Mapping
  • Customer discovery interviews


  • Written Customer Discovery Report
  • Written Feasibility Study
  • Final Presentation

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The US is dependent on China for clean energy tech materials

Rare earth metals act as extremely powerful magnets and are critical to clean energy technologies like electric vehicle motors and wind turbine generators. However, the US is almost entirely dependent on China for these metals. Considering US-China geopolitical tensions, this dependence has been characterized by the Department of Defense as a national security threat. 

I was assigned to help commercialize a chemical process invented by Sandia National Laboratories to extract rare earth metals from coal ash (a waste byproduct of coal combustion). 

Here’s how it works: 

  • Sandia National Labs would license this invention to a startup
  • The startup would offer a service to utility companies
  • The startup cleans up the utilities’ coal ash for a reduced price because they can turn it into a valuable resource: rare earth metals

This invention has the potential to create a reliable, domestic source of rare earth metals. 


Mapping where we fit into two complex markets

Before I began interviewing customers and experts, I dove deep into the rare earth market and the coal ash market. My goal was to understand: 

  • Who are the customers, competitors, suppliers, and other stakeholders? 
  • How does money flow? 
  • How do resources flow? 

To keep up to date on current developments in these markets, I set up a Google News alert for “rare earth” to be sent to my inbox each morning. 

It took several iterations of the map to understand these markets and the need Sandia’s technology fills.  


Understanding what motivates our customers

I focused on the secondary customer, utility companies that would buy a coal ash cleanup service. The first hurdle was to find potential customers who agreed to be interviewed. After sending 81 messages, I conducted 21 interviews. 

The challenge of motivating regulated utility companies

A key insight came from an interview with two former utility regulators. I learned that financial gain does not motivate a regulated utility because any profits are distributed back to its customers. If we want them to choose our service, we must offer more than cost savings. Utilities are also often reluctant to adopt innovative technologies like ours because regulation has made them incredibly risk-averse. 

Overall, these were my key insights from customer discovery interviews: 

  • The regulated utility is incredibly risk-averse and not motivated by cost-savings
  • We have to offer something other than cost savings to gain customers (ex. great customer service, risk management, etc.)
  • We must involve local environmental non-profits and communities to gain their support for coal ash excavation projects

Presenting my findings

I compiled my insights and prepared my final presentation. I delivered my final presentations at the DOE’s Berkeley National Labs in Berkeley, CA where a panel of DOE employees judged the presentations. I was honored to receive the first-place award among the intern cohort from the panel.


Lessons in project management

How to manage a project. I had almost full freedom over my project, so I set up weekly (sometimes bi-weekly) check-ins with my mentor, constantly made and assessed my goals, and made a Google Doc each day to track my progress.

Nothing can substitute a conversation. When I was stuck, I got into the habit of asking myself: who can I talk to (the inventors, my mentor, a fellow intern, etc.)? And I would set up a meeting with that person. I realized that I will always learn more by asking someone a question than by researching on my own. 

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