Born on October 30, 1987, Danielle Fong grew up in the city of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, across Halifax Harbor from the provincial capital of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Greg Fong, her father was an inventor and owned and operated the Garden View Restaurant, a Chinese restaurant which had been in the Fong family since 1944. Her mother, Trudy Fong, was a writer and stand-up comedian who also studied biology. Danielle Fong has two younger brothers, Gavin Fong and Travis Fong.
According to her parents, Fong grew up as a child prodigy. In an interview, her mother said that Danielle could read words and count at fifteen months old, and could do square roots by age 3. At age six, Fong recalls that her parents took her on a tour of a local power plant, which later inspired her interest in the energy industry. As a child, Fong enjoyed horseback riding at Windgate Farms in Nova Scotia.
In an interview with The Chronicle Herald, Fong said that at age nine, she built a project that featured a model of a gas laser for a science fair. However, she was "extremely frustrated and unhappy" in public school. An aptitude test put her above 99% of high school graduates, but Fong's mother said that Danielle's junior high school was holding her back and punishing her for being advanced. Danielle Fong later told Forbes Magazine that she ran away from school during class one time At age 11, Fong's parents withdrew her from public school, and later homeschooled her, as well as enrolling her in computer programming classes at Nova Scotia Community College.
At age 12, Fong's parents enrolled her in college at Dalhousie University in Halifax, against the advice of her former teachers. Trudy Fong, who herself went to college at age 15, later explained to Wired Magazine, "Why would I conceivably put my child through six more years of that bullshit?", in reference to Danielle's difficulties with public education. Fong initially majored in computer science, and after three years, added a second major in physics.
While at Dalhousie, Fong did research on quantum computing and quantum dots, in the laboratory of Professor Jordan Kyriakidis. As part of her dual major in physics and computer science, she completed an undergraduate thesis titled "A Generalised Approach to the Electronic Structure of Strongly Interacting Quantum Dots". Fong entirely skipped attending high school.
Fong graduated from Dalhousie in May 2005, at the age of 17, with double honors as well as a university medal in computer science. Fong was the youngest student to graduate from Dalhousie that year, which attracted significant media attention. In an interview with The Chronicle Herald, which said that Fong "appears to have the world by the tail", Fong described her life as a young college student; she added that her favorite movie was Ferris Bueller's Day Off, a 1980s comedy about a teenager who skips school. Joan Massey, the member of the Nova Scotia Legislature representing Dartmouth East, introduced a special parliamentary resolution to congratulate Fong on her achievements. The resolution was passed unanimously by voice vote.
While finishing her studies at Dalhousie, Fong was one of seven students worldwide to be accepted into the doctoral program at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), which she entered in August 2005 at age 17. To support her studies, Princeton gave her a full-tuition scholarship of $72,000, and she also received a $17,000 grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
While attending Princeton University, Fong studied plasma physics, aiming to help create a source of sustainable energy through nuclear fusion. However, according to Fong, she later came to believe that it was unlikely that fusion research could be done quickly and cheaply enough to replace energy from coal, and nuclear fission faced too many political difficulties. In addition, it appeared to Fong that it was very difficult for her professors to raise enough money for their research; she later noted that Facebook's valuation (at that time, $15 billion) was more than the funding for the US's entire fusion program. In September 2007, Fong dropped out of Princeton and moved to Silicon Valley at the age of 19. Fong considered entering quantitative finance shortly before the financial crisis of 2007–08, but decided against it.
During late 2007 and early 2008, at age 20, Danielle "struggle[d] to launch any of dozens of startup ideas", and worked odd jobs at technology companies. These included jobs at the Silicon Valley startups Algorithmist, Scribd, LabMeeting, and Mochi Media, a browser-based video game network. For a while, Danielle had no permanent residence, and relied on couch surfing with friends to find places to sleep in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In April 2008, one of Fong's ideas for a startup was rejected by the seed accelerator Y Combinator, and she wrote a blog post about the experience. One of her blog readers in the video game industry saw the post, and introduced her to Max Crane, the son of video game executive Steve Crane. Crane was a former Ph.D. physicist who had served as senior vice president and chief technology officer for the game company Activision, where he developed the X-Men and Tony Hawk video game series. Crane offered Fong a job at a startup video game company, driving her from San Francisco to the company's headquarters in Petaluma, California.
Among other startup concepts, Danielle had the idea for a scooter powered by compressed air energy storage (CAES), which she pitched to Crane. Crane was excited by the idea, and left his other jobs to join Fong as a startup co-founder, along with putting $100,000 of seed funding into the new company. In late 2008, the company was incorporated as "LightSail Designs", and Fong began work on the scooter project, aiming to launch an initial prototype in 2009. The name "LightSail" was chosen because the vehicles would be "powered by light, and sail on air". Engineer Ed Berlin, a friend of Crane's who had been independently working on a compressed-air hybrid vehicle, later joined them as a third co-founder. According to Fong, while she was inexperienced with mechanical engineering and had to learn it on the job, Berlin already had a background in electrical engineering, and had a machine shop in his home garage. Several investors later cited Fong's newness to the energy industry as one reason why they backed her company, since older, more experienced companies had failed to make much progress.
While searching for investors for LightSail in late 2008, Fong researched the work and business interests of venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems. In early 2009, a friend of Ed Berlin introduced the LightSail founders to Khosla. Fong and her team pitched the scooter project to his investment firm, Khosla Ventures. Khosla said that he "knew within 15 minutes" that he was going to invest in Fong, but was more interested in CAES as a potential way of doing energy storage for the electrical grid than for a scooter, and convinced Fong and Crane to pivot LightSail's corporate strategy to focus on power storage. In an old textbook, Fong discovered that water, which has a very high specific heat, could be used to increase CAES efficiency. By spraying in a fine mist of water during compression, LightSail could keep air (the energy storage medium) cooler during compression, and warmer during expansion, improving the efficiency of the engine's thermodynamic cycle. After extensive due diligence, Khosla invested $15 million in Fong's company (now renamed LightSail Energy) as a Series A funding round in July 2009.
With seed money from Khosla Ventures, Fong, Crane and Berlin hired an engineering team to build an energy storage prototype, hiring auto racing expert Kevin Walter to lead mechanical development and design. For office and work space, in November 2009, they converted a historic 1909 firehouse on Alice Street in Oakland, California into LightSail company headquarters, and they built a full-scale CAES prototype there. The prototype was said to be operational by September, 2010, but a 2016 article later claimed that the LightSail machine only ever had a high-pressure stage, and that a necessary low-pressure stage was never built. According to Fong, in 2010 LightSail also sought a grant from the United States Department of Energy, but they were turned down.
In early 2011, Danielle Fong was selected as one of the entrepreneurs to attend the Khosla Ventures CEO Summit and presented to Khosla Ventures investment partner Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft. Gates asked Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's former CTO, to do due diligence on Fong's company; Myhrvold was eventually convinced that LightSail was a good investment, after Fong resolved an initial misunderstanding. Gates also personally visited LightSail's facilities in May 2011 to examine their CAES prototype. As of July 2011, LightSail reported that all technical goals for prototype had been met, but Gates did not immediately invest, sending another advisor to evaluate the idea further.
However, by the end of the year, LightSail was running out of money, and needed to raise additional funding. An employee of Innovacorp, a venture capital firm owned and operated by the Government of Nova Scotia, heard about Fong via Forbes and invited her back to Nova Scotia as a contest judge. When she returned, her father Greg Fong suggested her birthplace of Nova Scotia as a place where Danielle and LightSail could do business, and raise further investment capital. Greg later said that he "called everyone [he] knew and we got fantastic support, including from the premier’s office and the department of energy". Innovacorp decided to invest $2 million in LightSail, which spurred other investors to join them in a Series D funding round.
A $37.3 million round was announced on November 5, 2012, and the investors included Innovacorp, Bill Gates, Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley Bank, and other venture capital firms, as well as additional funding from initial investor Khosla Ventures. LightSail has also raised money from Haiyin Capital, a Chinese fund. The long delay before closing the round was partly caused by the failure of Solyndra, which had "spooked" many investors in the energy sector. As of 2016, LightSail had raised a total of over $70 million.
While raising the investment round, Danielle Fong and her father also incorporated LightSail Canada as a subsidiary of LightSail Energy; Greg Fong became president of LightSail Canada, as well as vice president of Unify Energy, a joint venture between LightSail Canada and Katalyst Wind. LightSail applied to the Atlantic Innovation Fund, a Canadian federal program, for $2 million for a pilot facility to store wind farm energy.
In February 2013, shortly after its previous funding round, LightSail raised additional funds from oil supermajor Total S.A. through its venture capital arm Total Energy Ventures. Later that year, Danielle Fong was the closing guest speaker at "Energy Transition: International Perspectives", a conference organized by Total CEO Christophe de Margerie. In his conclusion after Fong's talk, Margerie told Fong "something special for you; you are an impressive person; you told me just behind the scenes that you were stressed. But we all are stressed, even if nobody thinks we are. But I am even more stressed to talk after you, because you are bringing something which is not only words; but facts, success, and even worse for me, youth." Fong later expressed regret at Margerie's death in a 2014 Moscow plane crash.
In 2012, Fong and Crane began developing a new type of gas cylinder to store compressed air, made out of composite materials rather than steel. These tanks allow compressed air to be stored above-ground, instead of in underground caverns. According to Fong, these tanks are the cheapest available as of 2015, and cost two to three times less than equivalent steel tanks; however, these claims have been questioned by others in the industry, who say the tanks offer no significant advantages. As of December 2015, Fong said that LightSail was manufacturing and selling tanks at a profit to the natural gas industry. Energy journalist Eric Wesoff disputes this, and argues that Fong's announcement of first shipping tanks in 2016 contradicted earlier claims of shipping in 2014.
In March 2014, LightSail hired two new executives to ramp up sales of its energy storage technology, as the company moved from prototypes to the mass manufacturing stage. At that time, only one deal had been announced, a $4 million California Energy Commission project to provide renewable wind power to Naval Base Ventura County; A month later, LightSail laid off about 15 percent of its workforce because of a delay in one of its projects. However, in July, Fong announced a new deal with Nova Scotia Energy Minister Andrew Younger to provide energy storage at a former Bowater Mersey mill in Brooklyn, Queens County, Nova Scotia. Younger said "this could be huge", while mayor Christopher Clarke commented that "it’s so exciting to have world class technology right on our doorstep". The project was approved by the province in October 2015, with construction expected to start during 2016, along with projects in California, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. Additional layoffs at LightSail in early 2016 and a funding shortage might delay these projects, with some employees saying they had lost confidence in Fong's leadership.
In August 2011, Fong enjoyed attending the Burning Man festival for the first time; she said it was the "most spiritually profound, unashamedly sensual, and maniacally creative place I’ve ever been". She drives a car from Tesla Motors, which she purchased with a loan from LightSail, and wears Google Glass. In an interview with Forbes, she described herself as an opponent of credentialism in education.
In late 2011, LightSail moved out of their Oakland firehouse into a larger space in the former Scharffen Berger chocolate factory in Berkeley, California and made the space available as a rent-free workspace and dormitory to young entrepreneurs, including Thiel Fellow and energy entrepreneur Eden Full. Abe Fetterman, lead physicist at LightSail and a member of Fong's 2005 class at PPPL, also left LightSail to start Nomiku, a cooking electronics company which Fong now advises. Fong has also featured in a "Feel the Future" marketing campaign for shoe brand Cole Haan.
Fong has spoken at many conferences, including TEDx at the CERN research center, Women 2.0 PITCH 2012, the Solve for X series by the Google X lab, the Core Energy Conference in Halifax, the BERC Energy Summit at UC Berkeley, TEDx Danubia, the Pioneer Summit, "Generation Unplugged" by The Atlantic, Founder World, WeFestival, the Swiss Energy and Climate Summit, the CIPEC Energy Summit, and The Nantucket Project. She has also given a keynote address at the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
Fong's CAES system has been considered as an energy storage method for Hyperloop, the capsule-tube transportation system designed by entrepreneur Elon Musk.
In December 2011, Danielle was included in the Forbes Magazine 30 Under 30, as the featured laureate in the energy category. Shortly afterwards, she was also selected as a mentor for the Thiel Fellowship, a program by Peter Thiel where 20 students under the age of 20 are each given $100,000 to drop out of college. She has been featured on the cover of Wired Magazine, which dubbed her a "greentech goddess". She has also been included in the "30 People Under 30 Changing the World" by TIME Magazine, the 35 Innovators Under 35 by the MIT Technology Review, "California’s Eco-Conscious Entrepreneurs" by Vogue Magazine, the "Hot 20" by 7x7, "100 Compassionate Leaders" by Salt Magazine, and the "40 Under 40: Ones to Watch" by Fortune, which said "if Danielle Fong were a fictional character, she wouldn't be plausible".