The Future is Electric
by: Caroline Stanton
photography by: Caroline Stanton and Ben Parker
It is a clear-skied Thursday afternoon in the Mission District of San Francisco. Ben Parker is sitting at a table in a Mexican restaurant called Chuy’s Fiestas talking about the path between finding an idea, shaping that idea, and turning that idea into a start-up. It is the sort of conversation that feels as if it continually takes place here, close to the center of the high-tech world.
After studying engineering at Dartmouth, a job at the electric-car company Tesla brought him to San Francisco. Today he is talking about how an idea germinated, changed, and how a pandemic road trip through the RV parks of the American West focused that idea and allowed him time to explore how best to take the next steps in his life.
“I was like, ‘Oh, it’s obvious. Go out into the chaos and see where the opportunity is,’ because when the whole world changes, there’s a ton of new opportunity,” he said.
Parker has found a lead investor for his idea, a firm called Obvious Investments. That investment allowed him to officially put together his company, called Lightship, in a nod to Nantucket. He is not the first young tech entrepreneur to ask himself the following question: “Did someone just give us a bunch of money to live out our dreams?”
The idea began with food trucks, which are a common sight here in the East Bay. While at Tesla, he wanted to find a way to electrify food trucks. In 2019 he spent nine to 10 months on this pet project with a co-worker.
Throughout the project, he consulted Select Board member and Something Natural owner Matt Fee. Parker worked at Something Natural throughout high school and some of college, and expresses an admiration for Fee as a businessman and steward of the island’s energy use. He recalled a time when he was sitting on the production floor at Tesla working on the Model 3 battery when he read about Nantucket’s purchase of a Tesla power-pack installation – which Fee was instrumental in making happen – to help address the surge in summer energy demand.
“I definitely consider him, like, kind of a mentor and influential figure in my life growing up,” Parker said.
Parker was willing to build an electric food truck to sell Fee’s sandwiches around the island, but he ultimately found that electrifying food trucks would not make the profit or impact he was aiming for. He began shifting away from the food-truck idea after “realizing that the food-truck market is neither big nor is there a lot of extra money in food-truck businesses. They’re primarily mom-and-pop businesses.”
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