5 Things You Need to Know About... Caroline Cochran ('07) Mechanical Engineering
The founder and COO of Oklo, a Sunnyvale, California-based company, focused on the development of a small advanced nuclear reactor that has the ability to consume nuclear waste and to remove carbon from the air, Caroline Cochran (’07) has been active in fields ranging from engineering to entrepreneurship, research, economics, policy, sales and marketing. She holds two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and a master’s degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
During her time as a student at OU, Cochran founded Engineers Without Borders (now Sooners Without Borders), served as a member of the UOSA executive cabinet as communications director, and was the systems leader for the Sooner Racing Team, where she won an international design award for the braking system she developed. Cochran helped establish OU’s Center for the Creation of Wealth while serving as program manager with the Office of Technology Development.
She is the founder of the OU Club of Boston and, as its president, began by securing regular Sooner watch party locations for area alumni, which proved popular from the beginning and has grown to the largest in the Northeast, attracting attendees from bordering states.
One look at your resume and it becomes quite apparent you’re driven. Two undergraduate degrees from OU in mechanical engineering and economics, a master’s from MIT in nuclear engineering, work with numerous startup companies and organizations. What drives you?
I remember clearly being asked what words describe ourselves in a class at OU on Technology's Role in the Wealth of Nations. The word I used was "care" because there isn't a good word for it! Essentially the opposite of apathy. I really care a lot about our great university, I care a lot about the environment, I care a lot about people. And I just really enjoy getting people together to do fun things. I wouldn't trade the experiences of founding the Engineers Without Borders or the OU Club of Boston or leading the solar car team or being there at the founding of CCEW or silly things like organizing hundreds of people to petition Starbucks to make an Oklahoma "You Are Here" mug (which they made! Most expensive mug I'll ever have), or any other time I've gotten to be around people and see them be surprised at what we could do together or hear them say "I thought I was the only one!"
Back to your days at OU, what were favorite activities while in school, as well as your go-to place to escape when you needed a break?
I loved doing ballroom dance and helping with the polo ponies. There was nothing like being with the horses early in the morning. I also really enjoyed some research I got to be involved with in civil engineering where we'd travel to little airports across Oklahoma.
My favorite place was the sunken garden. It's surprising it was usually vacant! A true escape in the middle of a beautiful campus.
Okay, most importantly. You’ve been president of the OU Club of Boston and now live in California. We have to know. East Coast or West Coast? A preference?
East coast, East coast, East Coast. The time zone is more productive (OU/TX football comes on at the right time of day!), there is so much history, and less sprawl. I particularly miss Boston.
But I do love how laid back Californians are. They put on no airs. We've met some of the wealthiest people in the world in various coffee shops and offices in San Francisco, and they might be in a hoody or might just show up without an entourage. Very different from east coast folks who have to have the right suit, the right watch, the right jet. There is a focus here on doing things that matter, and that's why we moved our company here.
I figure my soul is from Oklahoma, my heart is in Boston, and my body is in California. :)
You worked with both the Sooner Racing Team and OU’s Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth. As an engineer serving as COO of a company you founded, how impactful were those two experiences?
When I was a freshman, I literally went through the list of all student organizations and tried to do almost everything I could in my time at OU. From the Steel Bridge team to the Ballroom Dance club to the honors research program with Prof. Muralee in Civil Engineering to the Engineer's Club and being a part of the UOSA executive cabinet and more, and I would say that I could not have gone to a better school than OU to enable students to really expand their horizons in unbelievable ways.
But those two experiences with the Sooner Racing Team in undergrad and later in CCEW were certainly the two most impactful. When we were working with sponsors on the race team, some of them would say they would only hire engineers, regardless of GPA, who had done Formula SAE. Now I know why. As an employer, I look exactly for the skills taught by the race team and they are hard skills to find. I hope the students still have the hands-on experience i had -- programming, setting up, and running the CNC, welding, lathing, and other "dangerous" stuff -- as well as the experience raising their own funds, working in a multidisciplinary team, designing their own parts.
CCEW gave me the perfect job for a year between graduating from undergrad and going to grad school to be a part of developing a new program, managing not just one but multiple teams, and getting to use my experience from IP work as an intern in the Office of Technology Development, merged with my prior experience in entrepreneurship competitions, and my internship in costs and programs analysis at the Pentagon.
CCEW continues to amaze me with how much they have grown and done since those early days under Dean Pullin's and Jeff Moore's direction. It's hard to believe, but we may soon be working with CCEW interns in my own company! I can't wait to give back to the programs that gave me so much.
Oklo, your Sunnyvale, California-based company, is focused on the development of a small advanced nuclear reactor that has the ability to consume nuclear waste and to remove carbon from the air. What’s the driving force behind that focus?
We've seen remote communities that cannot grow without energy, who cannot have good education for their children, or who are suffering from dirty or unreliable or noisy power generators. These microgrids are desperate both for clean energy and reliable energy for their communities on the single digit megawatt scale. The exciting thing is that nuclear can be done in a very different way than it was done in the old days. And each person we talk to tells us of another place that could really use energy like this. One example is resource extraction, whether for materials for cell phones, solar plants, or for oil and gas. Nuclear plants in the US supply almost two-thirds of our emission-free energy, but there is not much of an option that is reliable and clean for small microgrids. The power in the atom for fission is 2,000,000 times more energy dense than chemical reactions (like burning coal, oil, or gas), and still more energy dense than solar or wind energy, which means that nuclear has the lowest carbon footprint of any energy source by far.
When both oil and gas people on the far right, as well as people like climate activists on the far left, are excited about it, you know you're doing something right. We feel that responsibility and are working hard to make it a reality.