GC Fireside

TechGC chats with Stephen Barrows, General Counsel at Prometheus Fuels

Stephen Barrows
June 8, 2022

Tell us about your current role as a General Counsel...

I am the General Counsel and Head of Policy at Prometheus Fuels.  Prometheus is focused on solving the climate crisis by removing CO2 from the atmosphere and using renewable electricity to make drop-in gasoline, diesel, jet, hydrogen, and natural gas.  Prometheus fuels are designed to be cheaper than legacy fossil fuels and to avoid adding new emissions to the atmosphere.

How does your industry background prepare you for the GC role?

There is a heavy regulatory component to what we do at Prometheus, and I have spent a fair amount of my career on both sides of the regulatory table.  At the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., I focused mostly on disputes between the Legislative and Executive Branches.  After government, I focused on Fintech product/regulatory issues at Stripe and Plaid.  Prometheus has introduced me to a host of fascinating issues as we navigate the legacy framework for energy and environmental regulations.  Regardless of the subject matter, the core of any regulatory relationship is first to understand the policy goal and regulatory apparatus, and then second to translate how the company’s products fit into what a regulator is trying to accomplish.

At the same time, regulatory is just one part of my role.  I am still climbing the learning curve on the typical business issues that startups face: intellectual property, corporate governance, fundraising, employment, etc.  For these areas, I have relied on my own network, as well as resources like TechGC, to help me learn the fundamentals.  TechGC has been particularly helpful in getting me up to speed on the hot issues of the moment, such as SPACs, recruiting, and remote work.

How do the laws and the regulatory landscape affect your role as General Counsel?

Transportation fuels are regulated at both the State and Federal levels, both in the U.S. and in the E.U.  Most of those frameworks were last overhauled in the 2000s.  Innovative solutions like ours require a fair amount of translation, whether to show how we fit within those legacy regulations, or in some cases, how we do not, and thus avoid unnecessary obligations.  That work starts with legal analysis and ends with legal argument.  There are a lot of similarities at Prometheus to the kind of outside-the-box thinking that is intrinsic to Fintech — new technology fitting into legacy rules.

How do you, as General Counsel, keep your team and business up with the industry changes?

The transportation industry is one of the largest CO2 emitters across the globe.  Staving off the worst consequences of those emissions requires decarbonization as broadly and quickly as possible.  Prometheus is working to facilitate that transition, on that scale, on that schedule. 

The energy transition has started, but it’s clearly an understatement to say that there is so much more to do.  Some believe that governments around the world are the only ones capable of moving the energy transition forward.  Many governments are heeding those calls in different ways, whether through tax incentives, grants for research and development, or registration and reporting requirements.  We monitor those efforts in case they impact our business or industry. 

That said, Prometheus believes that the global energy transition will be market-driven rather than government-driven.  Historical energy transitions, like horse-and-buggy to automobiles, have resulted from technology innovation and market disruption.  The startup ecosystem has a renewed interest in the climate crisis, and that is where the most significant advances are likely to originate.  There’s a saying that the best startups fall in love with the problem, not the solution.  The climate crisis is one of the most urgent problems we face, and fortunately, I think, more and more startups are devoting their resources and passion to addressing it.  

How do you build a legal team? How do you hire?

The answer to this question really has two components — the outside team and the in-house team.  When going outside, there usually is a specific, technical need (e.g. intellectual property, equity raise, etc.).  So I start with specialization.  But that’s not enough by itself.  I look for partners.  Not in the title sense, but in the relationship sense.  I am looking for outside counsel who actively choose to be part of our team and our mission.  If someone regularly thinks about how the news, judicial or regulatory decisions, or proposed regulations may be relevant to our business, that’s a partner.  If someone recognizes when something should be off-the-clock, that’s a partner.  If someone explains the solutions they are advising, and what the different decision-points and risks/rewards of those decisions are, that’s a partner.  These are the types of things I consider when seeking outside counsel.

For the in-house team, it’s a bit different.  Yes, specialization is helpful for some core business issues (intellectual property and employment are good examples).  But I also look for people who demonstrate the capacity to take on new subjects and new challenges, even when they may not involve traditional legal work – such as business development, operations, finance, whatever the company may need on a given day.  Most important, however, is whether the person is going to be a good colleague.  Will I want to be in the foxhole with this person all day?  Will I want my other colleagues to be in the foxhole with this person?  Will they bring calm or panic to the problem at hand?  Do they build people up or tear them down?  Do they focus on what they can do rather than what they cannot do?  Do they focus on how to get the company to where it needs to be, or do they focus on the obstacles?  Are they devoted to the mission?  Will they tell me when they have made a mistake, or more importantly, when I have made a mistake?  The answers to these questions can determine the culture of the legal team and the extent to which the team will be a trusted, valued, and effective resource within the company.

Stephen Barrows
Steve is the General Counsel and Head of Policy at Prometheus Fuels, an electrofuels company focused on solving the climate crisis. He joined Prometheus after working on product and regulatory issues at fintechs Stripe and Plaid. Prior to the start-up world, Steve served at the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington. He started his career in politics and in private practice. Steve enjoys spending time with his family, playing a storied golf course, reading, and cheering for Twins baseball. Steve earned his J.D. at the University of Minnesota School of Law and his B.A. in History at Yale University.