This week, Barclays and the Unreasonable Group host the first Unreasonable Impact World Forum, bringing together 27 innovative companies from Asia, the US and Europe working to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. In the first of three profiles of those taking part, we hear from Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech, about thinking the impossible, carbon-monoxide eating bugs – and doing what you think is right.
How did you end up at LanzaTech?
At the time biotech was really hot, so recruiters would always call and ask if I wanted to be CEO of this or that company, and I always said no. I wanted to retire when I was 50. That was something my husband and I had decided to do. One day, a recruiter called about this company, LanzaTech. It was really bizarre because I’d never heard of it, even though I knew every company in the sector at that point. I said: ‘I’m not looking for a job’, but I dug into it and saw that it was a really cool platform. The more I learned about the company, the more excited I got. I could understand it the minute I saw it because I knew the power of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. When somebody said: ‘We have a bug that can eat carbon monoxide’, I said: ‘You’re kidding me, right? And it doesn’t need hydrogen? And it’s contaminant resistant?’. I thought: ‘Oh man, if we can make this work, this is super cool.’
Why is working on this problem so important to you?
I think the greenhouse gas issue is a crisis. Every year, we see it get worse, and it’s going to get worse fast. I have a problem not trying to do something about that. And I’m very fortunate because I get to work on a technology to solve that problem and show the world that you can take carbon and turn it from a liability into an opportunity. But the other reason is because, as much as I hate public speaking and being with people, I can get up and give presentations in a lot of venues. Even if I impact five people in a room, they can start thinking about greenhouse gasses and maybe remember to turn out the lights that day. Then, I’ll have done something.
What’s been the biggest triumph along this journey?
I don’t know that there’s been some big thing. Every week, we think there’s something that is a good achievement, and we have a lot of fun. I always write notes to the team, and I remember once I wrote: ‘We’re on the road to awesome. It’s not paved, but I can assure you the view will be really great at the top.’ So we’re just all looking forward to seeing the view.
When somebody said: ‘We have a bug that can eat carbon monoxide’, I thought: ‘Oh man, if we can make this work, this is super cool.
‘I think the greenhouse gas issue is a crisis. Every year, we see it get worse, and it’s going to get worse fast. I have a problem not trying to do something about that.’
What does the world look like when LanzaTech succeeds?
By then, I hope our technology is widespread. I hope that a bunch of start-up companies say: ‘Oh I can do that too!’.
I hope hundreds of companies are doing some type of carbon capture and turning it into products, realising you can make money from waste carbon. You can recycle it, you can convert it, and you can do who knows what with it. What I want to do is inspire a whole generation of companies to do this. And I want our technology everywhere, but I also want everyone to say: ‘I can do that better.’
Nature uses every bit. We have to do the same. There should never be any waste. If you use the analogy of a steel mill, there should be nothing coming out of that steel mill that isn’t reused either in the steel mill or somewhere else.
To me, that’s what we have to do to be successful. I don’t think it’s going to be more than 15 years before the world realises the value of reusing everything.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to other entrepreneurs just getting started?
The only advice I would ever give a young entrepreneur is don’t listen to anybody. Everybody will tell you not to do something because it’s stupid, or it’s been done before. Just do whatever you think is right. If you’re going to make a decision, make it fast and keep moving: you can always adjust it. But don’t spend two years thinking about it. Just do it. That’s my advice for anybody that’s young. Of course, I tell you that right after I tell you not to listen to anybody.
Jennifer Holmgren has over 20 years’ experience in the energy sector, including the development and commercialisation of fuels and chemicals technologies and is the author of 50 US patents and 20 scientific publications. She joined LanzaTech as CEO in 2010. Founded in 2005, the company is commercialising technology that captures carbon-rich emissions – and then uses patented anaerobic “bugs” to convert the waste into fuel or products. LanzaTech, which is based near Chicago, Illinois, US, took part in the Unreasonable Impact US programme in November 2016.