#181 Dr. BJ Johnson, CEO & Co-founder of ClearFlame Engine Technologies

Dr. BJ Johnson is CEO and co-founder of ClearFlame Engine Technologies, a growing startup dedicated to developing clean engine technology for heavy-duty truck, off-highway, and industrial applications.

Together with co-founder Dr. Julie Blumreiter, BJ founded ClearFlame to develop solutions that increase the performance of and reduce emissions from internal combustion engines using decarbonized fuel, such as ethanol. BJ was the lead inventor on a patent filed by Stanford University for this work, which now forms the center of ClearFlame’s intellectual property.

BJ’s passion and leadership for this work have helped him to secure investors and strategic partners, including the support of multiple industry manufacturers, agencies like the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, and world-class accelerators like StartX, I-Corps, Ameren Accelerator, and WERCBench Labs.

In 2021, BJ was named one of the Grist 50 — an annual list of emerging leaders from across the US working on fresh, real-world solutions to our world’s biggest challenges — and competed in TechCrunch Startup Battlefield and SXSW Pitch. BJ earned his BS, MS, and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Stanford University.

Bigger Than Us #181

This transcript has been lightly edited.

Host Raj Daniels 00:45

BJ, how are you doing today?

Dr. BJ Johnson 01:11

I am great, Raj. I appreciate the opportunity to be here and to speak with you and your listeners.

Host Raj Daniels 01:16

BJ, I’m super excited to have you on and to dig into ClearFlame. But before I do, I was doing some research on you and your co-founder, Julie, on your website. And I want to start by the DEI statement that you and your co-founder have put out. Can you give some backstory regarding that?

Dr. BJ Johnson 01:34

Yeah, so I am a person of color. I’m half Black, and my co-founder, Julie is a woman. As we approached this fairly traditional space, not just of engineering, but of automotive and engine engineering — it’s a sector that has struggled with DEI in the past. I think they were making great strides there, but there’s still a long way to go. 

Julie and I, we published that open letter on our website because we just wanted to be transparent about how those challenges have sometimes manifested themselves in our experience, not as necessarily a complaint about the world, but as an opportunity to showcase the many ways in which we do have to get better as a society. 

And also to let people know that there are other people out there that like you that there are other BJs and Julies out there, and that you’re not alone, necessarily, in what you’re experiencing. And that we, as co-founders and as a company, are open to having that dialogue as well. I think that’s the first and most important step in solving our DEI issues, is to be able to have open and free dialogue about it.

Host Raj Daniels 02:49

And how have you seen issues manifest?

Dr. BJ Johnson 02:53

I think there’s somewhat of a perceived credibility gap. I think that’s probably the largest one. Certainly being in a room and feeling different is a challenge. But I think that’s one that you can personally overcome. 

I have seen the much larger challenge, for example, of my co-founder, Julie. When she’s presenting very well and rigorously taken scientific data on what we’ve done with our engine, the level of objections sometimes that she gets is not based in science, but just based in conjecture and opinion and beginning with statements statements like, “Well, in my experience, that didn’t happen.” And there’s sort of that disconnect between sometimes what she shares and sometimes what I shared is not viewed as necessarily having that same level of scientific credibility because maybe the face that is presenting that message sounds different, or looks different. And I think that is one of the big issues here, that the problems that we face in the world are so diverse, it’s going to take a huge range of diverse solutions to solve those problems. 

If we really do want to find the best ideas in the world, they’re going to come from a room full of people that look like the world, not necessarily the current environment. And I think that’s where we have to make the largest strides, is to be able to go into these conversations a little more open-minded, of, “Hey, you might be telling a different story in a different way and from someone who looks different, but I need to view this objectively in this larger context of that diversity.” And that difference of opinion is a strength that I need to be prioritizing and valuing and not necessarily viewing as something that needs to be addressed or overcome.

Host Raj Daniels 04:37

Now the company’s raised a significant amount of money in the last few years. How have investors responded or reacted to your position on DEI?

Dr. BJ Johnson 04:48

We’ve been really lucky with the investor base that we have. They are very much supportive in me and Julie and what we’re doing and talking about it. They are very supportive. Special shout out to Ted Dillon and Dan Goldman at Clean Energy Ventures on that, in terms of making something that that they’re raising awareness of within their fund, within their portfolio companies, with their LPs. Not every investor is that way, I think there’s DEI-washing out there, just like there is greenwashing. But ClearFlame has been been lucky in that regard. 

I think our investor base has bought into, “This is a different story from a different group of founders.” And that’s actually an important market differentiation that matters both in the broadest possible meaning of disruptive potential, both economic value and environmental benefit. And so we’ve been lucky. And I’m just hoping that more people kind of walk in the footsteps of what our investors have done and look more critically at how they can find diversity of thought and just diversity of backgrounds in their portfolios.

Host Raj Daniels 05:47

I appreciate you sharing that. And we both mentioned ClearFlame, can you give us an overview of ClearFlame engine technologies and your role at the organization?

Dr. BJ Johnson 05:56

Yeah, so I am the co-founder and CEO here at ClearFlame. My co-founder, Julie and I, we spun the technology out of Stanford in California a little over five years ago. Fundamentally what it is, you can think of us as a parts kit that integrates into a traditional diesel engine design while allowing that engine to keep all of its current operating specs. So everything that has led diesel engines to dominate trucking and agriculture and construction and rail today, that stays in place with the ClearFlame solution. 

But you can completely eliminate the need for dirty diesel fuel and replace it with a decarbonized liquid, something like an ethanol or methanol. And you know why that’s so important in the world today, is there are solutions out there that are farther away from being electrified. And I don’t mean that as a knock on electrification; we should electrify everything that we can, as quickly as we can. The question is, how do we complement that for people in sectors that aren’t ready to make that change? That’s where ClearFlame comes in and addresses decarbonisation from those hard-to-electrify applications by not requiring that big change in user behavior, performance, how jobs get done today, economic cost, any of it.

Host Raj Daniels 07:08

Now, you mentioned a parts kit — you’re retrofitting diesel engines? Can you give us some idea, without giving away any secret sauce, how it works?

Dr. BJ Johnson 07:17

Yeah. So two parts of that question, I can kind of go into the how it works, and then also sort of the go-to-market pathway. The how it works at its heart is pretty simple. The lower carbon liquid fuels are traditionally hard to ignite. That’s why they don’t work well in diesel engines. But at its heart, it’s our technology is, if you get it hot enough, anything burns. So effectively, we are creating a higher temperature combustion process by rerouting things like hot air and hot exhaust, adding some thermal protection to the engine so you don’t compromise the durability of the metal within the engine, and then making the injection systems compliant with these lower carbon fuels. And when you marry all that together, you can emulate the performance of the diesel exactly. 

But with that much cleaner burning and lower cost fuel. In terms of how do you go to market with it, absolutely, retrofits are a great place to start. It’s an important part of our technology, that backwards compatibility. Even if we could snap our fingers today and make every new piece of truck and equipment coming off the assembly line electrified, we’d still have millions and millions of diesel engines out there. So we cannot only retrofit those engines going backwards in time, we can also work with OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), and more of a licensing route to get our technology integrated into new engine production. That’s something we’re exploring with John Deere right now. 

So it’s not just a retrofit, but the fact that it can be retrofit and new OEM is a big part of our value.

Host Raj Daniels 08:43

Now, you mentioned John Deere. When I think of John Deere think of tractors. But can you give an example of how big the market is and the different kinds of engines you can address?

Dr. BJ Johnson 08:53

Yeah, it is a technology that fundamentally can work in any size diesel engine. So the answer to your question is less about technical constraint and more about market position. So if you think of the the diesel market as a giant candle — and my co-founder, Julie explains this better than me — on one end, you have the smaller engines: the passenger cars. And then as you grow bigger, you’re looking at pickup trucks and delivery vans. Then you start to hit the larger engines: the trucks, the tractors, the construction equipment, the rail. All the way on the far end of that spectrum, you have solutions like the big deep sea marine engines. 

This is a market that, at its whole, represents over a trillion dollars in economic opportunity, but also five gigatons or so of CO2 emissions. And so where ClearFlame comes in — you’ve got these solutions like Tesla that are burning away at that diesel candle from the easy-to-electrify end: the passenger cars. At ClearFlame we’re looking at it from the other side. So we’re starting with the trucks, the tractors, the sets that are harder to electrify. Where do we actually meet in the middle? Where’s that trade off point where ClearFlame becomes a worse solution then electric? Maybe it’s at one of those medium range delivery vehicles. The point is, it is such a massive problem. And it is such a massive business opportunity that we need to be opening a two front war on how we displace diesel out of the market, and ClearFlame is just coming at it from the hard-to-electrify direction.

Host Raj Daniels 10:23

Now you mentioned methanol and ethanol. How does a — let’s say for example — a truck access that kind of fuel?

Dr. BJ Johnson 10:31

Yes, it’s a critical question. It’s the first one we get from any customer: truck, tractor, anyone. The key thing to remember here is that commercially oriented sectors — larger companies and and equipment user bases — interact with the fuel ecosystem differently than you or I do. I am not lucky enough to have an electric car yet. So I go to the regular gas station and fill up. A lot of trucks never actually go to a publicly available retail station but have their own private refueling network. So a lot of truck fleets right now do their own diesel refueling logistics. It is just as easy to use the same logistics model and switch the fuel over to ethanol. The same is true for farmers that will have a diesel tank on their farm. You can add that ethanol tank. There are individual owner operators out there that do use the truck stops of the world, the Love’s and the Flying J’s. So after we have that initial deployment and expansion as a company, we will also be partnering with the retail networks as well so that we can meet that individual need, but we’re starting with the ones that are managing their own field logistics, to simplify the answer to your question, Raj.

Host Raj Daniels 11:47

Now, over the last few years, there’s been some controversy specifically around ethanol, about agricultural land being taken up for corn that creates ethanol. How do you address those questions?

Dr. BJ Johnson 12:00

Yeah, in a couple of ways. First is kind of pointing out that those controversies and questions were raised very early on in the kind of scaling of ethanol that started happening back in 2006 or so. The sector has had 15 years to grow. And it’s shown its ability to grow to the scale it’s at today, without really compromising the amount of farmland that’s needed. 

The amount of farmland that we have today, with 17 billion gallons of ethanol being produced, is roughly the same as what it was 15 years ago. So part of it is educating that, some of those fears, the sector was able to internalize and address with things like more efficient processes and better crop yields. It is still an area that we need to stay diligent on because in addition to the land use change question, the ethanol production process is still not perfect. Using corn ethanol on a lifecycle carbon emissions basis is about 50% better than petroleum diesel fuel. 

Now, that’s not perfect, of course. It’s not something you should thumb your nose at either. It’s roughly the same amount of carbon mitigation that you get from a switch to an electric vehicle today because the grid is not perfectly clean. 

And just like I believe very strongly that we need to deploy electric vehicles and decarbonize the grid in parallel — get the grid to net zero — we have to start swapping out diesel powered equipment with ethanol powered equipment, and then also work with the ethanol sector to drive their product to net zero ethanol. That’s something the Renewable Fuels Association has taken on very much. But if we don’t remain diligent on driving down ethanol’s carbon intensity, then the fuel will become irrelevant sooner rather than later. I think the good news is the sector understands that, and they’re making the right steps to address it.

Host Raj Daniels 13:49

And going back to the actual engine itself, does it perform the same or better with your product, meaning from a mileage perspective, life of the engine, etc?

Dr. BJ Johnson 14:01

It’s a few different variables within that. In terms of engine performance, that’s completely identical. So the power is the same, the torque is the same. It even sounds the same as a diesel engine, which is not great in all applications. But from the perspective of the user, you cannot tell what the engine is running on, which is great in terms of adoptability. You’re not asking someone to change the way they interact with their engine or the piece of equipment. Efficiency wise, it is just as efficient as a diesel engine. 

Now ethanol has less energy in it than an equivalent volume of diesel fuel. And so as a result, you have to use more ethanol for the equivalent amount of diesel mileage, but that’s something else that the ethanol sector has really taken on. Ethanol can’t just be carbon and cost competitive with diesel on a per-gallon basis, but on a per diesel gallon equivalent per equal amount of fuel energy basis, because that’s what’s going to give you the cost and carbon savings. That’s true in the environment we live in today. 

So while your miles per gallon might be lower, your dollars per mile, which is the number you really care about, is also lower because the fuel is that much cheaper and that much cleaner. And that’s the metric that we’re engineering around.

Host Raj Daniels 15:22

And how long did it take you to go from idea bench to production?

Dr. BJ Johnson 15:28

Yeah, so kind of the background: ClearFlame originally grew out of what was my PhD thesis. I was lucky enough to be able to turn my PhD into a company even though I actually don’t do that much engineering anymore. I’m leading more of the business initiatives, I would say that effort kind of started in earnest in 2011, or 2012, or so. 

So it’s been 10 years in that regard. I’d say it was really around 2014 and 2015. That Julie and I really started thinking about how we turn this into a company. We formally incorporated a little over five years ago, and that’s when we left the the lab at Stanford had the opportunity to move to Argonne National Lab to continue development, raising our first seed funding from Clean Energy Ventures, getting the series A led by Breakthrough Energy, and to where we are today, that was where we’re starting that first customer testing. The true ClearFlame process, leaving the university, research, and getting to customer product, that was really about a five year timeline.

Host Raj Daniels 16:28

No, you mentioned how you turn this idea into a company, the crux of our conversation is why would you turn this idea into a company. What motivated you? What pushed you to — I mean, starting a company is never easy. What did you see that needed to be done that drove you to do this?

Dr. BJ Johnson 16:44

Yeah, it kind of comes from my previous answer about the diesel market, needing to open up a two front war on diesel, and what are we going to do about those hard-to-electrify applications? I think what Julie and I saw back in 2014 or so was this dialogue around electrification, the rise of Tesla, and what does that mean for the American market. And all that was well and good, but but no one was talking about those solutions that were much farther away from having an electric vehicle solution. So we wanted to start the company in part to complement the electrification message and to start decarbonizing our global economy faster. 

The other half of it, though, just goes back to Julie and my roots and getting into energy in the first place, which is, there are two sides of the the energy problem on this planet. We talk about the need to achieve sustainability. But there are still close to a billion people in the world that don’t have access to basic electricity, and multiple more billions that need more access to the goods that are enabled by movement in diesel vehicles. So if we want to equitably solve our sustainability issues, we need to be driving down the amount of fossil fuels we’re using while simultaneously increasing energy access. And we can only do that if we’re looking at technologies that can be deployed in a non-capital intensive way, which is another one of the big benefits of using the traditional design and traditional fuels. 

We can address those markets that are not just hard to electrify, but also more capital-constrained because to be blunt, those areas need a solution too, and we’re not solving our global problems unless we meet that need.

Host Raj Daniels 18:26

You mentioned increasing energy access and global problems. Why is that important to you?

Dr. BJ Johnson 18:31

Because I fundamentally believe that everyone on this planet deserves a certain standard of living. I think it is completely inappropriate to look at the amount of carbon per individual that we emit in the Western world and say, “Well, yeah, okay, we got to get that kind of under control. But people that are currently emitting much less right now, they need to stay that way.” I mean, that’s absurd and as unfair as it sounds. I think, if we are solving our climate problems by leaving more people without goods and electricity, that’s an unacceptable trade-off. I personally find it offensive, and that’s what we’re here to do something about, to prove that we do not need to ask people to make that trade-off. And that’s part of what ClearFlame is about.

Host Raj Daniels 19:16

Now, it seems like this idea of equity, being equitable runs deep in your veins. Where does that come from?

Dr. BJ Johnson 19:25

It’s a great question. I think it’s one that has come very early from my parents. That was something that was always very important to them. I think it was instilled in me at an early age, the areas in which I have been lucky, and that I am the product of my family, where I grew up, and the opportunities we have here in the United States. 

The education system that I was able to be a part of: being able to go to Stanford largely on financial support. That is something that would not have been possible if the world had not been looking to treat me in a fair way. And as a result, I think the burden then shifts to pay that forward, to also make sure that I’m doing what I can to make sure those fair opportunities extend elsewhere into the world. It’s just the base value of “don’t forget where you come from.” And if someone does something for you, make sure you do what you can to help in return.

Host Raj Daniels 20:28

I love the idea of paying it forward. I kind of wish there was a requirement.

Dr. BJ Johnson 20:34

Me as well. I think it is something we are largely starting to see. I think we are — don’t get me wrong, there’s a long way to go. But we are seeing a generational shift right now in terms of “enough is enough, let’s stop kicking the can down the road.” In many ways, we’ve had the opposite of pay it forward in the past: “Let’s reap benefits now and ask future generations to pay for it when it comes to our carbon emissions and climate change.” And now we’re starting to see a generation that’s saying “Enough is enough. That needs to shift, and we need to start talking about how the world 15 years from now is going to be a lower carbon one, not one that is prioritizing our lives today, regardless of what that means for carbon intensity in the future.”

Host Raj Daniels 21:19

Yes. And to add to that, I think you mentioned a couple of times as being part of the solution. I think that we need to instill a more holistic way of looking at the world, from an ecosystem perspective, and realize that — we kind of go through the education system, and we have all our individual subjects, but not very often do you hear about how one might relate to the other, not realizing that this is an entire ecosystem, and pulling on one string affects the entire system.

Dr. BJ Johnson 21:47

I think that’s absolutely true. And I think sometimes, particularly in the United States, which I can speak to most credibly, there’s a deeper problem of this notion that there always has to be a winner and the rest are losers, that there’s going to be a single silver bullet to just solve our problems. And that’s going to get all of the resources and glory and economic benefit and whatever other metric you want to provide. 

The reality is that the world’s problems are too diverse to find that one silver bullet solution, diverse in terms of application, geography, wealth disparity, all of it. And if we’re serious about solving our global problems, one of the worst possible things we can do is say, “Well, let’s figure out what that silver bullet is going to be and invest in that completely.” Because the longer we spend waiting for a silver bullet, the more time we’re going to spend ignoring sectors for which that silver bullet might not apply anytime in the next few decades, and we don’t have those next few decades to spend. I think there’s been examples of this in the past. 

You know, we live in a country right now that’s making great strides when it comes to electrification, which is awesome, but back in 2006, 2007, or so, everyone thought that, at least at the federal level, we were going to switch over to a hydrogen economy. And as a result, we saw a lot of battery companies flee the United States for other areas. 

And I think we’ve learned the error of our ways. We realize that batteries and electrification fit in. But that was a decade of lost investment in this country. And I think that’s a mistake we cannot afford to repeat. We need to look at hydrogen, we need to look at battery electrification, we need to look at low-carbon liquid fuels, different renewable technologies like wind and solar. If we’re not doing all of that at once, the breadth of the energy problem is so massive, and the time we have to solve it is so relatively short compared to how ingrained fossil fuels have become in our global economy, we need all hands on deck all of the above and doing it all at once.

Host Raj Daniels 23:53

You know, you mentioned the winner-take-all, and it kind of reminds me of the finite game versus infinite games. Are you familiar with that?

Dr. BJ Johnson 24:00

Not in particular, no.

Host Raj Daniels 24:03

In the sense that — I’m going to talk about the West, where our experience is — that we look at life from a finite perspective, winner takes all, only one winner, whereas an infinite game would be somewhere where we all continue to play and we all continue to kind of win.

Dr. BJ Johnson 24:18

Yeah, so it’s kind of a zero-sum type thing or not. Yeah, I think we absolutely do suffer from the mindset of, this is something finite, and someone has to lose for someone to win. There is some truth to that, of course. We need to cap our global emissions, which means if one sector is emitting carbon, then another sector has to pick up the mantle and reduce more carbon on their side. So there is some reality to that in terms of what we have to achieve as a planet, what sustainability means. 

But within it — and this is a huge part of what what ClearFlame is here to say — one of the things that has slowed the move towards sustainability is this notion of something like a green premium, right? And that that goes to your finite game comment: “Well, I can reduce my carbon, but it’s going to cost me more. And who’s going to compensate me for that? Are you going to pay more for the loaf of bread I deliver? If not, how am I recovering my transportation costs?” 

At ClearFlame, one of the most powerful tools we have is that our solution is actually lowering the cost to do business for our users. The fuel that we’re using is cheaper on a per energy basis than diesel. And so as a result, it’s not sustainability or economic windfall. It’s both at once, which means some people will adopt ClearFlame technology for sustainability goals, other will adopt it for purely economic reasons. 

But look, if you’re adopting it for sustainability, you’re gonna save money. And if you’re adopting it for the economic reasons, you’re still gonna reduce your carbon footprint. And by aligning those two market forces, that’s how we’re going to drive adoption, and by extension, decarbonisation at the rate it needs to happen.

Host Raj Daniels 26:00

So going back to ClearFlame, you’ve been on the journey about 10 years. What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned about yourself?

Dr. BJ Johnson 26:07

I think one of the big lessons I’ve learned in in starting ClearFlame and kind of my growth as an entrepreneur in this space — really, two big ones. One is just the need for discipline. That’s something that I was very lucky to have to kind of develop throughout my swimming career, in that past life, and applying that same discipline to ClearFlame. This is a massive problem at a global scale. It requires a world-class team and a world-class effort to solve it. And you don’t get to world class without having that certain layer of discipline. And I think the second value is sort of related to that, which is, you have to get past a fear of failure. 

Again, I was lucky in my swimming career. I was on the US National Team multiple times. But I tried and failed to make the the Olympic team multiple times as well. But I wouldn’t have reached the heights I reached in the swimming career if I was afraid of what would happen if I failed to make the Olympic team. And I ultimately did, but I had a lot of other success as well. And that was something I can look back on with pride. 

I think the same logic has to get applied to ClearFlame. We can’t be afraid of the many different ways that we can fail. We have to do what we can right now to maximize our potential, the value of our outcomes, both economically and environmentally, and stay focused on that. And don’t let the mental mental barriers of, “Well, what if it doesn’t work,” drag us down. You have to be willing to go somewhat blindly on that journey and trust on your ability to deliver.

Host Raj Daniels 27:48

Now as a co-founder and CEO, you have 100 different requests coming to you on a daily basis. Can you give an example of how you apply discipline to that?

Dr. BJ Johnson 27:58

The request is actually a perfect example. Because, yes, there are 100 different requests that come in. And I think there’s two things you really have to apply to that. One is you have to be willing to say no — and that’s not a knock on the request that might have come in, but simply, there is a bigger burning fire at ClearFlame or in the world that has to be addressed. And my time has to go there. 

Going back to your finite games, time is zero-sum, and you have to be cognizant of that as you budget your time. But also being diligent in your follow up. I think that’s one of the things that ClearFlame has done very well in our relationships is, as those inbound requests do come in, and we have that partnership potential, making sure you flag it and you document it, and you track it in terms of — the burden is on you as a startup to make sure you’re growing those relationships. If you’re not making it easy for people to do business with you, no one’s gonna do business with you. 

And so you need to realize that you’re the one responsible for making sure the experience for the people that do reach out to ClearFlame, that we do need to grow the relationship with, that they’re hearing from clear flame with the information that they need at the cadence they expect it.

Host Raj Daniels 29:06

Sounds like you have a system in place. Would you mind sharing?

Dr. BJ Johnson 29:11

I wish I had a system in place. It’s actually something that has been part of my personal growing pains, I think in the last six months or so. At ClearFlame, we started this year with about five employees, and we’re at 15, 16 at this point, and we’ll get to 25 or so by next year. 

So those requests you were talking about, Raj, it used to be just the external ones and I could manage them. But now that there’s a lot of internal leadership I have to do, I do need to become more diligent in in streamlining that process of not just how do I take care of my own work, but how do I learn to delegate properly? And that’s been a learning experience for me. When I was doing my PhD, I was alone on that project until the last year or two when another grad student joined me So I got very used to working alone in kind of a lone wolf type way that was not naturally leading itself to developing an ability to delegate. And that’s something that I’ve had to learn. And I’ve been very lucky, to your question about process, to have some experienced people come in at the business development level, at the technical leadership level, at the admin level. 

Cheryll LaBoon, who joined us a few months ago to help teach me how to how to run a company as an executive — I’ve been learning systems and processes from them. But I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t have a long way to go.

Host Raj Daniels 30:33

But I really appreciate the candidness and transparency in that.

Dr. BJ Johnson 30:36

Yeah. And of course, that’s important. Don’t be afraid of who you are.

Host Raj Daniels 30:39

I love that. So let’s fast forward. 2030. So 9, 10 years from now, if Fortune, Fast Company, NewsWeek were to write a headline about ClearFlame, what would you like to read? This is real-time goal-setting.

Dr. BJ Johnson 30:55

I’ll think about the headline for a second, I’ll kind of start with what I would want the body of that article to be, which is, by 2030, I would really like to see ClearFlame at the point where — if we’re succeeding as a company, we’ll be certainly having success in multiple market verticals. We will have our trucks on the road and customers loving what they’re seeing, we will have the agricultural and construction equipment in the field through John Deere, we will have power generators supporting the utilities and microgrids and backup generation and emergency generation for power generators. By that point, I would like to see that we have started a global movement. And just like Tesla had to prove that people wanted EVs, but if the other OEMs, if Ford and GM and all of the Europeans were not looking at what Tesla has done and said, “Hey, we can meet this market need too,” then electric vehicles would not be having the market impact that they’re predicted to have. 

Tesla, even as powerful and valuable as they are, cannot do that on their own. And ClearFlame is not going to solve the decarbonize liquid fuel problem on our own. We need other OEMs to start following in our footsteps. And that’s where I want to be by 2030. So what does that headline look like? Maybe a story of how university research can ultimately spark a global movement towards a different way of solving these problems. ClearFlame, establishing a leadership position and leading a coalition of how we get decarbonized liquid fuels into a more diverse range of markets. I think, a headline in that direction, of not just having it be an article about ClearFlame, but about the movement that we have started and where we’re going with that movement.

Host Raj Daniels 32:39

Like I can see that. Absolutely. And I think to your point, it sounds like ClearFlame, pulled the market along and influenced people to think differently, specifically when it comes to diesel.

Dr. BJ Johnson 32:49

Yeah, I think it was a mistake we made early on in the company in assuming that the proof would be in the technological pudding, if the solution worked, that people would get it. And I think we did learn a year or two ago that there is a lot of misunderstandings about how the alternative fuels work in the market today. Raj, a couple of your previous questions — what the real environmental impact is: these fuels have become significantly better than they used to be. What the economic benefits are: they are a lot cheaper than they used to be. We’ve had to educate the market on those realities so that we could build the following that makes people see why our technology makes sense.

Host Raj Daniels 33:28

We’ve kind of mentioned Tesla several times this conversation, but so much is around the narrative, the storytelling off the actual product itself.

Dr. BJ Johnson 33:35

Yes, absolutely. I think it’s a little different in the Tesla and ClearFlame cases. I think the way Elon Musk was able to succeed with Tesla was largely about making electric cars cool, which he has. I would love to be able to have a Tesla, and I’m hoping someday that I do. That was kind of the narrative shift that happened in the EV market, that this was a product that people had to have, just like an iPhone, and we’re seeing it pay off for Tesla in the same way that that the iPhone example paid off for Apple. ClearFlame, we probably can’t emulate that strategy exactly. 

People generally don’t buy trucks because they’re cool. They buy them for those economic benefits. And I think that’s where ClearFlame’s narrative is. Sustainability can also be good for your bottom line. And that’s the narrative that we need to change, get rid of this false dichotomy of, “Am I reducing carbon or saving money?” And if we can get the sector bought in on that, based on the underlying facts — everyone knows that sustainability pressure is real, but to solve that problem in a way that’s also improving your margin is an absolute slam dunk business case, and that’s how we’re going to start this movement.

Host Raj Daniels 34:47

Right now, I’m imagining a big rig or a tractor with a nice little decal on the side that says “improved by ClearFlame.”

Dr. BJ Johnson 34:55

Yes, I think that’s actually pretty spot-on. The example I give them is, it’s kind of like the “Intel inside.” ClearFlame inside. Everything about this truck is what you expect in terms of how a diesel truck operates today, but you can know that the cost and sustainability benefits are there because this is a ClearFlame Inside product. And that’s a brand you can know and trust.

Host Raj Daniels 35:17

Absolutely. And like the car enthusiasts — I’ve been around the truck community, if not the tractor community — but I’m guessing that those communities are very strong amongst themselves.

Dr. BJ Johnson 35:26

Yes. These are groups where word of mouth travels quickly. They want to be early adopters, but also teach the sector about why they’re on the cutting edge of technology, and why that matters for their business. And so making sure that customer experience is good. And to double down on what I just said, that we have a solution that people can trust to get their jobs done and to continue to put food on their table. That’s a critical part of who we need to be.

Host Raj Daniels 35:54

I love that idea. BJ, my last question — and you kind of touched on it earlier, when you spoke about discipline in the examples you gave. This could be professional or personal. If you could share some advice, words of wisdom, or recommendations with the audience, what would it be?

Dr. BJ Johnson 36:10

You brought up the discipline example, but I think I would double down harder on my second point, which is, don’t be afraid to dive in with two feet. Don’t be afraid of failure, There are 10 different ways ClearFlame could have failed up until the point today, and there are probably 100 different ways we could fail going forward. What really is the worst thing that happens? We got to pick ourselves up and find something new to work on to continue to drive the change we want to see in the world. And I think that’s a really small price to pay, compared to the impact that we can have with this technology. 

So I would say, be willing to bet on yourself, and take that risk to make that change. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” to use that quote. And I would also speak directly, you know, to your previous questions about DEI. To those out there that might be looking at engineering, whether because you’re an underrepresented minority, or because you’re a woman. And seeing an engineering class that largely does not look like you, that’s not something that you need to be afraid of. 

I have found that those rooms generally are, particularly amongst my generation, very welcoming to that diversity. And I think the world is looking for more of us, more of that diverse intellectual base that’s out there to stand up and be recognized and add our thoughts to this global discussion. So same answer in the end: don’t be afraid. Especially don’t be afraid just because what you’re saying might be different or because you look different or feel different. That’s a change we have to see in the world, and we have to be part of making it happen.

Host Raj Daniels 37:45

Well, I think “bet on yourself, and don’t be afraid” is a great place to leave off. BJ, I really appreciate your time today. And I’m super excited for what you’re doing and catching up with you again soon.

Dr. BJ Johnson 37:54

Yeah. Raj, could I actually have one more thought? Absolutely. Yeah. And I would say, you know, that would be the kind of advice I would give to the individuals. And I think the statement I would make to us as a society is, “Be willing to embrace a range of solutions.” Kelly Senecal is an individual from the automotive space. You know, he says, “The future is not just electric. It’s eclectic.” And I think that applies narrowly within the technology that ClearFlame is talking about today. How do we complement electrification? I think it’s true in terms of the way the faces look of the people who are solving these problems. Be willing to invite embrace diversity of thought, the diversity of solutions, and working together to achieve our global goals.

Host Raj Daniels 38:41

I love that, not only electric but eclectic.

Dr. BJ Johnson 38:43

I can’t take credit for that one. But yeah, it’s a great quote.

Host Raj Daniels 38:46

BJ, appreciate your time.

Dr. BJ Johnson 38:47

Thank you very much, Raj, appreciate yours as well.

Host Raj Daniels 38:50

Thank you.

Thank you for listening. If you like our show, please give us a rating and review on iTunes. And you can show your support by sharing our show with a friend or reach out to us on social media, where you’ll find us under our Nexus PMG handle. If there’s a subject or topic you’d like to hear about, send me an email at BTU@nexuspmg.com, or contact me via our website, nexuspmg.com. And while you’re there, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter where we share what we’re reading and thinking about in the cleantech, green tech sectors. Bigger than us is a Nexus PMG production.

Raj Daniels

You may also like: