#195 Dr. Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech
Jennifer has over 20 years of experience in the energy sector, including a proven track record in the development and commercialization of fuels and chemicals technologies. Prior to LanzaTech, Jennifer was VP and General Manager of the Renewable Energy and Chemicals business unit at UOP LLC, a Honeywell Company. Under her management, UOP technology became instrumental in producing nearly all of the initial fuels used by commercial airlines and the military for testing and certification of alternative aviation fuel. Today, under Jennifer’s guidance, LanzaTech is working towards deploying carbon capture and reuse facilities globally to make fuels and chemicals from waste carbon.
Bigger Than Us #195
This transcript has been lightly edited.
Host Raj Daniels 00:47
Jennifer, how are you doing today?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 01:35
I’m doing great, Raj. Thank you for the invitation to join you today.
Host Raj Daniels 01:39
Jennifer, thank you for the time. Jennifer, let me start with this: I was really spoiled for choices, doing research for the show. There are so many topics we can start on. But I’m going to start on one that’s near and dear to my heart, which is aviation. Tell me about your love for aviation and how that started.
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 01:59
Oh, that’s a great question. My father was an engineer and worked for Avianca, the Colombian airline. So I grew up around planes and learning to love planes and understanding that planes brought people together. That’s how I could visit my grandma. That’s how I could see the rest of the world and interact with people I’ve never met before. So my love from aviation really started when I was a child.
Host Raj Daniels 02:29
Did you ever learn to fly?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 02:31
No, no. I’m also wimp. So I let the other people do the hard stuff.
Host Raj Daniels 02:37
Jennifer, after researching you, I think you’re anything but a wimp. So very interesting. So we said visit your grandmother; where was this?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 02:47
In Colombia. So we moved to the United States when I was nine years old. And we used to go spend our summers with our grandmother in Barranquilla, Colombia, and I always remember that fondly.
Host Raj Daniels 03:01
You know, I always tell my children when we’re on an airplane that, to me, the airplane is the original time machine. It can transport you between time zones before you even know it. And until we have something that’s quicker, this is the epitome of time machine.
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 03:16
True, but considering how much I travel, I would really like a real time machine.
Host Raj Daniels 03:23
So a lot of global travel.
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 03:24
I do, yeah. We do business across the world. We have plants in China, India, and Europe. And so it’s a lot of hopping across the universe, or I guess the planet.
Host Raj Daniels 03:38
Maybe one day, the universe. Who knows?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 03:40
Host Raj Daniels 03:40
So you mentioned travel. Let’s get to the crux of our conversation: LanzaTech. Can you give us an overview of LanzaTech and your current role of the organization?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 03:49
Yeah, so what LanzaTech does is something called gas fermentation. We take gases, and we ferment them to make ethanol. And it’s a lot like making beer, except we don’t start with sugar. And so we’re able to take a lot of carbon-based non-food resources, like waste industrial gases or gasified municipal solid waste, and turn that into ethanol. And we don’t actually think of ethanol as a blending component for gasoline. We think of ethanol as a way to make all the products we use in our daily lives. Because we can turn ethanol into drop-in hydrocarbon sustainable aviation fuel, into polyester, into packaging, and all of the things that you use today at home, but that start life as a fossil carbon with a petroleum or natural gas.
Host Raj Daniels 04:46
And I’ve heard you say fossil carbon isn’t everything. And you mentioned a few of the items in our everyday life. But I believe that you are actually starting with sustainable aviation fuel; is that correct?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 04:59
Sustainable alleviation fuel was one of our pillars. So we developed technology to produce a sustainable aviation fuel. We launched that technology into its own company called LanzaJet. And the reason we did that we wanted to capitalize it independently so that we could go faster. There’s such a gap between the amount of sustainable aviation fuel made today and the amount that we need to meet our carbon reduction targets. So we figured, look, let it go into an independent company, capitalize it independently, and then it will go much, much faster than if it were just a small piece of a startup company.
Host Raj Daniels 05:44
Now, you mentioned the gap between what’s currently being produced and the demand out there. Can you give us some idea from a data perspective what that looks like?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 05:51
Absolutely. So the world uses 100 billion gallons of aviation fuel today. There’s only on the order of 30 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel produced today. So we’ve got to get from 30 million to 100 billion, and with the goals and the targets made by the aviation industry, and the mandates that exist today, we would say that we need to get to 10 billion by 2030. So at the very minimum, we need to get from 30 to 10 billion in eight years.
Host Raj Daniels 06:13
That’s a long way to go.
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 06:29
Yeah, that’s a lot of steel in the ground before you can get to those production volumes.
Host Raj Daniels 06:36
So you mentioned LanzaJet being spun off into its own company. The other products that you’re working on — can you kind of give us a range of some of those items?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 06:44
Sure. So one of our primary products has been polyester, taking ethanol, all the way through to PET. We’ve used that polyester for making — Zara has made it a line of dresses using that, they sold that over the holidays. Lululemon has made a pair of shorts. And we also use PET, as you know, in bottles. And so Mibelle has been selling those bottles in department stores in Germany and Switzerland. So the recycled carbon goes into the production of a bottle that they’ve been using for food-grade smoothies and dishwashing detergent.
The other thing that that we’ve been doing is we’ve been working with Unilever. We’re made surfactants that they’ve introduced into their detergents and the washing materials. So we’re making a wide range of products starting with recycled steel missions. And I have to say, I hope that blows your way. Because I think it should, if you imagine that you’re able to have a dress where the material started life as a carbon atom that was going to be emitted out a steel mill, creating particular emissions, creating greenhouse gases, and so the ability to recycle that and to show that we can make these things outside of the fossil chain keeping fossil carbon in the ground where it belongs, I hope it’s really exciting for you and and your listeners.
Host Raj Daniels 08:26
I think it is very exciting. One of the issues I see around this energy transition is getting the end consumer more engaged. I feel like these list of products that you’ve given me here are actually helping engage the direct consumer.
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 08:44
I absolutely agree. I think first of all, most people don’t realize where the carbon in their stuff comes from. And I think if somebody can buy a Zara dress with a tag that says, “Look, this was made from a steel mill emission,” if nothing else, it’s dinner conversation, right? And we can open people’s eyes to where everything comes from, and then open their eyes to the fact that there is an alternative. And the more demand there is for these alternatives, the more solutions that will have a seat at the table. I hope that we don’t become the only solution. I know there are many others, by the way. And so my entire goal is just to create the conversation that enables people to say, “I have a choice.”
Host Raj Daniels 09:31
Now I know people are very conscious, pocketbooks, etc. How do the prices of these finished products compared to let’s say a comparable good?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 09:40
Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think what you’ll find is some of the leading brands are actually taking the additional cost on board. So polyester is just a part of the dress and the price of the dress. And they’ve taken the increased raw material cost on board. The actual consumer is not seeing an expensive dress. And that’s actually why I am happy to be working with companies like Zara, because they reach an average consumer. We’re not talking about them trying to sell this into a very high-end market. Right? And that’s important because you really create a narrative around what is possible, the pricing structure, etc.
Host Raj Daniels 10:31
Now, speaking of creating a narrative, how did you get involved in LanzaTech?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 10:36
Yeah, in 2010, when the company was ready to scale its technology, they invited me to be their first CEO. And in my background, I had done a lot of work with renewables. I had taken and build UOP, which is part of Honeywell sustainability business, renewable energy business. And at the time, we had developed the technology to take vegetable oils, fats, and greases, and convert them to diesel fuel and jet fuel.
And the problem is that, more and more, I saw that, anything that impacts the food supply, or is adjacent to the food supply, just cannot scale to the quantities of the petrochemical industry. We use 100 million barrels of petroleum every day. The gap is massive. And we can use feedstocks that are adjacent to the food supply, but only to produce some quantity. You can never — unless you use waste resources, you can’t get to that magnitude, and really displace today’s petrochemical industry.
And so when I saw the LanzaTech technology, I realized that, wow, you can get these gases from anything. You can get them from industrial sites, you can get them from trash heaps, you can get them from waste biomass in the fields, and if you can do all of that, and you can convert it to the products that we need in our daily lives, this is game changing. And so I took the role with the view that if I could help the company scale, we could change everything.
Host Raj Daniels 12:22
Now, it’s my understanding, from my research, that you were either retired or very close to retirement, when you took the position. What compelled you to take the challenge on?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 12:35
Well, I was planning to retire, I was done. And, you know, this whole climate issue is — you could really tell in 2010, the level of intensity, the accelerating damage that it would do to our planet. And I was thinking of people and creatures that were going to be impacted near term. And I saw a platform technology that I thought could really make a difference and show the world that there was another way, and maybe help all of us bend the carbon curve. And so well, I figured retirement could wait. I, I couldn’t stop until I could see a way to help the world change its carbon trajectory, which, quite frankly, should scare all of us.
Host Raj Daniels 13:31
What I’ve heard a quote from you about seeing the world through your heart. Can you share what the concept is?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 13:39
Yeah, I really care about animals. And I really care about people. And, you know, my view is as long as I do that, then that means I’m here to help in any way that I can. And so, if you look at my entire career, I cared about energy democracy and the billion people that didn’t have access to power, then I realized, whoa, I can’t give people power if — we can do that if it’s going to be power that creates essentially the destruction of their habitat. And so I’ve always thought, it’s about empathy, right? If you can believe and feel what other people might be feeling, then maybe we’ll act and do something about it.
Host Raj Daniels 14:25
Where does this idea of seeing through your heart come from?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 14:29
Actually, my mom once gave me a book called The Little Prince, and the Little Prince is really a wonderful story about a child who’s taught by a rose to see through his heart, that the only things that matter in life are things that you see through your heart, and that you should be guided by that.
Host Raj Daniels 14:54
That’s a beautiful book. And you mentioned animals. You mentioned animals, too, and I know you have this love for greyhounds, rescued greyhounds Can you share where that came from?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 15:05
Well, it actually came from my husband wanting us to rescue a greyhound then, and reading a lot about greyhounds. And then of course after getting our first rescued greyhound, realizing what a horrendous industry that is, if you want to call it an industry, and how animals are treated. My first two greyhounds came with badly broken fractured legs, and they had broken them racing. And the more you read about the doping and everything else that happens, the more you want to make that stop and really committed, actually. I always tell people that as much as I want to change our carbon trajectory, I want to stop the greyhound industry more. So those are my life goals.
Host Raj Daniels 15:55
So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say something that might not be politically correct. You have this idea of seeing the world through your heart, idea of rescuing greyhounds, stopping an industry, love for the planet. You don’t sound like the personification of what people might imagine to be a CEO.
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 16:20
First of all, I am not an image of a CEO anyways, right? I mean, I’m a 61 year old woman in the processing industry. So if you start there, then you immediately have to say that I don’t look or act anything like what you would expect a CEO to be. I think, actually, honestly, being a woman in the industry is my superpower. I sneak up on people, and nobody expects you to be CEO, nobody expects you to. And also I, I have the ability to, like you said, look with my heart. I mean, I can be soft. I’m allowed to be vulnerable. And that allows me to take on monster challenges because my heart says things have to change. And to be honest, that’s who I am. And it’s nothing like what you would expect. But I hope that compassion is what drives the next generation of people creating change and being CEOs.
Host Raj Daniels 17:26
Well, I absolutely adore it. And as the father of three young daughters, 100% role model for them. So I really appreciate everything you’re doing.
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 17:34
Thank you. Good luck to them.
Host Raj Daniels 17:38
Thank you so much. Now you’ve been on this journey 12 years or so. What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned about yourself?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 17:48
About myself? That’s a really tough question, what do I know about myself? I know that I never give up. I know that I won’t let anything stop me. I know that if I’m surrounded by really good people, that we can solve any problem. And I actually also know and believe that the teams that I’ve been lucky enough, and the friends that I’ve been lucky to have are what’s actually driven me to where I am, and that have gotten me here. The most important thing that I’ve seen throughout my career is how many times, if I stumbled, somebody would put their hand out and say, “Let me help you through this. Let me let me show you how to get to the other side.” And that’s probably my best learning out of all these years.
Host Raj Daniels 18:40
And if I would have to guess, I would say that those people are there because the compassion you’ve shown to either them or people around them.
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 18:50
I hope that it’s a two way street. I think they all know that I’d be there for them. But that’s my only hope.
Host Raj Daniels 18:56
Now, these beliefs of never giving up, nothing stopping you. Where did they come from?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 19:03
Oh, I would say my mom. My mom never gives up. And she pushes pushes every envelope that she can, and she always did for her family and her friends. So I think a lot of it comes from there. And the ability to create change and be in it for the long haul is something that comes from my husband and his incredible patience. And his belief that science and good ideas will help solve problems.
Host Raj Daniels 19:39
You know, I love this idea of being able to be in something for the long haul and take a long view. If you were to perhaps give some advice about how to maintain resilience in the face of obstacles, challenges, and maintain a vision of the long haul. What would you say?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 19:59
I actually think that you have to make sure that the little details don’t get in your way. Part of the problem, and I don’t mean the little details, but the little obstacles. You can’t sweat every detail. You cannot solve every problem at the same time. And so if you keep your eye on the prize, and these things come up in front of you to try to stop you, being able to decide which ones are really going to stop you, versus which ones are just inconveniences, and just walking by the inconvenience rather than trying to tackle it. Because the problem is all these little things that actually aren’t gonna stop you that are just inconveniences. If you give them too much attention, that is what will stop you because it will distract you from what you’re trying to do.
Host Raj Daniels 20:46
Well, speaking of taking on big challenges, LanzaTech has a plant, I believe in China. What was it like to get that up and running?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 20:56
Actually, it was great. We have an amazing team in China. They’re really, really good. And we have amazing partners in China as well, we were able to do a JV there and work together to both demonstrate the technology — because we had to demonstrate it at a significant scale before we could build the first commercial. And so our partners actually helped us through that. And that was quite important for us, is their commitment to new technology, their commitment to the environment and carbon abatement. So it was actually a very positive interaction and continues to be because we are aligned in our vision of a future that’s quite different. And like I said, have a brilliant, brilliant team there.
Host Raj Daniels 21:47
So what can you share about the Chinese attitudes towards climate change that the public might not be aware of?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 21:53
Well, I think that the public doesn’t tend to believe that China cares about the environment. And I would say they do, that there is a real focus on clean water, clean air, and real concern about clean water and clean air. It is a tough road, right to create a better world for the people while reducing emissions. But they are absolutely committed. And you’ll see that a lot of the investments in China recently have been in new technologies that enable decarbonisation, and you see that in EVs. Charging stations at every stop if you’re driving in China, so it’s actually much more than most people would think. And they’re able to adopt technology quickly. They’re able to scale things very quickly. And so all of these things together and combined, I think create a big pool for carbon reduction, pollution reduction, etc.
Host Raj Daniels 23:00
No, we mentioned China, where else does LanzaTech plant?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 23:04
We are also working in India, we have great partners in India. We’re working with Indian oil, building a plant in their Panipat refinery to take a refinery off gas and convert that to ethanol. And they want to take that ethanol to jet fuel as well. So there’s a lot of activity with them. They’re one of our shareholders as well. We’re also working in Europe. You’re starting to see this real focus on energy independence and security of supply. And that’s actually one of the things our technology does extremely well. We’re able to use local resources, local supply, to make products that you need. So you don’t have to always be importing feedstocks like petroleum, like natural gas.
Host Raj Daniels 23:56
Do you have any plants in the US?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 23:58
Not yet. So we’re building a plan to take ethanol to jet fuel in Georgia. That should be up and running next year. And we’re looking for other opportunities. We have a project with Sky Energy to build a waste biogas, raw biogas to ethanol and then to jet fuel plant. So we’re starting the engineering on that. So we’re getting there, but it’s a little further behind than the rest of the world.
Host Raj Daniels 24:26
Now, in one of your interviews, you mentioned this concept of urban oil fields. Can you expand on that?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 24:33
This actually came from one of my partners. One of our partners in Japan, Sekisui, we’ve been working with them to take municipal solid waste to ethanol and then convert that ethanol into everyday products. And they told me once they want to convert all Japanese municipal solid waste sites to produce the products that they get from petroleum, and the comment they made was “We consider these municipal solid waste sites the urban oil fields.” And I love that. I love the beauty of that saying. Because if there’s plenty of carbon locked up in trash and municipal solid waste, and if we could use that as a resource to make everything, then we’re going to create a true closed loop, a true circular economy. And that’s fantastic.
Host Raj Daniels 25:30
No, I love that too. And that’s why I took the note down, because I think it paints a beautiful visual of the potential of all the waste that’s out there.
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 25:40
I agree. It’s almost poetic, right?
Host Raj Daniels 25:43
It really is, you know, when I heard you say that, it really took me back for a moment because right now we have this waste mentality, this “throw everything away” mentality. And I don’t mean to distill it down to just dollars and cents. But when you say something like an urban oilfield, the idea of the opportunity in there from a capitalistic perspective is huge. And all sudden, the incentive and the intentions change.
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 26:09
You are absolutely right. And actually dollars and cents do matter. I do think, Raj, that if we cannot create value from waste, I think it’s going to be very hard to accelerate the transition. I think the world is still — we’re all capitalist at heart, right? And I think that that is a big motivator. And while I think that we have to reset our expectations of how much value or money we can make from everything, take that aside, creating value and making money, I think, will continue to drive our economy. And the faster we get to making money from solving pollution as a problem, I think that will just be a flywheel and make things go faster and faster.
Host Raj Daniels 26:59
I agree, and the one thing I would add to that, and I know this is not very popular opinion. But I think doing so without demonizing other parties — the minute you start demonizing someone for what they’ve done, what they’ve been doing, they tend to dig their heels in, draw lines in the sand, and say they’re not moving. But partnering with, working with, collaboration has to go hand in hand, like what you said.
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 27:24
You’re absolutely right. I mean, if you actually stop and think about it, you know, we can either fight each other, or we can fight the climate problem, right? We don’t get to do both, we don’t have the luxury. And I think sometimes we spend too much time debating what the perfect solution is.
And, you know, I want to believe in unicorns, the poof, fairy dust, but you know, I’m not going to believe them. I’m going to instead, put the head down and get to work. And I think if we don’t set our eyes on the prize, if we don’t set our eyes on creating change, even if it’s just one small step at a time, we’re never going to lead to the end solution. And we forget just how much hard work it takes to create real change. And you don’t get to skip steps. You don’t get to go to the end of the rainbow. You have to work your way there. And so I’m very conscious of, as you said, the demonizing, the arguing over what the right solution is. Everything is the right solution. Anything that decreases carbon emissions, even by a small percent, is the right solution.
Host Raj Daniels 28:34
And to add to the hard work, that time it’ll take, you mentioned the long game. And I heard it said that we didn’t stop using whale oil, because we ran out of whales. That was a 100-year transition from whale oils to where we are today, fossil fuels. And potentially, this transition will take 100 years also. But if we work together, maybe we can help truncate that time and hopefully get in time for some of the warnings we have. But it’s going to take a long time to do so.
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 29:06
It is and that’s, frankly, what scares me, and this is this is why we have to stop arguing with each other because we really do need to go faster. We can’t really afford a 100 year transition this time. And unless we collaborate like you said, we’re not going to get there fast enough. And unless we engage everybody and take them on board, we’re definitely not gonna get there fast enough.
Host Raj Daniels 29:33
You’re right. We can’t. I think one of the challenges here — let me speak for myself. I’m in Dallas, and it gets hot in summer recording winters, etc, etc. But we don’t really see the immediate effects of climate change. We don’t see some of the flooding that happens around the world. Actually, let me rephrase that. Just last month, we had some wildfires in West Texas that we haven’t had before. So you see these issues encroaching slowly, but it’s really hard to get people to pay attention to events that are taking place — I’m going to use a very broad brush and say — over there.
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 30:09
Yeah, I mean, I’m sure you’ve been looking at the temperatures in India, right? It’s over 100 degrees, in some parts it’s 110. And it’s April. Summer hasn’t even arrived. And so, how are people dealing with this? How are creatures dealing with this? Worse, there’s no way out of it, right. And if it’s 110 in April, I don’t even want to know what August is going to be. And I think the global South, as people like to call it, over there, as you just said, we’re going to have to draw on the hearts and our empathy and dig deep. And we’ve got to put ourselves in those folks’ shoes. If we don’t, we will not be motivated to act quickly enough.
Host Raj Daniels 31:01
Jennifer, I see a next career for you in teaching empathy.
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 31:07
I don’t know what I’m gonna be able to teach. But maybe you can help Raj?
Host Raj Daniels 31:13
Absolutely. So let’s fast forward. You mentioned 2030, in our conversation a couple of times. Let’s say Fast Company, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, pick your publication, would write perhaps a headline, short paragraph about LanzaTech, what would you like it to read?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 31:31
I would like it, to read that LanzaTech says has been able to show over the past eight years, over the past ten years, that every waste carbon resource above ground can be converted to all the things we use and need, from aviation fuel, to polyester, to seat belts, to everything. I want people to say, “Oh, my gosh, there really is a post-pollution future. And LanzaTech has shown the way.”
Host Raj Daniels 32:02
It’s a beautiful headline. And I’m looking forward to seeing that. You mentioned all these consumer goods. And I personally get overwhelmed sometimes when I’m walking through the grocery store, just because we’re in the business. And it might happen to you, too, where you look around and you just see how many items have fossil fuels in them. Just take plastics, for example. I mean, everything we have, you know, whether it’s food packaging, health and beauty, whatever you’re looking and touching, it’s all wrapped in or contained in some kind of plastic. And I think your ability with LanzaTech to make a dent in some of those goods is phenomenal vision.
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 32:39
Host Raj Daniels 32:40
So last question, and you kind of gave some advice earlier. But if you could share some advice, words of wisdom, or recommendations with the audience, it could be personal or professional. What would it be?
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 32:50
Dream the big dream. And good ideas aren’t enough. Go execute, go get it done, and don’t let anything stop you on the way.
Host Raj Daniels 33:00
Dream the big dream. Jennifer, I think it’s a great place to end. I really appreciate your time today. I look forward to your continued success with LanzaTech, and catching up with you again soon.
Dr. Jennifer Holmgren 33:10
Thank you, Raj. It was a real pleasure talking to you.
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