#114, Mark Herrema, Co-Founder and CEO of Newlight Technologies

Mark Herrema is the Co-Founder and CEO of Newlight Technologies.

In 2003, Mark co-founded Newlight with a vision of using greenhouse gas as a resource to make high-performance, sustainable materials.

After a decade of research, Mark and his team developed a technology that uses a natural process found in the ocean to make a material called AirCarbon. AirCarbon is a meltable energy storage molecule made in almost all known living things that is strong, meltable, and ocean-degradable.

AirCarbon is now being used to replace plastic in single-use foodware, fashion products, and a variety of other applications.  Newlight has been honored to receive recognition as “Biomaterial of the Year” by the Nova Institute, “Innovation of the Year” by Popular Science, and “Technology Pioneer” by the World Economic Forum.  In 2016, Newlight was awarded the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Mark graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University, and has since garnered over 15 years of expertise in process engineering, polymer functionalization, and strategic business development.

Bigger Than Us Episode 114

This transcription has been lightly edited for readability.

Host Raj Daniels  02:17

So Mark, I like to open the show by asking my guests the following question. If you were asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be? 

Mark Herrema  02:28

I find that to be a hard question, which maybe isn’t itself telling? Well, I play a lot of piano, that’s something that I picked up at an age when everybody else is probably giving it up. I picked it up when I was, I think 12 or 13. So I took about six months of lessons and I was doing piano recitals, you know, as this bigger guy, and there’s these four and five-year-olds, and we’re playing the exact same song. So I was pretty bad for a long time, but I just never stopped. And it’s become a real love of mine. So I get to play a fair amount. And it’s one of my passions, and that I don’t really share that with too many people. But it’s something I really like.

Host Raj Daniels  03:17

But I think that’s something telling about your personality there. And I’ll kind of frame it this way. My oldest daughter did Taekwondo a few years ago. And every once in a while a parent would join. And, you know, you mentioned the size difference, which is very obvious when you have eight, nine-year-olds, and you’ve got an adult in the room there to white belt starting. So you had this moment here when you were let’s say 12, 13 years old, you’re doing recitals with children that were younger than you, let’s say between the ages of six and 10. And you were able to go through that phase and uncomfortable phase about, you know, being in a room where perhaps you did stand out what was it about you that allowed you to stay with it?

Mark Herrema  03:57

I had this strange love for soundtracks, and I really loved hearing them played on the piano. So one of my favorite movies growing up was was Terminator II. And my mom was in the church choir, and she had this little 10 key keyboard. And after the movie came out, I saw that keyboard and I tried to reproduce the soundtrack, and then I just obsessively wanted to play it everywhere I was, like at church or department store or whatever. And so my mom eventually said, Hey, do you want a slightly less terrible keyboard? And so I got that, and I just really just had this weird joy for the sound. And so I think maybe also, you know, my parents weren’t asking me to do it. It was almost if anything in the other direction. And so it was always just a joy that I was able to freely pursue at my own pace. There were times when I didn’t do much and then and then now it’s something that I do a lot more frequently. So I don’t know, I think it was just following the joy.

Host Raj Daniels  05:11

What was your favorite scene from Terminator II?

Mark Herrema  05:16

I mean, it’s hard to beat the tear-jerker when he’s, you know, at the very end where he gives the thumbs up. But my, my all-time favorite part of the movie this is coming through in a few different places is this quote that, that runs through both T I, and T II, which is that there’s no fate. And the whole, the whole quote is, the future is not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves. And that is something that has been a major pillar for me throughout my whole life. And it’s something that also plays very strongly into our company.

Not to segue, but you know, when we look at climate change, there is, I think, a broad sense that this thing is happening, number one, which is absolutely true. But number two, almost that it’s so big, that are we are we really going to stop it or are we just shouting at each other while we fall into the abyss here? I think that it’s really important to remember that the future is not set, right? The story is not yet written. And we can still change things by our actions. And so the whole motif of, granted, it’s Terminator, but just you know, not giving up like never stopping and always operating with the knowledge that your actions can change the future that that was just very inspiring to me.

Host Raj Daniels  06:54

So I’m a Terminator fan. Also. Did you watch the last one last year?

Mark Herrema  07:00

There have been so many. What was the one last year?

Host Raj Daniels  07:03

It was the final one with when Linda and Arnold welcome back.

Mark Herrema  07:06

Yeah, I did. I did. I actually loved it for a couple of reasons. But the biggest reason why I loved it going back to the beginning was they finally started to reuse the soundtrack, this epic soundtrack. And thank God James Cameron, you know, finally brought it back in. But you know, getting Arnold in there and seeing him as a family man, I thought it was great.

Host Raj Daniels  07:31

I thought, yeah, hilarious. Just seeing him, you know, in that cabin out in the woods.

Mark Herrema  07:35

So funny. So yeah, I think in my order would be two would be the best. Terminator I is a close second. And then it fell off distinctively for a while. The Terminator Redemption was awesome. And then it’s just, the nostalgia of this last one was was great, too.

Host Raj Daniels  07:56

So I promise to leave Terminator behind in a moment. But that opening scene in Terminator II in the bar, to me is one of my favorite scenes.

Mark Herrema  08:03

Oh, yeah, I need your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle? Like, I don’t know how you beat that?

Host Raj Daniels  08:09

Absolutely. Now, let’s do the segue here. You mentioned climate change earlier. Can you give the audience an overview of Newlight and your role at your organization? 

Mark Herrema  08:17

I’m co-founder and CEO. I co-founded the company with my friend Ken Kimball back in 2003. And Newlight was founded on the mission to turn greenhouse gas into useful products. So our concept was, you know, everybody’s looking at greenhouse gas, or at the time was looking at greenhouse gas, it’s just sort of this, you know, waste product that just going into the air, and we should just either try to bury it or tax it. And we said, Well, wait a minute. There’s there’s distinctive value in that material, greenhouse gas. Nature converts greenhouse gas into materials all day, every day. Why can’t we do something similar?

And so what we set out on was a mission to figure out how to do that in a controlled, scalable way to make products that could compete with incumbent materials. But instead of being made from synthetic fossil fuels are made from greenhouse gas, and specifically methane or carbon dioxide. So that’s what we do. We take greenhouse gas, we turn it into this beautiful material called air carbon, which can be used to replace things like plastics and leather, but they have distinctive benefits, for instance, ocean degradability, or carbon negativity that we can use to start to change the environmental impact of some major industries.

Host Raj Daniels  09:42

And so you kind of touched on it. What kind of products can be made from what you’re producing?

Mark Herrema  09:50

Air carbon is this molecule that is made inside of living cells. More specifically, what we found was that within a number of environments, but including the ocean, there are microorganisms that eat greenhouse gases for food. And when they do that one of the things that they make inside of their cells is this molecule that we call air carbon. It just so happens that when you extract this material, and you turn it into a fine white powder, it’s meltable. And because it’s meltable, you can then form it into all kinds of parts, pieces, shapes. You can turn into fiber and thread, you can turn it into a sheet which can be made into leather, you can form into shapes to replace plastics.

But the key thing is because it’s made throughout nature, if it ends up in nature, nature recognizes it as itself and knows what to do with it kind of like a tree leaf. So that means you can make something that looks and feels like plastic, but it’s totally ocean degradable. The other thing is, as it’s done in nature when a tree grows, that’s a carbon-negative process, when we make our air carbon product because we use renewable power, that’s also a carbon-negative process.

And so not only are we able to replace things like plastics for knives, and forks and spoons, but we’re also able to use the material to replace things like leather, so to create a carbon negative leather material. And so we’re using that today in the fashion space. So those are a couple of the places that we’re moving into fashion and footwear. But air carbon is a pretty versatile material. So over time, we’d love to get into other industries, like furniture and automotive and electronics and things of that nature.

Host Raj Daniels  11:36

So you mentioned the white powder. Is it converted into filament? Is the white powder converted into a filament? And then you extrude for 3D printing? Or do you go through a more traditional process?

Mark Herrema  11:47

Yeah, that’s effectively it. So what we do is, we produce the material inside of the cells, these microorganisms, then we put that through a high-pressure filtration process that separates the microorganisms from the air carbon material. We then dry it. That creates it this sort of fluffy white powder. And then we take that pattern, we run it into what’s called an extruder. And that’s effectively where you make a filament. So you melt it, and it comes out as these sort of spaghetti strands, you run it through a cooling process. And then once it’s solidified, you can chop it up into little pellets. And then now once you have those pellets, you can run those into a wide range of machines that make everything from fiber to solid shapes.

Host Raj Daniels  12:34

So injection molding, etc.

Mark Herrema  12:37

Yeah, injection molding, extruding, effectively, almost any process that’s currently used to make plastics, we can we can use that process with our carbon as well.

Host Raj Daniels  12:51

So if somebody out there wanted to go buy something made from your product, where would they go? 

Mark Herrema  12:57

Well, we’re super excited to just have launched two brands that use air carbon. And so we’ve launched our foodwear brand. It’s called Restore Foodware. And we’ve also launched our fashion brand, which is called Covalent Fashion. So they would just go on our websites. So we’ve got newlight.com, which is where you know, it’s just sort of the overall company. And then Restore Foodware is a website that talks about our food were made from air carbon. And then Covalent Fashion is where we have our fashion products. And those can be purchased today.

Host Raj Daniels  13:35

What kind of products are under both those labels?

Mark Herrema  13:38

So on the fashion side, we’re really excited. These are all what we call regenerative products. And what that means is every single product that we make in covalent is carbon negative. So what’s really distinctive about that is, you know, we talk about sustainability and making things sort of less bad, right, like 20% less emissions, but they’re still emissions. These products actually reverse the flow. So kind of like growing a tree, when we make these products, we are reducing the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas that would otherwise be in the air. So every single product has the exact amount of carbon reduction associated with it listed.

And we recognize that sometimes that can be a pretty broad statement. That’s kind of hard to get your arms around. So we spent the past couple of years working with IBM to apply blockchain tracking technology to our production process. So that when you get a product, it comes with this number, we call it the carbon number. And that number is the specific moment that the air carbon in your specific product was grown, was made. And when you plug in that number into our blockchain tracker, you see every single step in the process, the timestamp associated with it as well as the specific carbon impact associated with your product and who verified it on a third party basis. So it’s a blockchain tracking system that has never been done in the industry. And we think it’s really cool. It’s sort of bringing traceability and transparency to the next level. And also helping people understand the process a little bit better, because it’s a multi-step process, it’s new.

So it’s understandable, you know, sometimes hard to first wrap, wrap your arms around it, but so we’re really excited about that. Those are carbon-negative products. And again, sort of built on this idea that, hey, things can change, like the future is not set. And here’s physical proof of that. So that’s really exciting.

On the foodware side, we’re using air carbon to make regenerative foodware. So in the same way that our fashion is net carbon negative, so is our foodwear. But it also has another property. So our straws, for instance, because they’re made with this natural material, they’re ocean degradable. But they’re also reusable. So air carbon and sort of a, just the luck here, that nature happened to make it this way. They’re totally dishwasher safe. So the products that we make, we hope people reuse them over and over. But if they are discarded in such a way where they happen to end up in the environment, unlike synthetic plastic, that never goes away, this material will degrade about as fast, slightly faster than cellulose. And so what you have is, is this nice nexus of a product that finally works, you know, it never gets soggy. doesn’t crap out on you, you know, mid smoothie in hot and cold drinks. And it feels great, it’s smooth. It’s kind of like everything you love about a normal plastic straw if you did love that plastic straw, but it’s got the environmental features of paper, so it’s totally degradable.

We’re really excited about that because we think that in order to create scalable change and create the kind of impact that we need, you got to have products that work for people on the planet, right. And that sounds kind of cliche, but paper straws, it doesn’t matter where you go in the world, pretty much everybody hates paper straws. And that slows down the adoption rate and makes it harder for them to take over that whole market. But we also know that plastic has tons of problems. So we were on a mission to find that sort of that middle ground of like, where can we all agree? Well, if we got a great straw that never gets soggy, but it goes away if it ends up in the environment. That’s great. We can all get on board with that.

Host Raj Daniels  17:51

So what are the products under your Covalent brand right now?

Mark Herrema  17:57

Right now we are the first generation of products that we’re offering are eyewear. So we’ve got three styles of eyewear, a men’s and women’s and a unisex actually, you’ll be pleased to know that one of the men’s styles is very similar to the Terminator II. We did a spoof picture compared to the others that that T II posts are where he’s holding the gun up. It’s pretty much a miler that he takes from that guy in the bar early on. So we got three different styles of eyewear. And then we also have a number of air carbon leather products. So some wallets coin purse, clutch, and a handbag. And we’ll just continue to expand that collection as we grow here.

Host Raj Daniels  18:49

I’m seeing an entire line of Terminator-like material, including the leather jacket and the pants.

Mark Herrema  18:56

Yeah, you know, that’s a good, that’s a good roadmap for progress.

Host Raj Daniels  19:01

So, is this for retail, B2B, B2C, can individuals purchase these products right now?

Mark Herrema  19:08

Yeah, so on the fashion side, this is D2C right now, so anybody can go online and pick up these products. We are also starting to work on collaborations that we’ll be announcing in the fashion space. But yeah, these are direct to consumer. Over time, we do hope that air carbon leather and resin become an important part of the fashion ingredients list. We’d love to see our carbon leather, for instance, replace a lot of animal and synthetic leather that are emitting carbon into the air that has a host of other problems. On the foodware side, we’ve already started to move those to market on a on a B2B basis and we are going to be launching them on a D2C basis here in the coming weeks. So those will be moving to market, both B2B and D2C here pretty shortly.

Host Raj Daniels  20:05

Now obviously without giving away giving away any trade secrets, what’s the process of capturing and then producing the material or the white powder at the end? 

Mark Herrema  20:17

There’s kind of two starting points. Number one, you got to find that microorganism from the ocean that eats greenhouse gas. And so we spent many years you know, field tripping and looking and screening before we found our star candidate there.

Once you have that, though, you have to feed two ingredients. We’re using methane, it’s air, and methane does it so it needs the oxygen from the air, and the carbon or hydrogen from methane. So there’s a lot of different places where you can get that methane. Over the years, we’ve used it directly from biogas being produced at farms, landfills, from the carbon dioxide standpoint, we’ve taken CO2 being emitted from an ethanol plant.

Today, one of our favorite ways of getting both renewable power and also renewable methane is by utilizing the existing infrastructure. So in the same way that we currently buy renewable power from the grid, we’ve also contracted with a company that is working with an abandoned coal mine system. And at that abandoned coal mine to have a lot of emissions that are going up and into the environment. So what they’ve done is they’ve created a collection system. So it catches all these emissions, and then it purifies, separates out all the other gasses creates a purified methane stream that goes into the pipeline. And then we effectively own the rights to that.

So we, in the same way that we buy renewable power off the grid, we can buy that sustainable methane off the grid. But that’s just one of many models. In the case of a landfill, they’re already capturing it. And it basically is now in the form where it’s coming out of a pipe. So you can either pipeline inject that or put it into a trailer and truck it, there’s a number of ways to get that over to our system. Once we’ve got that, then we feed that to the microorganisms. And so they’ll eat the air in the greenhouse gas the exact same way that they do in the ocean. In fact, if you look at the BP oil spill, one of the things, number of articles about this National Geographic and so forth, where they showed that the amount of methane that went into the ocean water, a lot of it didn’t reach the ocean surface. And as they look, they found out that these are called methanotrophs, microorganisms that eat methane consumed this methane as it was bubbling up through the ocean water. We effectively have that exact same process in a modular form on land.

So we take a big stainless steel tank, we fill it with with with saltwater, we add in those microorganisms, we feed them air and methane, bubble that through there, they consume that, fill their cell up with air carbon, and then we push it through the filtration and drying process that I mentioned.

Host Raj Daniels  23:11

So it sounds like a quite a long, lengthy process. You’ve been doing this for 17 years. When did you have that breakthrough moment when you had a product?

Mark Herrema  23:19

You know, I’m not a huge horoscope person. But I will never forget that the day that I read the article about methane emissions back in June of 2003, that set off this whole journey. It also just so happened there was a horoscope that said the journey of your life starts today. But it’s not going to be an elevator ride, it will be an escalator ride. And I’ve found that to be abundantly true.

In the case of this technology, it’s been a lot of small steps coming together. There have been you know, key breakthrough moments on the microorganism getting it to produce it at very high yields, our downstream purification technology, figuring out how to do that really cost effectively. And those all felt like their own individual sort of aha or, or breakthrough moments. I mean, there was an evening where we had our first big breakthrough on the yield. And at that point, we’ve been working on this thing for years. I’ll never forget this moment because the way that we can test for that is we run an infrared scan into our reactor. And so you can see how much material you’ve made inside of the cell. And we’ve been working this thing for a while and we were trying it you know, a thousand things and there’s plenty of frustration back in those days when you’re trying to get to something it’s taken a long time. And it finally broke through. And it was about two in the morning and we ran the scan. And it was such a big and important moment that I literally just started sprinting through our, our factory, which at the time was this converted car garage, it was got his crazy car garage from the outside, you couldn’t tell anything. And then you go inside, open up the door to the back, and it’s like Willy Wonka bio factory. So I started sprinting down through that, and it was just so joyous.

The next day, you know, everything is like, all right, all bets are off, let’s change this thing. So we’re redoing a bunch of the vessels. I had this like, three-foot-long wrench, and I was changing something, it’s slipped in my head slipped and cracked on a pipe and split open, and I’m laying there on the factory floors, things bleeding. And I’m just like, you know, I’m so happy that it’s okay.

So we had a number of those moments. But you know, it’s interesting, because even today, when I hold these products in my hand, it’s just there’s a, there’s a little bit of joy that comes along with it. Because this thing at one point was just this gas, and now you’re holding a solid material. And whether it’s foodwear, that isn’t going to clog up the environment. Or it’s eyewear that is reversing the flow of carbon for the first time. It’s just, it’s just weird, just little sense of joy there. And so I don’t know, there have been so many moments. But at least certainly a few weeks ago, you know, bringing these brands to market was another moment of joy for us.

…if you can find a market-driven solution to things, that tends to be something that can really scale.

Host Raj Daniels  26:41

Now, if my research is correct, this is the first company you started after school, is that correct? After college?

Mark Herrema  26:49

That’s correct. Actually, we started it while we were still in college. So summer between junior and senior year.

Host Raj Daniels  26:55

So leads nicely to the crux of our conversation, which is the why. This is a really big challenge. What made you take on such a big project right out of school, or actually, while you were finishing up school? 

Mark Herrema  27:10

I guess a couple of reasons. One, I’ve always felt that in order to make large-scale change, one of the best ways to do that is to get things into alignment. And specifically, if you can find a market-driven solution to things, that tends to be something that can really scale. So my senior thesis, for instance, was on looking for market-driven solutions to addressing world hunger. And in the case of greenhouse gas, it felt like, hey, if we can find a way to make beautiful products out of greenhouse gas that people want, and they’re better than what we previously had, then what we create is a tool where consumers can actually move the ball. And now we’ve aligned things, because a lot of people, most people want to want to help solve these things, but they just don’t have the tools to do it. And so that was something that was really inspiring to us sort of a sort of part of the why was creating a pathway where we have alignment to fix this problem.

But the other kind of goes back to what we were talking about earlier, which is, I think, we, myself and Ken just there’s a certain frustration of like, things don’t have to be this way, you know, like, this fight is not over. And there are so many people now pushing and trying and fighting and we wanted to be part of that to show in physical form, that there is another way, and in the immortal words of Terminator II, the future is not set. So those are a couple of the big pillars that drive us. This idea that you know, this story is not yet written and also that mutual alignment shared good. Those are the things that can really scale.

But in fact, nature sees greenhouse gas as this immensely beautiful, useful material. Let’s learn from that. And let’s see if we can, can mimic processes that utilize greenhouse gas as a resource.

Host Raj Daniels  29:15

Take us back though, you know, essentially, you and Ken are having this conversation about creating something out of nothing, out of air. What does that look like?

Mark Herrema  29:25

Well, you know, when whenever that line is used, we always say, Actually, it’s not creating something out of nothing. It’s recognizing that whereas sometimes people saw nothing there was actually so much there. If you breathe in right now, there’s a universe going on. You got oxygen, you got nitrogen, you’ve got little bits of carbon dioxide and methane. You know, we forget about how powerful air is right? It’s just this thing but then hold your breath for a little while and see how valuable this stuff is. Wave your hand, you know through the room that has a physical form.

So, in fact, there’s a whole world in greenhouse gas, and air and they hold so much value. There’s probably a bigger life lesson there. But so what we did was we said, hey, look, people saw nothing, that is just this thing going into the air. But in fact, nature sees greenhouse gas as this immensely beautiful, useful material. Let’s learn from that. And let’s see if we can, can mimic processes that utilize greenhouse gas as a resource. And that was the pathway that led us to turning air and greenhouse gas into products.

Host Raj Daniels  30:46

In a reminds me or to paraphrase, Sherlock Holmes, everyone sees but not everyone observes.

Mark Herrema  30:53

I like that a lot. My very influential science teacher, for me, was AP environmental science in high school. Mark Cheryl, one of the best humans out there. But his quote was, you only see what you know. And what I really liked about that was we had this trip that concluded the class, we went down to Baja, and we camped. And he made the point throughout the years that, when we get down there, you know, what you see and how enjoyable this is will be a function of really how much you know about what’s going on. When you look out and you see this estuary when you know, the cycles that led to its formation, when you pick up that rock, and you see these different worms or life or whatever. But the more you know about, gosh, the more fascinating and enjoyable that all is.

When you take it back to greenhouse gas, it’s this incredible thing, right? I mean, like, it keeps us warm. It’s the backbone of all the growth that we have in the natural world. So we’ve demonized it, but the more you know about it, actually, it’s an incredible thing. And I think that that’s something that that really can be expanded to so many things like, I’ll geek out on ocean currents, I just think that they’re the coolest thing like how they come to be. Basically the unequal heating of the earth and the spinning of the earth. And then you get all these patterns that you can then chart out, you know, this is like, I don’t know, I could go down a thousand rabbit holes, but the more that, you know, it just the world opens up.

Host Raj Daniels  32:43

You know, it’s funny, you mentioned ocean currents. I often tell my daughters, you know, we have to set the cycles of the moon and the waves, and I say, look, if the moon can affect the oceans, the Earth is, you know, 80% water, we to are, let’s just call it 80% water, just imagine what those cycles are doing to us, too. And you mentioned earlier regarding horoscopes, and we kind of joked regarding Terminator, but there are so many things that we still don’t know what the effect is, whether it’s upon us, or the earth, or the universe itself. So, you know, you geeking out on that I pretty much do the same thing here at home.

Mark Herrema  33:18

I think that’s great. And it reminds me of, you know, the body as sort of a microcosm, I mean, rough percentage-wise, you know, in the same way, that the earth is whatever it is 70 to 80% water, and the body also is in that range. And so you’re right, to the extent the moon can move this massive body of water, it probably has an impact on us that we don’t fully know what it is, but there are lots of things like that, right? Like, the power of the spoken word. I actually ran this experiment, it wakes up in the morning and gives yourself a hearty dose of some nice words, it will impact you in a positive direction. Why and how? We don’t fully know. But there’s, there’s a lot there that we don’t fully understand, but it can have a really big impact.

And, and small acts in the right direction, whether it’s a moment where you recycle, the moment where you didn’t use plastic, you use glass, a moment where you set a nice word, these single steps, these little things, they can add up to something really big.

Host Raj Daniels  34:19

Absolutely. In fact, I think there was this experiment where they put and I don’t really happen to not but the petri dish, and one group of individuals had positive words into it and one said negative words and apparently, there was better growth in the positive dish than in the negative dish.

Mark Herrema  34:36

You know, we’ve actually seen that in a number of places and I’m looking on my—oh, here it is. So it’s there’s this book called The Hidden Messages in Water. The scientist, Dr. Emoto he basically says or tapes nice words to water and then freezes them and takes pictures of the crystals. And as you might imagine, you’d probably predict yeah, that the crystals with like love or you know, happiness or whatever are well-formed and then hate and things like that are sort of deformed. And I think, you know, most a lot of people would say, Okay, I like that, do I fully buy it? I don’t know. It’s something. It’s one of those things, though that I almost say, you know, I don’t know, either. But what I can tell you is that almost definitely, if you say a nice word to somebody that’s going to that’s going to result in a better thing than if you said a negative word. And it reminds me of, I don’t know, have you seen that new movie, My Octopus Teacher? 

Host Raj Daniels  35:45

I’ve seen some of it. 

Mark Herrema  35:47

Okay, so there’s a, there’s a book kind of that proceeded that it was called The Soul of an Octopus. And one of the lines that stuck out to me was that almost every living thing responds to kindness. And when you see in that movie, that that octopus sort of, like, basically hug the guy. It’s so fascinating, but it’s another example of like there’s more to there than meets the eye. Right? And, and small acts in the right direction, whether it’s a moment where you recycle, the moment where you didn’t use plastic, you use glass, a moment where you set a nice word, these single steps, these little things, they can add up to something really big. And I think that’s one of the critiques that we’ve sometimes faced is people say, Well, you know, isn’t that just one straw? Isn’t that just one pair of eyewear? Well, yeah, sure it is. And you’re right, it is infinitesimal compared to where we need to go. But on the other hand, that whole challenge that we’re up against is comprised of all these tiny, tiny, tiny little points that I’ve added up. This means that it’s an accessible challenge, right, like, we can address it through tiny, tiny acts all combined. And that is inspiring to us, it means you can get there.

Host Raj Daniels  37:19

Well, I think it goes back to earlier in our conversation when I said, you know, making something out of nothing, and you quite rightly pointed out, but it’s not nothing.

Mark Herrema  37:26

That’s right, that’s right. Everything is comprised of a lot of smaller things, you know, what we accomplish in life, the relationships that we have, and where the environment stands, those are all a function of, you know, a near-infinite number of decision points and x. And that can seem daunting. But the other side of that coin is it means it’s accessible. It means that whatever sort of challenge or, or, or thing that we’re trying to solve for it, all of us, we’re trying to solve for things, whether in our personal or professional lives, but there is accessibility there, and it lives in this concept of a single step, you know, that everything starts somewhere. And that’s how it all happens. Absolutely.

Host Raj Daniels  38:18

So you strike me as a very thoughtful individual person who spent some time doing introspection. What’s the most valuable lessons that you would say you’ve learned about yourself on the 17 year journey?

Mark Herrema  38:34

I think one thing that that has really stuck out to me more and more is that every story is unique. You really can never judge a book by its cover. Take an individual. There is no person like that’s come before, nor will ever come again. And so you can never say I know exactly what you’re all about, or where you’re going or what your life holds for you. Nobody knows that. Really only you decide kind of where that’s going to go.

And I’ve seen over time that everyone kind of has their own genius, right? Like you take a look at different plants. If you really dig into those, it’s so incredible, the technology, but they’ve all gotten their own way. They’re all different. And what has emerged for me over time is this recognition that there’s just something truly of like profound significance in everything like each person. But even on a chemical and physical level, there’s just so much more there than meets the eye. And I think that’s just, I think opened up excitement and an appreciation and a humility that everybody has something truly incredible to offer. And we should try to live in a way that that appreciates that both for people and the natural world. So I know that that’s what comes to mind.

But I think, you know, there’s been, there’s been a lot of lessons, another one has been patience. This has been a long journey. And you know, just a recognition that sometimes things take time, and to try to get comfortable with that, while also pushing as hard as you possibly can, at all times. You know, in heavy manufacturing, you can’t snap your fingers, and all of a sudden, a big plant comes online, it’s a multi-year process. You got to finance it, you have to design it, permit it, build it, commission it, these things take time. And so there’s a little bit of patience with that, but then learning to try to balance that deep impatience with Okay, if that’s going to take that long is there a smarter way to do that? So for instance, we just brought our first large-scale commercial course scale plant online, but we’ve built it in a way to be modular so that now going forward, we can just replicate these things and grow quickly.

So, yeah, we kind of, we look at our pilot plant where we spent our first 10 years and we sometimes refer to it as the cave because, you know, we kind of went in very idealistic and brimming and, you know, we took our shots, and it took a long time, we went through hard times, and, you know, a lot of great advances a lot of setbacks, a lot of frustrations, but we just, we just kept learning, and just decided not to stop. And then we emerged with this technology. And with that comes deep humility, but also a heck of a lot of excitement about what we can do.

Host Raj Daniels  42:06

But you have these products now, you mentioned replicating, it’s 2025. Magic wand, what does the future hold for Newlight?

Mark Herrema  42:16

My magic wand is that we have stopped making single-use foodware out of plastic, and it’s all being made out of air carbon, we’ve stopped the flow of plastics into the ocean so that we’re no longer accumulating plastic in the ocean. And that we’re not going to go to this tragic scenario where we have as much plastic as fish in the ocean. That’s one. On the fashion side, we want to be a major component of the fashion industry such that eventually, we’re on a pace to decarbonize that industry. So those are the two big focal points, and I want to see the air carbon production capacity get to a global scale, right, now we’ve got a goal to get to 20 billion pounds per year production, we laid that out because that’s the amount of plastic currently flowing into the ocean every single year. It’s going to take time and capital and continuous creative thinking on how to get there quickly. But those are big goals, that’s where we want to get to.

Host Raj Daniels  43:25

How many plants would you need to have running to hit that 20 billion goal?

Mark Herrema  43:31

Quite a few. But to put that in context, the plastics industry is coming up on about a trillion pounds per year of production. So it will still be relatively small compared to ultimately where we want to go. But it will take a lot of plants. I can’t give you an exact number, because every plant is going to be an increasingly large size. But it will be dozens and dozens of facilities. And we’re working hard to try to get there.

Host Raj Daniels  44:02

Now, are you going to place them in different geographies around the nation or worldwide? Is that what your thought is? 

Mark Herrema  44:07

Yeah, we’re currently focused on North America. But we do have plans to move into Europe and Asia as well. And our viewpoint is to try to get there as fast as we can. So that’s something that we’re working hard on right now.

Host Raj Daniels  44:24

And one last question. You mentioned leather a couple of times. Is there any thoughts or considerations about working with auto manufacturers?

Mark Herrema  44:34

Yeah, absolutely. So we’re in some of those discussions now. And we’d love to do that, too, such that you know, all the leather within a car is net carbon negative, we think would be a really cool thing.

Host Raj Daniels  44:49

I think Tesla is using a vegan leather right now, I believe. 

Mark Herrema  44:54

Yeah, I don’t know if how far they are with that. I know they announced that which is you know, a step in the right direction in terms of not using animals and all the environmental challenges that come with that. We want to take that to a whole new category. And say, not only are we not using animals but let’s reverse the flow of carbon, like growing a tree. So, a love, love the advance and we want to take it, take it a whole nother step. 

Host Raj Daniels  45:24

And Mark, you’ve painted a beautiful picture. This leads me to my last question, which is, if you could share some advice, or words of wisdom with the audience, what would it be? And it could be professional or personal. But I want to quote something you said before you answer that question. You know, I find it on the internet. On a video I watched about you, says climate change is a symbol for what we can do in our own lives, which I think is beautiful. But if you could share some advice, I’d really appreciate it.

Mark Herrema  45:52

Yeah, I mean, the biggest thing that jumps out to me is so simple, and probably sometimes doesn’t hold as much emotional juice as we might like, but it’s simply to never give up. If you look at so many of the people that we could talk about made headlines, right, like the Michael Jordan’s the Einsteins, one common theme that you find is that they’ll often say, Hey, I actually wasn’t that much different that really the only thing that I feel separates me is I spent longer at the chalkboard, I practice harder and longer than anybody else. And what I have found in this journey is that the simple act of just deciding that you’re not going to stop and continuing to plug, continue to try, asking more questions, keep iterating. If you believe deeply in your mission, and you decide that this is so important to you, that you’re just not going to stop. There’s so many ways to get there. And you’ll find those ways.

So I think, you know, I appreciate that you asked about the why. Because if you can identify what it is that excites you, that gives you joy that makes you feel so enthusiastic about going after it, then it’s you know, also recognizing that that is not going to happen overnight. So be comfortable in that, you know, just It’s okay, they’re going to be small steps, sometimes it’s going to go in the wrong direction, maybe it’s gonna go the wrong direction for a while. But you will have the ability to push it eventually to where you want to go. And maybe it won’t be exactly what you imagined at the beginning. But you’ll create something of real, unique, and probably profound value because nobody else other than you could do that.

So and that’s why I think climate change really is, in many ways, a metaphor for our own lives. Because we all have things that feel kind of close to close to impossible, right? We feel like we have these momentum points like oh, things aren’t going to change here. We have things that we’d like them to be different. But it feels like gosh, how are we ever going to get there, we all have those things. I have those things right now. But it’s important to recognize that in the same way that climate change is not a foregone conclusion as big as it seems. We created that. And that means that we can change that.

And so I think that going after climate change, and saying that this is one step at a time, but we have to be creative, and we have to be persistent. That’s also true in our own lives. And so that I think there’s a there’s a real strong correlation there. 

Host Raj Daniels  48:57

I appreciate that that advice, never give up. Very powerful advice. But I feel like what you said after that regarding even if you’re running in the wrong direction, or running towards perhaps failure, at least you’re moving and you’re learning. And so I that really resonates with me very strongly.

Mark Herrema  49:15

At our company, we say failure is not failure. Failure is data. And data helps you figure out what you’re trying to do.




Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.

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If there’s a subject or topic you’d like to hear about, send Raj Daniels an email at BTU@NexusPMG.com or contact me via our website, NexusPMG.com. 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.

Raj Daniels

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