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Allow Me to Reintroduce Myself
My name is Tony
If you’ve been here for the last few years, you probably know me pretty well. For those of you who are new let me explain where I’ve been, why I’m here and where I hope we can all go to next. If you want to see who I am professionally, then please check out the LinkedIn profile or my Google Scholar. Hopefully that satisfies some part of the ethos mode of persuasion where you know I’m credentialed, published, and patented.
On the best of days, I’m an opinion writer here through this newsletter. I may support my opinion with data, citations, or experience, but for the most part it’s just my take on a particular subject. I try to stay focused on the intersection of polymer chemistry and the modern world and this often takes us into the chemical industry and all of the work required to synthesize the monomers that go onto become the polymers that enable our modern lives.
I started back in Q4 of 2020, which feels like a lifetime ago during Covid lockdowns, and I was primarily motivated because 1) I’d always wanted to be a “writer,” 2) I was feeling insecure about my industry job and 3) Darius started The Column. I’ve since moved on a bit from the chemical industry professionally, and the frustrations that I experienced in that industry fueled a lot of my writing in from 2020-2021. I don’t think I’ll have those frustrations for much longer, but maybe new ones will start to pop-up, such as my frustration with companies like Zymergen.
What’s Coming Next
I feel like I have less and less time these days. The little bit of free time I do have is filled with keeping up with a toddler and talking to founders of start-ups. Ironically, I find myself in a unique position where I’ve had A LOT of talks with multiple start-ups in various stages of funding and I’ve got quite a bit to write about including:
Molydyn: a company seeking to make polymer simulation more accessible and available.
MetGen: lignin valorization via engineered enzymes.
Cascade Biocatalysts: Enzyme immobilization.
Whatever start-up wants to talk to me next.
It’s tough to turn these topics around into something comprehensible or compelling while also trying to maintain a weekly publishing schedule. I spent a lot of time writing about Bodi Energy and the problems with lithium-ion batteries and their separator membranes. One problem with it was that at 3000 words I think it was a bit too long and I felt the need to get it out for the founders after allowing them a round of edits to the initial story. This at least ensures that the facts from the start-up’s story gets told as they mostly see it. In the case of Bodi Energy there was A LOT of the founder’s net worth tied up in the company. I’m not a journalist so I don’t have any issues with this practice.
In an ideal world, I could spend all of my working time talking to and writing about start-ups in the chemical space. I’m particularly interested in whole cell fermentation techniques, cell-free synthesis techniques, biomass and need feedstocks, new polymers, advances in downstream processing, or all of the above. I think if we want to solve global climate change, we need to completely change the origins of our modern economy away from oil and towards biomass. This change is immense in both size, scope, and complexity. The best way I could describe it for IT/Software/computer people would be imagine changing all of our computers away from silicon transistors and how we manufacture electronics to something else.
The White House agrees that this stuff is important as Doris for Green Chemicals Blog summarizes:
Theme 2 seeks alternative processes to produce chemicals and materials from renewable biomass and intermediate feedstocks by developing low-carbon-intensity product pathways and promoting a circular economy for materials. Achieving these goals will position the United States at the forefront of a vibrant global bioeconomy while producing net-zero or net-negative emissions, reducing the use of and reliance on fossil fuels, and increasing the use of recyclable-by-design chemicals and materials like bio-based products.
Goal 2.1: Develop Low-Carbon-Intensity Chemicals and Materials – In 5 years, produce >20 commercially viable bioproducts with >70% reduced lifecycle GHG emissions over current production practices.
Goal 2.2: Spur a Circular Economy for Materials – In 20 years, demonstrate and deploy cost-effective and sustainable routes to convert bio-based feedstocks into recyclable-by-design polymers that can displace >90% of today’s plastics and other commercial polymers at scale.
This is ambitious, like get to the moon in 1969 ambitious, but I think we need ambition if we want to move with speed to transition the economy. I’m here to write about it, give advice, and put a spotlight on start-ups seeking to do it.
Things that I think I’ve beat into your brains already:
Big chemical companies struggle doing ambitious innovation. There are some exceptions. They are amazing at efficient production and incremental innovation.
Big ambitious chemical innovation takes a lot longer than anyone expects and it’s harder to do than anyone expects. You need a good bit of luck. This is start-up land, but being delusional can only get you so far.
Synthetic biology or cell-free synthesis is just bypassing traditional organic synthesis, but chemical industry or pharmaceutical business rules will eventually apply.
Having an economic plan upfront and early is key to succeeding. You need to know your customers and markets. You need to know your costs. You need to know your margins. Anything less is disastrous, and this applies to start-ups and big companies alike.
Oil is the source of the majority of our synthetic materials, and these materials appear in places you never expect like the coating on your hardwood floors or the admixture in the concrete holding up your skyscrapers.
Take responsibility for your own career and don’t think that just getting a job, while difficult, will solve all your problems. You just get to deal with new problems.
There is a shitload of content out there vying for your attention. The News. Twitter. YouTube. Substack. TikTok. Movies. TV Shows. [insert your thing here]. If I have a hard time keeping up with content that I love, then I bet you do too.
I’m moving to a schedule that is more intermittent, but hopefully I’ll be to have the time to turn out more useful stuff that reads and handles like a Formula 1 car in Monaco.
Also, I’d be remiss to not ask you about what you want:
Also, just let me know what’s up in the comments or by responding to this email.
How are you feeling about this place? What’s going on? Who should I go talk to?