First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Mark Herrema: Thank you for asking; the coronavirus has been a challenge for us, as it has for everyone, but we have worked through it.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Newlight.
Mark Herrema: I co-founded Newlight with Kenton Kimmel in 2003 while still in college. We had this crazy idea: if nature uses greenhouse gas to make beautiful carbon-negative materials, like tree bark, why can’t we do something similar? Our thought was that if we could harness greenhouse gas as a resource, the way nature does, we could put regeneration into peoples’ hands. A few weeks ago, 17 years after our founding, we announced the commissioning of our first fully-integrated, large-scale commercial production facility, which uses air and greenhouse gas to make a natural, carbon-negative biomaterial called AirCarbon that can be used to replace plastic and leather.
How does Newlight innovate?
Mark Herrema: Kenton and I are scientists at heart, so exploration and innovation are things that we love for their own sake. With that said, we are equally passionate about seeing ideas come to life. At Newlight, that’s the intersection we are passionate about taking ideas and learnings and then applying them to solve problems. Think about the architecture of the wing of a dragonfly—can that be used to create lightweight but high-strength structures? Or the way water flows upwards in a tree, from root to leaf: is there a way to use this to reduce the cost of water circulation in buildings? We asked these questions about microorganisms in the ocean, specifically, the ones that turn methane and carbon dioxide into a natural biomaterial that can be melted; we said: what if we could use that natural process, and that material, to harness greenhouse gas and use it to replace plastic and leather? It was a long journey to answer that question, but we were guided by the idea that there is something good in everything, including both in failure and success, and both can bring you closer to your goal.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business, and how are you coping?
Mark Herrema: The coronavirus has affected our business in a number of ways. We’re a 24/7 production operation, so our first priority was looking after the wellbeing of our team members and putting an array of preventative measures in place to do that. Our second priority was securing our supply chains and ensuring we had redundancy across the board, from inputs to spare parts. Third, demand patterns shifted, and so we needed to understand those shifts and adjust accordingly. One of the most interesting things has been learning to operate without meeting in person; our executive management team, for example, has only met once in person since April, and in that time, we have commissioned a new production plant and launched two new brands to market. One of the coronavirus’s upsides has been seeing how incredible our team is: coming together, working together, supporting each other, and finding creative solutions. I have never felt more grateful for the team we have.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Newlight in the future?
Mark Herrema: What keeps us grounded is our mission. There is good and bad in everything, and every day there will be some good and some bad–that’s just life. But we believe deeply in the importance of what we are doing, so when stress comes, we remind ourselves that we are fighting for something we believe in and something we think is important—protecting our environment and giving people tools to help restore it; that helps put challenges into perspective, and from that framework, sometimes we can see how they help us get closer to our goal.
Our mission for Newlight is to use AirCarbon to help end the accumulation of plastic in the ocean and help decarbonize manufacturing. These are big goals, and it is going to be a long road, but our view is that we don’t have a choice: we have to work together to solve plastic pollution and climate change in this generation. When I look at my wallet, which is made with AirCarbon, I’m reminded of one of our core inspirations, which is the idea that the future is not yet written. There was a story about greenhouse gas, and we changed that story by showing that it could be used to create beautiful materials. There is a story about climate change and plastic pollution, how they are nearly foregone conclusions: we know that story can be changed as well, but that it won’t change without us working hard to get there. We won’t be able to do it by ourselves, but we want to stand with the part of the world that is fighting to get there.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Mark Herrema: Our approach has always been to focus on scalability—creating technology that can scale to create the impact that was part of our founding vision. We intend to keep harnessing nature in increasingly efficient ways to show that it can create processes and products that can outcompete incumbent products in both the short and long term.