Today’s guest is Rob Hanson, Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Monolith Materials. Monolith Materials is a next generation chemical company, which uses a proprietary process to convert natural gas to carbon black in a cost competitive and environmentally advantage manner. Their process also produces hydrogen tail gas, which is a valuable co-product that can be sold into the power generation or industrial gas markets. Monolith is backed by Azimuth Capital Management, Warburg Pincus, and Cornell Capital Management, three of the most widely respected private equity firms in North America. This is a great one, as Rob's story of why he got into doing this work, how he came upon pursuing this opportunity, the non-traditional way he has funded the company to date, and where they are heading in the future is one you won't want to miss!
Today’s guest is Rob Hanson, Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Monolith Materials, where he leads the development of next-generation technology for producing low cost, low emission hydrogen and carbon black, an important raw material used in the manufacture of rubber and plastic. Prior to Monolith, Rob served as the global director of product management for AREVA Solar, the solar division of the world’s largest nuclear company. He has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford, and has been a guest lecturer at Stanford, UNL, Foothill College and the University of Saskatchewan on topics ranging from thermodynamics to entrepreneurship. Rob also co-founded uforia studios, a 65-employee health and fitness company with locations in San Francisco and Palo Alto.
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Jason Jacobs: Hello everyone. This is Jason Jacobs and welcome to My Climate Journey. This show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change and try to figure out how people like you and I can help. Today's guest is Rob Hanson, co-founder and CEO of Monolith Materials. Monolith Materials is a next generation chemical company, which uses a proprietary process to convert natural gas to carbon black in a cost competitive and environmentally advantage manner. Their process also produces hydrogen tail gas, which is a valuable co-product that can be sold into the power generation or industrial gas markets.
Jason Jacobs: Monolith is backed by Azimuth Capital Management, Warburg Pincus, and Cornell Capital Management, three of the most widely respected private equity firms in North America. I was excited for this one, because Rob is an interesting entrepreneur. He came from the solar world and was looking to maximize his impact on climate change by finding opportunities that were both highly profitable and that could have a big impact without needing reliance on external policy. He landed on this opportunity in carbon black and has a solution that can reduce emissions by as much as 90% from the traditional processes. He's also raised hundreds of millions of dollars in financing, but completely bypassed traditional venture capital. He was based in Silicon Valley when founding the company, but has now picked up and moved his entire family to Lincoln, Nebraska.
Jason Jacobs: We have a great discussion in this episode about climate change, about what they're doing at Monolith Materials and about hard tech innovation in general. We also talk about the most important solutions in the climate fight. Rob Hanson, welcome to the show.
Rob Hanson: Thanks for having me.
Jason Jacobs: This is a bit of a cue in terms of when these are recorded versus when they're published. So by the time this goes out, it won't be New Year's Eve anymore, but this is my very last thing that I'm doing in 2019, so that's a big deal.
Rob Hanson: Well, you proved you're a hard worker, because you scheduled it at 4:00 PM on New Year's Eve. So it's exciting. It's been a good decade, looking forward to the 2020s.
Jason Jacobs: So what time is it in Nebraska right now?
Rob Hanson: Right now, it's 2:00 in Nebraska.
Jason Jacobs: Okay, so an hour. So you've got one foot out the door as well. So, we'll make this the crowning event of all of 2019, is the My Climate Journey podcast for Monolith.
Rob Hanson: Sounds good.
Jason Jacobs: Well, why don't we just take it from the top? What is Monolith Materials?
Rob Hanson: Monolith is an energy technology company. We're focused on the chemical sector and we make two chemicals. We make a chemical called carbon black, which I can talk in great detail about. Then we also make hydrogen, which is one of the fundamental building blocks of a lot of other chemicals like ammonia, methanol, and has a big market the world. So we do it and we have special technology that allows us to make these two chemicals from natural gas in a much better environmental way as well as cost competitively.
Jason Jacobs: How did all this come about? Because I mean you, just from doing prep, you grew up in the solar industry, right?
Rob Hanson: That's right. Yeah. So why don't we kind of go back there, because really, the seeds of this company were sewn when I was in solar. I came out of grad school in 2007 and it was right in the middle of kind of clean tech 1.0 boom. I came out with two job offers. I had a job offer from a solar company called Ausra, and it was backed by Kleiner and COSLA, and kind of pretty exciting company, small at the time. Then, had a job offer from a little tiny electric car startup called Tesla.
Rob Hanson: I chose the solar company, so probably not the best financial decision of my life, but a really great experience at Ausra. So then, we built the technology, we built a number of projects and we actually got an exit, which was fairly rare in that industry. We sold the company to Areva, which is the biggest nuclear company in the world, in 2010. Then, I spent a couple of years at Areva. Areva had a pretty cool strategy. So they wanted to be the number one provider of technology for CO2 free electricity. They obviously have deep roots on the nuclear side, from a base load perspective, but then they're making a big play into renewables.
So they bought us in solar, they bought a couple of wind companies, they bought a biomass company and they bought a storage company, and really were going after this portfolio strategy. So got to spend a couple of years there getting a lot of exposure beyond just renewables, but I'd say generally to the electricity sector with a CO2 free angle on it. But then eventually-
Jason Jacobs: Quick aside, before you go on. So after coming in through a solar company to a nuclear company, where did that leave you in terms of thinking about nuclear in the energy portfolio going forward?
Rob Hanson: Yeah, nuclear is a really interesting one. Obviously has some great attributes in its base load capacity as well as it's essentially zero emissions of greenhouse gases. The challenge, and this is the challenge that Areva has really lived through over the past decade, is building new plants is very expensive. While I was at Areva, they were doing a number of projects. They were building two of their new, they're called EPR reactors, one in Finland, one in France, and then they're doing a couple in China as well.
Rob Hanson: Not surprisingly, those projects went way over budget, way over schedule. So nuclear is an interesting. It's got these great aspects on one side, the other side, and that's the capital cost and just length to deploy the technology is quite challenging. So that's kind of where I'm at on nuclear is, very interesting, but I think it's got a lot of challenges as well.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. Well, we could spend a whole episode on that, but that's not why we're here, so why don't you keep going with the story. So you're at Areva, you spent a couple of years, mm-hmm (affirmative).
Rob Hanson: Yeah, spent a couple of years, lots of good experience. But for me, and one of my longtime colleagues, Pete Johnson, who we spent time together at Ausra and then at Areva. For us, we both kind of got the itch to do something entrepreneurial. Areva is a 65,000 employee company all over the world. We wanted to do something kind of from the ground up. What's interesting about our journey is we left and we didn't have an idea. We didn't have technology.
Rob Hanson: It wasn't two guys with a pitch deck, it was just two guys with a blank piece of paper. We then had our own kind of climate journey, not in public like yours, but in private, where for six months we just scoured kind of the world and talked to as many people as we could trying to figure out what we were going to do next. We really had three key criteria that we were thinking about. We wanted to build a business in this space and it had to be, number one, economically standalone. So it couldn't rely on external incentives, things that are subject, I would say to more volatility, but it had to truly be competitive against the existing industry.
Rob Hanson: Number two, it had to be environmentally transformative. That's where our passion is and it was just critical to us that it had that aspect as well. Then, the third was that it had to be technology enabled. If it just had the first two but not a technology angle, we really didn't have a place in it as tech entrepreneurs and so we needed that technology to really be the reason that we would be able to do it. Then ultimately, the longterm mode that gave us our durable competitive advantage.
Jason Jacobs: Certain kind of technology in terms of that criteria or was it just any kind?
Rob Hanson: We were pretty broad. I would say generally it's kind of in the hard tech space that we were looking. So we're both mechanical engineers. I was systems, he was more machine design, but we looked at everything from other renewable plays. We looked a lot at grid scale storage, lots of different battery chemistries, some more exotic type things. We looked a lot at gas to liquids technologies, and then ultimately we came into the chemical sector and manufacturing. It was kind of an interesting path.
Jason Jacobs: When was this, by the way, that you were doing this tour?
Rob Hanson: So this would've been in 2012.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. So you're doing the tour and you found your way into chemicals.
Rob Hanson: Yeah, and we had come across before that and it's kind of well known now of what the big four buckets of greenhouse gas emissions are. You've obviously got electricity generation, you've got agriculture, you've got transportation, but then you also have manufacturing. Manufacturing is about 25% of global greenhouse gases. This is just all the stuff that we make and use. In many ways it's, I'd say, the most hidden of those. In many ways it's the most challenging and kind of least gone after from an entrepreneurial perspective. So we kind of naturally we're pulled in that direction and we started looking at how chemicals were made.
Rob Hanson: What we found was most of the chemical industry is still based on combustion, or at least oxidation. So we started going down various chemicals and we kept putting it through those filters of is there a way that you can do this cleaner but still cost competitively with new technology? It was on that search that we came across this thing called carbon black. We'd never heard of carbon black before, most people haven't, but it's a really cool chemical that has been around for over 100 years. It's ubiquitous. It's in everything that's black and plastic or rubber.
Rob Hanson: It's main use is in car tires. So a third of a car tire is carbon black. The other two thirds is rubber. It's what makes a car tire last long. It's what makes it strong. It helps with the rolling. Grows with GDP. So essentially the more miles that are driven and trucks, cars, buses around the world, each year, the more carbon black that is used. It's agnostic to whether those cars are powered by gasoline, or diesel, or batteries. It's also agnostic to, of the cars are driven by humans or by algorithms.
Jason Jacobs: Well, tires are tires are tires.
Rob Hanson: Tires are tires. So it was like if we're going to bet on one thing, it's that the world's going to keep rolling on tires and we feel really good about that. So this really cool market. The challenges is the carbon black is made in this super dirty process where they partially burn heavy oil. They get about three tons of CO2 per ton of carbon black and there's really no other way to do it.
Jason Jacobs: Who is they, by the way? I'm just curious, geographically.
Rob Hanson: Yeah, there's probably five major carbon black companies that operate around a hundred plants all over the world. Then, there's a long tail on this industry, particularly a China where there's a lot of smaller companies that maybe have one or two plants. So I think in total, there's on the range of 200 of these plants around the world and it's really anywhere that tires are made, carbon black is made.
Jason Jacobs: Has the process remain consistent for a long time or have there been innovations in recent years and decades?
Rob Hanson: I'd say over the last 40 to 50 years, it's been very incremental. 99% of the world's carbon black was made in the exact same process, which is partially burning a heavy liquid hydrocarbon. That ticks up a little bit each year with energy integration and just general efficiency, but nothing major like we're proposing to do in at least 40 or 50 years.
Jason Jacobs: When you say dirty process, I guess, how does one assess how dirty the process is? Are there certain metrics? Is it percentage of emissions every year? How do you define?
Rob Hanson: Yeah, we looked primarily at intensity. How many emissions of the main categories per unit of that chemical. So that's greenhouse gases, but we also looked at SOx and NOx emissions that sometimes don't get talked about as much in kind of the climate world, but really critical ones. So when we looked at carbon black compared to lots of other chemicals, it's just intensive. A lot of CO2 for every unit of carbon black that you make. Then, it also was an industry that had enough scale. There's a lot of carbon black made each year in the tens of millions of tons of it and one that's not going away anytime soon because of the wheel comment I just made a second ago.
Jason Jacobs: This is kind of unrelated to carbon black and to Monolith, but if you, let's just say hypothetically you are an investor... You were like breakthrough energy ventures looking for different innovations that could help us decarbonize faster and looking for outsized areas that were particularly dirty and scaled, is the skill set to calculate that, is that transferable from sector to sector or is it very domain specific?
Rob Hanson: I think it takes a bit of a generalist because I think it's at that intersection of evaluating technology and how ready it is, evaluating markets, how durable they are, how much room there is in them for kind of out-sized margin. Then, finance. What's the path to create value? How do you piece that together over the various sources of capital as you de-risk these types of businesses. So I think a kind of generalist who can mix that technical market finance and really put the pieces together, that's the skillset of the entrepreneur who can, I think, build the initial nascent kind of concepts around where you have the big impacts.
I've never thought of this before, but one of the things I know is that BEV, they have a big internal team of scientists and modelers that are helping them do these calculations. But the same way that people talk about we need to price the externality, whether you believe that or not, we need to assess the externality. And it's a whole skill set that I know I don't have and I bet a lot of people that invest in these companies don't have either. They know how to assess from a financial and market standpoint, but they have no idea how to assess when it comes to the emissions impact.
Rob Hanson: Yeah and that's a tricky one too, because at the first level, assessing emissions is fairly straightforward where you can, say, draw a box around the plant or the vehicle and see what comes out. But that's not enough of the story to really understand where you're at. You really have to do a lifecycle analysis and that means going back. So I mean electric cars are the best example of that, where an electric cars full lifecycle emissions is all about where the electricity is generated. So on a purely renewable grid, great. On a purely coal grid, not so great. That same type of thing comes up in a lot of these areas when you're looking at emissions and impact, is having that broader understanding and ability I think to analyze and then make good decisions based on it.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. So you identify this as an area that was, it had a dirty process in, it was scaled. Did you have ideas at that point in terms of how one might clean it up?
Rob Hanson: Yeah. In the background when we were doing this, we came across this other theme, which was... I think it's probably one of the biggest energy events of our generation, which is the discovery and development of shale gas in North America. So we were kind of at the same time watching natural gas over the previous years go from nine bucks to in the twos. We were doing a lot of conversations like you are and we had one really good one or series of conversations with a guy named Peter Hébert at Lux Capital, who's just a dear friend of mine. He kind of said to us, "If you can figure something to do with natural gas that makes something essential, but does it cleanly, man, you're going to have a good business there."
Rob Hanson: So we were doing that in the background and we came across this carbon black, really dirty, and we just asked the question can you make it out of natural gas? The answer was you could in labs, a few people had tried to scale the process, but no one was really doing it at scale. The key to making it clean is to doing it with electricity. So it's kind of electrification of this industry, where instead of getting the carbon out of oil by combustion, you're getting the carbon out of natural gas using electricity.
Rob Hanson: The thing that's really exciting there, and this was our Eureka moment, was if you can do that, you've got a standalone economic cost competitive because natural gas is so abundant and low cost. But number two, because you're using electricity, you're cracking and you're pulling the carbon out of the natural gas as a product, and it's leaving you not with CO2, but it's leaving you with hydrogen, which when you talk about scale, man, that's a big scale chemical market that is, again, very pollution intensive in the way it's made now. So that was kind of our Eureka moment, was making carbon black using electricity from natural gas and getting a co product of hydrogen.
Jason Jacobs: So one of the things I've learned after now having hundreds and hundreds of discussions with people around this topic of de carbonization is that a big piece to being able to assess how to think about these discussions is to understand people's perspectives. So there's these certain kinds of building blocks. We just talked about assessing how dirty is dirty from sector to sector. Another thing that I think is important to level set before we get too far in the discussion is just forget about carbon black and forget about Monolith for a second, what is your view on natural gas and its role in the future?
Rob Hanson: Yeah, so I've always been a fairly big believer in the kind of energies in all of the above industries. And I think in that, all of the above, natural gas is going to play a really big role over the next, say, 50 years. I think anytime you can swap natural gas in electricity generation instead of coal, you've got a big win. I think we're seeing the impacts of that over the last decade in the US and I think we're going to start seeing some decent impact globally as a lot of these LNG projects have come online and are coming online and will wrap up. That's what I'd say broadly. I mean, in the context of Monolith, natural gas is kind of an interesting one because we're not burning it. So it's not a case where now they're burning oil and we're going to burn natural gas and you get some slight win. In our case, because we're using electricity to crack natural gas into carbon and hydrogen, we're making no CO2 at our plant. We're just using the carbon that's stored in methane, which is 75% carbon as the feedstock for our product.
Is Monoliths solution dependent on natural gas?
Rob Hanson: Not inclusively. The technology is certainly capable of making our products with really any hydrocarbon. We're essentially mining the carbon out of the hydrocarbon. The nice thing with natural gas, or more kind of precisely methane, is that when you pull the carbon out, you've got four hydrogens. So you really maximize that hydrogen generation per unit of carbon. As you move up to longer chain hydrocarbons, you have less hydrogen associated with the carbon. So we can still make it, but we really like natural gas because of that big uplift you get on the hydrogen side.
Jason Jacobs: I definitely don't want to make this a whole natural gas episode. I know we're kind of here for other reasons. I do think that this is just one small example that's illustrative of the complexity in trying to navigate how to effectively decarbonize because I think... I mean, I've heard you say that you can deliver carbon black in a way that's 90% less dirty than the traditional way. Did I get that right?
Rob Hanson: Yeah. We're a lot like the electric car where we have essentially no direct emissions, but depending on where the electricity is generated, we're anywhere from say 40 to 100% of it's all renewable, cleaner.
Jason Jacobs: But if it's using natural gas and then there's people that say, "Well, natural gas, we need to get off of natural gas as quickly as possible because of methane and because it actually admits substantially less than coal, it's still emits substantially more than that zero," so it's like you can't properly factor in Monolith without factoring in natural gas if you're truly looking at life cycle. It just makes you dizzy and everything is like that. It's a real challenge.
Rob Hanson: Yeah. My wife always jokes... We're just coming out of the holiday, so lots of these family dinner table conversations and she says my famous line is it's complicated, because that's the reality of I think energy, climate, it's very complicated. I always fall back on the second law of thermodynamics, which is there's an arrow and you just described that directionality that there is no perfect solution that's just purely circular, because we have this thing called entropy. So we move through time and we move forward and there's always going to be the entropy generated as we move forward in the path. It's about, I think being very thoughtful and recognizing those externalities of different approaches and trying to find kind of the most nuanced, thoughtful solutions to the broad problem.
Jason Jacobs: So that was just a detour to get your perspective on natural gas, which was very helpful. You identified that using natural gas, you could make the process substantially cleaner. So you have an idea for how you might be able to, why don't you go from there? What happened next?
Rob Hanson: Yeah. So now we were two guys with a one page slide deck, as opposed to just a blank piece of paper, but not much more than that. And so we spent a lot of time-
Jason Jacobs: In Silicon Valley, that's got to be good for at least like a 50 or a $100 million valuation.
Rob Hanson: Yeah, no comment on that. So the next step is we really wanted to understand where the technology was. Because, from our time in solar and more broadly in energy, we knew that these technologies have a long path. We didn't want to start, if this was just an idea and there was a paper or two written on it. so we really went out and I think the good news for us is we found that a lot of people had been working on trying to, it's called paralyzed methane or cracking into its two components, carbon and hydrogen, for decades. What we were able to do is we were able to go around the world and we partnered with a number of entities, some universities, some kind of corporate R&D. We kind of rolled up the IP with the idea that Monolith was going to take this and commercialize it, so that was a fun process, where we're working with labs and corporate parts of companies. Then, at the same time, we were working with the investment community to try and put those two pieces together at the same time of Monolithic entity that's financing going to commercialize this and the technology headstart we're getting is coming from a couple of decades of research at really strong institutions.
Jason Jacobs: Did either of you have any experience commercializing technology out of the lab?
Rob Hanson: Not a ton. I mean our experience said Ausra, the solar company, did involve a fair bit of that, where it was technology that was fairly nascent when we joined the company coming out of Australia. And it was invented by a professor there, David Mills, and we really did take that and got it kind of to the big leagues where we were building 125 megawatt project in Rajasthan, India. So we had that corporate experience, but we never had kind of this early of, I'd say, true entrepreneurial experience with doing that full tech to market.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. So you were going around and rolling up this IP and you said you were also talking to the investment community. How did you think about the initial capital sources for the company? And, I guess, from where you initially thought, what was the first step in that direction in terms of getting the company financed?
Rob Hanson: Yeah, so I mean we just started with the few people we had in our collective Rolodex, which were all on Sand Hill, so it's the venture community and we both went to Stanford and then we were both at this solar startup, so we had a few connections. It was a lot like your process, where you talk to one person and they say, "Look, good idea, like you guys, but we're not investing in this space, but we'll make an introduction." That went on for a time and eventually we found ourselves at General Catalyst. Really, this is kind of a fun story that was quintessential to our founding. We're pitching and we got about two minutes in and the partner there said, "I like the space. You guys seem credible, but I don't know anything about carbon black and you two clearly don't know anything about carbon black. So I'm going to stop you right here. I happen to know the former president of the biggest carbon black company in the world, Cabot, a guy named Bill Brady. I'll get a call set up with you guys. We'll find out what Bill thinks about this opportunity."
Jason Jacobs: Who I saw, in my prep for this, is a Boston guy like me.
Rob Hanson: He's a Boston guy. Yeah, so this is where we take a trip to Boston. So we get the call set up two days later and my partner, Pete and I, it was the evening before the call, it was the next morning. We were sitting together, we're prepping, and we just kind of came to the realization that whatever Bill thought about this idea was going to be 100% deterministic on whether this was a go or not, because he just knows so much about the business.
Jason Jacobs: Whether General Catalyst was a go or whether the company was a go.?
Rob Hanson: I think for us it was broader than just GC. I think it was the company, because we kind of thought, look, if a guy that ran the biggest carbon black company for two decades says thumbs down, that's probably a strong enough signal for us to kind of move to the next idea. So we're sitting there and we eventually were like, we shouldn't do a phone call. We got to get in front of this guy. I think it was 7:00 PM, we got on our computers, found a red eye flight and flew to Boston. So we arrived in Boston-
Jason Jacobs: That level of hustle though is, I mean, to you, and I kind of think similarly, it's just like muscle memory. It's just what you do, because it's just Darwinism. Like the odds are so stacked against you, you just need to do what it takes to make it happen. But it's amazing how many founders just don't have that, for whatever reason. That one little anecdote there to me is just, that's just like from pattern recognition standpoint, it's like, "Okay, this guy's for real."
Rob Hanson: Oh, thanks. Yeah. Yeah. It was one of those were we hadn't put years, but we had put months into this idea and we weren't going to have another opportunity to get in front of someone that knows this much about it. So we flew out, we weren't able to get in touch with him, or his assistant, beforehand. So at the time of the call, we just found his office and showed up and he was gracious enough to let us come in. Then, we used another classic entrepreneur's technique, which is we had a half an hour scheduled, but we just didn't leave for three hours and just kept the conversation going. So after that, Bill really liked the idea and he joined us as the third founder. He's been involved with the company, ever since. On our board, and was executive chairman for a number of years, essentially running it. Just a great friend, mentor. So yeah. So that was kind of how it got started was, once Bill gave the thumbs up-
Jason Jacobs: So did you end up raising money from General Catalyst?
Rob Hanson: So no. So one more twist. So Bill gave the thumbs up, that gave us a lot of confidence. It didn't work out with General Catalyst, on both sides. We found ourselves being pulled away from Silicon Valley at the same time, to I would say more traditional energy investors. I hadn't appreciated this part of the energy market, is that most people think of traditional energy, like big oil and big gas, as the only people doing stuff are the super majors, the Exxons and Shells of the world. But there's this huge system there of entrepreneurship, and there's all of this financing, mostly private equity, for what are essentially startups in that space. They put tons of capital at work. So we kind of found ourselves being drawn over there. That's where we ultimately ended up was with two private equity groups. One out of New York called Warburg Pincus and one out of Canada, Calgary, called Azimuth Capital Management. They both had decades of investing kind of big equity into early stage exploration, development, midstream, traditional oil and gas companies. They liked the risk, kind of like the opportunity and went with them.
Jason Jacobs: I guess, looking at this type of business, because I know for a number of listeners out there, they're trying to find opportunities where they can build companies that can be big profitable companies, but also have a big impact on climate change. So there's the physical infrastructure as it relates to building plants. What about things like technical risk? I mean, how would the project finance world think about this? How would the equity markets think about this? It feels like there's kind of this weird middle ground where you kind of fit neither. So I mean, how do you guys look relative to those sectors, and is there, am I imagining that there's this gap or is it real?
Rob Hanson: No, it's real. It's real. We're just kind of crossing that gap right now. To date, we're a 100% corporate equity. We've raised a lot of capital, but it's all been on the equity side. That's got us through our demonstration and now our first commercial plant. But our next commercial plant, we want to kind of move to that more traditional, let's say, project finance. There's a bit of a gap where the real classic big bank project finance, I would say for our third or fourth plant, great fit. For our second plant, that's the tricky one, so we're navigating that space right now. I mean, I do believe that there's a structure for every stage of a company.
Rob Hanson: I think, we have noticed over the last couple of years that there are more and more people who are really looking to invest large amounts of capital if it has an ESG angle, like ours does, on top of a great business. So we're just navigating that right now of how do we enter the debt markets, what does that look like, how do we kind of move down the equity from just pure corporate equity to perhaps asset level equity? It's not a perfectly charted course yet. I think solar and wind did a nice job of figuring out how to make that transition, so we do have a little of kind of people to follow in that respect. But of course, ours is also a little bit different, and so it's going to be fun navigating that over the next couple of years.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, but you're already in a place where you have hundreds of millions in financing into the business. Let's say the next company with similar attributes to you, couple of co-founders coming out of cyclotron road or out of university, should they take their first hundreds of millions in equity financing as well? How should they think about staging, phasing? I guess what I'm getting at, are you guys the exception or should your approach be more broadly adopted amongst the hard tech Silicon Valley crowd?
Rob Hanson: I think it's a really good model. I mean, I'm like N equals one, in experience here. But I think it's a really good model, particularly because it's being so successfully applied to big capital, hard tech problems in the traditional energy space. I think that many of the same challenges; technically, financially, execution wise, team-building wise, that applies there will apply to kind of Monolith and other Monolith-like companies that are biting off much of the same challenge, just adding that more broad extra analogy of doing it in a more sustainable way. So a couple of things that you have to get comfortable with, and it takes a lot of trust, is when you go down the financing path that we did, as founders of the company, you give a lot up early. You do that for the trade off of having partners who are going to have long time horizon, ability to continue to fund the business and get it to scale. So you just got to get comfortable with that with having most of your incentive be backend weighted, be willing to put a decade-plus into the opportunity, and trust that you've found good shareholders who are going to kind of share that vision and support you along the way.
Jason Jacobs: Just stop me if you don't want to go down this path, but you mentioned when we were prepping, that the initial capital in the business wasn't paid all at once. Was that paid out in tranches? How does that work?
Yeah, it was in Tranches. It was close to what's called an equity line of credit structure, which is used a lot in this traditional energy investing space. So it was kind of as we achieve certain milestones, first almost entirely technical, and then moving into market, and then moving into I would say execution, capital costs, things like that. As we achieve those, then more money would flow into the business. The nice thing with this structure's that as more money flowed into the business, at each round or each investment, we weren't kind of having the full new negotiation of what the value of the business is, how much every party has economic interests, governance, et cetera, et cetera. It let us move, I would say, much faster and without as much diversion as we went through those different stages.
Jason Jacobs: Then, the product itself, it was really interesting your point about how one of the criteria is that it needs to be market competitive on its own two feet. So I guess, how do you think about that in practice? Then, with Monolith, where do you sit today versus where would you like to get in the future? Then, how much of that do you need to lead with when you first enter the market or give yourself the room to kind of grow over time? I mean, I'm not asking in a very succinct way, but what I'm trying to ask is just how do you think about that?
Rob Hanson: Yeah. Why don't I start with Monolith and then I can maybe extend it a little bit. The cool thing with carbon black is it's got some commodity like features to it, but then it also has some very, I would say, product like features to it. I'll give a couple examples. Carbon black goes into a lot of different things. It goes into some things that I would say are very high tech. Every battery has a certain percentage of carbon black in it that's added as a conductive additive. In that market, it's all about performance. So it's all about the purity of your carbon black, it's about its conductivity, it's morphology. Those markets, it's not as much about your competitiveness on the cost side and it's much more about the value. Can you generate more value in the end application because of the technical performance of your product? So we have a number of those where when you start with natural gas instead of kind of the bottom of the barrel from the refinery, you have these huge purity advantages because of the electric nature of our process, you get some interesting conductivity properties with the material itself. So we really like going after some of those I would say non big commodity like markets early, both because they bring more value, they're also kind of a little bit smaller in scale. That's kind of where we're starting.
Jason Jacobs: What are some examples of those markets?
Rob Hanson: Batteries is one. That's a little bit of a nuance because there's I'd say a longer adoption cycle. Another really interesting one, it's not the sexiest one in the world, but it's cool from these areas is carbon black goes into things that touch food. So think of like a plastic fork or a TV dinner tray. If it's black, it has carbon black in it. The carbon black is actually regulated by the FDA. It needs to have a certain low level of impurities in it. We do really well there because of our super pure feedstock. That's an interesting market that's fairly fast adoption, but also can bring some value because of that purity advantage.
Rob Hanson: Another one are the metal carbides, that's an interesting one. Take something like tungsten carbide. Tungsten carbide is used in cutting tools and things like that. It's 94% tungsten, 6% carbon. So they've got to get the carbon from somewhere and it's very sensitive to the purity. So that's an area where they do use carbon black and we have, again, that purity advantage. There's a couple of examples. Then, there's quite a few others in I'd say a long tail of these what are called specialty applications of carbon black. But areas where with our purity, with some aspects of our technology, we can bring more value give us a nice entry into the market.
Jason Jacobs: Is that with a premium price?
Rob Hanson: Yeah, most of those markets have I would say more of a value pricing structure than just purely a competitive pricing structure. Now, as you move into the broader, bigger markets like tire, you start to get the huge volume, which is great, but it's also a longer road. Those markets, I mean anything in auto, takes three to five years to qualify. We're working with most of the major tire customers and qualifying our materials in their application. But that's a longer road. It's a different balance between kind of volume value, competitiveness, and pricing structure. I think if I generalize this, I think going to market in these technology sectors, if you can find more of a premium place to start where you have an advantage, and you can really deliver value to a small set of customers, then that lets you get your feet under you. Lets you build volume, lets you build the company required to be able to supply those customers every hour of every day, and then scale over time.
Jason Jacobs: Is your counsel for entrepreneurs that are trying to think about those initial market, should they even factor in things like impact or should they just focus on getting a strong beach head somewhere and then find the impact later on?
Rob Hanson: Yeah. I mean, I think you need to have value creation for your customer as just a true North. I had a mentor in grad school, his name is Steve Blank, he's a pretty famous entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. He said to me, he goes, "Unless you can see the eyeballs of your customer dilate when you're pitching them and that's how excited they are about the product, you haven't really found your product market fit yet." So that stuck with me, that you've got to deliver value to customers. That's the fundamental of a business. That needs to come first and foremost. Now, as it relates to scale and impact, you can also have that running in the background in the way you're thinking about it. How does this bridge?
Rob Hanson: I'll give you a really cool example in carbon black, where about 70% of carbon black is used in tires. 20% of carbon black is used in what's called industrial rubber. So that's things like belts and hoses. Many of the same companies do both of those. The nice thing with some of the belts and hoses is instead of a five year adoption cycle, it's more like months to a single digit year. You can have a case there where you really deliver for customers in that first market with the view of that's a really nice bridge to an ultimate market. I mean, I think Tesla's probably the classic example of a company that's done this quite well. But yeah, I think you've got to start with value to the customer.
Jason Jacobs: How important is the clean story to your customers?
Rob Hanson: It's been pretty amazing I would say over the past three years even how much that has changed and how much it's accelerated. I think the auto sector in general and when you go to the tire sector, which is supplying the car companies, they have stated goals. In many cases, very aggressive. They're also looking quite far into the future. One of the big tire customers wants 80% of the tire to come from an ecofriendly source by 2050. I heard the Chief Procurement Officer of this company speaking a couple of months ago and she said, "2050 is just around the corner." So they have long time horizons and they realize that these things are going to... They're going to have to be acting now if they want to achieve these I'd say aggressive goals even a few decades in the future.
Jason Jacobs: Are those goals being mandated upon them? What's in it for them to declare these goals?
Rob Hanson: I don't know the full story there. I mean we do see more coming out of Europe, so I don't know how much is related to regulations or perhaps a sense of coming regulation. It's certainly being driven by the auto companies. I think you see that pretty broadly, obviously not just in their supply chains, but also in technology and how they're looking at fueling vehicles in the future. I would speculate it's probably a combo of market forces and perhaps a view of potential policy that's coming down the pike.
Jason Jacobs: What about for your business? How much do you think about regulation, if at all, and policy?
Rob Hanson: Yeah. So I mean for us, the number one thing on regulation is that because of our very low emission profile, we can actually build plants. We are nearing completion of our first commercial plant and that'll be the first new carbon black plant permited and built in the United States in three decades. It's not because the market's shrinking, the market's been growing, it continues to grow, and demand for carbon black continues to grow. It's because the existing technology can't get a permit. It's actually going the other way. In the past three years, the five companies that run 17 carbon black plants in the US have all signed consent decrees with the EPA agreeing that they violated the Clean Air Act and committing to putting SOx and NOx scrubbers on their plants.
Rob Hanson: Pretty big capital investments. So that's number one for us, is while others are having to invest capital just to keep their plants running, we're building new plants and getting them permanent here in the US. Then, I think second and more long-term, I do think over time people are going to price in more externalities. I think it's just natural. We saw it happen with things like waste into water, used to just dump. Then, it got regulated. I think over time, that'll happen with the atmosphere. We think about it just that, let's say long-term structural positioning, a supplier of choice to our customers. Then, ability to build new capacity for a growing market.
Jason Jacobs: If anybody from the government's listening, or elected officials, or people from advocacy groups that are pushing for one policy or another, or even just voters that are listening to the show, if we want more of this kind of clean innovation to flourish and to swap out the dirty stuff faster, what kind of air cover can we be providing from a policy standpoint for companies like you guys?
Rob Hanson: To be honest, I don't spend a ton of time thinking about the policy side. So for us, it's always-
Jason Jacobs: That's a tell in itself though. It's like if you want to know how important policy is to someone's business, then it's like how much time are they laying sleepless thinking about it? If you're not, then that kind of... I think that's illustrative that maybe you're more focused on market forces, which is great if you can be in that position.
Rob Hanson: Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, I think for us that was really important at our founding, that we were truly going to be stand alone and we're going to be able to weather various political environments, because we knew it was going to take a long time to build this business and it was going to be harder than we could imagine, which it has been. That you need to have some durability to both commodity cycles, with prices of things going up and down, and also policy cycles. So yeah, that's not a great answer, but that's what I have on that topic.
Jason Jacobs: Well, let me ask you a different one then. If you weren't building Monolith and you and your co-founder were on the same hunt to go find a market that had those criteria, are there hundreds of others, dozens of others, a handful of others, or none that are clear to you are opportunities today? Opportunities from the market forces and profitability standpoint, and from the impact standpoint.
Rob Hanson: I think they're out there. I mean, I think there's a lot out there. I think the fact that my co-founder, Pete, and I, there's nothing exceptional about us. We're kind of two pretty average people who took this journey together and found one in a fairly short period of time. I think that there's a lot of these opportunities out there and as people care more about that, both continuing to produce the energy and the things that drive our economy and society forward, but in a way that has less kind of negative consequence on the environment, man, it's a great time to be an entrepreneur. Because I think there's going to be a ton of opportunities out there to do that.
Jason Jacobs: So what are one or two that you think are exciting, that you'd be intrigued to pursue if you weren't booked?
Rob Hanson: Let's see. Just off the cuff, I mean, I think this whole manufacturing sector is fascinating. The list is very long of the things that we produce and use. One that Monolith is looking at quite intensely is what do we do with our hydrogen? For every atom of carbon that we separate, there's four atoms of hydrogen that are separated from the methane molecule. That can go into all types of things.
Jason Jacobs: Isn't Lincoln going to swap out a coal plant for a hydrogen plant using your hydrogen? Did I read that?
Rob Hanson: That's the plan for the first plant, is that we're going to do kind of the simplest thing, is burn the hydrogen, which generates water vapor, burns very cleanly. Then, the heat liberated to fuel an existing coal fire power plants. They'll swap the coal out, swap the hydrogen in. It's nice because it's low capital cost, it's low technical risk. But then thinking longer term, right now, the world generates lots of hydrogen. It's all from what's called steam methane reforming, or mostly, which has a lot of CO2 intensity. There's lots of areas to I'd say create additional value and go after an additional target, at least for us on that hydrogen side.
Rob Hanson: It's an interesting market. So one for example is ammonia. Ammonia is a really cool market. Half of the hydrogen that the world makes right now turns into ammonia and ammonia is responsible for feeding two to three billion people on the planet. It's kind of the mother of all fertilizers. But on the other side, just ammonia production is responsible for about 1% of global greenhouse gases. So that's kind of a cool one that gets my brain going of, "Okay, how do we fit into that? How can we play in that space?" So that's a cool one. Outside of Monolith, I mean, steel's fascinating. Concrete's fascinating. On the material side, those are both big, big impacts and we also need them.
Rob Hanson: We're not going to live in a world that we don't use steel in concrete, at least not in the next couple of centuries, I don't think. So there's some other ones. Then, the egg one is fascinating. There's going to be so many great companies to build on the egg side. How do we maximize productivity, but minimize emissions? That one has really kind of fun life cycles to think through of what's actually happening with carbon that's being pulled out of the environment, nitrogen emissions, CH4 emissions, how that all lines up, where technology plays in it. I think there's a lot of opportunity for smart people to think of ideas in that egg space.
Jason Jacobs: When you're looking at these opportunities, I guess one of the confusing things for me is that I see a lot of Silicon Valley types who are trying to find opportunities that are having trouble. These tend to be people that come from more software backgrounds. Then, there's these opportunities that are happening, but they tend to look a lot different in terms of longer time horizons, and more infrastructure costs, and more technical risks, and things like that. So I guess what types of founders are the best founders to go out and seek these opportunities and what are the right capital providers that they should be cozying up to as they're navigating that journey?
Rob Hanson: I mean, you've had a number of what I think are great entrepreneurs on your show already. I mean, Gene is a dear friend of mine. His background of being an engineer, and then spending some time at Tesla, and then going back and doing material science, and then getting into it. That's a cool one. Another friend of mine, Kurt House, similar background. Engineering, science, and then some startup experience.
Jason Jacobs: Is that KoBold?
Rob Hanson: That's KoBold, yeah.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. Well, I'd love to have him on the show.
Rob Hanson: Yeah, he'd be great, he'd be great. Another one, Shannon, she's running EtaGen. They came up with a high efficiency new engine, kind of similar. She's an engineer as well.
Jason Jacobs: Gene mentioned her as well. Yeah, she's another one that sounds really good, but there's not a lot of you. I think that's my point, is that from my standpoint, our arteries are clogged in terms of the innovation ecosystem, but is that how you're feeling? Or do you feel like it's firing on all cylinders?
Rob Hanson: I don't think we're there yet. When you look at Silicon Valley and just the machine that there is for entrepreneurship on the software side, we're not there on energy and sustainability. But I think for, I don't know the exact number, but for everyone that goes through comp SCI at Stanford, there's probably one that goes through electrical, or mechanical, or chemical engineering. Of course, this isn't just limited to Stanford. This is kind of across all the universities. I think the intellectual horsepower is out there.
Rob Hanson: I think the financing one is a little bit more constrained where I think after that first rush into clean tech by Silicon Valley and not such great returns that were had, a lot of people drew back. But I am really excited about this set of investors who have traditionally invested in oil and gas now turning their sights to more sustainable type investments. I think that's going to be the narrative over the next 10 years, is some of these big pools of capital who have been investing in energy, and some of the teams that they've invested in, going after these type of hard tech, capital intensive, longer run, but huge business opportunities.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. I mean, one of the things I'm trying to piece together is a clearer worlds view around the... It seems like for innovation that puts climate and decarbonization at the center of the bullseye, you have stuff that's like idealist, but doesn't have any scale and that isn't going to matter. Then, you have stuff that matters financially, but it's just got like a little green tint and doesn't really matter. But it's like the stuff that you guys are doing, for example, that kind of marries the two as equal citizens, right?
Jason Jacobs: That's the stuff that's most interesting to me, but it does require a different type of kind of life cycle, innovation life cycle, and staging, and capital types. But it's like what is that right model to get that flywheel cranking? I don't have a clear view today. My sense is that it's not just educating Silicon Valley, it's that there needs to be some tuning and it's not just... I mean, you can look at breakthrough energy ventures as a comp, but I don't know how realistic it is because they don't have any institutional LPs. So if you want the institutional capital to flow at scale, which is what you need if you really want to get stuff done, then the BEV model isn't necessarily going to fly. So what is it? I don't know, but I'm really interested in to tease that out.
Yeah. I think the next decade is going to be fascinating for them. I'm excited because the good thing is that there's kind of a number of out there. I mean, breakthrough is a good one. You're starting to see some of the big private equity folks put money into these sectors.
Jason Jacobs: Anyone else that I should be looking at besides the two that are working with you? Are there others that come to mind that are really leaning into these areas?
Rob Hanson: I mean there's a couple of new ones. There's a really new fund called Imperative Science Ventures. That's a fun one, I can put you in contact with them. Another cool one if you have the opportunity, you should have my cofounder on because he actually left Monolith a couple of years ago and he now works for one of our investors. And he's a partner there and doing precisely this, trying to figure out what the model is for investment in Monolith like opportunities.
Jason Jacobs: Oh man, those are the people I want. I want to talk to the entrepreneurs that have broken through. I want to talk to the different layers of the capital stack that are trying to figure it out. And I want to talk to the people that are more focused on the system. So the RPEs, or the DOEs, or policy makers, or the big NGOs that are trying to make stuff happen in these areas, or the incubators. But yeah, if there are people in that kind of big finance that are trying to figure this out on the front lines, those are very interesting for me. Bringing it back around and Monolith. So what does success look like at end state, 10 years out, 25 years out, however far out you think, what have you done?
We're actually really in the fun part of the company now where we're growing. We've got our first commercial plant coming online in a few months and then we've set up our site here, it's in Nebraska, first of all. We set up the site to be able to expand that plant as much as 50x by just adding additional units. So we've kind of reached the full scale of the technology where now that technology risk will be essentially mitigated and you just build additional modules. What's cool is that the global market requires about 50 of those units to be built every year just to keep up with demand. So we have so much building to do, not even to displace the existing incumbents, but to just keep up with the global demand because every year there's more people who drive more miles.
Rob Hanson: So that's exciting, is to really start scaling this business, both on the production side and then also on the customer side. It's also going to be really exciting to move in and start moving up the value chain on the hydrogen side of the business. I mean, we have so much potential to make a huge impact there. This doesn't require a whole new hydrogen economy. It's just talking about all the hydrogen that's currently produced and used to make the ammonia the world needs, and methanol, and oil refining, other things like that. So that's really exciting that will take some steps I think over the next few years into additional markets for hydrogen and additional value creation. I'm personally really excited about just building the company. We went from about 50 to 100 employees this year.
Rob Hanson: That was really exciting. We'll kind of continue a pretty rapid trajectory of building the company. It's rewarding for me because I've been able to now pull a really strong executive team together and I just learn so much from them. They've run much bigger companies than Monolith is and that's been really rewarding to me personally. Then I think finally, just starting to really see that big impact environmentally, where as we scale our production, the numbers start to add up and you start doing the math on how many tons of CO2 we're preventing from going into the atmosphere. That's obviously super motivating, because that was one of the key things that started this all is wanting to have a big impact there.
Jason Jacobs: If you could change one thing structurally that would help accelerate your progress, I don't mean structurally within Monolith, but structurally in the world, what would it be?
That you could build capital projects faster. It might be impossible, but it's a patience game, this one, when you're building these really capital intensive projects. They just take so much time. I say that jokingly, but it just takes time. I think there's things you can do around the edges, but the I think biggest thing there is making sure that you've got aligned shareholders and you've got kind of patience to be able to get through long kind of cycles.
Two questions I ask every guest. One is just if you had $100 billion and you could put it towards anything to maximize its impact in this decarbonization transition, where would you put it? How would you allocate it?
I think I would probably put it into education. Not so much education on this issue, but when I think back to my arc, I was just so fortunate to have so many great teachers. Starting with my parents, and then my high school math and physics teachers, and some of my university professors. I kind of have come to the realization that education is less... Maybe a great teacher is less that they transfer the knowledge to you and more that they transfer the passion to you, in some visceral way. I just think if we could put $100 billion and somehow have the next generation or two really inspired to kind of build the companies that we're going to need and the technology that we're going to need to power economy and do it more sustainably, I think that's our best shot.
Jason Jacobs: What type of teaching or training do you think that they need?
Rob Hanson: One thing that I think could be replicated quite broadly is I did my undergrad at a great university up in Canada where I grew up, learned all the fundamentals of engineering probably as well as I could have anywhere. Then, I came to Stanford for my grad studies. I would say there was not much difference in the content, but then you started getting this entrepreneurship layer to Stanford and a few classes that really got me excited and maybe opened my eyes that you can actually build a technology company with the skills you have and this ecosystem around you. I think Stanford probably does it better than anywhere else, figuring out how you really inspire students, whether it's in software or in ME or EE to do that.
Rob Hanson: There's no reason that couldn't be applied to literally every university. I think innovation doesn't need to just be in that kind of 100 mile stretch in Silicon Valley. It can be a lot of other places. So that would be cool to figure out how you scale what's being achieved there more broadly. Then, I think after that, you start working down in how do you move that earlier in kids educational experience? I think so much of entrepreneurship is just that belief that you can actually just go and do it. You've obviously done it, where there's something that from all of your time until that point has made you believe I'm just going to go start this company. That's really powerful and I think it probably starts earlier than most people realize. University is a good place to start, but I'd move earlier if possible as well.
Jason Jacobs: My wife calls it ego, I call it demons.
Rob Hanson: I like it.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, maybe it's some of both. Then, my last question is just for anyone listening that wants to help, and is concerned about this problem, not sure where to sink their teeth in, what advice do you have for them? You can take that two ways. You could give general advice to anybody listening or if you want to actually segment it by if you're an aspiring founder or if you just are concerned about the problem and not looking to give up your day job.
Rob Hanson: I think it's quite individual. It's about finding out where kind of your skills align with where the opportunities are. I think you're demonstrating a really good model. It's similar to the path that Pete and I went through of you try to find and talk to as many people as you can from as many different angles and you start to find threads and you start to pull on them. Eventually, you navigate your way to that intersection between your skills and where the opportunity lies in this. I don't think there are shortcuts. I would say to your listeners that, I mean, you're the example of it. So follow in those footsteps. It doesn't have to be public, it can be in private, but there's nothing like having the 100 conversations with people in your network. It's always amazing how open the world is to just having coffee and having kind of good conversations on topics like this.
Jason Jacobs: I said last question, but I do have one more question if that's okay, which is just that, I mean, clearly you're an optimist on Monolith and I think that's great. From our discussion so far, I am too, and I think it sounds important for the fight, but are you an optimist on us as a species solving this problem? How bad are things going to get? Are we just shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic? How do you think about that?
Rob Hanson: Yeah. I mean clearly, a huge challenge. I know enough to be dangerous, so I'll be careful here because I'm not super deep in all of the models of what sea level rise is going to happen, et cetera, et cetera. But I am pretty confident of this.
Jason Jacobs: Whoever is, by the way, doesn't know anything about carbon black. I can pretty much guarantee it. So it takes all kinds.
That's right, that's right. Look, I don't think the challenge is resources. I really do think the challenge is technology. I think we have a pretty huge abundance of energy and resources to sustain our development. There's a lot of developing to be done still, right? There's still a huge part of the world that is still a long ways from even being able to have a conversation like this because they're more worried about basic needs. So we've got a lot of work to still do there on a lot of the world coming up that curve, which is going to be more energy intensive. But I don't think it's a resource issue. I mean, we've got so much resource. I think it's a technology issue and because of that, I'm super optimistic. Because just as a species, we've been so resilient and so innovative at being able to solve what are at one point seemingly impossible problems through technology. I don't think this will be different. So I'm optimistic that we're going to get there, but it's also going to take time, probably measured closer to century timescale than decades.
Jason Jacobs: Anything that I didn't ask that I should have or any parting words for our listeners?
Rob Hanson: No, I mean just thank you so much for the opportunity to talk. You're doing great work and really appreciate it.
Jason Jacobs: Well, you as well. People like you, and Gene, and EtaGen, and KoBold, I want to start finding the examples of companies that are hitting that sweet spot of the strong business and strong impact, and that have broken out of the... Crossed the chasm where they're starting to have some real momentum and success. I want to start gathering those leaders and building kind of a brain trust to start figuring out how to help a thousand flowers bloom. That's going to take me a timescale that doesn't look like weeks or maybe even months. But you'll hear more on that topic mostly because I think you're an example of that. I would like to see others follow. So thank you for your work.
Rob Hanson: Awesome, appreciate it.
Jason Jacobs: Hey everyone, Jason here. Thanks again for joining me on My Climate Journey. If you'd like to learn more about the journey, you can visit us at myclimatejourney.co, note that is dot co, not dot com. Someday we'll get the dot com, but right now, dot co. You can also find me on Twitter at @JJacobs22 where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode or suggestions for future guests you'd like to hear. Before I let you go, if you enjoyed the show, please share an episode with a friend or consider leaving a review on iTunes. The lawyers made me say that. Thank you.