The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Jennifer Holmgren of LanzaTech
Welcome back to the continuation of Year Two of the Common Sense Colloquy. This month, we’re featuring a new Q&A on commercializing technology and lessons learned from business partners with Dr. Jennifer Holmgren, Chief Executive Officer of LanzaTech.
Jennifer has over 20 years of experience in the energy sector including a proven track record in the development and commercialization of fuels and chemicals technologies. Prior to joining LanzaTech, she was Vice President and General Manager of the Renewable Energy and Chemicals business unit at UOP LLC, a Honeywell Company. She is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and serves on multiple external advisory boards. She is the author or co-author of 50 US patents, 20 scientific publications and is the 2003 recipient of the Council for Chemical Research’s (CCR) Malcolm E. Pruitt Award.
In 2010, Jennifer received the Leadership Award from the Civil Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) for her work in establishing the technical and commercial viability of sustainable aviation biofuels. At LanzaTech, Jennifer and her team are pioneering a novel technique that transforms carbon emissions from industry, such as steel plants into ethanol and then into jet fuel (more on that below).
We have the pleasure of working with Jennifer’s team on behalf of our client Carbon Capture Coalition. We enjoy the smart way they approach communications and are consistently impressed with the senior roles for women in the executive suite. LanzaTech has also been listed by Fast Company as the most innovative company in energy as well. They’re certainly “one to watch.”
Our BIG thanks to Jennifer for sharing her time and insight with us – and you.
Q: Your company is developing new technologies that often require a bit more than a simple explanation. How do you tackle the challenge of being compelling and clear without minimizing the important details about the work you're doing?
A: To be honest, the first thing to remember is that it’s always an evolution. You try to test an approach and you see how it resonates. It’s trial and error more than anything else. We always try to link what we do to something people know: for example, gas fermentation and making beer. We try different approaches and different ways of communicating. It’s a complex topic and it’s new.
Q: You're working with Virgin Atlantic and others to commercialize a new jet fuel product that is made from carbon emissions from a steel plant. What communications lessons have you learned from working with your partners on this venture?
A: I would say let’s start with Virgin specifically: Virgin spent a lot of time learning how to communicate sustainability messages. They have very clear, very simple approaches. I always like their slides, they are very simple, very clear. Other partners we are keen to work with on communications are the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials. We’ve learned a lot from them. There is no reason for our company to exist if we don’t do something about sustainability so we need to learn to communicate this message. RSB is one of our favorites. It’s great to reduce carbon, but what are you doing to reduce water use and other emissions? RSB certification is helpful in understanding the entire system. Society and social implications are under represented when you talk about sustainability. The more we work with groups like RSB, the more we learn to focus on social issues, social justice issues, worker issues, all of these things that are important metrics. And we have learned that from them.
Q: What changes in energy and technology communications have you noticed in the past two decades as you've built your career?
A: It’s a big question. When I started thinking about energy, I cared about energy security and energy democracy. That’s how I got into this business: how do we solve the problem that 1.3 billion people in the world don’t have access to electricity? They didn’t have things like refrigeration, pumping water and could not read a book at night. To me it was about energy and democratizing it. It was only in the past 15 years that I’ve started to think about carbon as a greenhouse gas (GHG) issue and a particulate issue. You go to places and you can’t breathe the air. I grew up in LA and you couldn’t breathe the air. I’m sympathetic, but I also know if you can solve it in LA, you can solve it anywhere. Don’t tell me you can’t do it.
My evolution is about climate: realizing that energy security and energy democracy wasn’t enough – you have to have clean energy security and democracy. The people I wanted to help would be the most affected. The intensity of talking about climate has increase over the past ten years and turned into something truly significant and exciting.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received from others?
A: “Simplifying messages” is always what I get a lot of. I come from a technical background and that means I think I’ve simplified it and I haven’t. I get that feedback a lot. Often the audience is happy with a “black box” and I spend a lot of time on the technology and that’s not relevant for every audience.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
A: Listen, listen, listen. I think people always come in with a view of something and until you understand what the other guys is thinking, you can’t communicate with them until you know the context, their background and how they come into a problem. People are such individuals that you have to understand where they are coming from and you can then communicate your story and your message.