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What it takes to be a successful entrepreneur in the Green Tech industry (Martin Atkins, CEO of GLT)


Hi everybody Today, we're very lucky to have a very interesting profile that I'm sure will be inspiring you, for your transition from either a big company to research to startup or for your first job in a start-up

So Martin Atkins from Northern Ireland, who are you What you've done and why are you so excited to talk to them about your career okay Thank you Leo, guys and girls it's a real pleasure to be here today to talk to you about about careers and opportunities within the chemical industries chemical technologies and chemical engineering So Leo asked me to tell you a little bit about my career where I've ended up today a CEO of quite a successful and exciting spin-out company in the space of green green chemistry and green technologies So my background, after I graduated, from York University in the UK, was to join BP (The British Petroleum Company): a big oil company you've probably heard of In BP, I joined as a pilot plant chemist so I was given a box of spanners (def: Tools for DIY) and a set of overalls (def: cloths for DIY) and told to build pilot plants for about two years and that would took me into Grangemouth refinery

Grangemouth chemicals plants, south of France with Lavera (French company) and that was my starting jobs for the first two years So after that, I successfully moved into project leader role in my late twenties, By the time I got to 30s, I was leading a branch and leading new technology division I'd worked with BP in all sorts of new technology areas but more specifically and I think this is one of the lessons for university students today more so than at any other time in the past: the innovation for the industry, for the energy industry, for chemicals and many of the related sectors like specialty chemicals, etc the innovation now is almost a hundred percent provided by universities not the companies and sales So the companies need people that are skilled in understanding science, understanding engineering, understanding economics of processes and understanding the time scale with which processes are put on the ground

So it puts a great deal of emphasis on being able to understand the innovation process and where innovations are developed So if I characterize the first ten years of my stay in BP, I would say we were one of the premier research organizations within Europe There was ICI at (Imperial Chemical Industries, large chemical manufacturer in the UK) the time and BP and then in Germany of course you have BASF who was one of the biggest chemical and still is the biggest chemical company in the world but three big companies like that Mobile as well have had extensive research and they've spent a lot of money developing Their own research If I then wind the clock forward, when there was a shift in oil price, a big drop in oil price, so that actually made a big penalty on research Research (money) is easy to cut for big companies so when you look at those factors: the low oil price, low investment, low returns, poor shareholder value –> you would see a shift in the oil industry and chemical industry more towards seeking innovations elsewhere

So in the second phase of my career in BP, I was I was mainly looking at new technologies, and project managing very many different types of projects across BP's university portfolio (partners) and across BP's partnerships So that was my first 20 years with BP I've been specialists myself and my core skills as a chemical engineer by that time, and specializing in troubleshooting, particularly BP building new plants: there was a problem with them and I'd often get called over to do that, to deal with that So one of the examples I had was: being on holiday with the family and being called up by my boss and told he'd got a plane ticket for me to Trinidad (Carribean island) which I thought was very very nice of him, but we're already on holiday But actually, it was nothing to do with a holiday:we'd had a big methanol plant there, and it wouldn't work and it had been 18 months since we built it and it hadn't operated

Our chairman at the time was Lord Brown who is a fierce economist, a really tough leader, but probably one of the best one of the best chairman BP's has ever had but a very ruthless man in terms of making sure that BP made money and returned good value for shareholders So my boss have told me about this problem He said: you have to leave and get on the next plane This is another things I would say when you're embarking on a career in industry, that it's not like an academic career where you can pan out (plan ) your day's work or you can plan your terms at a time In industry, you have to work and you have to react instantly and you have to do things sometimes that you're not familiar with doing or sometimes it's brilliant to fearing with what you should be doing but it's of more value to the organization so the industry is very much in control of you and your priorities

So I went over to Trinidad at that time, and to cut a very very long story short: we solved this problem on the plant and that's time for another another story which I'm sure I can talk to Leo and you about later on, but there's an interesting, a very interesting story about that which is never being published yet I'm intent on publishing it before before too late anyway, But after that so that was my first 20 years with BP and as a result of probably that activity there of solving a big problem like that when it came up to be a job in China which is BP's first venture into china, we had a commercial thrust (opportunity) into china, we wanted to build a refinery there, we wanted to build chemical plants there but we also wanted to learn how they were commercializing clean technology so fast in the industry In a time when we were in the oil industry seven to ten years from concept to commercialization was typical right across the oil industry So we wanted to learn how the Chinese actually did a little bit faster than us So that when a job came up, an opportunity came up in China, I was one of the shortlisted candidates for that job and it was a really exciting job I was working with the Chinese government, with Ching Wai University who did all the GDP modeling for the economy of China at the time which was all coal-based, and one of the drivers that BP had developed with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese government was to look at how we could make clean coal, so how we could convert coal cleanly to fuels and chemicals

So there was a big program being set up and one of that part of that program was building the clean energy center in Dalian which is in North China and that's what I was actually I eventually got the job to do that for just over five years" building a clean energy center and then operating it So by that time, I've completed nearly 30 years with BP, 29 years to be precise, and I've been in many different businesses all over BP and I spent five years in China and in that period in China, we commercialized five technologies in five years which was an industry record and I've actually used that discipline and that mentality for every BP development we did since Then when I left BP as I'll come onto in a little while, we've used it ever since even more successfully and optimizing that But the one thing that came out about this experience in China, was one of the big reasons that they could do things so fast is that, in their teams, they never separated chemists from biochemists, from biologists, from engineers they were all part of the same team So when you look at a project in China they looked at the end game first, so they wanted to get clean coal so they wanted to do things with clean coal so you say well let's go for methanol so when we get methanol, what do we do with methanol? We want to make olefins, how does that compare with making olefins for plastics and polymers that we do today currently? So we have engineers, chemists, all the people working together in a team

We looked at where we wanted to be and we started the research at the front end So we'd already got a pretty good idea at that time what methanol technology we would use but the methanol derivatives were in its infancy (new) and within three years, we'd invented with Professor Liu jong-Min, we'd invented the methanol to olefin process which is now over 90 plants worldwide operate this technology and that was a massive innovation from Liu jong-Min's team, which we were able to build on and capitalized very quickly So that project, I think, was the first, it was, in fact, the first of many of the five-year project that we commercialized in that period of time, where that discipline of using people with different research skills would all come together Now something we didn't understand, which is very relevant for you in the university in your research careers whether you go in industry or whether you stay in academia and do research in academia is that: there was something that we didn't quite capture and we didn't quite understand the benefit of at the start but when you've got these multidisciplinary teams together that work at the start of project and see the whole project go through to commercialization, you find chemists learn a lot more about engineering, you'll find engineers learn a lot more about chemistry I think both of those disciplines really understand what biotechnology is about and when you get those disciplines working together, that enhances the skills of the individual

This brings me on to another point, because I think in some points, in some areas, the universities are not actually being able to keep up to speed with the drivers the industry need in its recruitment So one of the things that have been a bugbear (nightmare) for me for many many years now, has been top of my list to try and promote, is actually these cross discipline courses where the old way of doing chemistry in one discipline or chemical engineering in another discipline or environmental engineering and when the discipline really isn't fit for purpose for a lot of industry Today they (industries) like general people, they like expertise across many sectors but not deep expertise but enough to know that if you put a pressure vessel near a flame full of with the pressure vessel full of hydrocarbon and heat that thing up it's going to explode you need to know when it's going to explode When you're looking at doing clean chemistry and clean technologies, you've got to understand the engineering principles You've got to understand the economics behind it

You've got to understand the endgame to start with So whether you're in the university and looking at career in research in university or industry: Those valuable lessons: learn other disciplines, learn to understand what your colleagues are trying to do in their part of the program, and you'll find that the team is a lot more effective and can develop things faster than you would even believ So in this spell I had in China, that was in BP, we were very lucky, it is a fantastic company to work with, so if you are thinking about going in the oil industry, a big plug for BP because it's a brilliant company In my day, everyone retired at 55 So at the end of my spell in China I actually was retiring age so I actually retired and then this next part of my journey came up

I retired in the August of 2009 and we had a joint venture out in Asia with a company called Petronas (Malaysia Oil company) as I'm sure you you've heard of so if you're looking at Formula One racing or you're a big fan of Formula One racing, that's the company that actually sponsors Mercedes with Lewis Hamilton and Botas so Lewis is now obviously the fifth fifth world title in the in the rope, and hopefully going to get his six this year So we were doing a joint venture with Petronas, so when I retired from BP, I went into Petronas as their CTO (Chief Technology Officer), for nearly five years and during that time we promoted a lot of research at university groups around China not surprisingly because I'd just come from there and actually the Queen's University of Belfast (Northern Ireland) which is one area we were specifically interested in in Petronas which was a field of ionic liquids which would apply to crude oil and clean energy processes and chemicals at the same time So in my job in Petronas, I was funded half by Petronas Venture which was looking at scouting (emerging) technologies globally and how we would invest in technologies globally to further Petronas' profitability and this bottom line and it's new technologies and secondly, we were looking to develop innovation with universities so Queens University, we took an experimental program which was targeted at removing mercury which is a big problem out in Asia to remove mercury from processed gases, processed liquids and production platforms Very big problem in Asia

Not so much in Europe but in Asia and particularly in the Thailand basin as well as the gulf of thailand, the mercury levels are really high so we had a program that we work very closely with Petronas and we commercialized mercury removal technology from 300 milligrams of an active solid in queen's university to a 60-ton reactor in three years That was an industry record for which Petronas and Queens University won a triple award from the Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), the first time that has ever been done and that was built purely on the lines that we talked about a few minutes ago where you establish a team a multidisciplinary team, have your goal in mind and really focus the team to that goal So I had a wonderful four or five years with Petronas, before I came back to the UK Now normally a sensible person at that time would have retired, would have probably taken up a little bit of golf or some other sporting activities that this person had not been spending too much time doing in the past, but I actually was very friendly with the vice-chancellor at Queen's University by then because we'd actually put nearly 11 million dollars into Queens to develop the mercury removal process So the VC Peter Gregson very nice guy actually said I'd want someone to mentor the spin-out companies but Queens and I want to establish a chair of chemical innovation and sustainability and I think you'd be the man to do that for us

So he said it's a really easy commute from your house, your home in London to Belfast it's a really easy commute so I took him up on that, and I took and he said we basically did a handshake for about three years because it would take three years to establish a chair and establish the networks that you would need to bring to bring technologies into Queens and bring technologies out of Queens from a perspective of a VC and startup companies So I did a handshake for three years which was now six years ago but after three years at Queen's we found that we were working in the university, we were working on projects that were very diverse that was solving industry problems with the same tools and techniques that we developed in China with BP and we developed with Petronas in Malaysia and it became obvious after three years that we had enough platform, enough partners to establish a spin-out company we called that Green Lizard Technologies now that's another story how green lizard name came to being and that was actually mainly the researchers themselves that were asked to provide ideas that's another story which I'll bore you with some other time, but we started this spin-out company We're only a small company we're only 20 people now but we've got projects in plastics recycling, polyester recycling, we've got used cooking oils into biodiesel into Oleo chemicals, we've got CO2 conversion, CO2 separation and a very new product with dimethyl carbonate which is used to make clean diesel fuel So we have a lot of projects and a lot of partners behind the projects so I'm CEO of that company now, and the transition from a big company from BP, Petronas into a small company, is really a major thing and, it's some experience that you know I found particularly valuable but it's also got a lot of difficulties and a lot of challenges in particular we are a spin-out company that has no debt now unfortunately you hear a lot of spin-out companies that have to sell the products and they have to get a lot of debt to actually start the research

We did it the opposite way: we talked to our industry partners that we got from the BP days and the Petronas days and we said what is your biggest problem we can solve that big problem so we got money upfront from the partners and we were solving problems from day one So three years on into GLT(Green Lizard Technologies), we still have not a dollar of debt and we're 12 months away from actually starting up our first manufacturing processes There is already a demo plant in the northeast of the UK in Teesside It's a process that takes the waste from biodiesel processes called glycerol and it makes a speciality chemical epoxide so it's the first green epoxide, first bio epoxide system on the market and we took that from Queens University: 150 milligrams in the first experiment from one of our Chinese researchers that visiting Queens, Tim was her name and we did it from that experiment to a full demo plant two and three-quarter years so that was another industry record for which we've just won the Chemical Industries Association Award, the GSK award for innovation that was only a few weeks ago for that technology So I would I would say, if you're looking for jobs and exciting careers, spin-out companies are probably one of the main vehicles nowadays for providing innovation for the industry as a whole

Most spin-out companies would probably come up with an idea and a process and the technology, three or four years down the line They will then be sold or be bought out by another company that have more value to create from that particular technology or wanted that technology for themselves So Green Lizard (Technologies) isn't for sale at the moment We're looking for partnerships rather than sales We have our own manufacturing

We have our own strategy So the beauty about spin-out companies, and the transition from big companies to small companies, which in your generation as researchers, is probably going to be the dominant way to get technology into the marketplace, these spin companies offer an amazing opportunity of exciting science and disciplines to pull together to go into the market They rely heavily on innovation from the universities so green lizard is built on innovation from six or seven different universities but primarily based in Queens University it's that innovation, that spark, that if you passionate about an innovation and research in industry, I would say the spin-out companies are an amazing vehicle to get into the market place But that's following my experience as a CEO so I mean, I'm happy to share some of those stories with you and if you want any more details and any case studies, because we do a lot of case studyies now how we actually do deliver technology faster to market than anyone else

I am very very happy to come back happy to send Leo some more information, so Leo can share that with you and and show you some of the ways we actually did this commercialization Well I might bother with two or three more questions if you don't mind Martin Just to summarize what you said: If you want to get stuff done, if you want projects to go fast, get good relations with people in many different fields and work as a team Yes! Is itone of your main advice Yes! I think the success of this approach, no matter which way you look at it, in China and when you look at the experiences we've had in Petronas, and more recently with GLT, where we've got six business units now in GLT on exactly these problems, it's getting the discipline

It's getting the relationship and it's getting the target molecule in focus I would say if you've got the target molecule or area in focus, it's a lot easier to bring the partnerships together That's the key! So for you, a great engineer, a great scientist, a great researcher, is it somebody extremely specialist or more generalist who has a bit of knowledge of everything without deep knowledge on something I think that's key and I think that's behind my comment about if you're doing research, you know, there's a wonderful learning point in your careers where you need to go into sufficient details to become an expert in a particular field of yours But you also need to have the mind and the ability to move into other disciplines

My specialism for two years in BP at the start, was actually building pilot plants and catalysis so I actually inadvertently became a catalyst in the process expert for BP So ten years down the line, when they got troubleshooting for various plants, I would often be called upon to troubleshoot or sit in on a planned discussion how we were going to build plants, what lessons from the past that we had that we could bring to the new plants to make them operate faster Okay, Okay Lovely! Could you give us four or five important steps for those young people watching us, who would like to start something, a start-up, a spin-out or create something new What would be the four, five steps you would recommend

Well, what you'll find is that there are many text books being written to help you and to make this process sound very simple What I'll say My first bit of advice is: it's never simple There is no such thing as a textbook that will teach you the skills of entrepreneurship in this area, in the clean energy and chemicals My advice is if you have an idea go for it and run with it but make sure there are two or three steps you do first that will be critical to your success and stop you from wasting time

So first, it is to be able to define the business case What is the business case of your idea Now sometimes in research and you know I've been in research all my life sometimes as a researcher, you can't articulate a business case from day one that will be an exact business case You've come up with an idea: the spark

So I would say for that spark, come up with a business idea, one business idea that spark will be able to be based around What you'll find, is over the next few months, when you're working that case up, that you might find a different business case which is a great thing to happen But if you don't have a business case, you can't find the sponsors, you can't find the right discipline, you can't get the right funding What we find nowadays is, if you've got the business case, you can articulate the business opportunity, you can go to sponsors and you can get money or you can go to government agencies In the UK we have EPSRC Engineering Physical Sciences Research Council, where you can get grants to do proof of concepts

A lot of the universities in the UK themselves have proof-of-concept grants, which are like five thousand – ten thousand pounds, that allows you to work up an idea So what I would say, is make sure when you've got an idea that, you've got the business framework up front When you've got the business framework up front, work out your research plan to get that target That's the bit that I've seen in a lot of spin-out companies and a lot of students that want to start their entrepreneur ideas and start on their companies, that's the bit they miss If you miss that you're on a recipe for disaster

If you get that right, you stand a better chanceHaving said that, you know you look at the statistics for spin-out companies and we we looked at that recently with the CIA, understand the statistics are not good on your side as a spin-out company 75% of them don't last five years but those that do last five years are really successful companies, they're probably part of bigger conglomerates or actually standalone companies with their own brands and their own products so you get the business case right, if you get the business case right, my advice is you will probably find the path to commercialization a lot lot easier If you define the business case How many years for Green Lizards now? Green lizards is three years old Alright! Another two years to hold

And we're twelve months away from getting our first manufacturing revenues So behind that eighteen months, we have the plastics recycling plant coming on stream and at the same time we have a polyester recycle plant coming on stream at 10,000 tonnes per annum It should be the first in the world of that technology That will be three manufacturing licenses and plants by the time with five years old So that's what we're looking to with Green Lizard

Okay! Last question before we have to go and catch our plan Can you give us four, five qualities that you had or you had to develop to become such the good entrepreneur, you are Well I think very much, it's an individual thing I don't think you can be trained to be an entrepreneur I think you either have that Flair

okay, so you think you are born entrepreneur or you are not I think no, I think there are ways you can improve your chances and being Everyone has an entrepreneur inside of them

okay It's a matter of how you actually build it My advice for this, the look I've had in my career, is is being able to cross all the disciplines and work in every single sector So when I joined VP, I joined the Corporate Center in Sunbury, and I spent time working with the businesses and corporate research, I then moved into a business in depth, I went out to be a project manager and doing no research, just financial management project, management accounting to be a project manager to understand that side of it I've worked on upstream

I've been on platforms I've been on downstream projects I've been in refineries I've been in chemical plants I've done a lot of partnerships with BP's universities I ran BP's first university program in the UK, under the new research director in 1980

So I would say, it's getting experience across many different sectors and being able to use that experience But the other qualities: I think communication at every level is really important So don't be afraid, if you're in a big company Don't be afraid to go and talk to you chairman Don't be afraid to talk to the IRR key (no idea what this is sorry) in the executives, because actually, they're human and they actually appreciate, you looking and they appreciate you actually talking to them as a junior technologist or an entrepreneur in the organization

So don't be fazed by talking to the senior people but also make sure that, you can communicate to every level So when I go on plants, and when I go on troubleshooting, I get my overalls on, I get the safety glasses on and I'm up on the plant with the people that operate the plant and I enjoy that Today cutting stee,l doing that, is still the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning But unless you can communicate well with the people that are building things: manufacturing things and on the wax hand, talked to the VC companies, your chairman, the executives of companies That's a skill that you can develop and you can make sure with the right training and the right experience and just be confident you know of your own of your own ability early on

Be confident when you've got the right process about things And above all, you know, don't worry about talking to different people at different levels and their different organizations, because you probably find that people are in the same boat in those organizations but that communication good communication across the pieces is okay Thanks Martins for sharing all of those information I hope that will be very useful for you And yeah let's go and catch the plane

Cheers bye bye

Source: Youtube

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