Creative Destruction Lab Interview w/ Phil De Luna

Phil was recently interviewed by Creative Destruction Lab about advice to emerging cleantech startups. In this interview, Phil provides his thoughts on trending technologies in cleantech, the Canadian startup ecosystem, and what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.

You can read the full interview here and below. 

Phil De Luna, a CDL Matter and Climate Mentor, speaks to the pressing need for sustainable technologies, his plan for mobilizing cleantech, and advice for startups in the industry.

Climate change and net-zero goals have signalled the need for innovative and sustainable technologies across the sectors of infrastructure. More importantly, the need for global adoption of such technologies. The questions are – what technologies and startups will play a key role in the fight against climate change, and what type of support is needed for emerging startups to ensure the global adoption of their technologies? To address some of these questions CDL Matter interviewed Phil De Luna, a Carbontech innovator, Carbon Xprize winner, and CDL Matter and Climate Mentor. In this interview, Phil provides his thoughts on trending technologies in cleantech, the Canadian startup ecosystem, and what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.

You’ve had so many amazing accomplishments recently, including the release of your book, Accelerated Materials Discovery, the second season of your podcast, What’s Next In…, and your feature in the documentary, Carbon. What is your motivation behind all of these successes? 

Phil: I have an insatiable curiosity to try new things and a willingness to be open to new opportunities when they arise. I’m the kind of person who thinks that you get what you give to the world, so I try to be out there as much as possible. I’ve always been driven by impact and trying to solve really big problems. The motivation for me has been climate change; it’s the biggest problem we face in our entire generation. I get stressed out about it all of the time. It feels good that at least we can have these opportunities and avenues to raise awareness. 

What are the technologies that you think will be the most impactful in combating climate change? 

Phil: I have a five-point plan to get to net-zero emissions. Step one is to protect what we have; by addressing land use and stopping the clearcutting of old-growth. Step two is renewables; renewable electricity is cheaper in many parts of the world now. We need to scale up and scale out the renewable capacity. Step three is to electrify everything; electric vehicles, electric heat pumps. Once we have those green electrons, we have to deploy them in the most energy-efficient way possible. Step four is to tackle hard-to-abate sectors. These are sectors that are difficult or impossible to electrify; steel, manufacturing, chemical production, fertilizers. These are the things that we need to sustain our quality of life, that by their very nature produce emissions. 

Finally, we have to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. We got into this mess by taking carbon from underground in the form of fossil fuels and combusting it, and letting that CO2 into the air. We have to take that CO2 and bring it back underground to be stored permanently. The technologies that are most interesting are the ones to tackle that hard-to-abate area. When you think about solar cells, batteries, or wind turbines, these are already commercial in a sense. The technologies are there, we just have to deploy them. We don’t yet have answers to capturing carbon from the atmosphere. New ways to produce clean hydrogen, and ocean-based carbon capture technologies are really interesting. 

The thing I always tell people is that it’s much more pervasive than you think. I’ll give you an example of a CDL Alumni, Sheertex, that produces indestructible pantyhose. They are reducing waste and lowering the personal carbon footprint in consumer goods. That’s the way we need to be thinking about technology and sustainability in the future. Everything has a carbon cost; what are the solutions, technologies, and business models that will help us be more thrifty with a carbon budget? 

What do you think are some of the overall challenges that founders in cleantech are facing? 

Phil: A lot of cleantech is hard tech; you need lots of capital expenditures to actually build your first prototype. You need even more money in order to scale, manufacture, and pilot. A great challenge for these startups is on the funding side.

I think Canada is a relatively risk-averse society, especially when it comes to our corporate culture. We need to find a way to make the demand side more robust and resilient. Cleantech companies in Canada can raise at an early stage, but what’s the market they are selling into? The sales cycle may be so long and require lots of relationship building for derisking that competitors in other markets may outpace them.

Are there any key differences in policies that cause this divide between Canada and other nations? 

Phil: The US has a massive military-industrial complex. The amount of money they spend on the military trickles down to science and research development. DARPA is what spurred the first Internet. All of these government-funded projects float down into the private sector. In Canada, you have these amazing Canadian startups that get to a certain level and then they go to the US. 

This is going to be a controversial opinion but I think it’s okay if these companies leave Canada. If Canada is the laboratory of the world, I don’t think that is a bad thing. I can understand from an economic perspective why you would want to keep that wealth here. If you only kept the wealth in Canada, would it ever grow? These are big questions in innovation that we are all trying to figure out, and it’s constantly evolving. 

Do you have any advice for some of these Canadian cleantech founders? 

Phil: When it comes to science-based companies, I’ve seen entrepreneurs and founders that initially develop a solution for one thing, but really don’t have an understanding of the market or how the solution could be applied. Be willing to discover the market in new ways and push yourself outside of your comfort zone. To be successful, you need to recognize where the market is headed and move there before others do. 

How do you think CDL can help entrepreneurs identify these markets?

Phil: I have been part of other accelerators and mentorship programs, but nothing compares to CDL’s ability to convene the broadest and most diverse range of stakeholders that are relevant to the market. CDL’s superpower is exposure; the network of mentors and the ability to pressure test ideas in such a rapid way. It would take an entrepreneur three years to identify the different markets and talk to leaders in that field, and that happens in one day at a CDL session. 

Can you tell us about how you’ve come to be involved in Creative Destruction Lab? 

Phil: I came through CDL as a venture founder in the Energy Stream at CDL-Rockies. I was trying to commercialize technology out of my Ph.D., which was CO2 conversion technology. We were electrically converting CO2 to renewable fuel and chemicals. There was one hitch; the underlying intellectual property was owned by Total, the oil and gas company. Our supervisor had preemptively sold the rights to the intellectual property. A lot of the work I did with CDL was around negotiating terms. I was able to negotiate a royalty-free non-exclusive license for the IP with their Vice President of Science and Research projects. That’s a tangible example of how CDL’s mentorship helped me. 

This position at the National Research Council came up, I applied to it thinking I wouldn’t get it. I only applied to it to put pressure on my professor to commit to the startup. He told me that the technology is too early, and I should take the job at the NRC. It was a heartbreaking moment for me to leave the startup, but in hindsight, I realize that he was absolutely right. The impact I’ve been able to make on the side is incredible. I am much more prepared now to start a cleantech company. 

Is becoming a cleantech founder in the pipeline for you? 

Phil: I’m definitely interested; I would need to figure out the market, solution, and technology. I ran for office in the last federal election. I always tell people that running for office is just like starting a company. You have to build a team, you have to raise money, deal with vendors, and PR. The only difference is that you are the product. I loved that experience and I have the energy for it. 

Are there any other messages you have for the CDL community? 

Phil: I’m a Filipino-Canadian, I moved to Canada when I was five years old. I haven’t seen many people that look like me during my Ph.D. or as an executive in the public service. People believe they can do something when they see people that remind them of themselves. I am such a huge fan of the CDL Apprentice Program. The last thing I want to leave with is a call to diverse mentors to join CDL, as we need to highlight and showcase the diversity and talent in those communities to inspire new founders. 

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