CleanTechies Podcast

#148 SAF, Green Hydrogen, Light Reactors | Decarbonizing the Chemical Industry World w/ Trevor Best (Syzygy)

January 15, 2024 Silas Mähner (CT Headhunter) & Somil Aggarwal (CT PM & Investor) Season 1 Episode 148
CleanTechies Podcast
#148 SAF, Green Hydrogen, Light Reactors | Decarbonizing the Chemical Industry World w/ Trevor Best (Syzygy)
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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The chemical industry is ~$4.7t globally. The reason is that nearly everything we use is produced using secondary products that are created from catalyzing raw materials in some way.

This is currently done using combustion (heat) powered reactors, and our guest today is commercializing a new way to do that. A way that is 30x more efficient than cutting-edge combustion reactors.

Co-founder & CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics, Trevor Best, joins us to discuss the journey of coming across the technology from a white paper - and then going through the required steps to prove the technology at scale so it can produce at a commercially viable level.

Their tech can be applied to many specific types of reactors. Currently, they have three uses, but down the road, first principles thinking indicates they will be able to build alternatives for many reactors.

They make money by licensing out the IP and selling the reactors which they produce. And this is happening today. They have many outstanding orders for their tech.

Enjoy the episode! 🌱🌎

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Topics
*1:30 Trevor's Story
*4:00 What is Photocatalyst
*9:40 The Idea Framework (Tech, Market, Impact)
*12:55 How to Come Up w/ Ideas
*17:30 Their Tech
*24:45 ~5x Reduction in Energy Use
*27:00 Impact on Everyday Life
*29:35 Traction
*32:50 From TRL3 to 8
*36:05 Business Model
*38:42 Fundraising Mistakes & Lessons
*43:15 Culture | Missionaries > Mercenaries

Links
*Trevor Best | https://www.linkedin.com/in/trevorwbest/
*Syzygy Plasmonics | https://plasmonics.tech/
*Check out our Sponsor, NextWave Partners | https://www.next-wavepartners.com/
*Follow CleanTechies on LinkedIn | https://www.linkedin.com/company/clean-techies/
*@Silas & @Somil_Agg on X 

Support the show

We are proud to continue working with NextWave as our official show sponsor for this podcast. NextWave and all of its staff are highly motivated to advance the ClimateTech revolution and are constantly innovating ways that they can help affect that transition. From experts in the talent space to ESG experts, NextWave is taking on Climate and Social responsibility head-on and helping companies build great cultures that not only make the world a better place but also increase workplace satisfaction. Reach out to NextWave Partners today to learn more about how we might partner with you today. https://www.next-wavepartners.com/ / info@next-wavepartners.com

Silas Mähner (00:00)
Alright, welcome to the show Trevor. How are things today? It looks like it's very, very nice weather where you are. I can see out your window.

Trevor Best (00:09)
I am in bright and sunny Houston, Texas. And so, yeah, it is nice. It's always nice here.

Silas Mähner (00:15)
Yeah, I mean, if you like the heat, I suppose it's nice. I'm from Wisconsin, so I don't know if I can, if I could live there. I think the heat is a little, perhaps a little too much for me, but it's probably only gonna get warmer unless we can succeed at building technologies like yours. So hopefully that maybe is a daily motivator for you.

Trevor Best (00:34)
I mean, Houston in December is pretty nice. It's not so nice in July. And yeah, that's why we're here. You know, you gotta keep that temperature down. Like let's keep it to like 1.5 or two Celsius instead of the crazy scenarios that some people are looking at.

Silas Mähner (00:40)
Yeah.

Yeah. Yeah, exactly. So I guess, you know, for everybody listening, there's probably some people know you, maybe some people don't. So can you give us a kind of a quick intro to who you are and just the story of how you ended up in this role? You have a pretty interesting background.

Trevor Best (01:06)
Yeah, so, you know, Trevor Best, co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics to really understand my life. You got to go back in time to 1985, born and raised in Midland, Texas for 18 years and went to Texas Tech University, got a couple of majors in business, joined the energy industry with Baker Hughes, one of the service providers that helped get energy out of the ground. And there, you know,

Transition became a quality engineer, then quality manager for the Gulf of Mexico. There's a lot of R&D equipment that was put in the deep water Gulf of Mexico. So joined their R&D team and was a quality manager for their invention process, for how they invented new products and brought them to market. Started getting really interested in clean technology back in the mid 2010s, around 2015 or so.

The energy industry hadn't made the push on the energy transition yet. So we were a little bit before everyone else there. But yeah, my co-founder, Dr. Kati Wada and I eventually decided to quit our jobs and try and bring something bold to market. And yeah, for the past seven years or so have been working on bringing this cutting edge photo catalyst technology into the market.

Silas Mähner (02:33)
Okay, very good. So there's a couple things there. First of all, I think it'd be good if you can just explain what is photo catalyst.

Trevor Best (02:40)
So a photo catalyst is a material that uses light instead of pressure and temperature to do chemical reactions. So if you go inside a big chemical plant or a refinery, at the heart of those operations, you're going to find an enormous reactor that is powered by burning some kind of fossil fuel, usually like natural gas, and they combust that fuel to produce a lot of heat and pressure.

and that is what energizes the catalyst and Enables it to do chemical reactions to make you know all different kinds of things like fertilizer Raw materials that go into all the products you use Etc and a photo catalyst is something that uses light instead of heat and pressure to do those things

Silas Mähner (03:30)
Okay, interesting. I think that's a pretty understandable thing for the non-engineers in the chat. In terms of going back to the story, so how did you end up deciding to build this technology? You said you were interested in renewables and kind of the energy transition, but what really led you to take that leap and how did you get to meet your co-founder?

Trevor Best (03:49)
Yeah, so CCG is actually company number attempt number four for me. So had started a couple others, you know, nonprofit on water, an app, a, you know, another water startup on water purification. Those did not work for different reasons. My co-founder had tried to start another company. So we started off having what we'd call energy lunches and he and I would just go kick around ideas like what would happen if we covered.

every roof in Houston with solar panels. Like how much energy would that generate? From kicking those ideas around and from our previous experience and our experience in R&D and industry, we actually made a framework called the technology market and impact by which to assess new technologies. And in 2016 we started a search, you know, and we're looking at publications coming out of universities.

and we'd put it through this framework. Is the technology in a good place? Will people buy it if you make it? And can that company actually make money? And impact, does it do good for the world? And the idea was to just kill things as quickly as possible, find some reason why it wouldn't scale or why it wouldn't work. And in August of 2016, Rice released this paper on their cutting edge photo catalyst.

My co-founder was a PhD from Rice and so we hit up the two professors who wrote the paper and we were like, hey, we'd like to talk. This was something like the 80th technology that we had reviewed and my goodness, we could not kill it. We couldn't find a reason why it wouldn't scale. We couldn't find a reason why it wouldn't work. We were calling customers and asking them like, hey, if we were able to turn this into a product, would you buy it? And they were like, I'll buy one right now if you have it.

And so eventually after months and months of digging, we decided like, oh, this has legs. And so we quit our jobs and cashed in our 401k and life savings and started the company.

Silas Mähner (06:04)
I love that. I think it's pretty fascinating. A lot of people don't talk about the unsuccessful attempts at building companies. It usually just sounds like very nice and everything was good. But we know that's not actually the case when we think about it for a few seconds. There's a couple of interesting things there. So you came up with a framework. Was that framework developed just kind of through YouTube speaking or did it have anything to do with your experience in the kind of invention department, if you will, in your previous role?

Trevor Best (06:34)
It was mainly based off of the previous company attempts. So like the first one didn't make it because we didn't have the right team. The second one, we didn't build a financial model early enough and when we finally built a financial model, we found that the company could not make money, which was bad. The third one, we found that the IP was encumbered. BASF and Dow were suing each other over who owned a core piece of the IP. And so we're like, oh man, if we bring this.

water purification tech to market, like we're going to get crushed from an IP standpoint. So like that technology, you know, that came from our experience in R&D, you know, and also like our experience with the intellectual property from the third company, the market, you know, that came from the second company, like make sure the financial model is good. And also a little bit of a from a program called NSF I-Core, you know, it was just like

you know, basically make sure customers will buy it. And the impact that was all Suman and I, you know, we had a need to do good for the world. So we wanted to assess the impact as well. And that's kind of where those all came from.

Silas Mähner (07:41)
Mm-hmm. Hey, could you just...

Yeah, could you just run through what were the, what are the main things that you test and then at what point did you start actually calling, you know, customers to really test PMF because I'm assuming there's quite a lot you can do quickly upfront.

Trevor Best (07:55)
Yeah, so the first thing that you look at is the technology. And you quantify how does it compare versus things that are in industry today. And so since we're looking at a catalyst, we were looking at catalyst metrics, like catalyst activity, selectivity, stability, like how much product can it make, how efficiently does it make it, how long does it last before it dies, things like this.

And when we were comparing this tech against other photo catalysts, it outperformed them by like a hundred X, you know, and in some cases, a thousand X, like it was notably better than any other photo catalyst we could find. And then when we started comparing this against like traditional thermal catalysts that are used in refineries, it was outperforming those by like 30 X. And so like, when we saw that, we're like, oh, okay, this is very interesting.

You look at the professors, you want to make sure that the inventors of the technology are credible. Like, if you Google them and you find all kinds of lawsuits because the tech doesn't work, they're having to retract all their papers or something like that, that's bad. And so the professors behind our tech were extremely credible. They were world leaders in this field of science. Just Google Naomi Hollis at Rice University and look at her.

resume, it's on her website, you look at that and you're like, oh man, this human being is impressive. And then you look at the market, so first you have to come up with some kind of product idea, like what does the product actually look like, you have to build a financial model around that, like how much would it cost to make, how much do you sell it for, and then once you have an understanding on how much it would cost to make, how much you'd sell it for, then you can start calling customers.

I mean, like, hey, if we were to build a chemical reactor that runs using renewable electricity, uh, and was built from low cost materials at around this cost point, would you buy it? And then, you know, you get like indications, yes or no. Uh, and then, uh, in there around the same time, you're, you also want to start doing the impact assessment. Like if you deploy this, like we have a chemical reactor that runs using renewable electricity, what's the emissions impact?

Silas Mähner (10:19)
Yeah, okay, got it. Very good.

Trevor Best (10:19)
Yeah, so yeah, start with the tech, yeah, start with the tech, then go to product idea, then to financial model, then to impact and customer calls can happen at the same time in that progression.

Silas Mähner (10:32)
Okay, got it. Now that's really good. I like the framework. I think it's pretty fascinating. Not a lot of people, at least on their first try, go about it that way. In many cases, they probably just go for it and then realize, oh, maybe we shouldn't do this. Can you talk a little bit about the ideation? Because you said you have these lunches and maybe you can talk more broadly speaking about the idea of meeting people and having these kinds of discussions, but specifically around how do you come up with ideas? What is the ideation process for people who want to build something in climate today?

Trevor Best (11:03)
Yeah, so how we would come up with them was like really like tracking. Okay, actually, you know, let's go back to bare basics. If you want to do this, you know, it's a being an entrepreneur is a tremendous personal choice. You should really think hard about what you love because at some point this is going to be it's going to be difficult. You're going to feel like you're slamming your head against the wall.

You know, and you're gonna need to find some, you know, motivation, some grit to keep moving forward. And you know, if you are disciplined and you are working on something you love, you're gonna be able to like reach down and find that well of energy to keep moving forward despite whatever terrible thing is happening to your startup that day. And so I would start with things you love. I knew that I wanted to do something that had a positive impact on the world.

I was very interested in fighting climate change and I was also very interested in technology. Like I wanted to do something with new cutting edge technology. And so what that looked like for me is I was following university press offices and as they would do press releases on the things that were being developed at the university, I would get pinged on these things and would go read about it.

things that could have an impact on carbon emissions, I'd pay attention to and start digging in on. And so let's say Stanford, or here, I remember this one. MIT had a paper on a thermoelectric process where you could put some material and it would turn heat directly into electricity. And so you could wrap process pipes and really hot equipment in industrial settings.

with this kind of material and it would generate electricity that could be used somewhere else in the plant. That was one of the things we looked at. So you'd see this paper, you'd dig into it, and then you'd go have the energy lunch with your friends and you'd just kick it around. What would this actually look like? How would you manufacture it? Is there an actual use case for this?

You know, and it's interesting because waste heat, it's a really interesting area, but there are a lot of good ways to turn waste heat into electricity today. So and that one, the numbers, like, hey, academically, very interesting. And all the universities are like, they push their research. They're like, this is the best thing since slight spread. And a lot of this stuff is interesting academically.

Silas Mähner (13:39)
Mm-hmm.

Hahaha.

Trevor Best (13:53)
But when you start looking at industry, like you need to hit certain performance metrics. And like when we looked at that specific thermoelectric material, like you could convert something like one or 2% of the energy and the heat to electricity. And like it just, there's not an economic case for it. If you have excess heat and you want to turn it to electricity, there was a lot of technology out there that was way, way better. And so when we're looking at like the amount of development that would be needed,

Silas Mähner (14:12)
Yeah.

Trevor Best (14:24)
Like it was a long way. It was a long, long way from being commercial. It was not better than what was in the market today. When we looked at our thermo catalyst, the fundamentals were like 30X better than what was in the market today. And so then it's just like, oh, can we preserve that crazy good number? Can we preserve that number as we scale up? As opposed to we have to make the number fundamentally better while we're scaling up. And so that's the kind of things that we would

Silas Mähner (14:26)
Yeah.

Trevor Best (14:53)
you know, kick around and look at and how we would get those.

Silas Mähner (14:57)
Yeah, I like that because I think that it's very systematic, which I appreciate. And I think that it's quite interesting to just go from the perspective, okay, what are the possible things that we can build rather than starting with a thesis and then going backwards and trying to find the tech. I know some people have identified an issue and then tried to find science solutions that can solve that by kind of packing them together. So that's quite interesting.

Very good. Well, that's a pretty fascinating story and kind of getting into it very systematic. I like that. I like the fact that you have experience trying to do it. Can you tell us more about the technology? So we understand a little bit, but tell us more about what it is and maybe the value chain that you're specifically solving this for. Because I know we talked about this on our intro call and just give us some basics.

Trevor Best (15:40)
Yeah, so gonna get into the technology first, and there's really two pieces. One is the catalyst, and then the next is the reactor. And so the catalyst is a two-part photocatalyst, and I'm gonna start with the core of it. The two professors at Rice went down this rabbit hole of nanophotonics for about three decades. And starting in the late 80s,

to like the 90s when they started getting into this field called plasmonics and Basically some materials when you hit them with light They can catch all of the energy in the light and they transfer that energy into the electrons on the surface of the material It's called a surface plasmon So basically you hit it with light and all the electrons on the outside of the materials get excited and start jumping around the professors Then started to synthesize these nanoparticles

that you could tune what wavelength of light the nanoparticles could catch based off the size of the nanoparticles. And they become world leading experts and actually came up with the concept of the, quote unquote, tunable plasmon. So, you know, catching light of different wavelengths and tuning the nanoparticles to generate plasmon based on the light of different wavelengths. They started using this tech to actually fight for sensing applications for the Department of Defense.

So the Department of Defense was like, hey, if there's one photon, how do we make sure that we catch it with like 100% certainty? And so made these things near perfect light harvesters. They can catch all of the photons you send to them. They started using them to fight cancer. So they're like, oh, hey, we can inject these things into a tumor and shine a wavelength of light that will pass through your skin.

and these particles will catch it and then they'll heat up and like burn out the tumor from the inside. Like cool stuff. And then they keep working on it, keep working on it. And so they make this perfect light harvester and that's the base. And then in 2016, they said, hey, what happens if we take a regular catalyst, like a catalyst in a refinery or something, and we decorate, we put that on the outside of these perfect light harvesters.

you know, these plasmonic nanoparticles. What happens if we decorate them with traditional catalysts? And they did that, and then they published that paper in 2016, it was kind of like, hey, it works, this is interesting results. And that was when Suman and I found it. And actually that first paper in 2016 wasn't that exciting. You know, we were interested, and we were like, okay, this is interesting, but the results aren't that good. And they're like, oh, hey, we have some data that's not published, how are these results? How do these look? And we looked at that and,

That was really impressive. And we asked him, we're like, hey, do you know that this number is 30 times higher than the catalyst they're using in the refinery in Baytown? It's 30 times better than what's in industry? And they're like, oh, we had no idea, that's interesting. Does that mean anything? And so we're like, okay, so these two-part nanoparticles, like very good light harvester combined with traditional catalyst, what we saw, fantastic numbers.

We saw that this was a platform. It could be adapted by changing out the type of catalyst you put on the outside of the light harvester. You could do different chemical reactions. So all the chemical reactions that make fuel, fertilizer, raw materials for clothes, cars, houses, medicine, cosmetics, this platform could be adapted to take on the whole trillion dollar chemical value chain. And we were like, mind blown, this is amazing. And then we realized

no one had ever made a chemical reactor to deliver industrial quantities of light to a photo catalyst. So the first thing we did was we were going to make a chemical reactor that ran on sunlight. Of course, we have a photo catalyst. It was actually originally designed to use broad spectrum sunlight. And so we tried to make a business model around this, and it completely failed.

It was really interesting, the tech works great with sunlight and beyond the shadow of a doubt, Syzygy can make chemical reactors that run using sunlight. But the business model, we couldn't get it to work because chemical plants need 24-7 operation. They need to run day in, day out and the sun is not available 24-7. And so you have to just out the gate, you have to build the plant like three times larger.

then you need to so that you can make, like if you're making hydrogen, for example, and you wanna feed a chemical process, you need to make all the hydrogen that process needs in the eight hours that the sun is up. And then store it to feed that process overnight so you don't have to shut down the plant. You know, it's pretty interesting. And then...

Silas Mähner (20:51)
Challenging.

Trevor Best (20:53)
you need to have a buffer tank so that if it's a cloudy week, they don't have to shut down their operation. It would suck if all fuel production in the Gulf Coast stopped because you had a cloudy week. That would be bad for the global economy. And so you have to build these huge buffer tanks to store things for when the sun's not around. And that storage tank?

and the intermittent nature of the sun just blew up the business model. And so then we're like, okay, can we use artificial lights? And we managed to find some extremely efficient artificial light sources. We started with LEDs, we've actually found a more efficient light source than an LED now, which is pretty crazy. But yeah, so we started marrying our photo catalyst with an artificial light source, you power that artificial light source with renewable electricity, and boom, you suddenly have a way to power.

you know, industrial applications, like industrial chemical manufacturing with renewable electricity. And so it allows us to, you have 24, seven hour operation. Yeah. So highly specialized reactor combined with photo catalyst is our technology.

Silas Mähner (22:04)
Amazing. And before we get into the materials kind of supply chain thing that I want to understand, could you give us some examples of what you anticipate the difference in energy usage from kind of conventional catalyst technologies to this, like megawatts? I don't know the specific measurements you use, but can you just understand that?

Trevor Best (22:23)
Yeah, so I'm going to talk about hydrogen production. We have a platform. We're currently focused on hydrogen production and also e-fuel. So if you've heard of sustainable aviation fuel or SAF, that pathway as well. But I'm going to focus on hydrogen production, because it's a bit easier to talk about. Today, most of that hydrogen is made through traditional steam methane reforming. And in this, you're burning a lot of methane to produce heat and pressure.

to reform methane to make hydrogen. Altogether, you know, our tech, there's two big things to know. One is we have a pretty significant reduction in emissions because we don't have to burn any fuel to power our technology. And on the other hand, we are a little bit more efficient. So a traditional steam methane reformer operates at about 70% overall energy efficiency. Ours is about 80% efficient.

You know, we plan to be when we go to market. Another good technology to compare us against is electrolysis. So this is splitting water to make hydrogen. And they do this with electricity. Takes a lot of electricity, about 50 kilowatt hours per kilogram. The two pathways we're working on, which is a blue hydrogen pathway and an ammonia cracking pathway, those are 15 or 10 kilowatt hours per kilogram respectively. So it's about a...

4 to 5X reduction in the amount of power needed to create hydrogen. And so from an efficiency standpoint though, they can also get into like the 75, 80% efficiency range. So similar efficiencies.

Silas Mähner (24:02)
Yeah, interesting. That's pretty fascinating. Some of this stuff, I should probably do more reading to understand the details of this, but I appreciate that. I think it's pretty clear to understand. In terms of, I guess, the reason I wanted to ask the question around the material supply chain perspective is, can you just kind of explain it so people understand how your technology is applicable to all different methods of production, you know, producing different kind of materials?

Trevor Best (24:29)
Yeah, here, so I'm just gonna pick a couple examples and I'll walk you through those. And people will start to see like how this can, I wouldn't say it directly impacts everyday life, but the things that this impacts appear in everyday life. So for hydrogen production, you need hydrogen to make all kinds of things. Like for example, you need hydrogen to make ammonia, which is fertilizer. And you know, that's how we all eat.

So without hydrogen production, like no fertilizer, that's bad. You need hydrogen to make fuel, which is how we all get around the world every day. So like every time you use fuel or you eat something, hydrogen is in that value chain. Another reaction we're working on, ammonia synthesis, where we're actually taking the hydrogen that we make and then turning it into fertilizer, very much in the fertilizer world as well.

Another reaction we've done, ethylene, goes into polyethylene, this goes into plastics. Ultimately can also go into textiles, which is clothing. The aromatics and the olefins go into a whole lot of different everyday products that you see around you. Things that you make your phone and computer and you make the plastic that goes on the outside of your car.

All these things, another project we're running is Butadiene, which is synthetic rubber for tires. So a lot of this is stuff that's not super sexy. We're not directly making cosmetics, and so I don't think a L'Oreal model is ever going to be in a Sys B commercial like, you should buy Sysogy hydrogen or something like that.

Silas Mähner (26:16)
Hahaha

Trevor Best (26:22)
But these are the fundamental building blocks that you build all the things that you need to run a society on. That's what we're really tackling is the base foundation, the industrial base that makes all the other things.

Silas Mähner (26:40)
Yeah. I think it's really fascinating. Some people say it's not sexy. I think it's the coolest thing ever because being somebody who had a kind of a different, I wasn't necessarily exposed to the things most people were growing up. So when I learn about how all this stuff works, I'm always extremely fascinated. And I think it's quite interesting when people build businesses that can hypothetically really, really change kind of the underlying processes to make it much better. So speaking on this idea of hypothetically changing things.

There's a lot of companies that are in climate who are building and they kind of have a tendency to overstate how far they are. Can you talk about traction and just maybe any comments on where you guys are versus your comments on the industry and what needs to happen?

Trevor Best (27:22)
Yeah, so the industry is in an interesting place right now. I think that the whole world, and if any of you follow venture capital, you're probably seeing this as well. I think the whole world got drunk on essentially free money, there's low interest rates that were around during COVID times.

And so a lot of money poured into a whole lot of startups. And I think there are a lot of companies that have scaled and have built massive facilities and have huge burn rates, but don't have the customer traction yet. So I think the, the next couple of years are going to be really, really fascinating to watch.

For SysG, we've done a pretty good job. We've collected a number of strategic investors that are also interested in working on projects with us. Just name a few, some of the big energy companies like Equinor, Chevron, BP, Aramco, chemical companies like Latte Chemical. Pan American Energy is one of the largest energy companies in South America. Sumitomo Corporation of America plays a role in developing a lot of these projects.

We also recently picked up Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America. So a lot of the big players in the energy and chemical space are tracking us and working with us. Right now we are bringing our technology to market for the first time. So we just started testing our industrial reactor cell about two and a half months ago. And the testing is going very well. It's going well enough that we're already starting to get...

comfortable talking about things like performance guarantees. And going into next year, we're going to be working to secure some customer contracts, some binding commercial contracts, to bring the technology into the market. And if we're able to do that next year, I think sky's the limit. If not, it's going to be rough, and I'm going to be in the same boat with a lot of the others. And so hopefully energy transition moves forward. Hopefully regulatory comes in.

Silas Mähner (29:29)
Mm-hmm.

Trevor Best (29:36)
continues to support energy transition. And yeah, we're able to actually start to decarbonize.

Silas Mähner (29:44)
So I guess on this idea, on this topic of going from the lab to the scale, do you have perspectives for other people doing similar deep tech type of things where, hey, here's what the general landscape should look like. You probably will spend X amount of time doing this and then once you can achieve X, then you're going to see the exponential growth or you're dead. Do you have any kind of just general advice on that process of scaling and getting to the market?

Trevor Best (30:12)
So I think the best way to talk about this is in terms of technology readiness level or TRL. And if any of you are curious about this you can just Google technology readiness level NASA or Department of Energy and you'll see their TRL levels. And basically this assesses how ready a technology is to go to market. When we first, this is a zero through nine scale.

Zero is basically like somebody has an idea. One is they start to work out the basic math behind it. Two is they have a theoretical framework, so on and so forth. When we found SysG's technology, it was around a three. And it had started getting experimental results. And we have now taken it to an eight, with nine being fully commercial.

It is possible to skip levels, but is generally recommended against. There's a lot of risk in that you can run into problems. If you try and scale the technology too fast and those problems can be difficult to solve, like some things that are easier to solve at small scale, uh, can become insurmountable at large scale. And if you designed your plant in a certain way, you know, like I said, it could be challenging, uh, rules of thumb. We have been able to advance the tech.

about one TRL level per year. And you should scale the company accordingly. At TRL 8 we're around 100 employees and we've raised about $110 million to get to this point and we're going to market with the idea to turn the tech into TRL 9 over the next year and a half or so. I would say that

The time to really punch the accelerator and start scale like in a big way is around TRL eight. Doing it before then, there's a lot of risk.

Silas Mähner (32:12)
Yeah, so that's quite interesting. So generally speaking, the company, let's say just the maybe employee count was relatively flat or maybe slight growth until you get to point of eight and then you really hire a bunch.

Trevor Best (32:24)
I can give you an actual number. So when we founded it three, we had four employees. And those four employees advanced it to, I would say, around a four, early five level. Then we grew to about 20 employees. And with 20, we took it from five to six. And then we grew to around 50 employees. And we took it from six to seven. And then we grew to around 100. And 100 have taken it from seven to eight. And then like,

to get fully operational with and be operating at a TRL9, our company will probably need about double again, like 200 employees or so.

Silas Mähner (33:05)
Okay, got it. And then just to clarify, I don't think we mentioned this yet. Who are you selling to? What's the business model? Is it, you know, you're building the hardware? Are you selling licenses?

Trevor Best (33:15)
So we're working on a licensure model where we, it's a licensure slash OEM model where we license the tech and we also sell the, you know, reactor cells and like module that they go into to the end users. This is what we call partnership heavy business model. We need an operator who wants to operate the plant. We need an EPC, this engineering procurement construction company, an EPC partner to actually like design and build the plant around our technology.

You need like, you know, feedstock providers. You need a lot of different partners to execute this business model.

Silas Mähner (33:50)
So can you talk more about that? You're saying, so it's a licensed model, but you will find somebody else who's going to, you're gonna partner with them to, they're going to operate it, and then you guys will finance the plan? Like, can you just maybe talk a little bit more about that for people who aren't familiar?

Trevor Best (34:04)
Yeah, and we don't finance the plant either. That would be a project developer. So like we basically find a market that has a need, like let's say Korea, they're looking at bringing a lot of clean hydrogen into the country. They're probably going to be doing this through ammonia cracking. So targeting Korea, we find someone in Korea who's interested in ammonia cracking, Latte Chemical, one of our investors who we're doing a field trial with.

and we license the technology to them and sell them the reactors. They work with the EPC to design the plant around our system. They also are big ammonia importers, so they bring in the ammonia and they use our reactor and the system around it to crack that ammonia into hydrogen.

Silas Mähner (34:50)
Okay, so the only thing that you have to build then is the reactor. Got it. So there is still some kind of component of manufacturing and production.

Trevor Best (34:54)
Yep.

Yeah, and under this model, it's a very high margin business model, but you have to give things like performance guarantees and guarantee that the reactor is going to work in a certain way for a certain amount of time.

Silas Mähner (35:08)
Yeah.

Yeah, okay. Yeah, I mean, they're not going to purchase expensive equipment or license it. And then, you know, a couple of years later, they'll be like, oh, wait, what the heck is this? Like, you're done. Like lawsuits everywhere, right?

Trevor Best (35:21)
Yeah, and specifically we're able to execute this business model because like they're looking at it's not just us They're also looking at other options and what they're seeing is that we have the potential to be the lowest cost option

Silas Mähner (35:34)
Okay, got it. Yeah. Okay, interesting. Very good. Well, this is good. I think we've covered the majority of things that we needed to cover. Maybe to kind of wrap things up, a couple other things would be, do you have any specific advice on the fundraising process for this hardware? Maybe tying it to how you pitch versus where you are in the TRL process. Just kind of advice to other people in space because there are many people who are going to go through this, you know, fundraising difficulty.

Trevor Best (36:02)
Yeah, I think there's a couple things that I've learned along the way. You know, one is that this is all about storytelling. Like in the beginning, like pretty much every fundraise we've done, Cicigy has like almost died for different reasons. In the first fundraise, I didn't really know how to do storytelling in the beginning. And so like our first pitch was like, you know, Cicigy's got a plasmonic photocatalyst that can like elicit hot electron transfer to catalyze, you know, chemical reactions.

And like nobody cared. And it, yeah, like, you mean literally it was like, the room would be like dead silent and there'd be like that one awkward cough in the back and they'd be like, okay, get off stage. Like it was bad. And you know, over time learned like how to tell a good story and how to like get things really succinct and get people excited. You know, like cutting edge technology that can.

Silas Mähner (36:35)
Nobody knows what that is.

Trevor Best (36:59)
clean up the chemical industry, it'd save you a lot of money. Don't you want to buy one? So watch YouTube series, show up at your local accelerator and take pitch classes. Really strongly recommend Guy Kawasaki's 10-20-30 model. Google Guy Kawasaki 10-20-30. Phenomenal way to think about your pitch. Just keep things crisp.

Focus on communicating your story in a way that the audience can receive it. Then in the second fundraise, we counted too much on one investor where we basically put all of our eggs in one basket and they dropped at the last minute and it was brutal. We almost died. I would always do a competitive fundraise process and I would not be comfortable unless if you are talking to like...

you know, five or six or ten investors that might lead your next round. And so never, never put all your eggs in one basket on the investment side. And the final piece of advice would be, uh, you know, never give up, never get discouraged. This can be a frustrating game. And whenever I was back in college, I took an entrepreneurship class. I remember one thing from it and the professor said,

The only difference between a successful entrepreneur and a failed entrepreneur is that the successful one has failed 10 times more. Basically it's just an anecdote about whenever you fall off the horse, go get back on. This is, like we're, SysG is having a lot of success. We're on series C. We're about to go raise a series D. We've raised over $100 million, all this. This is company number four.

You know, uh, each one of our fundraisers has had challenges and then we've like adjusted and gotten back on the horse and gotten it closed. So yeah, never give up, never get discouraged, stay on it and you'll get there.

Silas Mähner (39:10)
Yeah, I appreciate that. Do you have any particular advice around selecting investors when you're building something in hardware?

Trevor Best (39:18)
Make sure that they understand what you're doing. So with your financial investors, make sure that they have people inside that can evaluate the techno-economics of your technology. You probably don't want to be their ... If you're doing hardware, you probably don't want to be their only hardware investment. If they've only done software before you, they're not going to understand the kinds of trials and tribulations you have to go through.

So, you know, really be focused on finding financial investors who invest in other companies similar to yours and understand the journey that hardware has to take. You know, on the strategic side, you know, make sure that there's actually a strong strategic alignment and they're actually going to move on your technology. You know, and make sure that there aren't any like really egregious commercial terms tied to strategic investment.

Silas Mähner (40:02)
Okay, interesting. I appreciate that.

Got it. Okay. Very good. And then the last thing I think I'll ask is, do you have any particular... I think you've talked about this a little bit before. So can you talk maybe about your thesis on culture and hiring and talent?

Trevor Best (40:23)
Yeah, so when you're looking for people in the beginning, you really need to look for missionaries instead of mercenaries, like people who are showing up because they have some kind of personal mission that they're satisfying. And so like whenever I interview people, I'm always asking questions like, why do you get out of bed in the morning? What are you trying to accomplish with your life? And what I found is that really driven people who have some kind of personal mission, whether or not...

It's to like advance technology or fight climate change. It can even be like, you know, they want to provide a legacy for their family. But the people who have a personal mission, they will dig deep and overcome when times get tough. The people who are true mercenaries and they're like, listen, man, I'm just here to collect the paycheck. They usually jump ship the first time they get a, you know, a higher paying job offer or a...

things get difficult. And so definitely be looking for that missionary type personality who is wanting something more out of life that your startup can give them. And then on culture, we do a couple of interesting things. In Syzygy, we buy every one of the company a pair of branded shoes because we walk this clean tech path together and we get to walk in each other's shoes. There is a big mural wall.

outside my office that everybody gets the opportunity to sign and it's just a commitment to fighting climate change and trying to live up to the core values. Little things like this, buying shoes and signing a wall is kind of funny, but it really does help bring us together. Lets everyone know that we're here for a good cause and we're in this together. That would recommend doing things like that, having culture events.

in your company as you grow.

Silas Mähner (42:22)
Yeah, I think that's quite interesting. Well, one last thing on that you mentioned hiring missionaries versus mercenaries, do you find that even within climate that sometimes the person's mission may not be specifically that they want to fight climate change, but their mission is still strong and in another way that you say, you know what, I'm willing to hire this person. Is it always focused on solving climate change?

Trevor Best (42:42)
No, I think the three big buckets that I see a lot are family, technology, and fighting climate change. And fighting climate change is kind of like doing good for the world. They want to do good for the world. Technology is like they're just absolutely fascinated and love cutting edge technology. And family is like, it can be similar to climate change. They want to provide a better world for their family or their children.

Silas Mähner (42:51)
Mm-hmm. Okay, interesting.

Trevor Best (43:12)
You know, and can also, you know, be that they want their kids to be proud of them. You know, they want to be seen as doing something that does good as a role model for their family. So these things can be intertwined, but those are the three big ones I see a lot.

Silas Mähner (43:30)
Yeah, okay. Very good. Well, I appreciate this. I think this has been a really good episode. I think things are coming out. Any calls to action for the audience? Any final thoughts?

Trevor Best (43:39)
Yeah, wake up tomorrow morning and switch your electricity plan to renewable electricity. That's a call to action. Yeah, if you do that tomorrow, then you've done a huge chunk of your part. If everyone woke up and did that tomorrow morning and demand for renewable only skyrocketed, would be a huge positive thing for the world.

Silas Mähner (43:44)
Most people can do that.

Awesome. Well, I'm gonna, I'm pretty sure I've already done this, but I'm gonna double check now that you, now that you just said this, but I appreciate you coming on, man. This is, this is great.

Trevor Best (44:11)
Awesome, hey, thank you Silas, always a pleasure. Hey, have a good.

Silas Mähner (44:14)
Yeah, have a good one.


Trevor's Story
What is Photocatalyst
The 80th Idea
The Idea Framework | Tech Comparison, Market, Impact Assessment
How to Come up w/ Ideas
Their Technology | The Catalyst and The Reactor
4-5x Reduction in Energy Usage
How This Impacts Everyday Life
Traction
From TRL 3 to TRL 8
Business Model
Fundraising Mistakes & Lessons
Culture | Missionaries vs Mercenaries