In some form or another, people interact with chemicals and compounds on a daily basis, just like surfactants which can be found in detergents, emulsifiers or dispersants. Neil Burns joins Victoria Meyer to explain more about it. Neil is the CEO of P2 Science Inc., a manufacturing company that focuses on cosmetics and personal care, fragrances and aroma chemicals. Neil tells Victoria that prior to the innovation they did in P2 Science Inc., the individual customers were the most fundamental and it is what they focused on early on. He also shares the correlation between chemicals and where green chemistry stands in the whole process.
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Everything You Need To Know About The Surfactants Industry, Green Chemistry And P2 Science With Neil Burns
I am delighted to have with me, Neil Burns, who is the CEO of P2 Science, a renewable chemistry company that spun out of some work at Yale University. Neil is well-known in the industry with decades of experience in surfactants, other chemical products, and companies including Oxiteno, VVF, and elsewhere. Neil and I are going to be having a great conversation. I’m delighted to introduce you to him.
Neil, welcome to the show.
Thanks, Victoria. It’s great to be here. Congrats on the show. It’s been excellent.
Thank you. It’s been a lot of fun to get this going.
A lot of people think of you as Mr. Surfactants. You are well-known in the surfactants industry, both from your time at Oxiteno, VVF, and over the last number of years with the ICIS Surfactants Conference. How did you get started in this space?
My first exposure to surfactants was in my first job out of college, which was back in the early ‘80s in England. I was working for a pigment company called Manox, which no longer exists. They had one product Iron Blue pigment. We sold it into applications like paints, inks and cosmetics. One of the key properties of the pigment was its ability to be able to disperse in a variety of media. In those media, maintain a fine and even dispersion. Especially in printing inks, you are looking for easy dispersion and then a gloss, which was a function of the fineness of the dispersion and the final application. The way to achieve that with the addition of an inorganic pigment to organic media, like paints and inks, was via surfactants and then we will wait until that paint.
Coming out of college, I don’t remember studying anything specifically about surfactants in my college days. Getting into this industrial area and looking at this magic compound, in which you added just a few percent in this enormous batch of ink or paint or whatever it is and incredibly, the properties are transformed. It was eye-opening. The whole area of paints, inks, coatings in general, and cosmetics without surfactants is horrible. It’s hard to imagine. You’re trying to get this inorganic pigment into organic media. This goes to what I teach in my course. We do a little course sometimes in conjunction with the conferences. Helping unlike things go together is what surfactants do. I remember being amazed.
It’s like, “This stuff is incredible. We don’t need much of it. We only buy a little bit, but it’s critical.” It was a small company. There were only 50 people who work there in the whole company. Although I was in R&D, I got to play in all different areas. I got to know the vendors of surfactants very well because I’m thinking, “These guys are important in terms of the specific type of surfactant we buy and how we develop alternatives,” and all this stuff. I got to know them very well. I got to learn about surfactants from talking to sales guys. I remember one company in particular called Barrel, which I don’t think exists anymore.
It’s hard to imagine paints, inks, coatings in general and cosmetics without surfactants.
Ultimately, that business ended up as part of Akzo, which is now Nouryon. We had a sales office in Manchester and the sales guy there would come in regularly and we’d talk about surfactants for hours. To me, that was the first time I truly appreciated the magic of surfactants as a user. It was a little later, around the early ‘90s. That’s about ten years later that I truly got into the business of surfactants working with Pilot Chemical on the manufacture of surfactants. Moving on through various other companies, as you mentioned, that I started to be involved from a production and development point of view. That same magic that I realized back then. Every day, it’s cemented in place the critical role when you look at the role surfactants play in the basics of civilization. Health, wellness, cleanliness, the food chain, agriculture, energy, and transportation. It’s used more in a laundry detergent, but it’s often the little bits that have a huge impact. It still amazes me. When I start talking about it, I still think, “It’s amazing.”
Like many chemical products, the general public doesn’t recognize how they interact and engage with these products on a daily basis. I, myself, when I worked in the surfactants business, would just say, “It’s the soapy stuff,” which is a real simplification. To the common person, I’m like, “That’s what’s making your laundry detergent, dish liquids, and all these other wide varieties of applications.”
You’ve been in the industry for a while. What’s different from when you started?
There is one thing that is different economically and that’s volatility. When you look at some simple measures of volatility, going back to the ‘80s and most of the ‘90s, look at things like the price of crude oil, natural gas, and even vegetable oils like palm oil. Palm oil became more important than the surfactant supply chain. The volatility in those prices in those years was nowhere near as high as what it is now. You can take a look at any graph of the crude oil price. You see in the ‘80s and ‘90s price would vary a little bit. Those of us in the industry at the time thought that was quite volatile. You didn’t see volatility until the mid-2000s and especially kicking in the 2008, 2009 financial crisis.
Since then, the volatility has not returned to the levels that it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The impact on the supply chain is obvious. Look at the basic building blocks for surfactants like ethylene, benzene, normal paraffin, etc. It wriggles their way through the supply chain into LAS, alcohols and alcohol sulfates. That volatility in crude oil and natural gas. It reflected all the way down the supply chain. The role of purchasing in particular and things like price stability, contracts, price firmness, and all that stuff are radically different now than it was years ago.
This is a little bit counterintuitive when you get to my level of experience. It’s traditional to say, “Kids now have it so much easier than we had it when we were starting out.” That’s not true in the surfactants industry. Now, it’s more challenging because of that volatility. The other factor in there that’s associated with volatility is, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was conventional wisdom and largely true that you could diversify your risk by looking to oleochemical and petrochemical sources. You could reasonably assume that there wasn’t a high degree of correlation between palm kernel oil, for example, and crude oil. You could lay off some risk by having a balanced portfolio in your supply chain.
In fact, I’ve done the analysis and that is true. Those two commodities were not significantly correlated up until the mid-2000s, 2007, especially 2008, and then they locked together a lot more. There’s a much higher correlation since that period. You’ve got higher volatility and more correlation between previously uncorrelated to the supply chain. That makes it additionally challenging. If you’re a business person in this area, you’re dealing with things that we didn’t think about that much back in those early days.
What’s driving this? That correlation aspect is interesting as well, but is some of this about market sophistication? Is it driven by transparency? If I think about markets in general, we have so much more data and transparency than we did many years ago. Is there some other fundamental shift that’s taken place?
You’re right. Data, transparency and speed of communication make a big difference. Price information can travel around the world instantly now, whereas, prior to the advent of the internet, it would have taken a few days, perhaps. That makes a huge amount of difference. That does contribute to volatility for sure. The correlation between oleo and petro sides of the value chain, as far as I can see that the major cause of that is probably the growth in biofuels.
Biodiesel is based on palm oil in Southeast Asia and based on other vegetable oils like soy in North America and Western Europe. With the increasing use of those vegetable feedstocks in fuel, then fuel becomes the price benchmark between crude oil, natural gas, and vegetables. You’ll see again, it’s very coincident that as they start moving together, that’s the time in which biodiesel subsidies took off and increasing them to these feedstocks were diverted into biodiesel in those markets.
It’s structurally in some ways artificially linked, but definitely, it becomes a structural linkage between the fuel markets from the bio basis into the traditional.
Let’s turn the tides here a little bit. You have been an entrepreneur for a long time. You started up companies and divisions for VVF and for Oxiteno and then you have launched P2 Science, which I did not realize that P2 Science had its roots since 2011. I thought it was a much newer company. Tell us about P2 Science. What’s the origin story there?
We were substantially under the radar in the early days. Your perception is correct in terms of what we’ve been doing, but we did get started way back. The origin story is interesting. I was invited to speak at the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute meeting. They’ve been having one every year. It’s a well-established green Chemistry meeting in Washington DC and is very well attended. I was invited to come and talk about surfactants because that’s the only thing I know how to talk about or was back then, the use of renewable, and the surfactant supply chain. I said, “I’ll talk. It sounds interesting.”
The time got nearer. It was in June and I’m thinking, “I don’t want to go down there in Washington DC. There is nothing else there. I’m going to go and I’m going to make this talk. There’s a bunch of academics and students.” I had agreed to go. I went and talked about surfactants. People seem to be interested in what I’m saying. Right after I finished speaking, a gentleman came up to me and introduced himself and said, “It’s very interesting. There’s some very interesting research going on at Yale University at the lab of Professor Paul Anastas. You might want to come up and talk to these guys because there’s potentially some relevance to surfactants.” He got me interested and I said, “Why not? It sounds interesting.” This person was a venture investor. Rob Bettigole is a managing partner at Elm Street Ventures. He piqued my interest and the name Paul Anastas was not familiar to me. He seemed to imply that this guy was well known. I said, “He’s well known but I haven’t heard of him. Nonetheless, I’m going to go up to Yale.”
Every researcher and professor often think they’re well-known.
He’s incredibly well-known in the Chemical industry for Green Chemistry. It wasn’t something I’d focused on up until that point. The funny thing is late r on that day, I gave my talk in the morning, we had a lunch session seminar, and Paul Anastas was the keynote speaker at lunch. He gets up on stage and there are a lot of students in the room. He was greeted like a rock star and he was a good speaker too. On top of that, I’m thinking, “This is amazing.”
There’s this young lady sitting next to me, a student from George Washington University. We’re listening to him speaking. She turns to me and she says, “He’s great, isn’t he?” I was like, “He’s good.” He’s extolling the virtues of Green Chemistry. He’s got this crowd eating out of his hands. I’m like, “I’m keen to meet this guy.” A month later, I went up to Yale. We got talking and kicked around some ideas. I met Patrick Foley, his PhD student and we brought in Rob Bettigole, the guy that introduced himself to me after the talk and figured out a financing arrangement to get the company off the ground. We got into a lab in December of that year and started working away. The lesson is, never pass up a speaking engagement because you never know what’s going to come out of it.
Tell us more about P2 Science. From your journey back in 2011 and a chance meeting years later, I see a lot about you, a lot of products being developed and being promoted. Tell us where you are now.
We’re a manufacturing company with products, customers, sales, and a plant in Connecticut. We’ve got two locations in Connecticut. Our manufacturing plant is in Naugatuck and our research lab, and headquarters are in Woodbridge. Woodbridge is right next door to New Haven and Naugatuck. It’s about twenty minutes drive away. We’re focusing on two markets, cosmetics, and personal care. One is fragrances or something. Aroma chemicals in the fragrance industry are the other. We’ve got two major platform technologies, Ozonolysis and Continuous Etherification. We’ve grown quite a bit. The early years were somewhat in stealth mode.
Helping unlike things go together is what surfactants do.
You’ll hear people talk about we’re in stealth mode. I suppose we were because we didn’t talk much outside of the company, we were focused on developing the technology and talking with individual customers. We were very focused on our marketing in those early years. We’d go and talk to the top five fragrance companies. That’s where most of the business and most of the innovation is. We talked to the top 5 or 6 cosmetics and personal care companies, and work very much one-on-one on idea generation and product development. It was only after we built our plant, which was in 2018. We started to get a little bit more involved in merchant marketing. Marketing to the broad market and strictly speaking, we haven’t developed a true catalog of products until April of 2020. That was when we introduced to the world, as a whole, our super-powerful range of cosmetics ingredients. The public activity has taken off after that.
When did you know that you had a commercially viable product and a commercially viable business?
There are two ways of knowing as I think about this. One is I knew it at the very beginning because I knew that after the rock star reception that Paul Anastas got, the Green Chemistry wasn’t a fringe thing anymore. This is back in 2011 where you could argue maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. It was becoming mainstream. That said, to me, it's like, “This is a real thing now. It’s not jus