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 a lot 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 privately 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 just for the odd brand here and there.” The technology that we were working on in the very earliest days in 2011, 2012, I knew had enormous potential. I knew it was patentable even though we hadn’t got the patents yet. That’s one level of knowledge, which is probably the natural self-confidence of an entrepreneur. When I knew that, it was when BASF invested in the company in 2017. That was not just a great financial investment but a validation from the world’s largest chemical company that, “We’re not just drinking our own Kool-Aid. We really have something because BASF thinks we have something.” That was an absolute confirmation that our technology was world-class. Having that external validation is always helpful. From that point, we know we never looked back.
You guys are working on a lot of innovation. What’s been your approach? When you think about the approach to innovation, does it start with the product, which maybe it sounds like perhaps it has, or does it start with the market? How do you see innovation in this space?
For me, it starts with the market, but even more than that, it starts with the individual customers. You get a sense of what the market is looking for. We had ideas about technology and things that we could do before we even talked to anyone, but talking to individual customers at a high enough level and talking to people at these companies who are driving R&D and technology strategy, for example, that’s when things get created.
It’s between those human beings sitting on opposite sides of the table. We take the results of those conversations, go back to the lab, and say, “Let’s see if we can make that happen, what he said during that meeting, or what he wished would happen.” Whatever the thing was that you talked about and then go back and make it an iterative process. That probably doesn’t work for everybody but that’s been our approach. We were very early. Even though we were in so-called stealth mode, we were very early getting out and talking to the top five fragrance companies. Before we had anything else, we were talking in-depth at a very high level to these companies. That fueled a lot of the innovation that we’ve brought to the market.
P2 Science is green or renewable chemistry that has been around for a long time and is certainly a hot topic. One of the key trends across the chemical industry is around green, renewable, circularity, sustainability, and all those things. Yet, when we think about Green Chemistry, it’s often very small batch-oriented compared to competitive technologies and often doesn’t necessarily seem to be able to meet what the market requires. The market seems to be asking for greener and more renewable. Is this scalable? When does Green Chemistry become a real core part of the whole value chain?
I’m not sure I agree with the premise necessarily. We, in particular, were not operating any batch processes. We’re into continuous flow Chemistry. We love process intensification because it’s a Green Chemistry principle. It lowers energy intensity, footprint, waste, and increases efficiency. We love flow Chemistry. We’re past the point where Green Chemistry has to be a niche specialty. If you go back to the mid-2000s, companies like Solazyme, Elevance, Amyris, and a few of the others came to the market targeting diesel. They were going to be the next diesel or the next gasoline, not exactly a small volume niche specialty. They failed. Solazyme doesn’t exist anymore. Amyris has pivoted into other markets. It was a little ambitious to go after one of the highest volumes, super-efficient markets like fuel that you could imagine. They backed off and went more into specialties. In fact, Amyris is quite active and reasonably successful in aroma chemicals. It’s a big switch from diesel to fragrance compounds. Opposite ends of the process industry.
Starting in a small volume specialty is a smart move for any new technology. A part of our thinking of going into aroma chemicals was exactly that. You could be meaningful and respectable with a relatively small plant and small investment. All helpful from the point of view of a venture-backed startup. It enables us to get a toehold, get some commercial activity, and grow from there. In our case, in particular, we’re operating continuous chemical processes. One of our future target markets, which we’ve talked about in a couple of press releases is renewable polyesters and polyamide where we can deploy our core continuous sales analysis process, which we use to make fragrances. We can deploy that process on a much larger scale.
We run a series of parallel tubes. We’ll put more tubes in the bundle to get greater throughput. It’s essentially the same plant on a much larger scale to produce monomers for polyamides and polyesters, which are tens and hundreds of thousands of tons per year, rather than the hundreds of tons that we’re using for fragrances. That’s a pretty significant step. We’re working on this with ADM. Archer-Daniels-Midland is our partner in this. They’re bringing to the supply chain, significant capability in vegetable oils. The new technology takes time. I’d say within 2020, certain public commitments, for example, particularly the one by Unilever where they’re saying they’re going to eliminate their dependence on fossil fuel-derived inputs to their products by 2030. That’s a huge deal. That’s massive. That’s all the LAS and all the alpha-olefins. That’s big time. That is not a niche specialty anymore.
Is the industry ready for it? What do you see? You’re in touch with a wide variety of companies. Your product is scalable. Do you think your technology is scalable? Is the rest of the industry ready for that?
Unilever could do it with the right approach and the right partnerships with the industry unless this is going to turn out to be a business school case study of the worst public relations disaster. I’m sure they know they can do it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been so vocal about this. I remember when the announcement came out. I got a call from a reporter at the Wall Street Journal. She says, “What’s the deal here? Are they using fossil fuels in their products?” I said, “Absolutely. They’re using petrochemicals in all of their products.” Forget about the packaging. That’s a whole other story, but even in the products, there’s a lot.
She says, “This is a meaningful thing.” I said, “It’s meaningful. It’s not greenwashing. This is a big deal because they use a lot of this stuff already and to make that sort of transformation in ten years, it’s significant.” She was wondering if this is a real story or something to take seriously. It’s possible and doable. I think they’ll do it. Is it a good idea? It’s good for them. It’s part of their identity with respect to renewable products in general and environmental responsibility. It’s good for them but I don’t know if it’s good for the whole industry, but that’s great. That’s capitalism and the competitive market. I wish them a lot of success.
You’ve been leading new businesses and startups for more than a decade. Here you are growing P2 Science, what have you found from a leadership perspective to be the most critical elements in developing a new business, growing your business, and your team?
A lot of what we’ve done at P2 and prior to that is creating something out of nothing. It goes back to what we were talking about with respect to how we grew P2 and how we decided about the innovation. It’s not the interaction between you as the company and the customer, but it’s more fundamentally about human interaction. It’s only humans that create things. Without humans, nothing about civilization would be created. To create something out of nothing, you can have an idea on your own. I can have an idea sitting here in my study or my partners can have an idea working in the lab, but to make something happen, someone else has to be involved. Usually a customer. Sometimes a partner or a supplier.
Surfactants are used more in a laundry detergent but it’s often the little bits that have a huge impact.
It’s that human connection, personal interaction, and cooperation between humans that enables all this stuff to happen. All this incredible innovation that we’re doing and the industry is doing. That’s the most important thing. We have a mission, vision, and values like most companies and one of our values is respect. I talk about this a lot. It’s a little bit different to what people may have originally thought. What I like to stress is that, in the course of our business, we have to respect each other as human beings not just inside the company and customers, but suppliers as well. People that interact with our company in any way.
The example I give is when I first started in sales which were in the early ‘80s, I was in export sales and this was pre-internet. You’d be selling stuff to people halfway around the world. We had customers in Australia, China, Japan, Europe. Many of the customers are family-owned or even 1- or 2-man type of distributors. They were depending on you to get them your product. A month on the sea and clear it through customs. The only communication was telex. I always used to think of these guys at the other end of the supply chain. Many of whom I had only communicated with via telex.
They’re waiting for the product to arrive. They put a huge amount of cash down, either they were paid in advance or opened a letter of credit, which means they have to put the money in the bank. Either way, they put up all this money. They’re waiting and they’re going to turn that money that they’ve put up around, make a profit on it, and then feed their family. I’m thinking, “What would I feel like?” I’m sitting up or halfway around the world. I’m worried. I’m concerned about this. You’ve got to have that human empathy to understand what they’re going through. When things go wrong, you tell them, “It’s been delayed. This is why it’s been delayed. It’s not on this vessel. It’s on this other vessel, but don’t worry. It’s getting there at the same time.”
Just have that basic business sense and remember that there’s also a human being at the other end of the interaction. You’ll be that much better at what you’re doing. I took that lesson from back then and I applied it to everything. You’re having a discussion on a technical, financial, or investment matter with an opposite number in another company. You have to remember, it’s a human being and they’re at least as weird as you are. You probably have your weird idiosyncrasy. Keep that in mind. That’s a long-winded answer but that runs through everything I do.
That’s a great point. All business is human and even when it’s personal, it’s personal to the individual. Keep that in mind. I’m similar. I believe that everybody wants to be successful in what they’re doing. Their definition of success might be a little bit different than yours but you have to understand how do you help them be successful because as individuals, we do crave success.
A lot of things. Success, respect, recognition, all that stuff. Otherwise, nothing would happen without people cooperating. The cooperative element gets reaffirmed every single day for me.
Neil, when you are not leading the charge at P2 Science and helping ICIS organize surfactants conferences and training, what do you do for fun? Do you have free time with everything that’s going on?
Before the pandemic hit, I used to sing in a choir. We were active. Since good old COVID happened, we have not got together. Singing in a small space is about the worst possible thing you could do. That was great. I enjoyed singing. We did a lot of cool stuff from the earliest days of the church to contemporary music. A lot of polyphonic stuff. The first time we will be together is going to be on Memorial Day where we’re getting together to sing outside at a Memorial Day ceremony in the center of town. I’m looking forward to that.
This has been delightful. I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us. If people want to get in touch with you, where can they learn more about P2 Science? Where can they get in touch with you?
Our website is reasonably informative, P2Science.com, so please check it out. If you want to get in touch with me, Neil@P2Science.com. Follow us on LinkedIn. We’re also on Instagram. We’re a little more active on Instagram because we have a marketing person who joined the company in January 2021, so check us out there. We have a YouTube channel as well, which we’re loading up additional content on. Feel free to check us out there.
Neil, this has been great. I appreciate it and I hope you have a great day. I hope everybody enjoyed reading this episode.
You’re very welcome, Victoria. Much success with this thing. I think it’s going to do great.
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About Neil Burns
Neil is CEO of P2 Science, Inc., a venture-backed green chemistry company he founded with Professor Paul Anastas and Dr. Patrick Foley of Yale University in 2011. He started his career in the UK at Rio Tinto Zinc - Chemicals Division.
He moved to the US in 1987. He has spent most of his career in specialty chemicals particularly surfactants. Prior to starting P2, Neil ran marketing at Pilot Chemical and the US Companies of VVF and Oxiteno.
He also co-produces the ICIS Surfactants Conference series in partnership with Reed Business Services. Neil’s board seats have included Pilot Chemical, SiVance LLC, American Track Services and P2 Science.
Interesting Fact - The most interesting dinner I had was with Joan Rivers - where I impressed her by identifying correctly the make and model of her shoes. (Manolo’s)