Trillium is making waves with their green technology, replacing petroleum feedstocks with renewable feedstocks to make acrylonitrile. In this episode of The Chemical Show, host Victoria Meyer chats with Corey Tyree, the co-founder and CEO of Trillium Renewable Chemicals about building successful partnerships, the power of experience, and driving sustainability in the chemical industry.
Learn more about the following topics this week:
- Creating partnerships to support product development in a startup
- Hallmarks of a great partnership
- The diverse end-uses of acrylonitrile
- The importance of customer development and consumer demand
- The challenge of talent development and acquisition in a startup
- Feasibility of Net zero and carbon neutrality by 2050
Victoria and Corey dive into the importance of partnerships with corporations, transparency, and trust in achieving successful collaborations, as well as the challenges and opportunities in scaling up their manufacturing plant. Corey also shares insights into the growing demand for green chemistry and the need for more industry experience within the startup space. Join Victoria and Corey as they explore the exciting world of renewable chemicals and the quest for a more sustainable future.
Please subscribe to The Chemical Show on your favorite podcast player. And, visit www.thechemicalshow.com to subscribe to our email list and get additional insights.
Watch the Interview with Corey Tyree on Youtube Here:
Listen to Victoria Interview Corey Tyree Here:
Scaling Up Sustainable Chemistry: Trillium’s Path to Green Acrylonitrile Technology with Corey Tyree
Hi this is Victoria Meyer, welcome back to The Chemical Show. Today, I am speaking with Corey Tyree, who is the cofounder and CEO of Trillium Renewable Chemicals. Trillium is the leader in green acrylonitrile technology, and they are on a quest to replace petroleum derived products with plant based products. They have formed partnerships with Kyosung, Helm and Solvay to help develop technology and products. Prior to Trillium, Corey worked all over, he has a lot of experience across the value chain, working as an operator, an engineer, a manager, and an executive. So he has seen it and done it and brings that with him to Trillium. Corey, welcome to The Chemical Show.
Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Absolutely. What’s your origin story? What got you interested in chemicals and what ultimately led you to Trillium?
One thing I have in common with my peers is, I’m a corporate dropout. You see in the tech space, people have this caricature of the college dropout, the Harvard dropout, making it big, is a startup CEO. I think in hard tech what you see is more people like me, the corporate dropout, somebody who really wanted to do the start up, but it takes time. You gotta get some experience and learn how this industry works, and that’s me. I worked in the industry for quite a while. When this opportunity came up, I took it. This is a great job and I love what we do.
That’s awesome. So tell us about Trillium.
So Trillium is scaling up a technology to transform plant based feedstock, so think glycerin. The raw material there is acetol, in the US it’s soybean oil, in Asia it’s palm oil. So you take the glycerin and then transform it to acrylonitrile. So it’s not a new material. That’s a big market, it’s been around for over 50 years. We’re making a drop in replacement, and we make it from a plant based feedstock.
That’s awesome. When you came upon Trillium, was the company already established or were you one of these guys that sawed out and found some cool technology and decided to develop a company around it.
I actually quit my job 9 months before Trillium existed, so there was no Trillium. We didn’t have a name. So I was really excited about the opportunity. When you quit your job and you got a young family, you gotta be pretty excited. But I did some consulting on the side and frankly work for free, trying to get this Trillium thing going.
What Trillium was made of was, the technology was licensed in from a research institute. So the technology piece is from a research institute. The money came from Capricorn Partners, a traditional venture capital investor. So money from them, technology from the research institute, and then the people. People like me. So the company technically started in my garage. On the second floor of my garage, we got it going. I look back on those early days with fond memories, it was a lot of fun trying to get this going.
How long have you been working on this?
I’ve been involved with it since 2015, so it sounds like we’re new and just formed, but there was 7 years of development at the research institute. starting in 2014. So it went through lab to pilot, and Victoria like so many of these things, then what do you do? How do you get it out of there, because at the end of the day, you gotta build a plant. Somebody does. What we thought was, we gotta create new company for the sole purpose of commercializing the technology.
So where are you at with this process at this point? How close are you to commercialization and investment?
We went through two pilots. The research institute built one pilot, and then there’s a second pilot, which is operating now in West Virginia and making acrylonitrile. That’s a big deal, we’re making product. We got the two steps, they’re operable there. Then after that, we’re building a market demonstration unit. That’s really what’s next for Trillium, designing and building that demo unit.
Got it. I know, along the way, you’ve established several partnerships to support the development. Can you talk about those partnerships and what they bring to the table and why you went with that approach?
I think this is another area of distinction from traditional tech startups. For the hard tech companies like Trillium where we’re gonna scale up a manufacturing plant. We’re set in the middle of a industrial supply chain. Our customers are corporations, our suppliers are corporations, the constructors are corporations, so it’s not so much a choice that we wanna partner with corporates. It’s a necessity, and we better be good at it too. So I do think that’s something that Trillium is good at. One of the reasons why we’re good at is the people that work here came from the corporate world. We were them, and we understand how to talk to them. So I think that experience is valuable.
The other thing is being able to recognize when you have a good partnership. One of the hallmarks is when you see an executive in the room really driving. When Trillium starts a conversation and there’s an executive for a big company saying this is what the strategy is. This is how you guys fit. It feels like this is not a road to nowhere, this is a road to somewhere. So that’s one positive sign and we look for that. We don’t partner with everybody we talk to, but the ones that we do partner with are strategically aligned with us.
The other thing is trust. Getting to the point where you’re being transparent about what your plans are and what you’re doing, the good, the bad, the challenges that you have. When they understand that and they’re still in it, they’re in it for the long haul. This is not this is not a quick win. We’re not gonna start generating revenue next month. The partners that we have like Solvay, Solvay’s been involved with this since 2014. Great partner, they’ve never left and they’ve really invested in this development. Helm AG, I was meeting with them before the company existed, before we even had a name. Kyosung, same thing. Capricorn, I’ve known those guys for more than 5 years now. All the people we’re working with, they get what we’re doing. They know the challenge, and they’re in it for the long haul.
I think both pieces of that are interesting. The trust piece, and this is what I’ve heard pretty consistently when I talk to other leaders about the partnerships that they go into, establishing that trust and having aligned objectives and transparency is so critical to being successful. You’re not gonna progress without that.
But then it’s also the timing. In all cases, new, novel and innovative technology has to happen outside of a typical corporate construct because corporations are designed to look for, what can they monetize quickly? The reality, as you’ve pointed out, 7 plus years in the making, there’s not a quick monetization strategy on this.
Hopefully, it won’t take another 7 years before you guys are feeling really monetized. We’ll see, right? It takes a long time to get to that point. So figuring out how to do it in an ecosystem that is separate yet connected to big corporate is critical.
Yeah, that’s right. I mean, if you look at how this was funded, the early work was funded by the US Department of Energy. It fit with the government initiative to develop renewable carbon fibers so the government sort of addressed that risk. Early stages in 2014, where you’re thinking is this really gonna work? That was funded by the government. Then you look at what we’re doing now. The risk is spread across multiple investors. I think that’s how you do it. If you look at my peers, many of them look very similar.
So let’s talk about where you see the product going, so customers and markets. Obviously, acrylonitrile is a big chemical product. Although, maybe one that a lot of people don’t know about. We have so many chemicals across the industry, we don’t all know what they do. So where do you see this product going? Is there any particular unique niches that you see for your customers and your future customers?
It’s an intermediate, so it shows up in a lot of finished goods, but it can be a part of the finished good. For example, Lego Bricks is maybe the most well known example, that’s made out of ABS plastic, the A is acrylonitrile. It’s significant part of the mass of those Lego bricks, but not all of it. There’s a lot of options, so it’s a really fascinating diverse market. You can make apparel out of it, acrylic fiber sweaters, sun umbrellas, blue medical gloves, toys, aerospace parts, car parts. There’s a lot of options. So I would say we haven’t chosen yet. I can talk about how I think one goes about choosing.
Yeah. Let’s talk about that because I think that’s an interesting process. Commercializing products of any variety is challenging and part of it is figuring out what your customers really want. This is not the field of dreams. If you build it, there is no guarantee that they show up. So how do you figure out how to engage and develop a product and develop customers so that you have success?
I’ll give you some of the ways we look at this. Not all of these converge to one answer, some of them are opposing one another. But here’s an example. What if acrylonitrile makes up a 100% by mass of the product? That means that a carbon footprint reduction on my side really translates to impact downstream.
Best example, to make 1 kilo of carbon fiber, you need 2 kilos of acrylonitrile. It’s basically the only raw material there. You wanna have an impact? Carbon fiber. But that’s a durable good. It’s also lightweight, the plane is lighter, saves fuel. Many of the benefits of carbon fiber are realized during the long life of that material. So the raw material footprint is somehow not diminished, but less because of the benefit of the lightweight material.
Compare that to the rubber glove. Put it on, throw it away. It has hazardous waste on it, maybe blood, it’s a very difficult recycling problem. Then in that case, what dominates the life cycle analysis? The raw material. So the raw material becomes very important if that product wants to wants to become greener, that’s another example. So those are different answers. But at the end of the day, the paying customer is going to drive this. Who really wants to pay for a lower carbon footprint product? Is it the industrial segment? Products that are closer to the consumer? Apparel?
So we got lots of options. One thing I’ll say at the very end, and this is often forgotten but shouldn’t be, product quality. These specs are not the same across all these segments and not all of the existing fleet in the world meets all those specs. Nobody’s selling to everybody. Quality matters here too, and I would say we spend much of our time thinking about that right now.
I think in a traditional development, let’s just say an asset development, when you’re building a new asset going into a new market, there’s a certain philosophy of sell out then sell up. Recognizing you can go make the cheap and cheerful product that people will buy and want and sell out your plant. Start monetizing and getting experience and then you have to start selling up to more specialized products or more challenging products.
So I think that’s true in existing well defined products and markets. It’s also probably true in maybe a slightly different way as you’re starting to enter new markets with a new product.
That’s right, and the reality is we’re not bringing so much volume to the market. You’ve got to make enough volume to satisfy one customer in one segment, and that’ll represent a significant component of our initial volume.
I think the other thing to ask yourself, stepping away from the complexity is, where is there the most interest? Look at Trillium’s investors. We’ve got a partner over 9 years, carbon fiber. Got an investor, carbon fiber. Why is that? That’s telling.
Absolutely. What’s interesting to me with that as well, is it seems like that’s a riskier use, with tighter specifications, in terms of where the end uses are going. There’s a risk profile that needs to be addressed as well. So if you make acrylonitrile gloves, you’re replacing a cheap material. It’s single use. You move on. There’s maybe not the value there. Carbon fiber is a much more complex market, and end use.
Yeah, we can’t talk about specs, but I would just say that there are other segments that are known for having the most challenging spec because the downstream processing uses biology. So you’re not wrong, but the specs are not easy in any of the segments. People who make this product actually know what they’re doing, the quality specs is tight So it’s a big challenge for Trillium.
Yeah, I bet. I know that you’re on a growth platform, you are looking to get a a 30 kiloton plant built to be able to start really proving out the market.
When do you bring people in? How are you bringing people in? Is talent development and acquisition a challenge at this point, or are people jumping at the opportunity?
This may be my favorite topic in the startup world. I’m not the only corporate dropout at Trillium. If you look at our team, it’s made up of a small number of very experienced people. I think for vanity reasons, everybody wants to say, how many people do you have? 20, 30, 40, a big number that sounds exciting, like you’re taking off. I actually resist that. I like the smaller number of very experienced people who can really get this done.
I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think this is a great place for a new college grad. It’s a highly regulated complex industry with lots of safety issues. So the people we’re hiring they can come in and do engineering drawings. design this equipment, design the reactor. They’ve done this before. They understand exactly the kinds of equipment that we need to buy. They know how to do the development. We’re following rules that have been around a long time, we’re not breaking these rules. We have people who know the rules and know how to follow them. So I think we’re going with a small number of people who are very experienced. Every single one of them used to work at a big corporation.
So Trillium, the corporate dropouts, it’s an interesting observation and challenge. I think people get to a certain point and they wanna be able to have a bigger impact than you sometimes are able to at a big company.
By the way, we do have one guy who worked at a couple startups. So we’re not all corporate dropouts, he’ll get mad at me if he hears me say that. But let me say this too that, why is it that we can get really good people? I don’t know that that was true 10 or 15 years ago, would that same sort of profile of person who’s at a Dow or BASF, would they have came to a startup like Trillium? I think there was a lot of skepticism.
You mentioned timing earlier, and I think that’s another thing that the timing’s right. People feel like this isn’t going anywhere this time, this effort to decarbonize has some real staying power at this time. That’s a big reason why we get some of the talent that we’re getting. People wanna work on this.
I think that’s right. To a certain degree, I feel like we’re at the tipping point or maybe approaching the tipping point of green and sustainable chemistry in terms of at least the fact that it’s gonna stick around. There’s this recognition and acceptance that it has to be part of our future. At the same time, when you talk about the quantities and, obviously, it’s big for a start up. It’s a drop in the bucket in terms of the net demand.
It makes you wonder some of these aspirations we have about Net Zero and carbon neutrality by 2050, is it feasible? Is it gonna happen? Or what needs to happen to make it happen?
I mean, there’s a couple of things to say. One is that, what Trillium’s doing is, I think, the leading answer. We are the leading option to decarbonize acrylo. I think that’s clear, but we’re not the only answer. You’re gonna see all kinds of actions taken beyond just Trillium. You’re gonna see people buy blocks of renewable electricity. You’re gonna see people convert to blue ammonia because section 45 tax credits incentivize that. You may see green ammonia, maybe not in the next year, but 5 years from now. So you’re gonna see lots of little parts and pieces stack up. Does that get us to net zero? Net zero is challenging.
It’s a tough standard to meet.
Even if you flip the switch when you go all bio, that doesn’t mean we’re gonna get to net zero. Net 0 is a real challenge, but I do think there’s enough publicly available information that says, this is happening. Concretes in the ground, pipes are being built. So we are gonna see reduction. There’s no doubt.
So what’s next for you and for Trillium? What should we be looking for over the coming, 6 to 12 months?
We’ll announce we’re gonna build this demonstration plant. That’ll be big news for us, that’s the final precommercial step for us. People talk about the valley of death, you’re building and spending money without making any revenue. That’s the last step. We’re funded, and we’re gonna be funded to do that. But once you get there, you can start talking about a first of a kind commercial plan.
Well, I am looking forward to that announcement and seeing where it is and how it plays out for you guys.
Yeah, we’re excited about it.
Thank you for joining us today on The Chemical Show. Appreciate having you here, Corey. And thanks everyone for reading. Keep reading, following, sharing, and we will talk to you again soon.
About Corey Tyree:
Corey Tyree is the co-founder and CEO of Trillium Renewable Chemicals. Corey raised $16M in Trillium’s first 18 months. He has formed partnerships with Hyosung, HELM, and Solvay. Prior to Trillium, he worked as an operator, engineer, manager and executive. He had PhD and BS in chemical engineering.