When NASA was landing the first spacecraft on the moon in 1969, the whole world was watching. In Colombia, then 9-year-old Jennifer Holmgren was fascinated by the mission. She devoured every piece of news about the space program she could get her hands on. She wanted to become an astronaut, as many children did at the time.
Years later, Holmgren isn’t an astronaut, but her love for science and technology has endured, and her passion for turning innovative ideas into practical solutions has guided her on a journal of making impacts, just like NASA’s space program did.
Learning to take risks
The same year NASA successfully landed the first astronauts on the moon, Holmgren moved to the U.S. with her family, when her father, a skilled aircraft mechanic had an opportunity to work in California.
As the parents expected, moving to the U.S. provided better education opportunities to Holmgren and her two younger brothers, but the impact of the move on Holmgren was beyond better schools.
“I ‘learnt’ to take risks by watching my parents move us from Colombia to the US,” says Holmgren. “I suspect my biggest motivator for taking risks is knowing that what we are trying to do must be done and that there is no downside to failure; the only downside is not trying.”
Following love and passion
In high school, the already science-loving Holmgren was fascinated by chemistry, partly because of her chemistry teacher, who passionately passed along his enthusiasm for the topic to his students.
Upon graduating from high school, Holmgren decided to study chemistry at Harvey Mudd College in California, a liberal arts college known for its excellent science, engineering, and mathematics programs. The college years turned out to be a significant period in Holmgren’s life. During those years Holmgren’s love for chemistry intensified, and she met the love of her life, Donald Holmgren, a person whom Holmgren says “has helped define who she is today.”
The day before graduating from college, Holmgren married Donald. Soon they moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to pursue PhD programs together: chemistry for her and physics for him.
After earning her PhD in chemistry and completing a short postdoctoral training, Holmgren in 1987 joined UOP (now Honeywell UOP), a multinational petroleum technology company headquartered in Illinois.
Her decision of pursuing a career in industry instead of academia was simple: she wanted to make a difference by commercializing technologies.
“I believe in what Mr. Thomas Edison has said, ‘Vision without execution is a hallucination,” says Holmgren.
Developing renewable energy
At UOP, Holmgren successfully worked on a number of diversified projects in UOP’s core business areas, and she was a member of the R&D Reengineering Design Team, which transformed UOP’s technology commercialization.
Holmgren enjoyed all the projects she worked on. But she developed a special interest in renewable energy.
“I realized over a decade ago that the world needed to diversify it’s feedstock pool. This led me to thinking about renewables and especially how we could leverage existing refining resources and infrastructure to convert biological feedstocks to drop in fuels (gasoline, diesel, jet),” says Holmgren.
Holmgren and her team initially focused on gasoline and diesel. But after realizing that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was interested in finding an economic path to drop-in aviation fuels, they saw a unique business opportunity in the aviation industry.
Many people, including some colleagues, didn’t think the project on developing renewable aviation fuel would work. But Holmgren marched on. Under her leadership, her team became a key driver in the company’s aviation biofuel business. And UOP produced “nearly all of the initial fuels used by commercial airlines for testing and certification of alternative aviation fuel for passenger flights,” says Holmgren.
Honing business acumen
While working on the renewable energy project at UOP, Holmgren felt the need to hone her business acumen.
“I realized early in my career that the key to success is not just having a novel technology with a lot of potential, but also having the business acumen to back it up,” shares Holmgren.
Believing that a formal education in business was the most efficient way to hone the skills she needed, Holmgren decided to pursue an MBA.
After receiving her MBA from the University of Chicago, Holmgren was asked to lead both the business and technology sides of UOP’s renewable fuels projects. With the newly acquired business acumen, Holmgren and her team successfully commercialized UOP’s renewable portfolio.
With her outstanding performance, Holmgren’s career at UOP flourished. In 2009, she was named Vice President and General Manager of the Renewable Energy and Chemicals business unit at UOP LLC. And she started to devote her full attention to renewable energy.
In 2010, Holmgren left UOP for a small startup company named LanzaTech, leaving the company she had happily worked for more than 20 years and the legacy she had built behind, a move that surprised many colleagues.
It all started with a phone call from a recruiter who was searching for a CEO for LanzaTech. LanzaTech was unknown to Holmgren at the time, but its core technology caught Holmgren’s attention.
Founded in 2005 by Sean Simpson in New Zealand, LanzaTech’s core technology centers around utilizing gas-fermenting microbes’ unique property to convert carbon-rich waste gases such as carbon monoxide into liquid chemical products such as ethanol through gas fermentation. The company’s mission is to create green products that meet the triple bottom line – social, environmental, and economic.
Even though the technology was sound and tested, transforming the technology into a successful business turned out to be challenging, especially in the early years. Simpson wanted to find a CEO who could help LanzaTech’s commercialization.
And Holmgren didn’t disappoint. Since joining LanzaTech, Holmgren has helped attract millions in investment, move LanzaTech’s headquarters from New Zealand to Illinois, USA, and expand the business to China, India, and Europe.
Challenges and rewards
When asked about the biggest challenges about her job, Holmgren says: “The most difficult part of new technology commercialization is the need to balance commercialization with continued improvements in technology.”
“In the early days of a technology, improvements happen so quickly that it is difficult to freeze a design and take that to commercial. This is a very important step as without a commercial unit operating you can’t reduce the cost of capital or production as you cannot begin down the path to value engineer and intensify the technology. These are critical in getting to an economic nth unit design, yet it is hard to know when to draw the line and begin to build the first commercial unit,” she explains.
Holmgren believes that, “the greatest challenges in technology development and deployment can always be overcome by working with a multidisciplinary team.”
Over the years, Holmgren has received numerous prestigious awards and recognitions, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) in 2010, and the BIO Rosalind Franklin Award for Leadership in Industrial Biotechnology in 2015. Biofuel Digest, a biofuels industry daily newsletter based in Miami, Florida, named Holmgren one of the top 5 most influential leaders in the Biofuels Industry for 2013-2014, and the number 2 most influential leader in the Bioeconomy for 2015-2016.
But to Holmgren, “the greatest joy comes from knowing that the benefits of a successful renewable energy business will go far beyond the profits reported.”
Yanni Wang is a principal scientific writer and the owner of International Biomedical Communications, a company dedicated to translating research data into clear messages. Yanni has a PhD in chemistry and writes about biomedical research-related topics for professional audiences and the general public.