John Bissell is going even further than carbon neutral, by pioneering carbon-negative materials to help combat climate change on a large scale. His company, Origin Materials, has attracted funding from top-tier investors like Danone, AECI, Bioindustrial Innovation Canada, and Nestlé.
In this episode, you will learn:
- Recruiting and credibility
- Startup fundraising
- How to get hired at Origin Materials
- John’s top advice when starting a business
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About John Bissell:
John Bissell co-founded Origin Materials in November 2008 and has served as its Chief Executive Officer and a member of its board of directors since its inception. Mr. Bissell has extensive experience in R&D, engineering, and business development in the chemical industry. In 2008, Mr. Bissell received the People, Prosperity, and the Planet Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and in 2014, he was on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the Energy & Industry category. Mr. Bissell holds a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of California, Davis.
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Connect with John Bissell:
Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro Cremades: Alrighty hello everyone and welcome to the deal maker show. So super excited about the guest that we have today man he’s been working on this company for quite a while and we’re goingnna be learning everything about building scaling financing. You know he’s taking his company public too. So we’re gonna be talking about that process as well. But without further ado. Let’s welcome our guest today John Biso welcome to the show. So originally born in Sacramento and you know you’ve been there and you’re still there which is unbollliable so give us a little of a walk through memory lane. How was life growing up.
John Bissell: Hey thanks for having me really appreciate it.
John Bissell: Yeah, you know I think ah I grew up. Yeah in Sacramento and Sacramento was not that it’s sort of like a world class metropolis at this point but it’s ah it was even less of a world class metropolis back when I was growing up here. It was pretty. You know some sometimes people call it the yeah the where the midwest meets California um, and that’s you know. Pretty true. Ah so started in California grew up. You know, relatively Um benign ah kind of upper middle class. Um life in the suburbs um ended up going to Ucdavis For Chemical Engineering and then started this company. Origin. Pretty close to straight out of school and Davis is close to Sacramento um, wanted to be close to some of the technical capabilities that you see Davis but Davis is a bit more expensive so ended up back in Sacramento. Um, and now you know. Once you start something it. It could be a little bit challenging to move it and so we’re still here.
Alejandro Cremades: Now Now out of all things chemical engineering white chemical engineering.
John Bissell: Yeah, so chemical engineering. It’s It’s interesting if you ask people how they end up in chemical engineering. You get a very similar story from the vast majority of people which is they have no idea or had no idea what chemical Engineers Engineers did before they started as a chemical engineer. And they all enter the discipline because they like you know physics chemistry and math typically biology and and are you know particularly had a good experience with Calculus in high school something along those lines and everybody says Yeah, you all you? Maybe you think about being a chemical engineer So It’s it’s sort of a. Qualification set that determines whether people end up as chemical engineers not because they realize what a chemical engineer does and I was the same way.
Alejandro Cremades: Nice now in your case you know right? after graduation you know 2008 you thought that the best thing was starting a business. You know, probably you know in the middle of the meltdown of the economy. What were you thinking? John.
John Bissell: Yeah, right? Well so that’s exactly right? it was I was working at um, a spin out of a company called aerojat which was sort of like the original rocket company. Um, they made Minuteman Missiles and all this kind of stuff and ah and I remember. Doing this sort of nights and weekends and trying to get it started and um and I realized that we were going to sort of really we were going to jump ship from our our day job and go full time. My cofounder and I Ryan Smith and we sort of made that commitment to each other. Right around when I guess it would have been a little after Lehman collapsed. So literally I mean that was my my timeline anchor point was the the global financial crisis was in process very much so as we were quitting our jobs and going to start this and and. You know, part of the thought was and that we thought we could do something better right? That was why we started a company instead of just going to work for 1 of the the legacy organizations was you know we thought they weren’t tackling the modern problems. Um, in the way that they needed to. In part because back then people didn’t frankly, didn’t believe right? They thought climate change wasn’t a thing um and then in part because they’re not incentivized to right? They have big existing legacy businesses. They don’t need to go change a bunch of stuff to keep making money right? And that’s a really hard place to be if you want to go? um.
John Bissell: Digest your existing business in order to do something differently. That’s a little better. Maybe a lot better. So We we thought we would start a company um and and I think the other part was we were sort of infected by the tech bug. Um, that started you know Web 2.0 was um. Was thoroughly in swing in 2007 2008 and so we kind of generalized that idea Beyond software which was in retrospect you know boy are there a lot of differences between what people now call deep tech and chemicals and software or or the web. But um. But that was the thought right was well if they can start companies that are huge companies from nothing. Um and frankly that that the common knowledge was that that’s actually the best way to do. It is not to try to change an existing company but to start a new one then we should do that too And um I don’t know that there was a lot more thought about it than that.
Alejandro Cremades: Now How were the um I mean and and I guess just for the people that are listening to get it. What ended up being the business model of origin. How do you guys make money. Yeah.
John Bissell: Yeah, well so we’re a chemical technology company and and 1 of the things about chemistry and and materials more broadly is that basically the chemical and materials industry produces. All of the physical stuff that you use in your entire life right? People think about. Chemicals as something esoteric that they don’t interact with very often. You know the closest people get sometimes is like pool chemicals or something like that. That’s what they think of as chemicals. The reality is literally every single physical good that you use is an output at some point of the chemical industry. So everything from chemicals and materials. Everything from metals glass. Um, your desk your construction materials. The road base. Um, you know asphalt the stuff you’re wearing right? All of it is a material that came out of the chemical industry so that’s really the industry that we’re we’re involved in um and so what we do is we make what we call intermediates and I call them sometimes lego bricks that you can use to make materials out of and we make those lego bricks that are in a way that makes them carbon negative which means there’s less carbon in the atmosphere after we’re done making them than there was when we started. That’s. That’s carbon negative and um, we make these new lego bricks that are carbon negative. People can use those in existing materials and dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of the materials that they’re using or you can make new materials out of them stuff that nobody’s been able to really make at scale before so that’s what we do we develop that technology the way we make money is we go build plants.
John Bissell: Make those Intermediates um and we sell those Intermediates ah or we you know can set up other deals where we’re providing technology and somebody else goes and builds the plant makes it and we you know we get some cut of that deal. So Those are the 2 ways that ah that our business operates and those are pretty traditional ways for the chemical industry. That’s the way when you have new technology. That’s what you do.
Alejandro Cremades: Now One of the things that that is key when when starting a company is being at the right time in history and I’m sure that when you guys got started it Back. You know way you know nobody really was talking about climate change you know or or anything you know like this. But now you know it’s incredible. This is like top of mind you know every day all day. So How do you think that timing you know like has played a role in in your guys’ story. Yeah.
John Bissell: Yeah, Well So what’s interesting is if you go back to the global financial crisis there actually was at well pre Gfc. There was a niis of a climate movement that had started. Um. And there were some large investors in that area too that were really putting up their own money to try to get technology rolling and so we were sort of the tail end of that wave now that wave was very small. It was a little ripple relative to what we’re seeing right now but it was it was enough that um it. Put it on our Radar. We felt like there was a community right? that there was you know there was stuff happening and and of course that all went away as part of a global financial crisis so we sort of got involved thinking boy there’s you know a couple of companies that are doing some really interesting things Here. We’re going to get involved and then sort of it all evaporated right? and we were left and we had to figure out our own Way. What felt like pretty alone right now it didn’t feel like there were a lot lot of other companies that were trying to do what we were doing um and so I think from a timing perspective. We sort of tried to get the timing right in the beginning and of course got it debt wrong Wow From some perspectives.
John Bissell: And then our view was well look the world needs this we think we can add a lot of value and so whether we’ve got the timing right? or not let’s go develop this technology make it happen because we think the world needs the technology and then of course yeah so we did that for you know 10 years and um kept moving along. And you know, gradually increasing customer demand gradually increasing the improving the technology making our way through and then of course as you said now there’s this really with covid is where we saw it this enormous rise in interest and commitment to ah. Making a difference with climate and changing people’s supply chains and their products and their designs their market. All this kind of stuff to make it happen and so um, so in that sense I guess you know from a timing perspective. We just had enough foresight to develop the technology 10 years before we needed it.
Alejandro Cremades: That’s incredible. That’s incredible now Now let’s talk about the early days tell us about recruiting chemists. Especially one of them. You know there’s a fun story there you know, tell us about it. So.
John Bissell: Yeah, Sure. So um, so early days you know one of the things that I say about about well all companies but particularly in our space is that credibility is one of the things that you’re fighting for um, early early on that’s you Know. You have no credibility relative to a dow chemical or ah, you know an oil major or somebody like that right? Um, as a little startup with 3 or 4 people and so you’re you’re just constantly fighting to demonstrate that what you’re doing is worthwhile and that it’s going to deliver and that includes for recruiting and so now.
John Bissell: Just to provide some contrast now we you know we get some of the best people in the entire world and everybody knows they’re the best in the world right? and they come to join origin um, that wasn’t how it used to be right. It used to be. You know you need to get really great folks, but ah. You know if I go up to the the most senior technology person at um at an oil major when I when we were a 4 person company. They don’t even respond to your email right? Let alone come work for you in Sacramento. Um, so we had to get really good at spotting talent that nobody else was spotting. But that was still world class. So um, and I hadn’t sort of figured this out yet. But ah, but our first technical hire outside of the founding team really um was a guy named. Um, he’s now our chief scientist. Um Michaeluno and he he i. He was referred to me by a couple other folks at you Davis. So I asked some of the professors and grad students. You know who was the best grad student in in recent memory that got their ph d that experimentally and um, what we say on the whiteboard which means theoretically so experimentally the best who is that who and then who is the best. Um. Ah, theoretically and I figured I’d hired both of them right? that was going to be my approach and they said oh that’s easy. It’s actually 1 guy who is the best of both. Um, this guy Maco Mosuno so you got ah you know here’s and the person who happened to be um, making introduction was ah could be a little flaky and so um.
John Bissell: He he said I’ll give you his number but I don’t know you know you don’t want me to make the introduction because I didn’t show up to a game of golf recently and now I don’t think he wants to call me back. You know so okay so I get his number and I call him up. It turns out our chief scientist is um, he’s a pretty conservative guy just sort of bite by nature. So I call him up and then. He’s he’s sort of gotten a little bit of a briefing of who I am and what I’m going to ask and ah and he says look I yeah I sat down before I got on the call and I figured out how I was going to tell you no because when I commit to something I commit so wholeheartedly that um I sort of don’t leave anything in the tank. He said and I just don’t know if I’m in that spot right now I said okay, well, how about this, you don’t have to commit. Let me just take you to lunch and we can talk about it for a little while so he goes okay, he’s a food guy so he goes I gave him a really good lunch spot. We went um and he shows up and he shows up with a stack of. Ah, academic literature six inches thick that he had gone through paper by paper and highlighted all of the stuff and it was all the relevant literature that he could find this is an enormous I mean this is this is dozens if not hundreds of hours worth of work that he had done before coming to lunch to tell me? no right. And he gives me this Manila folder with all of these stacks paper in it. He says by the way I just can’t do it? Um, but here I did all this research for you and I was like god I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person who is more bored in what they’re doing than this guy he obviously I mean he’s like desperate to do great science.
John Bissell: And and so I said look well, you don’t have to make a commitment but why don’t you just come over and see our labs and he spent about 6 hours in our labs that afternoon and he’s been working for us since when you know he basically never laughed. Um, so it’s just amazing though. The the idea that somebody who’s so good and by the way I get to see him. Um, you know do science right? and technology development with with now some of the best people in the whole world and he absolutely he’s he’s as good. He’s he’s even better than I hoped he would be then right ten years later um but it was crazy to me that. Somebody who is that good could sort of ah not get sucked up into the larger chemical industry. You know how are they missing people that were so spectacular and um and that’s been sort of a question for me for the last ten years frankly is is where are these folks but that was that. Frankly I think if we hadn’t made that hire. Um, when we did I don’t think we would have made it. You know it was an incredible incredible moment.
Alejandro Cremades: Mile now. Let’s talk about capitalizing the business. So obviously you guys got started no way how how has it been the process of of capitalizing the business all the way up to the ipo that you guys did.
John Bissell: Yeah, so it was it was almost entirely what we would usually say venture capital based but it wasn’t still It wasn’t sort of standard sandhill road style venture capital that we we pitched all the Sand Hill guys but um ah but you know I understandable I mean I was I was young particularly young men. But um so I didn’t fully appreciate it. But but I understand why you know this is a business where you get to spend a bunch of money to develop technology so that you have the opportunity to spend a bunch of you. You spend even more money to s sink seal on the ground right? Um, you need a lot of. Hash to go into a business like this before you get to really? um, generate high school operating returns now the flip side of that is so does anybody else who wants to compete with you right? So you end up with a gigantic moat. Um, that’s at not just money-based and resource based but also time-based right? It takes. 10 to 15 years to develop this kind of technology even if you’re a big chemical company so you end up in a great spot on the other side but I see why you know the sandhoe guys would look at that and say you know Jesus you’re talking about basically a decade or more of. Of continued investment into this company I you know I can just go fund this software company for far less so we didn’t get the traditional sand hill guys. But what we did get were venture capitalists often working out of sort of their personal account effectively? um, investing in us and particularly the ones who were technical.
John Bissell: And had a deep understanding of the market and the industry and so we had a handful of of folks who really were committed and saw the vision. Um all the way through who who supported us until we took the company public.
Alejandro Cremades: So how was the um, how much capital that you guys raised prior to taking the company public because you took the company public in in 2021 so you know that was quite a ah bit of time there from all 8 all the way to 2021 so
John Bissell: Right.
Alejandro Cremades: How much capital Do you guys raise for.
John Bissell: Yeah, sure a 100,000,000 I actually don’t you think that after all that I would know the number down to that down to the penny. But I don’t and but I think it’s a little north of a 100000000 all told and now to today we’ve raised. Um.
Alejandro Cremades: Yeah, got it because up and up until today. How much capital have you guys raised in total for the business.
John Bissell: Um, you know circa 650,000,000 something along this range that range. So.
Alejandro Cremades: Got it and what is it? What is it like I mean there’s probably like a lot of folks that are listening a lot of entrepreneurs that are you know, very very familiar with you know the venture route and racing different rounds and things like that. So So your case I mean how was it you know. Taking the company public I mean how do you come to? the conclusion hey you know let’s let’s take this company. You know to the public markets and then how do you navigate that because you know the private. You know it’s a little bit Easier. You know the public here more in the public Eye. So How has it been. You know the journey the experience and then also how was. Taking the company public.
John Bissell: Yeah, well I think it was it was from a decision perspective. It was relatively straightforward for us. We had a quite sizable private um round that we had lined up um, sort of towards the end of Twenty Twenty and we were looking at that and and it became clear that there was a window for us to take the company public as well. So you know you just for for a really capital intensive business like us that’s ah, that’s a dominant part of the the sort of strategic concern is what is my cost of capital because I need a lot of it and so. Looking at the effective cost of capital in the private market versus the public market at that point in time it was very clear that the the public markets had lower cost of of equity capital for a company like us. Um, and so that was the direction now when we saw that window open. Again, we were sort of lined up for this private round and we said geez I think I think we need to take a run at the public um market and putting that together in a relatively short period of time. During covid right? I mean we were all working remotely. We were living our life on Zoom plus there were all the supply chain challenges. Plus yeah I mean at at the time you know this is still true. Even even service industries were getting drawn down so aggressively. There’s hard to get. You know it’s hard to get all the service that you needed from.
John Bissell: You know financiers and and lawyers and accountants and all those kinds of things because everybody was just um, crushed with demand and so putting that together in the space of a relatively short period of time. Um, now that that was interesting that was challenging and.
John Bissell: And I think you know I particularly remember the sort of point of no return where we said well we’re good. You didn’t get to really line it up partly just because of a resource perspective on our side. You couldn’t really quite line it up where it was you you have the private round and you get to see if you’re going to land the public. Ah, the go public process. Um, before you let the private round go. You know you had to bet on one before you landed it and um, so that point of no return was ah that was an interesting one. You know I think I don’t think we’d ever really committed. Ten years ago to the idea that we would take the company public. We always thought you know maybe there’s a chance we’ll stay private forever. Maybe we’ll go public. We don’t know so but it’s ah obviously it’s a notable moment right to take a company into the public capital markets.
Alejandro Cremades: And people talk about taking companies public and then having access to those large pools of capital. What do they mean with that. Yeah.
John Bissell: Right? Well I mean there’s a lot more money in the public markets than there’s the private markets. Um, it’s different kind of money right in in some ways I think ah you know there’s certainly just like anything else that are pros and cons you know I think you get um.
John Bissell: In some ways you end up with a little bit more healthy kind of communication relationship I think or maybe maybe the the standard investor management relationship is a healthier relationship in the public markets than than the standard one is in the private markets. Um. But that’s largely maybe just because you have less variability right in the private markets your investor management relationship can be all over the place right? You can have all kinds of different relationships there whereas in the public markets I think there’s a standard right? You you go in. You say this is how this sort of how it works this how you communicate?? Um, and so I think that’s been Interesting. Ah. I Think in terms of pools of Capital. You know? what’s interesting is I think the size of ah of a given pool of capital and the decision maker on it is actually somewhat similar to the size in the private Markets. You know you’re talking about often a portfolio manager has a billion dollars right? that they plus minus that they can make decisions allocating and um. That’s not. It’s bigger, but it’s not terribly different from a typical private equity sort of decision making threshold in pool of Capital. So I think that part’s actually interestingly more similar than I would have guessed I wouldn’t have known that ahead of time but in a lot of ways it um you know. The investor relations are not so different. You know.
Alejandro Cremades: I Hear you now imagine you were to go to sleep tonight and you wake up in a world where the vision of origin is fully realized what does that world look like.
John Bissell: Yeah, it’s an interesting world. Um I mean look the the objective for origin is to is to create um the materials technology that’s required for the human species to be successful in the next millennium right? Um, and. And I think as you look at that the way we’re approaching is is changing the foundations of materials. So we we don’t want people to take oil out of the ground and turn that into products we want people to um to use carbon negative materials right? and that means using biological waste materials. So the leftovers from from harvesting wood for um. Ah, dimensional number and the leftovers from food production. Um all sorts of stuff like that maybe purpose grown things as well. And so I think what that said what that that world looks like a couple things 1 um, origin type technology is the dominant technology to supply materials. Um, into the industry to um, you actually I I think the world will be better off and it will be helped by this with origin technology to have fewer materials. So I think we have too many different materials that are all mixed together all the time some people call this that sort of monomaterials.
John Bissell: And the reason that that’s important is because um, one of course you can You can spend more time optimizing the production of materials if you only have a few of them. But the the more important version is you can recycle things more easily when there are fewer materials in them. One of the major hurdles to recycling things you know people talk about how recycling is Broken. What’s broken about recycling for the most part is that stuff is made of multiple materials and as a consequence you can’t It’s It’s pretty infeasible to take a product that has multiple different materials in it and recycle each of those Materials. You basically just have to throw it away. And so I think having fewer materials um, will really drive value in that sense So you’ve got origin making the materials from carbon negative sources and then you have fewer materials that enables recycling and closing the loop on the other side. Um that I think is a lot of what the world looks Like. Um, and I think it’s one that you know how you use those materials a different question right? and people are going to develop all sorts of products there I’m sure that’ll make the world look different but the key in my mind is that you’re making all of those things differently and that’s the big difference.
Alejandro Cremades: Now imagine if I was to put you into a time machine and I bring you back in time. Maybe back to a wait where you were thinking about starting a business of your own and you were able to you know, have a sit down with that younger John and and giving that younger John A. piece of advice for launching a business. What would that be and why give me what you know now.
John Bissell: Yeah, that’s good question too. Um I I think that we were right very early on about our our sort of theory of value for the technology.
John Bissell: And um I think most of the I’ll say errors or inefficiencies that we um, committed over that the lifetime of the company were the result of.
John Bissell: Not trusting ourselves enough early on I think that we were basically what we laid down in the very beginning as the core tenets that were required for us to be successful and the things that we needed to work On. Um and you know the corollary there is. What are the things that we don’t need to work on because once you’re ready, they’ll just Work. We were pretty right about all of that We weren’t always um, sufficiently convicted about that and so sometimes we would go Explore. We would feel like ah gosh I’ve got to go figure out how to do this other thing. Yeah I’ve got to develop my project execution capability early because I’m not sure if I maybe I need it right now we almost never did right? we were we we we could have been a bit faster but probably more efficient and I’ll say certainly. Ah. Lower stress. Um, if we had been committed to our early theory of value because I think that’s where we are right now right? We actually fully agree with where we started but you know took a little bit of journey to get there.
Alejandro Cremades: I love it now for the people that are listening to get an idea on the scope and size of origin today I mean anything that you can share in terms of number of employees or anything else that you feel comfortable sharing. So.
John Bissell: Yeah, sure I don’t know exactly what the last sort of disclosed number was but call it sort of north of 150 employees um lots of scientists and engineers. So we’re totally world class scientists and engineers. Um.
John Bissell: And by lots I mean significantly north of half are are are very high quality scientist nun engineers and of course then you need other functions as well. But um, ah in terms of scale we’re we’re ah building our first plant origin one. Ah, cruche plant origin one in Canada and that’s that’s ah you know we often think of it as a small plant for us. But it’s a big plant in the grand scheme of things. It’s over $100,000,000 in total capex you know it’s seven stories high. Um, it’s multiple acres in footprint. Um, it’s ah it’s a big asset. Um, and then origin 2 which we’re in ah, what’s called frontend loading or engineering for right now is um and that’ll be down in geisburg Louisiana that is a really big plant. You know that’s one hundred and fifty acre footprint give or take um it’s ah it’s a billion dollars in capex it’ll employ. You know, many hundreds of people just to operate that plant right? So so the scale that we’re dealing with is large on that sense. Um, and then on the on the market side I think it’s interesting to think about too. You know the materials markets are a couple trillion dollars basically and. You can slice it a bunch different ways but call it a future trillion Dollar market and it’s a significant proportion of the human economy and it’s it’s much more concentrated than people realize you know there aren’t 10000 materials companies that matter there are about 20 something like that. Um, and.
John Bissell: And so what we’re doing is we’re starting in some of the larger components of that market. You know a larger component is $100000000000 market out of that couple trillion of total materials. So pet is where we’re starting amongst and carbon black a couple others. Um and what I think is interesting. Is you know. You can sort of get a sense of how big a market you have based on how fast you’re growing right? You’re growing your backlog or your demand or whatever it is and we are growing with a a very small sort of ah salesforce. So ah, a group of folks that’s um. You know, 5 or fewer depending on how you count them and we’re growing at about $1,000,000,000 a quarter. Um, which really again gives you a sense of the scale right? It’s it’s it’s sort of shocking. Um, how much demand there is for decarbonized versions of these materials. Even at premiums right? I mean look there’s if there’s that much demand that means there’s scarcity and that means you’re going to charge more so and and it doesn’t it. It doesn’t slow down at all I mean it’s it’s incredible to be growing at that rate I mean you could think of that as from a demand perspective at a significant premium. We’re growing at. Circa a hundred percent year on year right? more. It’s pretty wild.
Alejandro Cremades: Mo Well I right time right time in history John. So for the folks that are listening. What is the best way for them to reach out and say hi.
John Bissell: Ah, depends on who you are. But um, if ah if you work for us. Then if you’re a scientist or an engineer that would like to work for us. Um, then you should go to our careers page that’d be great if you are um if you want to be a customer then you can pretty much reach out to anybody in the entire company and they’ll funnel you to the right spot.
Alejandro Cremades: Ah.
John Bissell: Um, if you’re a partner then you can you can probably do the same as a customer but generally speaking our our websites originmaterials.com and so you can find everything you you want there or Linkedin something like that.
Alejandro Cremades: Amazing. Well hey John thank you so much for being on the deal maker show today. It has been and on earth to have you with us.
John Bissell: Thanks for having me really appreciate it.
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