Great chat with Greg Mulholland, CEO and Co-founder of Citrine Informatics as AI Platform for materials development. We discussed what the early days of Citrine looked like, how they powered through some low times, the massive opportunity of applying machine learning to applied materials science, whether cleantech was becoming mainstream for VCs, how data regulation like GDPR compares to regulation in the materials space, how MBAs can be a form of identity, whether we will see explicit geo-engineering and the potential of superconductors generating future noble prizes and more.
Here is the audio. Some excerpts lightly edited:
MCWALTER: What have you learned as most about hiring and retaining like high quality talent?
MULHOLLAND: The most important thing, I think, is that we’ve been really intentional about our culture from the beginning… A core part of our culture is willingness and ability to give feedback… and we make it a point to lift each other up. And and I think those characteristics have really led to our success and retention because, people want to feel valued and they do on our team.
MCWALTER: It appears to me that VCs are chronically underrating cleantech; as Citrine recently raised a Series B, would you agree?
MULHOLLAND: I think less and less, especially since Sequoia, I think sort of notably, announced that they believed that clean tech was the future and a really important investment thesis. All of a sudden, so much attention turned to our space. I would say we’re one aspect of being able to make the world more sustainable place, but I wouldn’t even characterise (Citrine) as pure clean tech. We certainly have some enterprise software bones about us.
You know, honestly, my experience talking to venture investors is that they understand that the world is changing and needs to be a cleaner, greener place. And there’s really no dispute about that. I think a lot of people have gathered that a lot of investors don’t spend a lot of time in that space. And so, often when raising our series A, but even occasionally in our series B, I had to explain to a venture investor controlling hundreds of millions of dollars or more, that the chemicals industry and the materials industry is actually a huge industry. And like, you know, sometimes it gets reactions “Oh, isn’t that a niche?” And it’s like, no, it’s actually, you know, a double digit percent of the global economy. And they’re like, “Well, I know what BSF and Dow and DuPont and 3M”. And then I list off another dozen or 20. And they’re like, “Well, I haven’t heard of half of those”. I’m like, well, all of them do more than $10 billion a year in revenue. And then I say and then there are the ones that do only a billion dollars a year in revenue and you can just see their eyes go wide because they don’t live in that space.
MCWALTER: how does your kind of approach and model of the world in terms of decarbonisation differ from the proponents of the green new deal and similar approaches?
MULHOLLAND:I don’t know they differ in the long term view to your point. I mean, look, I I want everything to be recyclable, biodegradable, and green in every possible way from from cradle to grave, and entirely circular. From a policy perspective, I think a lot of people just sort of collapse clean tech into one idea. And clean tech isn’t one idea. I mean, you’ve got everything from power generation, which is on a lot of people’s minds. And I think the green new deal is a big component of power generation generation infrastructure behind it. And we don’t touch that, you know, I, I would love that for the grid to run entirely on solar, and maybe we’ll help invent new solar panels.
At the same time, you know, I think there are a lot of regulators who had been asked to think about new materials and chemicals in the environment that don’t have full context on how things came to be, and how things might progress over time, in the shadow of certain regulations. And I think one that’s really interesting is you know, every once in a while, and particularly just before COVID, the European Commission and the European Union, were talking about banning plastics. And it’s like, well, okay, but here’s, here’s the thing. Almost everything has plastic in it. I mean, even the clothes we are wearing, have some synthetic materials in them, which sort of described succinctly are plastic in some way or another. And so this idea that we can, with enough government force and enough effort, rapidly remove certain types of materials from our world, is just nonsense. But I totally agree with the incentives and the pressure behind it. And so, you know, our approach is to say, look, because of regulatory pressure, consumer preference, the state of the world and so many other things we’re headed on inexorable march towards sustainability. In 100 years, the world’s either more sustainable place, or it’s roughly gone. And, in my view, tools like Citrine’s are simply an accelerant on our ability to make progress against those goals
MCWALTER: Thinking about like Elon Musk’s various ventures, which will have the longest lasting positive effects ?
MULHOLLAND: I just think Tesla is incredibly exciting short term. They’ve totally turned heads and changed minds with respect to electric cars. I actually think SpaceX is going to have a longer term impact though, because democratising access to space, whether it be for satellites or travel is going to really, really transform how the world approaches things. And you can already see the price pressure of SpaceX changing the dynamics of the space industry, which I think yields enormous opportunities regardless of what types of cars we’re driving.
MCWALTER: Was there anything that I should have asked you about but did not?
MULHOLLAND: I have I think we’re getting close to some real interesting breakthroughs in superconduction. I don’t think we’re going to have commercializable room temperatures superconduction anytime soon but I do think there’s some really cool technology coming around how we control power and how we are able to flex the grid. As we as we learn more about how to control the electromagnetic spectrum around us, I think we’re going to develop new exciting products, but also a more efficient world. And fom a materials perspective, that’s something I’m really excited about, and it’s still fundamental, but I think it’ll be transformational when the time comes. Probably years away but but still transformational.
Learned alot from Greg!