Los Angeles, May 11th, 2023 - Jonny Gordon earned his PhD from Caltech, began his career in natural synthetics and went on to work on plant-based meat alternatives at Beyond Meat. Currently, he is head of R&D at Ambercycle where he and his team work on developing our breakthrough technology. In this interview, Jonny shares his insights on building a successful R&D team and the key role collaboration plays in taking new technologies to scale.
Q: What brought you to Ambercycle?
A: I was drawn to Ambercycle because... I care about the environment. I have a three year old, and obviously I care about the world that she’s going to live in. That’s what drew me in first. And then, with textiles, there was so much scope to explore. The range of chemistry that I could get involved in without feeling like my hands were tied was really exciting to me.
Q: What are key areas of focus for R&D at Ambercycle?
A: A lot of the work we're doing right now is primarily focused on scaling up our process and increasing its efficiency. We're going to be building a large plant. And scaling up this chemistry from pilot scale or from a few tons a week to hundreds of tons a day is quite a change. There are certain things you do on a smaller level that as you scale up, the ratios change dramatically. The amount of energy you can put into it changes, and the way you can cool it and control it changes. Those kinds of things are important, and we need to characterize them differently than we have on a smaller scale. Another part we do in R&D, a lot of it, is looking at new products. We're pushing to get regenerated polyester to a large commercial scale right now. Once that happens, there are other products we'd like to target in the pipeline. We're always looking at additional materials and methods we can introduce.
Q: How do you navigate all the unknowns in R&D?
A: Yes, there are a lot of unknowns, but we know what we want to make, we have a product we want to make, and there's different ways we can get there. It's a matter of which one of those ways will best translate to scaling up and how that works. As more constraints come to light, these limitations will dictate where the science goes and how the process goes, then we develop it accordingly.
Going from lab scale to pilot to demo to commercial scale production, means different equipment and capabilities at each stage. This means we adjust the process to fit into the equipment and assets we have. So, in terms of how to navigate this problem, it's always very goal-driven. We let the science decide how to get to the goal.
Q: What does going from lab to commercial scale entail?
A: The design of the commercial scale equipment has been very collaborative. We work closely with the engineering team to define certain details. Chemists think in a certain way and find chemistry solutions to problems. We work at a molecular level and think in reactions. On the other hand, engineers have a much more macroscopic view. They have expertise in terms of what type of materials work, what temperatures we need to be working at, and they think at the level of multiple machines. Both teams have very similar skill sets, but look at problems very differently. So, it's really good to have both sides because sometimes chemistry is not the only way to fix something. Sometimes, we need to engineer our way out of things.
Q: What are the characteristics of a successful R&D team?
A: R&D can be very humbling. So, I think number one is being positive. Every little victory is a victory. You’ve got to savor those. I think, at times, it can be demotivating when things keep on not working. But I also think if you savor those victories, whatever they are, and you make the most of them, then you're good. And then, eventually, you have a really big victory because you've solved a problem - a huge problem. And that's wonderful. Point is, if you're learning, you're winning: it's a victory.
Secondly, I think, innate curiosity. I believe what makes a good researcher and asset to an R&D team is a curious person who wants to ask questions and then wants to solve them. If you're curious, you want to know what's going on, and you're going to figure it out. Everyone on our team - they're excited about our process. They're curious about why things are going on, why they're happening.
Q: What would you like our customers to know about R&D at Ambercycle?
A: I guess what I would want them to know is that we care deeply about the environment and this problem of waste in fashion. Yes, we're scientists, and yes, we're using science to solve these problems. But we're doing that because we care about this problem. We're very much goal driven.