Interview: Dr. Jessica Morris, Expert Engineer in Atmospheric Dispersion, Exponent

 

We are inspired by people who are passionate about insurance and technology that solves pressing global challenges. In this interview series, our chief actuary, Sherry Huang, talks with friends of New Energy Risk whose work makes a difference, and whose journeys will inspire you, too.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

 

Dr. Jessica M. Morris is a senior associate specializing in fluid dynamics and safety in the Thermal Sciences practice at Exponent, an engineering and scientific consulting firm. I reached out to Dr. Morris through Dr. Sean Dee, someone we have worked with in the past. I enjoy talking with women scientists and engineers to learn about their unique career paths, and I had a terrific time getting to know Dr. Morris, who is positive, disciplined, and passionate about helping and inspiring others. 

 

You have such an interesting and impressive career path. How did you decide to pursue a PhD in engineering and get to where you are today?

 

Dr. Jessica Morris

I completed my undergraduate coursework in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota at Duluth. Due to a clerical error in my graduation date, I was required to continue with courses for an additional semester in the fall. I decided to make the most of the additional learning opportunity. I continued working part-time as a pharmacy technician, as well as working as a teaching assistant for the Chemical Engineering department. I attended a talk on “fracking” presented by a professor at the University of Arkansas. This professor was super nice, very personable, and most importantly very into what he researched. After the talk, this professor asked several students if they were interested in graduate school. The idea of earning a PhD in engineering had not crossed my mind before, since it was not an option when I was contracted with the Air Force, but I had received news of approval for an honorable discharge two days prior. I was at a crossroads and needed to figure out my future and pursue other opportunities. This professor received my resume from our department head the next day, and several days later offered me a full-ride scholarship and stipend for graduate school. I was thrilled to tour the university where I had the opportunity for a fully-funded doctorate in chemical engineering.

Research focuses at the Chemical Hazards Research Center were highly applicable to a real-world industry setting, which set me up for success. I felt at home with focus areas that were directly related to my interests, having minored in aerospace and environmental engineering. The mentorship was another selling point for the program; I was set up with a very well-respected and attentive advisor, Dr. Tom O. Spicer. I was grateful to have funding through DNV GL and the Dutch government, which gave me the opportunity to work in London during my PhD. Everything fell into place. While a myriad of factors played a role in my choice to pursue a doctorate in engineering, I believe my willingness to engage with others, openness to new opportunities, and work ethic were of the greatest importance in the pursuit of my career.

I ended up at Exponent through meeting a representative from Exponent at an industry conference, the Global Congress on Process Safety, during the last year of my PhD. He invited me to participate in the Loss Prevention Symposium committee the following year due to my research, but then took the time to tell me about Exponent and the engineering consulting field. Exponent turned out to be the perfect fit for me, as I get to utilize the expertise I built in my graduate program, communicate technical findings to a variety of clients, participate in numerous professional development opportunities, and continue to learn about new technologies across multiple fields.

What are some of the unique perspectives you and other women engineering leaders bring to the team?

Although growing, there still are not many women in the engineering field. In many situations, I have found myself being the only woman in the room. While sharing stories of biases we have collectively faced leads to greater awareness, more must be done to facilitate advocacy. It is important that we support our peers and do not stand by as witnesses to bias in the workplace. Acknowledging bias supports the individual facing the discrimination, and also has an impact on the overall office culture. For example, in the workplace women are interrupted at a rate much higher than men, which greatly impacts the ability of women to share their ideas in a professional setting. Supporting other women by addressing interruptions can be helpful in changing office culture. The statement “what were you saying before you were interrupted?” can be a helpful way to allow women to continue having a voice. It is important to me to be an advocate for others. I am aware of the challenges women and minorities face in the workplace and if I can make it easier for someone coming in by giving advice or sharing my mistakes to make them more successful, I will always take the time to do that.

What are some of your passions outside of work?

I am passionate about working with kids and acting as a role model for them. I think the challenge of hiring more diverse talents needs to be addressed at a younger age. Kids often decide to pursue a STEM path in middle school, so providing a positive learning environment and more role models for them during this age is so important. I participated in multiple inner-city middle school mission trips in the past and continue to participate in the “Skype a Scientist” program. I am currently in training to become a Court Appointed Special Advocate®/guardian ad litem volunteer to advocate for children who have experienced abuse or neglect.

Do you have a mentor in your career who helped you find the way?

I am grateful to have had positive mentorships in several settings. I have found mentors care about my professional growth, as well as my personal development. Just because someone is assigned to you, does not mean that they are always going to be your mentor or have your best interest in mind. It is on you who you choose to be in your life, to go to for help, and especially to go to for advice. Throughout a career, you will need to seek mentorship through multiple avenues. Each job, each opportunity, each milestone in life, I have had a great network made up of multiple people that are cheering me on. From classmates helping me get through my undergraduate degree, knowledge shared by my advisor while completing my doctorate, supportive coworkers providing real-world experience, and managers who have taken the time to help me in my professional path forward and personal life, I could not have reached each milestone without all of the different mentors and support I have had along the way. I have been lucky to have had the support of the many individuals who have influenced my career path.

 

Thank you, Dr. Morris!

 

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Interview: Kara Owens, Global Executive Underwriting Officer – Cyber & ESG

 

We are inspired by people who are passionate about insurance and technology that solves pressing global challenges. In this interview series, our chief actuary, Sherry Huang, talks with friends of New Energy Risk whose work makes a difference, and whose journeys will inspire you, too.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

 

“You should meet Kara Owens,” my reinsurance broker friend suggested to me last summer. “She is a cyber risk underwriting executive and is heavily involved with Markel’s ESG initiatives.” I had mentioned to him that NER is refocusing on our own ESG efforts: the ways we engage in business that is positive for environmental, social, and governance goals.

So, I reached out to Kara who shared the story of her career and her latest initiatives at Markel. Markel provides coverage for specialty insurance and reinsurance for commercial niche markets. Markel is one of the reinsurance partners of AXA XL that works with us at NER.  

 

Kara, tell us about how you get to where you are today, and some of the mentors who showed you the way.

Kara Owens

It’s been quite the journey. I am one of those odd ducks that majored in Risk Management and Insurance rather than falling into the industry. I went to Temple

University and had numerous insurance internships in college. After graduation, I accepted a role at Guy Carpenter. I decided after a couple of years that underwriting was more my passion, so I moved to TransRe. I spent eight years at TransRe, moving up from a line underwriter to a global P&L manager for Cyber before age 30. My role at TransRe took me all over the world – from South America to Europe to Asia doing presentations and helping insurance companies start cyber portfolios. I helped form the Women’s Group at TransRe and was on the Board of a project with the Singapore government. I was out of my comfort zone a lot. I truly think being outside of my comfort zone helped to shape my career.

I moved to Markel about three years ago and now I can work with all of the (re)insurance divisions, from fronting paper to Insurtech to alternative capital. I’m on the board of the Association of Professional Insurance Women (APIW), which helps me to give back while doing something I’m passionate about. I am also now engaged on the leadership team for the Markel Women’s Network. I recently became a strategic advisor to a start-up company that advises individuals and firms on how they can measure their impact in building a more sustainable world. When the role of global executive underwriting officer for ESG was established, Markel recognized my passion and I was graciously offered the position. I’m thrilled to continue this adventure!

I have been incredibly lucky with mentors throughout my career. I keep in touch with them all regularly and still need to seek advice to this day! I don’t think that will ever change. What has changed is that I am now acting as a mentor to several mentees. It’s important to me to give back to this industry.

What is your vision for Markel’s ESG practice?

My role is still very new and I’m so excited for what is to come! I think there’s a lot of work to be done in the industry that will really make a difference (while at the same time reducing risk). At Markel, we have always had a strong commitment to our communities and ESG is a natural fit with the culture. I’m in the process of working with colleagues to create an underwriting framework and strategy to allow Markel to better understand, prevent, and reduce ESG risks. There is also a lot of opportunity for product development by enhancing, creating, and supporting products that promote responsible environmental and social efforts.

I see a lot of ways for more collaboration in the insurance industry. We have seen examples already with the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative Insurance Working Group and Principles for Sustainable Insurance initiatives where insurers and stakeholders collaborated on the proposed ESG standards. In addition to the insurance space working together, [the industry can embrace] other partnership opportunities with other industries and initiatives.

What do you enjoy the most about your job? What is the most challenging aspect?

What I enjoy most and what is the most challenging is the same thing for me.

Being involved in two areas that touch nearly every product line provides me the opportunity to constantly be learning, which I really enjoy. But sometimes I feel like I’m drinking from a firehouse as I evaluate numerous products’ exposure to cyber and now ESG.

I really enjoy the concept of ‘round-table’ in underwriting, which describes the need to look at each transaction from many perspectives, including how current events might affect our business and how each transaction/risk might affect our portfolio. I also love the potential to really make a difference with the ESG role.

What is your advice for people entering the insurance industry today?

One piece of advice is to never stop taking advice! There’s always room to grow.

A few more takeaways that have really helped me:

  • Even with technology coming full-force at the insurance space, relationships are still the heart of the industry. Make sure to build a network and a support system including mentors.
  • Join organizations and take leadership roles within those groups. This will help to build your confidence while building a network!
  • Raise your hand when no one else wants to (this is what I did with cyber). Also: speak up. I always loved Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s quote, “Speak your mind even if your voice shakes.” Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone often.
  • Never stop learning—whether it’s taking classes or getting designations, going to conferences, taking a new job, or just reading the news and applying it to the insurance industry—there are always opportunities to grow.
  • Find your passion. My passion seemed to change over time, but I always let it guide me in my decision making.
  • Give back! This is an area where this industry never ceases to amaze me. I have met some of the most charitable people in insurance. Also, as you grow in your career, give your time to mentor and to organizations such as Gamma Iota Sigma or [elsewhere] such as universities to recruit talent into our amazing industry.
  • Take care of yourself. It’s often difficult to balance it all, but it’s more important now than ever! Meditation, building in small breaks to my workday and going for walks outdoors have really helped me.

 

Thank you, Kara, for this interview. You inspire me with your can-do attitude, your desire to give back, and your passion for insurance-related ESG potentials!

 

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Interview: Audrey Lee, PhD, Clean Energy Senior Executive

We are inspired by people who are passionate about technology that solves pressing global challenges. In this interview series, our chief actuary, Sherry Huang, talks with friends of NER whose work makes a difference, and whose journeys will inspire you, too.

 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

 

I first ‘met’ Audrey through a few shared online interest groups. One day I saw that she had posted about being a co-chair of Clean Energy for Biden. (I subsequently found out that Matt Lucas, NER’s managing director of business development, is also involved in the same organization.) This piqued my interest, and I then learned that Audrey has an impressive background with a wealth of diverse experiences. She has done everything at work from scientific research, policy and regulation, big data and analytics, product and market development; she is now a Board director for ArcLight Clean Transition Corp, a special purpose acquisition company with a focus on sustainability and clean energy. I spoke with Audrey on the eve of Election Day with great anticipation. Audrey is personable, open, driven, and enthusiastic about the work she is doing to promote the clean energy sector.  

 

When did you first start working on energy-related technologies? Was there a pivotal opportunity or individual who led you to working in the renewable energy sector? 

I first discovered energy policy in graduate school while struggling with my PhD in electrical engineering. I took classes in public policy with Professor Denise Mauzerall at Princeton and I loved how directly impactful to society it is. Professor Valerie Thomas was also an early believer in me and she helped give me a lot of confidence. When I graduated, I joined the Department of Energy through a Presidential Management Fellowship. I highly recommend that program, which targets recent graduates with an advanced degree for federal government public service. At the DOE Policy Office, under the guidance of Carmine Difiglio, I found a way to be the bridge between the technical analysts and modelers at Brookhaven National Lab and White House policy decision-makers.  

Can you tell us about the most rewarding project that you worked on in the last few years? Between being an advisor to the California Public Utilities Commission, running Sunrun’s Energy Services group, and co-chairing the Clean Energy for Biden initiative, I am sure it’s hard to talk about only one! 

I love proving that something new can be done. At Advanced Mircrogrid Solutions, we replaced fossil fuel power plants with an aggregation of batteries at customer sites.  With Sunrun, we entered the ISO-NE capacity market with the aggregation of rooftop solar and batteries. Most recently, it has been great to be involved in Clean Energy for Biden  volunteer organization – and witness the impact that we made from hundreds of active volunteers and 10,000 members.   

Tell us a little more about the Clean Energy for Biden initiative. 

We have three goals: fundraise, get out the vote, and provide policy recommendations.  We leverage diverse skills of volunteers, across the country with more than 30 state/regional/affinity teamsCheck out the upcoming policy summits on November 16 (4-6pm PT) and November 23 (4-5:30pm PT): 
https://www.cleanenergyforbiden.com/policysummit 

Do you have any advice for women who are pursuing a STEM career, who wish to maximize their impact using their backgrounds and skills? 

Personally, my education in applied physics and electrical engineering provided a good foundation. I would encourage women to explore, talk to people, and understand the problems they are trying to solve. I’ve always loved learning from other people – including from my own family. My Dad is a physicist, and my mother is an entrepreneur. My general advice is never be too comfortable; ask yourself how can learn more, how can I apply a quantitative, analytical approach to solve a problem.  

Which areas require the most work in advancing clean energy solutions? Policy/regulation, innovation in technology solutions, or private investment? 

Many technology solutions are economically competitive for clean energy already, and private investment, such as ArcLight, is ready to deploy investment and reduce the cost of capital. On the technology innovation front, we need more technology solutions for negative emission, such as carbon capture, to help achieve a rightfully aggressive clean energy goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. I think we have the most need for policy at this moment. Policies that set the rules of the game, set mitigation goals, and let competitive technologies and market solutions participate. Such policies can go hand in hand with economic recovery as more jobs are created in the clean energy sectors. 

 

Thank you, Dr. Lee, for talking to me for this interview series!  

 

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Interview: Connie Joe, Corporate Social Responsibility Officer, Bank of the West

We are inspired by people who are passionate about technology that solves pressing global challenges. Scaling and commercializing those solutions requires serious knowledge, courage, perseverance, and support systems like those who work in the insurance industry. In this interview series, our chief actuary, Sherry Huang, talks with friends of NER whose work makes a difference, and whose journeys will inspire you, too.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

 

Photo Courtesy of Connie Joe

Connie and I met through our kids and we are in the same book club. We seldom discuss work when we meet (our kids are usually in the way!), but recently we realized our work has some common ground. Connie is the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) officer at Bank of the West, while I work on an insurance team that supports commercialization of sustainable, breakthrough technologies. After spending some time talking to Connie, I realized we have more professional commonality than I thought! We both work to enable innovative new ventures using the platform of traditional industries, and we each enjoy the aspirational part of our jobs, making a difference for our partners and the world. 

 

Connie, you are always so enthusiastic about your job! Tell us about what you do at Bank of the West.

As a CSR officer at Bank of the West, my role involves setting up and implementing governance guidelines for various mission-driven programs that align with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives at the company. Along with others on my team, we work on programs that span from community outreach, to governance for new sustainability-related requirements (e.g. no coal business by 2030), and we partner with others in the company to grow new business portfolios such as our Energy Transaction vertical. Both Bank of the West and its parent company, BNP Paribas, have a strong focus on sustainability and a commitment to social issues, striving to be the bank for a changing world.  

How do you measure success at work and what are some of the challenges you and your team face?

Our group goal is aligned with the company’s mission to become a leader in sustainable banking. We measure our success by monitoring and reporting on our annual CSR plan. Balancing the cost and benefit of implementing the right mission-driven programs and managing missed opportunities is something that I think all of us have to work with from time to time.  

What parts of your job excites you the most?

I sincerely love being able to make a positive difference as the core part of my job. It gives me great satisfaction to know that my role plays an integral part in making sure that we are only financing companies that are supporting energy transition. Bank of the West also has some innovative sustainable financing programs that support energy transition for retail consumers. For example, our ‘1% for the Planet’ debit account provides a carbon footprint tracking tool for every purchase made with the debit card and will donate 1% of revenue to environmental nonprofit partners. I am also proud that Bank of the West is one of the few US banks that has a CEO who is a minority woman!

How did you get to where you are today?

I studied biology in college and started my career as a consultant at Accenture with a focus on public health. Starting out in consulting was a great experience – I loved the goal-oriented, clear-path environment that allowed me to grow exponentially. I decided to move away from consulting after starting a family and got more involved with process and program management. I took a chief of staff position at Bank of the West that enabled me to return to community development through working on the Community Reinvestment team, which eventually led me to the CSR team today. 

Did you have a mentor who helped you shape your career?

Yes, I have been lucky to have mentors that have helped me grow and navigate my career. One of my mentors is famous for promoting women into positions that were stretch roles. He constantly challenged us to never become too comfortable in our roles and demonstrated to me how important it is to have an executive who can see your potential before you can. Another mentor was instrumental in supporting [me when I was] finding my way back to working in community development. Her support during my career pivots, even if it was not the easiest path to her organization, allowed me to begin and grow my career in the CSR area. 

 

Thank you, Connie!

 

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Interview: Karen Chang, Senior Portfolio Asset Manager, Bloom Energy

We are inspired by people who are passionate about technology that solves pressing global challenges. Scaling and commercializing those solutions requires serious knowledge, courage, perseverance, and support systems like those who work in the insurance industry. In this interview series, our chief actuary, Sherry Huang, talks with friends of NER whose work makes a difference, and whose journeys will inspire you, too.

 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

 

Karen Chang

Karen is the senior portfolio asset manager for our client, Bloom Energy. Her team is responsible for managing a portion of Bloom’s large operating assets and coordinating efforts among multiple departments within the company.

I have been working with her team since I joined NER and have always been extremely impressed by Karen. We often ask detailed questions about the performance of our clients’ assets, and she consistently has well-documented answers for us. We connect at least quarterly for this diligence, and I regularly sense how proud she is of her team’s work, which makes us proud to work with them, too!

 

Karen, I understand you are a mechanical engineer by training. How did you decide to pursue engineering and how did you find your way to Bloom Energy? 

I decided to pursue engineering because I was good at math in high school and thought having a specific skill would lead to more career certainty. My family all had business backgrounds and were initially not very supportive of my decision to pursue engineering in college. I started out studying electrical engineering but switched and graduated with a B.S. from UCLA in mechanical engineering.  

My first job was an internship at NASA, through a partnership they had with CalTech at the time. Over time, I realized I did not want to do pure engineering work and ventured out to more operation strategy roles. A process improvement management consulting job brought me to Silicon Valley, and I ended up getting a job at Bloom Energy, which had the perfect dynamic that I was looking for.  

Bloom Energy has grown so much and became a public company during your tenure there. How has your role changed during this time? 

I’ve gained my experience within the same department since I joined Bloom, so my role hasn’t changed that much. However, the job itself is ever changing, and new projects are always exciting and challenging. I work at the intersection of engineering, process optimization, business operations and finance, so there is always a lot going on.   

Despite being a public company, Bloom still has a flat structure compared to some of the places where I worked before. As a result, I can voice my suggestions and concerns easily, and decisions are made quickly around here.  

Do you have a mentor who inspired you during your career? 

A manager at Realization Technologies showed me what it is like to be a good team leader. Our team spent a lot of time together on the road with our consulting projects, and this manager led the team without being authoritative, and was smart but humble, and very caring and worldly. We all wanted to be on his team regardless of the projects.  

I also really enjoy peer monitoring with my teammates here at Bloom; we are always very eager to share any new knowledge we’ve learned with each other and have a great, open working relationship.  

Since we work in different fields, I’m curious what is your impression of the insurance industry?

Before working at Bloom and interacting with NER, my only exposure to insurance is the standard home, auto and life insurance. I was surprised to find out about the application of performance insurance and have been impressed with NER’s technical knowledge to understand the nuances of our data. You guys ask some of the most detailed questions! 

We’re glad to hear that, Karen!
Any advice for young women pursuing an engineering career?

Avoid having bias against yourself and don’t let other people define your boundaries. Be confident about your choice, whatever that might be, and ignore the statistics of certain fields being male dominated. Do not be afraid to pursue your dream – there are a lot of opportunities out there! 

Finally, please tell us about a passion that you are pursuing, or one that you would like to prioritize more.

If I had more time, I would like to get better at investing, which has always been an intriguing topic for me. I’d like to have financial freedom early so working is an option but not a necessity. My husband and I are also into videography and used to run a business doing corporate and wedding videography! These passions allow me to continue to learn and improve myself in addition to my professional career. 

 

Thank you, Karen!

 

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Interview: Erin Lynch, President of Beecher Carlson’s Global Energy Practice

We are inspired by people who are passionate about technology that solves pressing global challenges. Scaling and commercializing those solutions requires serious knowledge, courage, perseverance, and support systems like those who work in the insurance industry. In this interview series, our chief actuary, Sherry Huang, talks with friends of NER whose work makes a difference, and whose journeys will inspire you, too.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

 

Beecher Carlson is a large account risk management insurance broker. Erin Lynch is the president of their Global Energy Practice, leading a team of experienced brokers and risk management specialists. I first met Erin at a client visit and was impressed by her professionalism and down-to-earth demeanor. I wanted to learn more about what it takes to be a successful insurance broker and practice leader, and her view on how diversity and inclusion helps Beecher build a successful team.

Erin Lynch [Photo credit: Beecher Carlson]

Erin, let’s start with how you got to where you are today. Tell us more about your journey to become an insurance broker and leader in the energy insurance space.

I started my career as a sports journalist, having studied journalism at the University of Oregon. I pursued sports journalism because it combines my passion for sports and writing. A few years after my career as a broadcast journalist, I started looking for a new opportunity that didn’t involve getting up at 3:00 in the morning. A friend of mine introduced me to a senior leader at the local Willis Towers Watson office. I interviewed and was given the opportunity to become a producer. That senior leader was my earliest mentor in the insurance industry – he encouraged me to specialize and to look beyond the regional market. After a year and a half, that Willis office closed and I joined Beecher Carlson. At Beecher, I aligned myself with the west coast energy practice, became more technical, and created a niche expertise for myself. The senior leadership at Beecher Carlson has been incredibly supportive, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to develop and lead our energy practice and work with a team of brilliant colleagues.

For an audience unfamiliar with the broker’s role in the insurance industry, can you describe what you do? What's the best and worst part of your job? 

Brokers handle both traditional insurance policy transactions as well as provide risk-advisory services. Over the years, the risk-advisory consultative service portion has become a significant part of our business. We partner with clients to identify, quantify, mitigate, and transfer risk. Some of our work involves diligence and helping renewable projects get built.

The best part of my job is working with a bright, dedicated team and having a supportive executive team. We have a common motivation to serve clients in this changing environment. The double-edged sword of my job is that I am on an airplane all the time.

Beecher Carlson’s energy practice has grown over the years and has a diverse team in terms of capability, backgrounds, and gender. How have you seen the role of women change in the industry during your tenure? Are there any unique advantages or challenges to being a woman insurance broker in the energy space? 

In my tenure in the industry, I have observed the tide shifting towards a more diverse set of candidates entering and excelling in the industry. I remember when I first moved from journalism to insurance, I was surprised to find how few women were on the senior team. I am especially grateful for Beecher’s CEO and executive team for creating an incredibly inclusive environment. I think men and women bring different strengths and perspectives and having a diverse team challenges us to be more successful. In addition to our experience in the energy market space, I like to think our diverse team is also attractive to our buyers.

As a woman leader, I can easily relate to and appreciate the challenges of being a young mom and a professional, having experienced that journey myself. It’s a priority for me to build long-term partnerships with my teammates and create a flexible, supportive environment.

But we still have a lot of work to do. I am part of the Young Presidents’ Organization and in our regional chapter only 10% of the participants are women. I am involved in various forums to brainstorm ideas on how to support more women leaders.

On a more personal note, are you still passionate about sports? What is your favorite weekend activity?

I am passionate about the outdoors; with my free time I love to go hiking, running, golfing or camping with my family. Every year, a group of girlfriends and I hike a new section of the Pacific Crest Trail.

 

Thank you, Erin!

 

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Jay Schabel

Interview: Jay Schabel, President of Brightmark Energy Plastics Division

We are inspired by people who are passionate about technology that solves pressing global challenges. Scaling and commercializing those solutions requires serious knowledge, courage, support, and perseverance. In this interview series, our chief actuary, Sherry Huang, talks with friends of NER who demonstrate these qualities professionally and personally, and whose journeys will inspire you, too.

 

NER worked closely with RES Polyflow to ensure the cost-effective capitalization of its plastics waste-to-value facility in Ashland, IN, USA. Brightmark Energy acquired a majority stake in RES Polyflow in November 2018. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

 

 

Jay is a calm, wise, and thoughtful business leader and technology entrepreneur. Before we first met, I joined a conference call for which I hadn’t yet received background information. Although he was leading the discussion and I had not initially been invited, unprompted, Jay sent me the files that I needed to get up to speed. It was a small act of kindness, which made an everlasting impression, and I knew then that RES Polyflow was in good hands.

Jay Schabel
Jay Schabel [Photo credit: Brightmark Energy]

Jay, let’s start with how you got to where you are today. You have vast engineering and construction management experience. Tell us about how you started your own businesses and how that took you to Brightmark Energy today?

I always knew I would start my own business. My father owned a successful trucking company, and I wanted the same experience of creating something. I launched my first start-up on January 1, 2000: a technology company that makes metal injection molding machines. That company is still operating and profitable today! I sold it when I bought another company in the automobile industry with some friends. In the next eight years, I bought and sold various companies, building up to an organization with $300M in revenue before selling my interest to my partners in 2008. This process of buying, building, and selling businesses provided great training for my work with RES Polyflow. I started on the plastic conversion technology in 2008. It was originally known as Polyflow until we added ‘Renewable Energy Solutions.’ Since our acquisition, we are Brightmark Energy Plastics Division, and we are still thinking of a name for the core technology.

Brightmark Energy Plastics Division is providing an important technology solution that turns post-use plastic into valuable products, and this reduces the amount of waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill or the ocean. Looking forward five to 10 years, what is your vision for this technology?

We want to divert 8M tons of plastic waste from landfill and waterways by 2025 and are already working on initiatives to support this goal. (Editor’s note: The Ocean Conservancy estimates that 275M tons of plastic waste is produced every year, of which 8M tons enter the oceans annually.)

What are some trends you are seeing in your industry? How do you see your industry changing and evolving?

The goal of our industry is to figure out how we can help divert as much plastic waste as possible from landfill and waterways. Recyclers are struggling to figure out what to do since China and southeast Asian countries stopped accepting used plastic from foreign countries. We want to use our disruptive technology to help manage this change and solve this plastic waste pollution problem.

Others have been working on this issue for a while, too. For example, Dow Chemical along with its partners have tested two “Hefty Energy Bag” programs in Omaha, Nebraska and Citrus Heights, California. They collected previously non-recycled plastics and converted them into valuable products, demonstrating that recovery of non-recycled plastics is a viable municipal process.

What advice do you have for technology entrepreneurs who are trying to start or scale their business?

Be honest with yourself. At RES Polyflow, we determined that we needed a significant level of scale in order to be economically viable, but that created a difficult financing task. The insurance solution from NER and AXA XL was critical in completing the debt financing. The required level of financing was a big pill to swallow, but at the end it was beneficial. Make the tough decision early and stick with it.

Lastly, I understand you used to own and operate a winery, which is almost as exciting as reducing waste and pollution for planet Earth! Outside of Brightmark Energy, what are you up to now?

Yes, my wife and I used to own three acres of grapes. We made our own wine and operated a winery, but it became too much while I traveled a lot for RES Polyflow so we sold it a while ago. Now we are building our dream home. We are having the time of our lives!

 

Thank you, Jay!

 

About the Plastics Renewal Facility in Ashley, Indiana

Brightmark Energy’s plastics-to-fuel pyrolysis process sustainably recycles plastic waste directly into useful products like fuels and wax. The plastics renewal facility, now under construction, will convert 100K tons of plastic into 18M gallons of fuel and 6M gallons of wax annually. To finance this deployment, RES Polyflow and Brightmark Energy raised an aggregate $260M including $185M in Indiana green bonds, underwritten by Goldman Sachs & Co.

 

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