Q&A with Todd Brix – Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business

Todd Brix

CEO and co-founder

OCOchem

Todd Brix

Number of employees you supervise: 5

What is OCOchem?

OCOchem is a cleantech start-up that develops and commercializes technology to convert carbon dioxide, water and renewable electricity into an energy-dense, non-flammable liquid hydrogen carrier and known chemical as formic acid.

What is formic acid? A simple natural molecule made by ants and plants to kill bacteria. Industrially, it is now made from fossil fuels and used to preserve animal feed, make textiles and rubber, and is used to transport hydrogen in liquid form. With our process, we make formic from carbon dioxide (CO2), water and renewable electricity in a more sustainable way and at a lower cost.

Why did you co-found OCOchem?

We founded OCOchem to solve the central problem of CO2, namely how to convert it into something useful, rather than emitting it into the atmosphere. If you can use CO2 economically to make chemicals, fuels, and useful materials, you don’t need to extract carbon from the earth as fossil fuels. Every plant and every tree converts CO2 into something useful in everyday life; we built a machine to do the same thing.

What does it do?

OCOchem is building the world’s first industrial-scale device we call the Carbon Flow Electrolyzer that converts CO2, water and renewable electricity directly into a liquid hydrogen-carrying chemical – formic acid .

Why did you choose Richland?

We chose to locate our R&D laboratory and manufacturing equipment in Richland to be in the heart of the Mid-Columbia region near the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory with access to a large labor pool of researchers, engineers and technicians, a carbon electricity mix, water and abundant land for expansion, and to offer a high quality of life to employees. I was also born in Richland and raised in Kennewick, so I know and love the area.

What does “OCOchem” stand for?

OCOchem combines the actual structure of carbon dioxide molecules O=C=O and “chem”, which is short for chemistry or chemistry, what we do: CO2 conversion chemistry, and look at CO2 as it is actually, an essential resource.

You bring to this position both scientific and entrepreneurial experience. How do you translate between these worlds?

Today, entrepreneurship is how scientific knowledge informs technology that is commercialized into products. Large organizations don’t really invent or innovate anymore, it’s now up to entrepreneurs to decide. It’s in the small, focused companies that solve customer problems that cleantech breakthroughs will happen.

What do ordinary non-scientists know about your technology and why is it important?

A simple, yet essentially accurate way to describe our technology is that we do electrochemically what plants and trees do biologically: We convert CO2, water and energy into a useful product. We’re much less sophisticated than what plants do, and right now we’re just focused on making a simple molecule that way. Like many new technologies, ours is based on recent advances in materials, machinery and the abundance of raw materials (raw materials), which converge to make it technically and economically viable.

You recently secured funding for a green energy project involving the Port of Tacoma. How does this advance your mission? Are you establishing a base there?

Yes. OCOchem and our partners recently received a $1.5 million Research, Development, and Demonstration Grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Clean Energy Fund. We will use the grant to build and demonstrate an industrial-scale carbon flux electrolyzer to make a liquid hydrogen carrier and use it to power a generator to power, with non-fossil fuels, containers refrigerated to keep our state’s fruit fresh at the Port of Tacoma with Tacoma Power. This project is important because it will demonstrate the utility and benefits of technology using full-scale, industrial-scale cells.

In your opinion, what is the characteristic that every leader should possess?

It really depends on who you’re running and what you’re trying to do. As a hard-tech entrepreneur, I’ve found perseverance (patience, determination, creativity, and hard work) to be the most valuable trait.

What is the biggest challenge facing entrepreneurs today?

I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be an entrepreneur. Software exists to automate many business processes. You can access almost any information and communicate quickly with anyone in the world, and there are all kinds of ways to raise capital.

If you had a magic wand, what would you change in your industry/field?

Government policy and programs have a noticeable multifaceted and complex influence on the cleantech industry, resulting in certain technologies being favored over others and over uncertain times, creating unsustainable successes. It would be better if we had one technology-neutral policy adopted over a long period of time on a bipartisan basis, whereby companies that emit CO2 to manufacture or deliver a product pay a tax, and that tax revenue goes companies that consume, convert or sequester CO2. Quite quickly, the price of CO2 positive goods would increase, the price of CO2 negative or neutral goods would drop, and this would very quickly solve greenhouse gas emissions at the lowest cost to society with the most appropriate technologies.

What advice would you give to someone stepping into a leadership role for the first time?

I don’t give or take unsolicited advice unless 1) I know you and your situation, 2) you ask me, and 3) I know you’ve already thought about it based on how you formulate the question.

How do you keep your employees (or team members) motivated?

We have a goal that no one has achieved before and which, if we achieve it, will change our children’s world for the better. This goal is to create the first man-made process that does what plants do (convert CO2, water and energy into something useful) AND do it at a lower cost than the current plant-based process. fossil fuels.

Who are your role models or mentors?

I admire Benjamin Franklin – what he did and what he wrote. He was a full human being who had time to write and share his thoughts and his life with us.

How did you decide to pursue this career?

This is my third career. My first career was what I was trained to do: I was a hydroprocessing engineer at Chevron (loved it). The second career was what I wanted to do – leading teams at Microsoft to develop software to load into smart connected devices (loved it). Third, what I had to do because me and our team can solve this problem (by loving it).

What do you think your leadership style is?

As my wife will tell you, I don’t like the style and I’m not one to think about myself.

How do you balance work and family life?

I’m just doing what needs to be done, but I try not to work on Sundays or after 6 p.m.

How do you measure success in your workplace?

I watch how quickly we fail and learn. You want to try a lot of things, fail fast, and learn what works. I want us to think, do, learn and repeat quickly. Technology development, when you’re working with molecules and not bits and bytes, is all about learning what doesn’t work and what should have worked, and understanding why.

What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

Quite the opposite of what I do when I’m at work. So low structure, outdoor, non-digital, physical labor with immediate tangible results that family members enjoy, like barbecuing or mowing the lawn.

What is your best time management strategy?

Do the most urgent/important things first, then the important things that aren’t as urgent.

The best trick to relieve stress?

Be grateful. We are living in the best time of our lives and what is the worst case anyway? Do something you love, work hard to do it well, and live simply. Be grateful every day.

What’s your favorite podcast?
Most used app? Or favorite website? Favorites
th book?

I’m more print media than digital media. You can consume information 3-4 times faster by reading than other media and do it without ads. What a story. I end up reading about one non-fiction book a week or so. I have read the print edition of The Wall Street Journal cover to cover every day for the past 30 years. It is more or less that.

Do you have a personal mantra, phrase or quote that you like to use?

It’s a weird hybrid of things that Spock and Jesse Jackson said, “Have hope, live long and prosper.” It kind of formed in my head a few years ago and is still there.