Jennifer Holmgren (PhD, '86) leads global company in quest to transform waste carbon

Date

03/28/22
Jennifer Holmgren

Jennifer Holmgren does not settle for “cannot be done.”

Holmgren (PhD, ’86, Shapley) is the CEO of LanzaTech, a carbon capture company that recently announced plans to go public. She has spent her career doing things others say cannot be done.

“My answer to them has always been, ‘Watch me,’” said Holmgren, who will speak at the Department of Chemistry convocation on May 15, 2022. “Both personally and professionally, I am not afraid of failure. The only downside to failure is not trying.”

After finishing her doctorate in chemistry, Holmgren joined Honeywell International’s UOP LLC, a multinational company headquartered in Illinois. In her career, she has authored or co-authored 50 U.S. patents and more than 30 scientific publications and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

At UOP, she discovered her passion for developing new technology that can make a significant impact on the world, and she went on to lead a team that revolutionized aviation by showing a path to sustainable aviation fuels.

Now, Holmgren is guiding LanzaTech in its quest to transform waste carbon into a variety of materials, including sustainable fuels, fabrics, packaging, and the world’s first alternative jet fuel derived from industrial waste gases.

“What we are doing is not just new, it is disruptive, and for me, this is the most exciting time in my career because there are people around us that are finally getting it,” said Holmgren, adding that brands like lululemon, Zara, Coty, Unilever, On, and others are using the technology. “We flew with Virgin Atlantic and ANA on a trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flight on fuel created of carbon waste. This is our moment.”

Holmgren said every day she gets to work with the scientists and business executives working to trap carbon and turn it into products people use every day.

“I believe that carbon will define our generation, all our generations. We will be defined by how we treat carbon, find it, and deal with it. This is the most exciting time, and every day gets better,” she said.

In 2006, Holmgren completed her MBA at the University of Chicago. She said she loves the science, technology, and business side of her work. But it was the science and technology that drew her to LanzaTech.

“I recognized that its technology could have a real and significant impact on the future of energy in an environmentally sound way, didn't threaten food security, and could democratize global energy distribution systems by providing off-grid solutions,” she said. “Every day, I am driven by our mission of working towards a post-pollution future. However, I am inspired by the people I work with and our partners, which will go far beyond the profits we hope to report."

As a little girl in Colombia, Holmgren’s dream of becoming an astronaut fueled her love for the U.S. space program as well as science and math. At the age of nine, her family moved to Los Angeles.

“I remember there were days when I could not see the blue sky due to pollution. It was the same year Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon,” Holmgren recalled.

In her L.A. public high school, a chemistry teacher not only inspired her but encouraged her to pursue further study in STEM.

“I realized science and math were not just for getting to the moon,” said Holmgren, who went on to earn a B.Sc. degree from Harvey Mudd College and then her PhD in chemistry at UIUC in 1986.

She said there is a path to success for underrepresented groups in what has traditionally been viewed as a male-dominated industry with male leaders.

“As a woman leading a global company as its CEO and as a Latina disrupting industries with revolutionary technology, I hope young women can see themselves in me and know there is a place for them to improve our world,” said Holmgren, who explained that her keys to a successful career have been never believing something can’t be done and surrounding herself with friends and family who have supported her in opportunities and challenges. “I have also surrounded myself with a community of doers in various industries and fields where together, we have challenged the status quo.”

Earlier this year, LanzaTech announced plans to go public in a SPAC deal with AMCI Acquisition Corp. and is now trying to scale very quickly to keep up with the demands of the company’s global challenges.

“We believe this is a transformative step in our quest to create a sustainable future for all – a future where everything can be made from recycled carbon. It is possible. We must go faster. Much, much faster,” said Holmgren, who encourages future UIUC chemists to dream the big dream and know that good ideas are not enough.

“You need to execute if the idea is to become a success. You should do what you want to do and make your own decisions. Go with your gut instinct and make personal decisions that you think are right for you,” she said. “Listen to people and take advice, but what they see as your trajectory and the path you choose do not have to be the same. Be positive. See the potential for good outcomes while still aware of the risks but focus on the prize! If you fail, course correct, learn and move on! I am excited for the opportunities you face, and I am comforted that you will soon work on solving today's challenges to build a better world.”

— Tracy Crane, Department of Chemistry

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