Russ: Hi, I’m Russ Capper and this is HXTV, championing Houston’s innovators and entrepreneurs, brought to you by PKF Texas, CPAs and advisors servicing Houston’s entrepreneurs for over 15 years. My guest today, Trevor Best, Founder and CEO of Syzygy. Trevor, welcome to the show.
Trevor: Hey, Russ. Great to be here.
Russ: You bet. Tell us about Syzygy.
Trevor: Syzygy Plasmonics is developing a new type of chemical reactor. Our reactor can cut the cost and emissions from commodity chemical production. These are things like ammonia, which is a base for fertilizer; ethylene, which is the base for plastic; and hydrogen, which is used in many, many things. It can cut the cost in emissions of these chemicals by more than half. We’re bringing this reactor to market here in Houston. Very excited to be here.
Russ: Real cool. It’s that hydrogen thing, I think, that gets all the attention, because today, you know, if you’re trying to create a hydrogen cell car or something, the creation of the hydrogen is difficult, expensive, takes a long time, and burns usually fossil fuels, right?
Trevor: Correct. What’s happening with hydrogen today is quite exciting. There are a lot of people starting to invest in hydrogen infrastructure. You’ve got companies like Plug Power that are providing hydrogen fuel cell fork lifts to Amazon and Walmart, you’ve got Toyota working with the Department of Energy and the Port of L.A. to transfer their semis over to hydrogen power. Some of the problems that you see is they’re able to make hydrogen very well at large scale, but when you need these distributed applications like hydrogen fueling stations, getting that hydrogen into a truck and transporting it to the point of use, or making it at a small scale on site is very difficult. This is the problem that we are solving. We’re able to make hydrogen very cheaply and very cleanly onsite at distributed applications.
Russ: I’ve heard this challenge discussed for more than a decade, for sure. What is it about Syzygy, what’s the actual technology that enables you to do this?
Trevor: We have licensed a technology out of Rice University. It is the world’s most stable and active photocatalyst. What that means is that our catalyst is able to use light, you know, the light you see around you all the time, to perform chemical reactions instead of using heat from burning fuel. This is key. Because we don’t need to burn fuel to perform chemical reactions, that actually allows us to reduce emissions. It also means that the ambient temperature inside our reactor is much lower. Traditionally, if you want to do the reactions we’re doing, it takes about 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and very high pressures. We’re doing the same kind of reactions and the ambient temperature inside our reactor is 400 degrees F, the same temperature that your oven operates at at home. It enables us to use entirely different classes of materials. Whereas others have to use nickel and chrome, very expensive things, we’re building our reactors out of aluminum, glass, and plastic, so reduced cost. Light enables us to start or stop the reaction quickly. Quite literally, you turn the lights on and it starts, you turn them off and it stops. It gives us capabilities that don’t exist in the industry today. If you want to start or stop one of these reactors in the industry today it takes about 24 hours. New science brings new capabilities, helps us reduce cost.
Russ: It definitely sounds exciting. Does anybody else have access to this technology?
Trevor: No, just us. We have an exclusive license from Rice University that’s going to be the life of a patent, about 20 years. Other people are working on photocatalysis, but the catalyst that they’re using are orders of magnitude less effective than ours. Two researchers at Rice University, Professor Naomi Halas and Professor Peter Nordlander, kind of cracked the code. They found that if you build this thing in a very specific way you get dramatically improved results. That is the cornerstone of what Syzygy is doing.
Russ: What’s the status of the company today?
Trevor: Early stage, when you think about us and our path to market, we have built and tested the world’s first photocatalytic reactor cell. It’s about this big. Ultimately, we are going to be building a full system that utilizes this cell to make hydrogen onsite. We are about one-third the way through that development. We have taken it from this tiny thing in the lab, interesting properties, let’s publish papers on it, to working prototype that does what we want it to do. Now we need to build a very big one that’s two-thirds of the way, and then finally, the full way is we need to build the system around it and deploy it at customer location. That will happen in 2021.
Russ: So, there are challenges along that path, right?
Trevor: Oh, a tremendous amount of challenges. Anytime you want to get a new technology out of a university and into the market, it takes time and money. Especially when you’re building something like a new chemical reactor, it is very capital intensive. The ability to get revenue is always critical to a company, and so my life is very interesting convincing investors of the potential in a few years even though we aren’t getting revenue today.
Russ: How have you done so far raising funds?
Trevor: Pretty good. We’ve raised enough money to get to where we’re at today. We’re actually starting another raise as we speak to help us build a larger one and test it at the University of Texas. Things are looking good. We have nothing but confidence in the future.
Russ: Why is that at UT instead of Rice?
Trevor: Just facilities. University of Texas has what they call the JJ Pickle Research Institute. It is built for testing things like this. The reactor we’re going to be building is going to be making a lot of hydrogen. Hydrogen is flammable and explosive. You need the right kinds of equipment, the right kinds of permitting and coding. Rice University, we aren’t positive they have facilities that could be easily adapted to test this. UT already has them. We love Rice, we love UT, it takes a village. We’re willing to work with everybody to help bring this to market.
Russ: We’ve actually done interviews before at the JJ Pickle facility. It’s quite impressive.
Trevor: I always tell people it’s like Q’s lab. They have so much interesting stuff there.
Russ: Right. Ok, we met you at an event that had all the new energy people there and the whole talk was about Greentown Labs. I’m interested in your perspective of bringing Greentown Labs to Houston.
Trevor: I think it’s a great idea. Houston, right now, is really gearing up and getting behind this movement towards innovation, which is really exciting for me, but I’m quite scared that in doing this we are too focused on digital and we’re losing something that made this city great. Houston has been a hub for manufacturing for the oil and gas, the energy, the space industries for a long time. We’ve put people on the moon, we’ve put things in the bottom of the ocean, we’ve put things on Mars. The guys who know how to do that live here. When I look at the innovation ecosystem, I don’t see that technical side of our city represented here. I think Greentown has a possibility to really tap into that, to ignite people’s imagination and give the students at Rice University, the University of Houston, the guys who are in the oil and gas industry and want to build something innovative on their own outside, give them a place to really springboard out of. That place doesn’t exist here in Houston today. I think Greentown has a good possibility to become that place.
Russ: I consider that a vote up for Greentown Labs.
Russ: So, carry us into the future. Let’s say that it all rolls out just as planned. Are we talking about at some point there will actually be your capability to produce hydrogen at a remote filling station, and anyone that produces and sells hydrogen fuel would have your reactor?
Trevor: Yes, that’s a very distinct possibility. That’s what we’re working towards, and so, when you think about what we’re doing, we actually don’t think passenger vehicles are going to go to hydrogen. You look at cars, you look at what Tesla and Volkswagen are doing and it’s very easy to go home and plug that thing into your garage. We’re going after applications that need to be moving for people to make money. If you think about a semi, the guys operating the semi aren’t making money unless the wheels are turning. If it’s sitting there charging, battery powered and it’s sitting their charging, they aren’t making money. There’s a strong incentive for them to go to hydrogen because you can fill it up in two or three minutes. Semis, buses, forklifts, these kinds of applications we see going to hydrogen. Our technology, we put at those depots, at the warehouses to help provide them with a hydrogen solution. Really, when you think about what we’re trying to do, it’s not just about enabling these guys to switch, it’s about going after gasoline. This system we’re talking about, everything we’re doing with it and the technical goals we’re setting are about making hydrogen hit price parity with diesel. That is the dream, that is the goal, and that is a distinct possibility with our technology.
Russ: Even if you just got close to the price you would still have an advantage, wouldn’t you? Because of the reduction in emissions has value, I think, for everyone.
Trevor: We have found that people care about emissions, but we have found that they make—
Russ: They really care about money.
Trevor: Yeah. They care about emissions, but they make decisions based on money. If you can get to parity, and so it’s the same price for hydrogen, same price for diesel, then they will choose hydrogen because of the emissions, but if diesel is just a little bit cheaper, they aren’t going to start making the switch. That is a key point for us and that happens at around five or six dollars per kilogram of hydrogen. All of our technical goals, all of our development keep that in mind. Everything we’re doing is working towards that five or six dollars per kilogram of hydrogen price point. Once we’re able to make an alternative fuel hit parity with diesel, then things get really crazy.
Russ: I wish you good luck and I really appreciate you sharing your story with us, Trevor.
Trevor: Thank you so much, Russ. I appreciate it.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Trevor Best, Founder and CEO of Syzygy, and this is HXTV.
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