Hear in-depth conversations with the world’s top energy and climate leaders from government, business, academia, and civil society.


Find out more about our upcoming and past events.

The Big Switch

Crossover Episode: Watt It Takes


Kirsten Smith: [00:00:00] Hi, everyone. Kirsten Smith here. I work with Melissa at the Center on Global Energy Policy here at Columbia University, and I’m also one of the people that works behind the scenes on the podcast. You may remember me from the Energy Road Trip episode last fall. I’m filling in for Melissa, who’s out this week, and we’ve got something a little different for you today. These past few episodes, we’ve talked a lot about hydrogen, and one of the overarching questions that comes up is how do we increase hydrogen production so we can really move the needle on decarbonizing heavy industry? The problem is the main way we currently make hydrogen by using methane from natural gas relies on fossil fuels. And as we know, fossil fuels generate a lot of carbon pollution. We actually have a whole episode dedicated to hydrogen coming up in a few weeks where we’re going to talk about new ways to make it using only zero carbon energy. But this week, we’re bringing you the story of one person who spent a decade developing a cleaner way to make hydrogen. It’s an episode of one of our favorite podcasts. It’s called What It Takes. You know what, like megawatt or gigawatt because they’re energy nerds just like us. The show tells the stories of founders who are building a climate positive future their upbringings, their risks, their failures, successes and breakthroughs. It’s hosted by the wonderful Emily Kersh, founder and CEO of Powerhouse Ventures, a venture capital fund that invests in companies supporting decarbonization. Today’s episode is with Rob Hansen, co-founder and CEO of Monolith, a clean energy and industrial materials manufacturer that was recently awarded a $1 billion conditional loan guarantee by the Department of Energy. Emily talks to Rob about his journey to founding Monolith, what the DOE loan means for the company, and the future of clean hydrogen. Here’s the episode and we hope you enjoy. I’m Emily Kersh, founder and CEO of Powerhouse and managing partner of Powerhouse Ventures. This is what it takes a show about the entrepreneurs making our climate positive future a reality. Heavy industry is one of the hardest parts of the economy to decarbonize. Making steel, cement and chemicals takes a lot of heat, a lot of electricity and a lot of expensive equipment. Take hydrogen, a gas used to produce ammonia for fertilizer that puts food on all of our tables. Hydrogen is also a promising fuel source for transportation and electricity that’s attracted hundreds of billions of dollars in global investment every year. The world produces millions of tons of hydrogen through a dirty process where steam and natural gas react, creating lots of CO2 and lots of carbon monoxide. For hydrogen to be a truly clean fuel, we have to change how it’s made. And our guest, Monolith co-founder and CEO Rob Hansen is doing exactly that and creating new industrial materials in the process. [00:02:43][163.5]

Rob Hansen: [00:02:48] We we believe in a high energy, low emission future. And so we’ve been working on this really cool technology called methane Pyrolysis, which splits methane into its two core components, which is hydrogen and solid carbon. And if you make it work, it has these really awesome implications. [00:03:06][17.7]

Kirsten Smith: [00:03:07] Monolith bills itself as a clean hydrogen and clean materials company. It uses methane pyrolysis to create hydrogen and plans to use renewable methane to create carbon negative hydrogen. And with the method that monolith is perfecting, there’s an added bonus. [00:03:20][13.4]

Rob Hansen: [00:03:25] Not only are we taking the carbon out as this solid product, so it’s never ending up as CO2 in the atmosphere, We actually found a way to create value on that solid carbon side. And we make this this chemical called carbon black, which is something that no one’s really heard of but everyone uses every day. [00:03:40][14.4]

Kirsten Smith: [00:03:40] Carbon black is everywhere. Most of it goes towards strengthening rubber tires. Every car trip you take a carbon black is there with you. It’s also pigment and inks, plastics and even makeup. The process for making carbon black generates sulfur, carbon dioxide and other noxious emissions. But Monolith has found another way. [00:03:59][18.7]

Rob Hansen: [00:04:00] Our process operates, said really the highest temperature of any process on the planet right now. And so there’s just been, you know, a lot of innovation required over the past ten years. [00:04:10][10.0]

Kirsten Smith: [00:04:10] The methane pyrolysis process has been around since the early 1900s. But before 2020, when Monolith launched its Olive Creek plant in Nebraska, no one had run methane pyrolysis at commercial scale. The science wasn’t easy, but after lots of experimentation and Operation Monolith has figured out a way to make hydrogen and carbon black with far less pollution than conventional methods. [00:04:32][21.6]

Rob Hansen: [00:04:33] And we’ve now just built a really big machine to do that at industrial scale. You know, all day, every day. And I mean, we’re just going into it, you know, headfirst, full force. [00:04:43][9.5]

Kirsten Smith: [00:04:43] I sat down with Rob to hear how he approaches hard technical problems as an entrepreneur and how Monolith became the first to secure $1,000,000,000 conditional loan guarantee from the Department of Energy’s revamped loan programs office. We also talked about his foray into solar thermal, his troubles, raising capital, and how he hopes Monolith will move the needle on industrial decarbonization. We started with his childhood in northern Canada and how his parents first taught him and his two brothers to think critically. Rob, you grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in northern Canada. Your dad was an engineer. Your mom was a teacher. And you have two brothers. What do you remember most about your family and your childhood, and how do you think it influenced you? [00:05:28][44.5]

Rob Hansen: [00:05:29] It was cold, very cold. Like -50 degrees Celsius. Yeah. Yeah. There’s some days where Saskatoon is literally the coldest place on the planet and, you know, colder than Mars in many, many cases. So we spent a lot of time indoors, especially in the winter. And I mean, one of my really fond memories of childhood is on the weekends. It’s kind of this family tradition. And we’d get up, all of us, you know, at kind of different times in the morning. And for a couple of hours we would just debate whatever the topic was, you know, current event or, you know, anything, really. And it was it was, you know, spirited, you know, always with good intention. And I just remember that so fondly of having these, you know, grand debates about whatever the topic du jour was. And now, like reflecting back, right. As you know, someone that has kids of their own, you know what? My parents were doing It it it wasn’t about what we believed on these topics or what we thought about is more like how we thought. And so they’re teaching us how to think right. And be able to take lots of different perspectives and make arguments without getting your ego or your emotions involved in it. And it was just really fun and like a really fond memory of of, you know, growing up in a cold, dark place. [00:06:45][76.1]

Kirsten Smith: [00:06:48] You told me about your mom taking time off from teaching to get her master’s degree while you were in middle school. And then she worked her way up the school district to become the CEO of a 50,000 students school district. I know that you’ve asked your mom for CEO advice. What kind of advice have you asked her for? [00:07:05][18.0]

Rob Hansen: [00:07:06] Yeah, I mean, she had such a big job, right? So I think she had something like six superintendents report it to her. And then there was hundreds of principals beneath that and like literally thousands of teachers. And so she used to describe if a problem got to her desk, it’s because it had filtered all the way up through several layers that couldn’t solve it. So literally, her days were just like the hardest problems. And typically the hardest problems are people problems. And so that’s where I’ve often kind of leaned on her as advice when I’m dealing with, you know, harder people situations within the company. And then the other one is, you know, her boss was the school board, publicly elected school board. So I’m sure you’ve got a board. Emily. I’ve got a large board. And, you know, it’s one of the challenging parts of being a CEO is is managing your board and also, you know, being managed by them. And so I’ve leaned on her a lot for, you know, her experience of of, you know, having a publicly elected board. And then in her retirement, she’s sat on a lot of different boards. So she brings a lot to that experience, which is fun. [00:08:05][58.3]

Kirsten Smith: [00:08:05] I know you went to the University of Saskatchewan where you earned a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and then a masters in mechanical engineering at Stanford. While at Stanford, you and some other engineering students workshopped some novel startup ideas, including an early version of Tinder. But upon graduation, you had a choice between a job at Tesla and a job at a solar thermal startup called Aus Ra. You chose the solar thermal job. Why? [00:08:29][23.2]

Rob Hansen: [00:08:30] Maybe not the best financial decision of my. Career, but over time. Yeah. [00:08:37][6.9]

Rob Hansen: [00:08:38] We also. We also workshopped a maternity clothing company. Yeah, Tinder. We call it blind Dateable. We had a shaving company. It was really fun. It was kind of a cool part of Stanford, right as this is that technology Venture Formations business plan class. And we started with all these, like, you know, like 20 something college kids do what was exciting at the time. And then eventually we got pushed into this technology venture formation. So we ultimately landed on working on a fairly diagnostic company for Alzheimer’s, which was really cool and was like formative for me to get to see that as an engineer, you can actually start companies like I didn’t know that earlier in my career, and it is like a powerful part of I mean, where you grew up right in Silicon Valley or just north, and where I got to spend a bunch of time, then my twenties and thirties, it’s such a powerful part. It’s like it’s just in the DNA there that you can start companies. So then for me to say that, to get back to your question, you know, then coming out, I wasn’t quite ready to start something, but I wanted to join a startup and this was clean tech 1.0. And I really like big systems. Like, that’s what kind of gets me. I studied energy systems modeling and my masters, and so the thought of building like giant solar power plants in the deserts of the world just connected with me more than than EVs did at the time. And so that was the driving force to to go into solar thermal. [00:09:52][74.7]

Kirsten Smith: [00:09:53] And then Azra was acquired by the French nuclear energy company Areva in 2010. And by then the price of solar thermal energy just couldn’t compete with the rapidly falling cost of photovoltaics. What was it like to witness an innovative technology that you worked on, struggled to gain traction in the market? [00:10:09][16.6]

Rob Hansen: [00:10:10] It was formative. I mean, it kind of. Taught me that because we did get the technology to work like we really did and we met. Our objective when we started was three bucks a while. We got it down to two bucks at what? And it worked. But that’s not enough in many cases. So that was the learning part because obviously Peavey did its thing for maybe three to a buck a lot. So it was cool to know that, yes, technology is at the center of many of these, you know, climate or at the time they call it clean tech companies. But it’s not the only thing. You know, you got to get other things right beyond that. And there we just missed the competition. So as is always the case, it became obvious to us kind of in the trenches and the working levels of the company before it did to, you know, management. And it was it was just like a visceral lesson to learn of what it feels like to be in a company where the competition has has passed you by and you weren’t going to catch up. [00:11:03][53.0]

Kirsten Smith: [00:11:04] Yeah, that’s rough. And it sounds like you were aware of that before management. What was that like? [00:11:08][4.0]

Rob Hansen: [00:11:08] It’s all I kind of knew, but I think, like, now I, I look at, you know, the team and especially sometimes the newer members of the team, you know, at Monolith. And I’m like, what did they know that. I don’t know because it’s a lot. [00:11:23][14.6]

Kirsten Smith: [00:11:24] Yeah. [00:11:24][0.0]

Rob Hansen: [00:11:25] And so that’s probably a lesson I learned from there, having, you know, sometimes you just have to experience things viscerally to actually, you know, have them internalize into your thinking every day. And that’s one that that did influence is how I think today. [00:11:37][11.7]

Kirsten Smith: [00:11:38] Tell me about the person who became your co-founder, Pete Johnson. How did you meet and then how did you two decide to start Monolith together? [00:11:44][6.1]

Rob Hansen: [00:11:44] Yeah. So Pete’s the guy that convinced me not to go to Tesla. Pete hired me at Astra. He was my first boss, and he grew up in Salt Lake City. And, you know, kind of similar. You know, I went to university sketch when he went to University of Utah. So, you know, not the, you know, top schools that everyone’s heard of, but we both found our way to Stanford and both kind of like got that Silicon Valley entrepreneurship bug bite us. And so we worked together first, which I think there’s some research that like that often makes really good co-founders because our relationship wasn’t based on, you know, we played sports together or we, you know, we’re siblings or something. It was it was based on a mutual respect for each other’s ability to kind of do work in this field. And so we love working together. I mean, we traveled all around the world doing solar development and then kind of towards the end, we just started brainstorming, maybe not unlike that business class experience, kind of just what do we want to do next? And it was in that, you know. Brainstorming that we said, Yeah, we want to do something. We wanna do something in the energy transition. And so that’s how we met. [00:12:53][68.1]

Kirsten Smith: [00:12:53] And then how did you come to settle on methane? Pyrolysis. I know you looked at a bunch of different fuel alternatives. So? So, yeah. Why? Why? Methane Pyrolysis. [00:13:03][9.6]

Rob Hansen: [00:13:04] Looking back, it was like such a fortunate time in a person’s career. Like, we almost had a year where we were just looking for what to do next. And it wasn’t with the lens of, like, it has to be X or Y technology. It was really a couple of key things that we believed in, and that was that we wanted to do something clean. That’s like where our passion was. We wanted to devote our career to the energy transition, but to we want to find something that was economically viable today. So we were kind of living through solar and, you know, we were spending all our time, not a lot of time, but lots of our time, you know, lobbying for ethics, other things like that. We just thought, like, if you really want to have a big impact, you got to find that, you know, unicorn that is both clean and cost effective. So that was the lens. And so so then we looked at kind of everything in the energy transition and we looked at all types of different battery chemistries. And then we started looking at, you know, various waste to fuels and then gas to liquids. And it was in that process actually at Idaho National Labs, we found some interesting research on taking natural gas and pulling the carbon out as the solid. And we’re like, Well, that’s a cool way to make clean hydrogen. It’s it’s you don’t have CO2, you’ve got the solid carbon. And then when we kind of got to the part where, I mean, it’s not just all the carbon you bury in the ground, it’s solid carbon you can get a lot of value for. And you also replace in that case, this petrochemical carbon like that has its own huge emissions stream. And so it’s kind of this like double win where you make clean hydrogen, you offset the emissions from this other industry and you create economic value on that side. So the whole kind of economics work is just in that when that one kind of came across, it was like light bulb. This is the one we want to work on. And then we went to France, which I can talk more about that experience at the right time. [00:14:48][104.0]

Kirsten Smith: [00:14:49] Yeah, yeah, I want to I want to hear all about France, but maybe before. Tell me about what what was so meaningful about that discovery? Like what? What does it mean to have the source of hydrogen and the source of carbon black? Like, what does that mean for the world? [00:15:00][11.4]

Rob Hansen: [00:15:01] Yeah. And this gets into, you know, another one of our theses is like thinking about energy. You’ve got to think about deep time, right? Because when you think of the energy system of today, I mean, even today it’s still 80% fossil fuels. And the reason it’s 80% fossil fuels is because it’s this huge amount of energy, right? It’s solar energy stored in the bonds, the chemical bonds between carbon and hydrogen, but that accumulated over like hundreds of millions of years. And so that’s powerful, right? Like there’s a lot of like fundamental energy stored there. And the challenge is when you release that energy by burning those fossil fuels to release the CO2 from the ancient atmosphere in today’s atmosphere and you’ve got climate change. And so I think we were just like touching that of what if you could take the carbon out? Like what if you could take the solid carbon out so you’re not transferring the carbon through deep time, you just transfer the hydrogen, which is the, you know, about 60% of the energy in the case of methane. And so I think like we didn’t quite have it articulated the way it just did, but we knew there was something there. There was something like powerful about taking methane and pulling the carbon out as a solid and being left with, you know, the hydrogen as still a big part of the energy factor, still doing that deep time transfer, but in a way that doesn’t transfer the CO2. [00:16:12][71.2]

Kirsten Smith: [00:16:13] So you realize this is a big deal and then you go to France, why do you go to France? [00:16:16][2.9]

Rob Hansen: [00:16:17] So there being we didn’t invent methane Pyrolysis The the first patent is actually from 1918. So people have been working on this for a hundred years that it’s kind of been this interesting curiosity. It’s kind of what I just said, right? Some kind of smarter people before us. But the current kind of state of the art was at a French university called Means Paris Tech, a professor named Professor Lawrence Fleury, and he’d been working at pilot Scale for like 25 years. And we made contact with them. And he said, you know, come out see my lab. And so we headed down to the south of France, not a hard place to visit. And, you know, usually when we were doing lab visits, you’d get kind of a poster or some paper studies, maybe a video. And we did that. And then he’s like, Do you want to see the journey to see me turn it on? And, you know, it’s this pilot plant that fits inside a room and got, you know, hoses and wires and everything coming out of it. And he goes into the room and a bunch of, you know, French engineers start speaking in French, which I kind of understand. And then all of a sudden it turns on and it’s like lightning inside a can and it’s loud and it’s bright. And it just had this, like, really exciting, like this thing actually works. And it was just like, different, right? It was a professor who not only knew all of the kind of academic, but he also could make it work. And yes, it was pilot scale, but it was just someone we wanted to partner with. And Lauren’s been part of the company until today. He’s in California today with the team and he’s just been like really essential to our success. Because he has that ability to, like, make things work. [00:17:49][92.3]

Kirsten Smith: [00:17:50] Oh, wow. I didn’t realize that. So, yeah, you. You’ve roped him in to the company. You were like, We want to do this at scale. [00:17:55][5.0]

Rob Hansen: [00:17:55] Yeah. And he’s he’s I mean, he’s still a tenured professor at I means Pierce Tech, but we’ve done ongoing research with them. We have a team that goes back and forth to France. He keeps running that pilot plant that I talked about it. It runs. And now we, you know, use it for advanced R&D. And like I said, he comes to California and he comes to Nebraska and sees our plant. And it’s it’s just been like a great partnership. And he’s a real thought leader in this space. So it’s been fun to have him along for the whole journey. [00:18:21][25.4]

Kirsten Smith: [00:18:22] So after witnessing this experiment in France, you came home, ran the numbers and realized that this could be huge, as you said, not only for emission reductions, but also that production of carbon black could be really lucrative financially. What kind of impact were you anticipating at the time? Did you have a sense that you wanted to build at the scale that you have already built in the scale that you want to build in the future? [00:18:44][22.2]

Rob Hansen: [00:18:45] Yeah. So, you know, carbon black, for example, 50 million tons a year and there’s a couple hundred plants. So we always knew we’d have to build, you know, one of these big plants. And this is where you get into that infrastructure side of it. You know, building one of these big plants is like $1,000,000,000 project. So right from the start we knew that we were going to get $1,000,000,000. [00:19:02][17.0]

Rob Hansen: [00:19:12] So so, you know, we did the math financially, but we also did the math on the lifecycle greenhouse gas side, both from the hydrogen and the carbon black side. And it works out to one of those big plants, reduces full cycle CO2 equivalent by about a million tons a year. So that was like exciting, right? That that’s a real number. You know, there’s a couple hundred plants in this scale and then obviously the hydrogen side is much bigger yet still. But you kind of check that box of this wasn’t going to be a curiosity. This this could be something that has real impact. And because it’s got economics that are fundamental, you could imagine it actually scaling to that in a relatively short period of time. [00:19:51][39.4]

Kirsten Smith: [00:19:51] So you end up with this information. You form Monolith and began fundraising in 2012, which was an awful time to be fundraising in venture capital in general, certainly in the climate tech space, then then known as the clean tech space, and especially for companies like Monolith that are so capital intensive. I know you went to everyone in Silicon Valley to fundraise. They all not only did they say no, they said you should just start a software company instead. What did you do with that negative feedback? [00:20:19][27.3]

Rob Hansen: [00:20:21] I think we were just like. We know we’re right. And maybe it was almost like that youthful arrogance of like the world’s going to need to build assets. And and it was also maybe by necessity, like, yeah, we can code, but not that well. So we weren’t really going to be able to build a software company. So, yeah, I mean, it was also humbling. It’s it’s kind of like anytime you get a bunch of no’s, you start to question like, okay, am I really cut out for this or are we maybe not the right people to be doing this? Is this, you know, should we just go, you know, work for Google or one of the big tech companies which were all rising at that time? So we certainly had well, we had a lot of excitement and optimism. It wasn’t without the occasional piece of doubt. [00:21:07][46.0]

Kirsten Smith: [00:21:07] What do you think made you decide to continue, given that doubt that you were facing? [00:21:11][3.8]

Rob Hansen: [00:21:12] I think we were just having so much fun. Like, you know, we’re putting the pieces together and ultimately we got to, I think, paralysis. But there was tons of HCL technologies that we looked at along the way. And I mean, our relationship was strong and it was it was just really fun. Like it was that fun technical work that probably Pete and I, when we were working together at the previous company, enjoyed the most together in this phase. We also really enjoyed it. [00:21:36][23.7]

Kirsten Smith: [00:21:36] So you eventually formed a relationship with Lux Capital and raised your first round, which was a 10 million Series A, which helped you build the first demo plant in Redwood City in the San Francisco Bay Area. Tell me about that first demo plant and what lessons did you learn from the first project? [00:21:51][14.6]

Rob Hansen: [00:21:52] Sure. And just so that I’m clear, Lux Capital played like a critical role, but they actually didn’t invest. They were not our first investor. But Peter, hey, he’s he’s still a good friend. He’s was one of the rare folks in Silicon Valley at that time that was like willing to work with you on these deep tech hardware type energy transition projects. And so they were awesome. And I mean, we did get to a term sheet, but it just wasn’t the right fit. And, you know, they’ve Peter especially has been great to us ever since, but we ultimately ended up then going outside of Silicon Valley to kind of more traditional energy investors, Warburg Pincus and Azimuth Capital, which are both private equity funds, and they funded the first kind of phase of it, which was charged in, like I said, 10 million to start. And we wanted to basically take what Lauren had in that lab and scale it up into not a commercial unit, but a demonstration unit. So something that would run 24 hours a day, produce kind of hundreds of kilograms an hour, and really proved that the technology’s economics were what we thought it was. And that was really fun. That was for years it was incredibly technical work. We made all types of discoveries, like fundamental discoveries about chemistry and about physics that, you know, it was just thrilling to make. [00:23:15][83.0]

Kirsten Smith: [00:23:15] What was your favorite discovery? [00:23:17][1.1]

Rob Hansen: [00:23:19] I think some of it was, you know, like I said, it sounds simple to split methane, but there’s a lot more that goes into it. So it’s not just methane and electricity. There’s other chemistry that happens. And some of this is really complex chemistry that you would have never thought of. And you can kind of do some modeling around. But the only way you really know if it’s true is to actually build, you know, in this case, a $10 million machine get up to these incredible temperatures with, you know, this giant plasma torch and put this chemistry in and measure what happens. And usually it wouldn’t be what you wanted, but like once every 20 times it was. And and I think that’s like what gets people hooked in academia, right. Is like you actually discover something. It was like doubly thrilling here for us as entrepreneurs is you discover something and you could see how it has economic value. And so that that was like so fun. And so it’s the chemistry ones that were, were really fascinating for us. [00:24:20][61.6]

Kirsten Smith: [00:24:21] So since since that initial backing, I know, like you said, you’ve raised from a number of private equity funds and strategics say more about who you’ve worked with and what advice would you give to entrepreneurs that are raising capital in the tech space based on your experience? [00:24:36][15.3]

Rob Hansen: [00:24:37] Yeah, so so I’ll just kind of go through the list. So Warburg azimuth and then another private equity, Cornell Capital. So they’re kind of our major shareholders. Then we’ve got a couple of smaller but financial imperative Science Ventures and Perry Creek Capital. Then we’ve got three strategic So next area, largest wind and solar, because our number one input to our process is renewable electricity. That’s what drives the process. It’s really, you know, electrification of this process and then Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Escape from Japan and South Korea, who are some of the most forward leaning countries now as it relates to hydrogen. So that’s the mix advice I give to entrepreneurs, I think think beyond the next year or two and definitely think beyond what the. Valuation is of this round. It’s it’s just these companies take a decade plus to build and it won’t always be going well. And so don’t put yourself in a position where you get a local optimum, but not a global one. Just because the market’s hot. Don’t like run your valuation way up because you find one person that’s willing to write that check. Yeah, and it’s it’s hard because it’s like someone’s willing to say you’re worth X and you put that on paper and you’re like, It’s real. It’s not real, right? It’s it’s, it’s like what’s real is when you actually build the company, get all the way to the end and, you know, get liquidity if that’s your thing. And eventually you’ll come to the conclusion that like, that’s not even the fun part, right? It’s like you get to the end. You’re going to be like, I remember when I was back, you know, like we just reminisced and that’s the part, that’s the exciting part. And so that’s my advice to entrepreneurs is, is like, don’t get caught up in that. There will be people that try to get you caught up in it, but like try to focus on what you’re building. And if it’s deep tech, I mean, it’s going to take a long time. And so try to pick partners that, you know, are going to work for the long term. Maybe there’s a marriage analogy in here. [00:26:33][116.0]

Kirsten Smith: [00:26:35] So speaking of raising capital and that great advice in December of 2021, so about two months ago, do you awarded Monolith $1,000,000,000 conditional loan guarantee to scale up clean hydrogen production at the Olive Creek plant in Nebraska? Just how did that come to be? $1,000,000,000 loan? I’ve never heard anything like this, at least not kind of amongst this this cohort of startups that that has been created within the past ten years. Tell me about how did it come to be and what is this what is this government backing allow you to do? [00:27:06][30.9]

Rob Hansen: [00:27:06] Yeah, so where we’re at kind of with the technology as we’ve after that kind of California plant, we then scaled up and built the full commercial unit. So one of them and that’s in Nebraska and that’s up and running. And that was kind of a $100 million asset. And so it’s full commercial scale, but it’s not a full commercial scale plant yet, like we were talking about. It’s not, you know, one of those hundred carbon black plants in the world that’s supplying 1% of the supply to that. We’ve actually got about 12 of those units, all at the same facility. That was always the plan. But to go from 1 to 12, as you know, going from 100 million to 1000000000. And so so we knew that kind of just doing that on equity, private equity or, you know, we weren’t ready to, you know, go out and be public at this time. We just thought that that’s probably not the best way because it’s not necessarily replicable. It’s we want to do asset level financing. And that’s why we came across this LPO loan program office with the Department of Energy. It’s it’s famous because it funded Tesla’s first factory, five or $600 million and kind of launched Tesla. And it’s been a really successful program. They’ve done like 35 loans, around $35 billion wind, solar, ever nuclear, they’ve done geothermal. And so we applied in 2019 and it took us two years. And I mean, they put you through diligence like I’ve never experienced before. It was intense. Right. And and it’s also debt which debt is like half glass empty, right? You come in and say X and they’re going to say like, no, no, no, it’s x divided by three. And if it’s on the cost side, it’s x times three. And so it was really quite enlightening to see that. But it was also important because, you know, we want to build tens, hundreds of these plants and we’re going to have to go through this. We’re going to have to tap into that global infrastructure dollars debt and project equity. And it’s a different way of thinking than, you know, the growth equity that we’d been used to. So that’s kind of we found it that that was the process. And then, you know, Jigar Shah, who you know, and you’ve had on the pod, right, he took over the loan program under the Biden administration. So we’ve spanned both administrations. But I mean, he really is like bringing that program into its full force and effect. And like only the way that someone like Jigar can. And so so he’s really pushed this hard. He’s been a great partner. And we’re just super excited to get to this kind of penultimate step, which is the conditional commitment. And then we’ll work on the closing conditions this year. And we’re planning to break ground on the project in 2022. [00:29:41][155.3]

Kirsten Smith: [00:29:43] Tell me about about the Olive Creek plant. You mentioned it’s in Nebraska. Why Nebraska and what impact has has it already had on the local economy? [00:29:50][7.5]

Rob Hansen: [00:29:51] Yeah, so we wanted to. We want to scale up the the project or the technology from the Bay Area. And we looked all around the country and like I said, the number one input into our process is electricity. And we want that electricity to be clean in the long run because we’re like an electric car, though for life cycles dependent on how clean the electricity sources. So Nebraska’s really cool. Not a lot of people know about Nebraska, but it’s the only state in the country that has 100% public power. So all of the electricity is through public power districts which have these publicly elected boards, and they’re nonprofits. So there’s not a profit motive in the selling of electricity. The second part of Nebraska is they’ve got incredible infrastructure. So the 345 transmission infrastructure, road and rail infrastructure and natural gas infrastructure. And then the last one is you wouldn’t think about it, but they’re one of the best renewable states. They are probably top three for wind and, you know, middle of the pack for solar. And so when you combine those two, they’ve got this huge renewable potential. And then the last piece is they’ve got a really great nuclear asset that Cupar nuclear station. It’s it’s, you know, permitted for, you know, a couple more decades and, you know, in a good cost position. So kind of all those things came together for us. They’re the infrastructure, the electricity model and then the electricity pricing and the cleanliness of the electricity, particularly as you look forward in time to getting, you know, really deeply decarbonized electricity. And so that’s where we ended up there. Now, we’re not the only people that have figured this out. What we’ve seen in Iowa and Nebraska here is a bunch of data centers. So kind of same thing they’re solving for. Right. Which is affordable and clean electricity. So that’s actually been good because it’s validated that, you know, we weren’t we weren’t way off base for what is our most important input. And so, yeah, that’s why we’re here. [00:31:43][111.7]

Kirsten Smith: [00:31:43] And then tell me about the economic development impact. The jobs that have been created will be created. [00:31:48][5.0]

Rob Hansen: [00:31:49] So the first thing we did is we moved like 50 people from California to Nebraska, myself and my family included. So that that’s that’s probably a whole pod on its own. But it’s been really fun. And then we hired we’ve hired 100 people over the past couple of years in the state of Nebraska. And it’s a it’s a mix of, you know, we do have our our kind of headquarters here now, but we also have our plant and we’ve got a little over half of those jobs at the plant. And these are super exciting jobs. These are like those true life changing, advanced manufacturing jobs. These are, you know, lifelong these plants last for 50 years. They’re good paying. They have training. I think they give people like pride, pride in what they’re producing. I think especially like this next generation where you know, what they’re what they’re working on matters to them. And that doesn’t just apply to us, you know, like tech folks, it also applies to people in manufacturing. So that’s been really thrilling. It’s it’s super exciting when we expand the plant because we’re going to a thousand jobs kind of total as that. I think about 300 of them directly at the plant and these kind of advanced manufacturing positions. And it’s just, I think, part of the energy transition story that often doesn’t get told. And this is the part that’s more important, I think, to us is this type of economic impact instead of like, you know, monolith backed and these people made X million dollars. It’s like, yeah, who cares about that? But it’s like, no, we want to build these plants that can have hundreds or thousands of really good paying jobs and impact communities and bolster their tax base and better schools and better roads and all of the economic development that comes out of it. And it’s been cool to see it firsthand, living here and having kids in school here and all that kind of stuff. [00:33:34][105.3]

Kirsten Smith: [00:33:35] Rob If Monolith succeeds, what will the company look like in a decade? And I first, it’s worth noting, I first met you maybe five years ago. We were speaking on a panel together at Stanford. And so that was that was half of the life of the company ago. And so you all are ten years now, so a lifetime of the company from now. What is that? What does that look like for a monolith? [00:33:56][21.1]

Rob Hansen: [00:33:58] Yeah, well, it’s I think it was like a Bill Gates quote of you. You overestimate what you can achieve in a year and underestimate what you can achieve in a decade. So I’ll try to be bold on it. I mean, I think I think we could be, you know, one of the really important energy transition companies that, you know, are dealing with single digit percentage of CO2 emissions. When you think of, you know, hydrogen being a gigaton today of CO2 and first cleaning that up, but then also where hydrogen can go and heavy transportation and steel, you know, steals like 8% of global CO2. So I think we can be a big player. And that’s how I kind of see climate going, is that there’s going to be, you know, 50 companies that really matter and are each doing a few percent of it, of course, will be a tail. But I mean, I think we could be one of those. And so what that looks. Like, I think as we figured out how to build assets repeatedly, and that’s both finance and execution model, we obviously figure out our end markets and being able to, you know, supply them and everything that is involved in that. And then I think it’s that the human talent, both on the kind of tech side of being able to really build up the company in the usual places. I mean, we’re still in the Bay Area and we’re hiring there, but also in some growth parts of the country. We’ve got an office in Kansas City, we’ve got an office in Denver, we’ve obviously here in Lincoln, Nebraska. We’re likely going to go to Akron, Ohio. And so we’ve got like a really good dynamic workforce in those places. And then at the asset levels that, you know, we’re really getting that advanced manufacturing employees and that scaling. And there’s like a culture that connects all of those different parts of the business together. And I think the culture is this like shared vision that we’re going to be an important, you know, factor in helping prevent climate change. Mm hmm. So that’s the vision in ten years. [00:35:57][119.2]

Kirsten Smith: [00:35:57] I love it. I’m on board. And if Monolith were to fail, why would it fail? [00:36:02][4.4]

Rob Hansen: [00:36:03] Why would it fail? Asteroid strike. No, I don’t know. It’s like I’m such an optimist that it’s it’s hard. But I think us figuring out this asset level finances wonky as that sounds like. I don’t think we’re at a point anymore where we could fail as a company. Like we’ll be around for decades and we’ll have assets. You know, whether we can grow to our full potential is probably the bigger one. And if we don’t figure that out, if, like all we do is figure out how to build the first plant and then, you know, live off kind of cash flow stream from that forever, that would feel like failure to me. And so to get past that is attracting the human talent and then figuring out project level financing so that you can repeatedly build a billion plus dollar assets and scale up. [00:37:01][57.6]

Kirsten Smith: [00:37:02] Just about every founder we’ve had on what it takes has been within months, weeks, days or in some cases, hours of shutting their doors. How close has Monolith come? [00:37:10][8.4]

Rob Hansen: [00:37:11] Yeah, we’re probably in that like hours to maybe a day time horizon. So, you know, like I was saying, you have ups and downs. And one of our downs was when we went to build the first commercial unit, we thought it was going to cost X and it cost to X. And so we went to raise that capital to, you know, fund the overage of a half built plant and get it to the end. And it wasn’t also just like a great time in the market and it was just really hard. And this kind of goes to my previous comment eventually our kind of existing shareholders funded it, and so because there wasn’t new capital to come in for that, it’s just a down the down cycle. But that got right to the wire, like right to the wire. And it was it’s kind of the valley of death in the right building, your first commercial unit, because that first commercial unit isn’t going to have great economics on the other end, but it is going to be in that $100 million kind of range. And so it’s it’s a big bet for folks. And, you know, we almost almost didn’t make it across that valley. But picking the right shareholders really got us there. And so I’m like ever thankful for them to have made that investment, that kind of a darker time in the company’s history. And and now it’s behind us, like now we’re crossed. The thing works That’s up and running and you know, we’re ready to to build more of them. [00:38:34][83.4]

Kirsten Smith: [00:38:35] Would the advice then for entrepreneur entrepreneurs to be to raise to X what you think it’s going to cost? Or is there another takeaway that that one should learn from this? [00:38:43][7.9]

Rob Hansen: [00:38:44] Yeah, it’s always. Hard because it’s it’s like you want to raise capital, but you do also want to be efficient in, you know, the timing. I think it’s mostly just that pick the right partners because whether you, you know, run out of money halfway through building your first, you know, commercial unit or something else happens, it takes you longer to get customers or whatever. Tech isn’t working as you hope There’s going to be something. And that’s where I just that caution. I think had we done another model where, you know, we inflated our value as much as we could previously and in the process, you know, pissed off some of our existing founding shareholders, you know, and jammed weird governance into it, then you find yourself in that position and maybe don’t make it and you’ve got some super weird liquidation preference, you know, whatever it looks like. But we didn’t have that. We had like a nice structure, good governance, we had good partners. They believed in the company long term. They’d seen us get through some other hard spots and so they eventually funded was at the last minute. [00:39:47][63.0]

Kirsten Smith: [00:39:49] You’re here, you’re here. So I know you you talked about starting Monolith with Pete, who you decided to part ways with about three years ago. What happened and what advice would you give to founders who are navigating that kind of transition? [00:40:01][12.5]

Rob Hansen: [00:40:03] Yeah, so, I mean, maybe I’ll just start with like Pete and I are still super close. Pete’s on the board. He’s still an advisor to the company. I mean, he’s he does a ton. Pete’s also now the CEO of another company. And so he’s, you know, certainly kind of he it was it was not a step backwards in his career. It was kind of you know, you could say Miles was like a launch for him. I think what happened a couple of things, like we got to the point where the company needed a CEO. And I think either Peter, I could have done it. I was willing to go to Nebraska and kind of pick up in our life circumstance allowed that to happen. And that was important for the company. And I think we just kind of like recognize that, you know, it could have been another circumstance been Pete that was the CEO because of just how it worked out. But I think what was like super mature of Pete and, you know, I think a lot about it now is like he kind of got that it wasn’t going to work if, you know, I was. The CEO and he, like, slipped back into another position because part of the company would go to him. And it just kind of needed that unified leadership and the move of the company made sense. And so he kind of like went to the next one and did it in like a super productive way. Also, you know, did it in a way where like to this day, he’s doing everything he can to make monoliths successful and was, you know, did everything he could to keep our relationship, which was super important to both of us. So I think it was just kind of the circumstance of the situation. But but yeah, it, it it’s never easy, right? Like we were best friends to start the company together. Advice to founders who are going through the same thing is I think. And I think just just have the conversations like. Be, you know, be mature about it. Yeah, but it’s not going to be super easy. [00:41:58][114.6]

Kirsten Smith: [00:41:59] What has it been like being a partner to your wife, a parent, to your kids, the CEO? What’s it like being all three of those things at the same time? [00:42:05][6.4]

Rob Hansen: [00:42:06] I mean, it’s obviously busy, but it’s also like it’s been awesome. And it is one thing for for like anyone listening that’s thinking about getting into deep tech and climate tech. Like, a nice thing is that because you build these companies over decades, you can have more work life balance than if you’re in like a mad dash in enterprise software where you’ve got 50 companies doing the same thing. And the way you win is that you just go a little bit faster by working a little bit harder. And and, and so like, I think I’m all we’ve been able to do a good job. I’ve certainly been able to balance those aspects of life and like, don’t feel like I’m missing out on, you know, time with my kids or like developing the relationship with my wife. And so that’s been really, really rewarding. I think it is true about these deep tech climate companies that you can have a little more balance because of their nature of taking so, so long. [00:43:03][57.5]

Kirsten Smith: [00:43:08] Last question before we move on to our high voltage round, what will the future of clean hydrogen look like a decade from now? [00:43:13][4.7]

Rob Hansen: [00:43:13] I think it’s going to be a lot of different production methods, right? I think it’s also going to be a focus on first take that 100 million tons of hydrogen that we produce every single year for essential things like ammonia to grow the food of the world and clean it up. I think sometimes people get really excited about the hydrogen could also do this, and that’s exciting the growth side of the market. But then we’ve got this huge gigaton scale challenge to clean up. And so I think that’s what you’re going to see is, is new technologies that make the same hydrogen but make it cleanly to start decarbonizing those sectors. And then you’re going to see the markets sort out and people will fight about it and they’ll be all types of stories about where hydrogen will and won’t apply, but it will grow, you know, and grow faster than global GDP because it will find some niches. And like I was saying, I think some heavy transportation and steel, for example. And so I think then in ten you’re going to see some of that emerging, and that will be really exciting to go beyond just that first gigaton of reduction. [00:44:15][62.0]

Kirsten Smith: [00:44:22] Rather excited to move into what is often my favorite part, the high voltage round. These are quick questions, quick answers, quick meaning like five second answers, starting with Rob. If you are going to be an animal, what animal would you be and why? [00:44:33][10.1]

Rob Hansen: [00:44:33] Well, I thought this one was coming, so I thought about it. So I would be a lab rat because I feel like I’m designed. [00:44:38][4.9]

Rob Hansen: [00:44:40] This is the. [00:44:40][0.2]

Rob Hansen: [00:44:40] First I’ve designed specifically to, like, do a maze and solve problems. [00:44:43][3.2]

Kirsten Smith: [00:44:44] Amazing. Amazing. What inspires you? [00:44:47][2.8]

Rob Hansen: [00:44:48] I think that there’s still discovery out there, like fundamental discovery. [00:44:51][3.0]

Kirsten Smith: [00:44:52] If you had to start a new career tomorrow, what would it be? [00:44:54][2.1]

Rob Hansen: [00:44:55] Probably just do the same thing like over and over and over again. And if that’s not acceptable, then I think at some point I’d love to get into like teaching, you know, university or something. [00:45:06][10.5]

Kirsten Smith: [00:45:06] Other than yourself, to whom do you attribute your success? [00:45:08][2.0]

Rob Hansen: [00:45:10] Probably my parents. [00:45:10][0.4]

Kirsten Smith: [00:45:12] What is the best investment you’ve ever made? [00:45:13][1.5]

Rob Hansen: [00:45:14] I got to marry my best friend, so that was probably it. [00:45:17][2.5]

Kirsten Smith: [00:45:17] What is something that you thought was true that you no longer believe? [00:45:19][2.3]

Rob Hansen: [00:45:20] I think I used to think that there was a path to what I call a low emission or low energy. Low emission. We just all kind of like, reduce, and we’d get there. But now I’m like firmly, the future is high energy, low emission. [00:45:35][14.8]

Kirsten Smith: [00:45:36] When are you your best self? [00:45:37][0.8]

Rob Hansen: [00:45:38] Probably. I’m in the mountains. [00:45:38][0.6]

Kirsten Smith: [00:45:39] What is your worst trait? [00:45:40][0.8]

Rob Hansen: [00:45:42] I think I can. Get two decisions without taking enough input from a broad and diverse enough group. [00:45:49][7.2]

Kirsten Smith: [00:45:50] If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? [00:45:52][2.0]

Rob Hansen: [00:45:53] Man, that’s a there’s a lot of things you. [00:45:54][1.7]

Rob Hansen: [00:45:55] Want to change. [00:45:56][0.3]

Rob Hansen: [00:45:58] So maybe I won’t go super deep on this one. I would just get rid of social media. [00:46:01][3.1]

Kirsten Smith: [00:46:03] I support that. If there was just one or two people who are going to hear this podcast, who would you want it to be? [00:46:08][5.5]

Rob Hansen: [00:46:10] I man, I think maybe my kids, but maybe like in, like, ten years and, like, if they could think, Oh, you were like, cool. Maybe. Maybe they think that. [00:46:19][9.2]

Kirsten Smith: [00:46:20] We will start those for them and play it in ten years. What is your best quality? [00:46:24][4.0]

Rob Hansen: [00:46:25] Probably my persistence. [00:46:26][0.4]

Kirsten Smith: [00:46:27] Finish these sentences for me. Companies fail because. [00:46:30][2.4]

Rob Hansen: [00:46:31] Their products are too expensive. [00:46:32][0.8]

Kirsten Smith: [00:46:33] If you really knew me, you would know. [00:46:34][1.4]

Rob Hansen: [00:46:35] That I could exist solely off of potato chips. [00:46:37][2.5]

Kirsten Smith: [00:46:40] We may need another intervention. [00:46:40][0.7]

Rob Hansen: [00:46:43] Success is doing what you love as much as possible. [00:46:47][3.6]

Kirsten Smith: [00:46:48] If I could have done one thing differently, I would have. [00:46:49][1.7]

Rob Hansen: [00:46:50] Told people more how I feel about them. [00:46:52][1.4]

Kirsten Smith: [00:46:53] And what kind of way. And like the I like you or don’t like you kind of way. [00:46:55][2.8]

Rob Hansen: [00:46:56] No, I think I. I think so highly of so many people that are kind of close to me, but I don’t necessarily tell them that as much as I should. [00:47:05][8.8]

Kirsten Smith: [00:47:06] If the world knew me, for one thing, it would be. [00:47:07][1.6]

Rob Hansen: [00:47:08] Helping have an impact on solving the climate crisis. [00:47:11][3.1]

Kirsten Smith: [00:47:12] I’m most proud of. [00:47:13][0.7]

Rob Hansen: [00:47:14] Probably my kids. [00:47:14][0.4]

Kirsten Smith: [00:47:15] Last question To build a successful startup, what it takes is obsession and. [00:47:21][5.2]

Rob Hansen: [00:47:23] The belief in the impossible. [00:47:23][0.7]

Rob Hansen: [00:47:24] Hmm. [00:47:24][0.0]

Kirsten Smith: [00:47:25] Well said, Rob. Such a huge fan of you as the person, first and foremost, and also what you’re building. And I feel really honored to have met you, you know? Yeah. Half of the company life ago. And to see what you’ve achieved, I’m totally in awe and look forward to continuing to cheer you on and support everything you’re doing. [00:47:43][17.7]

Rob Hansen: [00:47:44] Well, thank you for all your help along the way, which has been a lot over the past five years and for doing this. [00:47:49][5.3]

Kirsten Smith: [00:47:50] Rob Hansen is the co-founder and CEO of Monolith. Join us for new stories each month of founders who are building our climate positive future their upbringings, their risks, their failures, and their breakthroughs that are transforming our world. I want to thank our exclusive What It Takes sponsor Baker Botts to scale your clean energy business faster. You can reach out to their global team of lawyers. Visit Baker Botts dot com. What it Takes is produced by Powerhouse in partnership with Postscript. Media Powerhouse is an innovation firm that works with globally leading corporations to help them find partner with, invest in and acquire the most innovative startups in clean energy, mobility and climate. Powerhouse Ventures invests in founding teams, building innovative software to rapidly decarbonize our global energy and mobility systems. And we are hiring. Powerhouse is hiring a head of business development and an associate and Powerhouse Ventures will be hiring an associate or senior associate soon. You can learn more at Powerhouse DOT Fund forward slash careers. That’s powerhouse few and forward slash careers. Follow us on Twitter at Join Powerhouse. You can follow me at Emily Kersh. Don’t forget to leave a review or a post on social media by March 15th to enter to win a What It Takes crewneck and to help others discover the show. Our favorite recent review is from Tiverton Vo, who says There are a lot of climate podcasts out there, but I love how this one is focused on the humans and the stories along the way. So many of the humans working on climate are wonderful people. This is a great way to get to know them. Thank you to vote Lavo. Our executive editor is Stephen Lacy, Dalvin Aboyeji Rise Story Fisher and Sam Wolf fourth helped produce this episode. Sean Marquand makes the episodes and composed our music. I’m Emily. This is what it takes. [00:47:50][0.0]


Hydrogen could be essential for the zero-carbon economy, especially for cleaning up concrete, steel, and chemicals. It’s also a promising fuel source for transportation and electricity that’s attracted hundreds of billions of dollars in global investment.

But there’s a problem. Every year, the world produces millions of tons of hydrogen through a dirty process that creates  lots of CO2 and carbon monoxide.

For hydrogen to be a truly clean fuel, we have to find a cleaner way to make it. And today we’re bringing you the story of one person who’s spent a decade trying to do just that. 

It’s an episode of one of our favorite podcasts, Watt It Takes. The show tells the stories of founders who are building our climate-positive future — their upbringings, their risks, their failures, and their breakthroughs.

Today’s episode is with Rob Hanson, co-founder and CEO of Monolith, a clean hydrogen and industrial materials manufacturer that was recently awarded a $1 billion conditional loan guarantee by the Department of Energy. Emily talks to Rob about his journey to founding Monolith, what the DOE loan means for the company, and the future of clean hydrogen.

More Episodes


Relevant Studies

See All Work