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Paul O'Connor, Innovator Renewable Energy of ANTECY: 'Find Something You Really Believe In And Want To Fight For'
RocketHub had the opportunity to visit with Paul O'Connor, an experienced entrepreneur who currently runs his start-up ANTECY. We find out from Paul about his journey from working for Shell to forming not one but two successful companies as well as some of the challenges & triumphs he's experienced in his impressive career. Paul also shares some of the lessons he's learned along the way & passes on some inspiration for those entrepreneurs just starting out.
Describe yourself (Country of residence, where were you born, education, hobbies etc.).
Paul O'Connor: I was born on a beautiful Caribbean island: Curaçao. I finished my basic schooling there and left when I was sixteen years old to study in The Netherlands. I studied and graduated in Chemical Engineering at the Eindhoven University of Technology with the idea to return back to Curaçao and work at the Shell Refinery there. After working a few years in Shell's Head office in The Hague in process development and design, we returned to Curaçao where I worked for 3 years at the Shell refinery but then returned to The Netherlands in 1984.
Upon our return to Holland I joined AkzoNobel Catalysts as a technical service and market development coordinator communicating with our customers (oil companies) about our new products (catalysts for the refining industry). I worked for AkzoNobel for about 30 years in several management roles, in marketing and research management of refining catalysts.
In 2006 I formed my first start-up: BIOeCON, which focused on the economical conversion of biomass to renewable fuels and energy. BIOeCON working with an international network of creative scientists has developed several breakthrough concepts laid down in patent applications. In 2010 I launched a second start-up called ANTECY with as goal to convert renewable (solar, wind, hydro etc.) energy directly into high-density liquid fuels or chemicals. ANTECY has filed several patents in the area of the capturing and conversion of CO2 based on a low cost and environmentally friendly non-amine CO2 sorbent and is now forming partnerships to further demonstrate and commercialize this technology.
Over the last 20 years I have also regularly been asked to lecture about innovation (one of my favorite subjects) where I have developed some unconventional thoughts about how to stimulate innovation with young people and in teams.
In the mean time me and my wife are grandparents of five soon six wonderful grandkids. My hobbies are reading (history, biography, science & technology, and all kinds of mainly non-fiction), listening to music (All kinds from Classical, Latino, Reggae, Electronic, Dance-House to Rap etc.), going on nice vacations and of course last but not least playing with our grandkids.
What or who inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
Paul O'Connor: In my role as business development for new catalytic applications, I became very interested in energy politics and the role of renewables for the future. I proposed some new projects, mainly on converting biomass waste into fuels and chemicals, and although there was interest at top management level, I did not get sufficient budget to actually do much, except attending conferences. People say I am a good inspiring speaker, but I can only perform if I am actually developing something new otherwise I become easily bored.
During a summer vacation with my cousin and her husband, I talked about my frustration and her husband suggested that I should start my own business; a start up like in the life sciences industry, with some private funding. After a good nights sleep I decided that indeed that was what I should try. Our daughters were out of high school and moving ahead in their studies and my wife supported me 100% to take that dive into this new world.
It was a kind of a "mid-life" crisis, but then changing career instead of wife.
Still it was not easy: A few months after I started my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Fortunately she is still doing well now (after 11 years and several operations) and remains a strong partner and support for me.
Did you have a mentor when you first started your career, and what is the most important tip someone has ever given you?
Paul O'Connor: At Shell I had a mentor (Ir. Gilbert Wawoe) who taught me to respect the trade of others, we each have certain skills etc. but also need to rely and respect the talents of others. Another very important point he made: Take care that all is well with your family and then come to work. Don't neglect your most important responsibility!
My professor in Eindhoven (Prof. Kees Rietema) taught me to trust my intuition (which I first did not even believe I had), which I found out later is without doubt the true source of innovation.
Last but not least, my dear father (Vincent. G. O'Connor) who taught me morals: "Fight for what is right!"
How would you describe your entrepreneurial journey?
Paul O'Connor: Bumpy……. as a roller coaster ride adventure! Never a dull moment for sure. It has not been easy, especially raising funds in some difficult periods. But I have never been sorry about the decision.
How are you changing the world through your business, products or services?
Paul O'Connor: I believe the technologies I developed (together, cooperating with others of course) are an essential contribution to an environmentally friendly and renewable future for our children and (great) grand children.
Paul O'Connor: The enthusiasm and energy it gives me when I can talk ("preach"…) about our developments and the way it inspires also others. For me it is also very important that it is not just about ideas, but also about actually executing those ideas and getting them commercialized and implemented. Hopefully improving the world.
What has been your biggest business challenge as an entrepreneur; how did you or do you overcome it?
Paul O'Connor: The biggest challenge has been raising funds and selling my ideas and selling myself. I have been raised to be humble, so selling myself goes a bit counter my upbringing. Others are better at this. In fact the best promotion is promotion by others, and fortunately I have had supporters who have helped me here.
What does the future look like for you and ANTECY?
Paul O'Connor: Although there is still a lot to be done, the future looks promising:
Notwithstanding the shadow cast by President Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris Climate agreement, the transition towards a cleaner renewable economy is clearly gaining momentum. Key players like China, India and the European Union are stepping up their activities and moving faster towards the reduction of CO2 emissions. Also business and industry leaders are adapting their strategy, strongly encouraged by investors who are moving away from investments in fossil fuels like in Coal and in Tar sands and Heavy oils. Projects for new Coal plants are being cancelled in China and India, and renewables like Solar, Wind and Hydro are strongly competing with Coal in the stationary power arena.
In the new economy emerging, the capturing of CO2 and the re-use for circular fuels and chemicals is becoming a key strategy to achieve a sustainable circular business. As the supply of CO2 from point sources is often geographically limited and very much dependent on fossil fuel consumption, it is becoming more clear that direct capture of CO2 from air is crucial to ensure a stable and sustainable supply of CO2.
We (ANTECY) are an innovative player in this field, and we have developed and are now scaling up an environmentally friendly and economically viable technology which is key to capture and concentrate CO2 from air, making it a suitable based chemical for the production of low carbon emission (LCE) fuels and chemicals.
We recently received a financial grant from the European Fund for Regional development Oost Nederland (EFRO) for an R&D project for the further improvement, development and demonstration of ANTECY's technology. ANTECY is leading this project cooperating with Wageningen University & Research (WUR) center and Bronswerk Heat Transfer. SHELL Global solutions, is also participating with financial and technical (in-kind) support.
In the field commercialization, we are cooperating with MitsubishiHitachiPowerSystems (MHPS) who have earmarked several applications and specific candidates for the commercial application of ANTECY's first CAIR (Carbon-from-Air) technology. We are presently arranging the funding (project-financing) for a first larger scale demonstration unit.
What would you say has been your biggest accomplishment as an entrepreneur?
Paul O'Connor: Surviving for ± 10 years in the "entrepreneurial jungle" of start-ups while developing at least 2-3 technically viable ventures backed up by many patents and supported by companies like PETROBRAS, SHELL and MitsubishiHitachi.
What books would you recommend business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs to read, and why?
Paul O'Connor: I am not a great fan of management books with titles like like: "Ten rules to run a company" or "How to do innovation in 5 steps or 5 days" (J). I bought quite a lot of them in the past, but through them all out.
I prefer the biographies of inventors and entrepreneurs. Where they reveal how they relied on their gut feelings (intuition) and how they learned from their mistakes which James Joyce said are just portals to discovery!
"A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery" – James Joyce
I love quotations, like this one on from Thomas Edison:
"I have not failed, I have just found 10.000 ways that won't work"
Two books about innovation, I really love a lot are:
Jamming: Art and Discipline of Business Creativity – John Kao
Interesting thoughts about group innovation (and intuition!)
Teilhard's Mysticism of Knowing – Thomas M. King
On the mystical aspects of knowing, innovation and the evolution of human consciousness towards a higher end ("Omega"), inspired by Teilhard de Chardin.
What tools and apps do you depend on daily for productivity and generally making your life better and easier?
Paul O'Connor: Whatsapp, Skype, Dropbox. Obviously also the Software "standards" like Google, Word, Excell etc.
I am using Pockey and Evernote to file web stuff and my notes, ideas and pictures, and ULYSES for writing short ideas and notes. SNAGIT is really great to cut out graphics and use in my powerpoints etc.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs around the world?
Paul O'Connor: Find something you really believe in (intuition) and want to fight for "fight for what is right!" , and then give it all you have while having fun!
Having fun is important, together with your team, your people, your family in difficult times and in good times.