Insights on climate leadership from Johnson Matthey CTO Maurits van Tol

Corporate sustainability and innovation lessons from an executive of a sustainable chemicals and technologies multinational

This interview is part of Greentown Labs’ Climatetech Leadership Series, which profiles C-level executives from our most committed and climate action-oriented partners.

At Greentown Labs, we partner with corporates that are true leaders in the nexus of climate action, sustainability, and innovation. For Johnson Matthey (JM), the numbers speak for themselves: its technologies prevent around 40 tons of pollutants from entering the air every minute and 86 percent of its sales are linked to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals—a share the company aims to increase to 90 percent by 2025. JM’s sustainability credentials have been recognized by the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, FTSE4Good, and London Stock Exchange Green Economy Mark. 

JM, headquartered in the UK, applies cutting-edge science to create sustainable technologies and specialty chemicals that are helping build a cleaner, healthier world. Its science enables low-emission transport and the efficient, effective, and sustainable production of pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and fuel, and it’s playing a leading role in the transformation to a hydrogen economy. 

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Maurits van Tol, JM’s CTO, about how the company prioritizes sustainability; works with others to ensure circularity; and combines internal and external innovation to be an agile, climate-oriented company.

Here are the biggest takeaways from our conversation, alongside quotes that stuck with me.

Embedding sustainability into organizations

When developing new products or initiatives, sustainability needs to be baked in from the beginning.
This really struck me—JM thinks about the impact of its products right from the get-go.

“It starts when we have an idea. We think about the materials we use, the solution we are inventing and trying to commercialize together with our customers, and keep in mind from day one the end-of-life options. This means looking at how materials are made, how efficient the process is, how to minimize water use, how the products can be recycled. These elements of sustainability are ingrained in our innovation process.”

Collaboration throughout the supply chain is critical.
Maurits really understands the importance of the value chain to sustainable solutions.

“My view is that every value chain should work together in consortia and do pre-competitive research, to connect the whole value chain and look at it holistically. Each has a part to play to ensure effective use and re-use of materials. If we produce materials for a battery that can be recycled, and the battery producers combine cells to this entire big system that’s super difficult to disassemble, we miss the point. That’s why this whole value chain—thinking, acting, and working together with partners—is so vital.”

Many younger employees are driven to do impactful work.
The importance of sustainability to young people looking for a job has not gone unnoticed, and  JM’s values and vision are striking a bell.

“Many of the discussions with younger people start with this, and not with pay, or with title, or what have you. They start the dialogue around the mission and the vision of the company—all kinds of questions around sustainability and ethics.”

Startup-corporate partnerships

Working with startups helps corporates stay on the cutting edge and tackle a diverse set of challenges.
This is something JM is committed to—they really get the importance of looking outside their organization and expanding the range in the toolbox. Taking different approaches is often the way to find that elusive solution.

“When you look at the big issues that we are facing, there are many roads that lead to Rome. There’s so much development still to be done in this space that we love to team up with others. We have 1,500 really bright people, but there are millions of engineers and chemists and physicists and mathematicians outside. We need to make sure we tap into those brains, because they can help us find the solutions of tomorrow.”

Partnering with corporates can meaningfully help startups scale.
All new technologies eventually need to scale up, and this can happen quickly with the right partners. JM has been moving new products from research to commercial scale for a very long time and has a lot of experience to offer.

“We have a lot of fantastic engineers, and what they really do is scale up all the way to commercial scale. That means we can help startups, we can evolve into a business partner. We can help them accelerate, and actually also generate some business for JM at the same time.”

In discussions with corporates, startups should focus on their solutions’ impact.
Doing some research on partners is important. Understand what the corporate needs, their values, and their gaps.

“Get to know your potential partner, because then you can design your pitch so that it resonates. Don’t only talk about the technology, but talk about what problems it solves. Bring a balanced story—how it solves the problems of the end-consumer, or of a certain industry segment. Also look at the techno-economical aspects of it. And just approach us! We can be reached via the website, and you can find me and my colleagues via LinkedIn. Let’s start a dialogue.”

Emily Reichert is the CEO of Greentown Labs, the largest climatetech startup incubator in North America, on a mission to support entrepreneurs tackling the biggest climate and environmental challenges.

Watch the full conversation below!