Phil de Luna

Director, National Research Council of Canada*

Phil De Luna is a world-leading carbontech expert and research capitalist – he invests in and co-develops disruptive technologies to decarbonize Canada. Phil was the youngest-ever Director at the National Research Council of Canada, a Forbes Top 30 Under 30, a member of the Royal Society of Canada, and a Governor General Gold Medalist.

*This interview was conducted when Luna was at the National Research Council Canada. He is no longer at there, instead he is an Expert in Sustainability at McKinsey & Company.

Work and impact

I am a scientist and I run a program at the National Research Council of Canada, called the “Materials for Clean Fuels Challenge” program. It is focused on developing disruptive technologies to help decarbonize Canada. The whole point of the program is recognizing that for a large part of our economy, you cannot electrify easily, they are hard to diminish. Canada, for example, has a relatively clean electricity grid, about 82%, from non-CO2 emitting sources. The remaining are the majority of our emissions and come from the transportation sector, from manufacturing, oil, and gas. So the question is, how do we develop technologies and pathways to help reduce the emissions in those sectors while also doing so in a sustainable way that hopefully does not impact too many people’s livelihoods and jobs. 

My program is focused on three things:

  1. CO2 conversion, taking captured carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or from flue-gas stacks, and converting that renewably into fuels and chemicals that we need for our quality of life.
  2. Clean hydrogen production, which is all about producing hydrogen with low carbon intensity and using it as a fuel for long haul transportation and heavy-duty transportation.
  3. Artificial intelligence from materials discovery is all about using AI and robotics to help us speed up the discovery process.

It typically takes about 30 to 40 years for the technology to go from the lab into the marketplace, especially when it is clean technology. We however do not have that much time as 2050 is coming quickly and we need these climate solutions. So the question is: can we use artificial intelligence and robotics to help accelerate the pace at which we commercialize these new inventions?

I am Filipino, but I was born in Taiwan. I moved to Canada when I was five years old and grew up in Windsor, Ontario, which was the automotive capital of Canada. My dad was an autoworker while my mom worked in customer service, so I had a typical immigrant upbringing. My parents always told me growing up “We can’t give you much but we can give you an education and people can take things away from you, but they can never take away what you know”. So even at a very young age, I loved science, there was just something about it. I was always a very intensely curious person and I knew that I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up. So I did my undergraduate at the University of Windsor in chemistry and did my master’s at the University of Ottawa in chemistry. 

I then went to the University of Toronto to do my PhD in material science and engineering. I was focused on developing new catalysts to convert carbon dioxide into fuels and chemicals. It is like artificial photosynthesis. Plants work by taking water, sunlight, co2, and making sugar for themselves. The question is whether we are able engineer machines that will bring water, renewable electricity in the form of maybe solar, so sunlight, and co2, and then convert that into fuels and chemicals that we need to build our plastics for our phones, clothes, computers ..? So that is what I focused on for my PhD. I did a summer internship at IBM at the TJ Watson Research Center in New York. I spent other summers in the UC Berkeley University of California, Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs in Berkeley, California, and then another summer at the Toyota Research Institute, where I looked at machine learning in AI for battery and fuel cell development. Throughout my PhD, I also had the opportunity to compete in the Carbon XPrize, a $20 million global competition, to capture and convert the most co2 into a functional product. The research I was doing was the foundational basis for the technology we were trying to build for the XPRIZE. 

I always thought that I would be a professor. That is why I went into academia in the first place, I thought I would be publishing papers on science and nature and I was on that pathway. Then about halfway through my PhD, I had a conversation with my fiance, a nurse in Toronto at SickKids hospital. Her family is here, our friends are here, she and I wanted to build our life in Toronto. However, if you go to academia, you have to do a post-doctorate in some top five schools around the world, and you get a job wherever you get it and I did not want to be that mobile necessarily. Therefore, I decided that I wanted to be with her more than I wanted to be a professor. I wanted to try to take the research that we were developing for the XPrize and turn that into a company. I then co-founded a company and got into Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), an accelerator talking to venture capitalists building business plans and figuring out the market entry. Then this job at the National Research Council came out, looking for a director to lead this brand new cleantech program. I applied, honestly not thinking that I would get it, because I wanted to put pressure on my professor to commit to the startup, showing him that I would not be here forever. He told me I should take the job at the NRC because our technology was too early. So I went to the NRC and have been there for the past three years. I like to think of myself as a research capitalist. This is similar to how a venture capitalist finds startups to invest in and the return on investment in a few years. I find the best research to support in and co-developed with NRC labs, and researchers, in physical locations.My return on investment is emission reductions, and my time horizon is ten years plus. I have been fortunate and excited to be in a position where I can work at the intersection of academia, public policy, research, innovation, entrepreneurship, and finance. I also chair at Carbon Management Canada, which is a carbon tech nonprofit out of Alberta. I have done work in policy as an actual Canada fellow with the OECD and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. I met our startups through the Creative Destruction Lab. I also do a lot of tech assessments for the venture capital space and the Department of Energy. This past federal election, I ran for office in Toronto, because I wanted to bring more science to politics. 

I was first introduced to carbon capture technologies during my master’s, about developing materials to capture carbon. They are nanoporous, nanoscopic sponges, solid materials with tiny pores, a millionth of the size of a hair, that could capture and hold on to co2. I have always been driven by trying to solve huge problems. I find that the most exciting kind of work, you are always challenging yourself, and I do not see a bigger problem than carbon or climate change. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions is so important, and it just evolved along the trajectory of my studies. I was always interested in chemistry, and I liked material science much more than organic chemistry. I am not too fond of energetic chemistry but love inorganic materials chemistry. That led me down the path of materials and I thought, what are ways that materials impact the world and help solve the problems? This is how I got into climate change and carbon capture, utilization and hydrogen production.

I have always thought my life to be different chapters in a book, and each chapter is different. I thought I would spend ten years in academia, then ten years in business, ten years in government, ten years in philanthropy, and then retire somewhere in the sunset. I have realized that it is not clear-cut, and I do not necessarily need to pick one. I can be in roles where I can do all of it simultaneously. I have never really planned my career; I have thought, “what do I want to do next? How can I maximize impact and learning?”. I want to be in a space where I feel challenged and am growing personally. It is one of the reasons why I decided to run for office. I am still young, and I do not have children yet. We should have more young people running for office in general. But on the other hand, I found it a tremendous learning experience running for office. It is just like starting a company because you have to build a team, raise money, deal with vendors, procurements, and advertising. The only difference is that you are the product you are selling. So I could say that yes, I always wanted to work in the impact space; it is certainly something I solve for. I am not driven necessarily by the most compensation or necessarily work-life balance. My fiance always tells me that I live to work while she works to live, which is true. 

The amount of investment going into carbon technologies is increasing, and it is very exciting. We can see that there is a trend. Not only are there activists and young people saying we need to take action on climate, but the financial sector, with massive asset managers like BlackRock, are saying that sustainability is part of their investment thesis. Clean technology space, especially on the venture capital side, is booming recently, with a lot of investment there because they recognize that this is where the growth opportunity is. There is a massive amount of economic upheaval and opportunity to transition away from fossil fuels to a low-carbon society. There is so much spent on infrastructure that already exists that we need to revitalize and retrofit. There are new ways of thinking, doing things, and collaborating. As I work at a national lab with the federal government, I am seeing more and more programs from the government that incentivize collaboration among different sectors and stakeholders, academia, public sector, private sector and industry. My program, for example, is a collaborative program. For a project to be in my program, it needs to be co-led between an NRC researcher, a startup or industry researcher, and an academic. The idea is for something as big, complex, and challenging as climate change; we can no longer continue to advance in silos. I am excited by this collaboration which will be key to solving these problems. I think that we will lead to better outcomes because of it.

When people think of clean technology, they think of solar cells wind turbines and that is it. Yes, that is clean technology and it is essential. But it is only a tiny piece of the puzzle; electricity generation only accounts for about 30 to 33% of worldwide yearly emissions. The remaining 70% is in transportation, agriculture, manufacturing and land-use change. All of these other sectors could be electrified, but many of them are difficult to electrify. The International Energy Agency recently released a report called “Energy Technology Perspectives 2020” in which they analyze over 800 technology pathways for us to get to net-zero by 2050. They found that over half of the technologies we need to get to net-zero do not yet exist. So a common misconception is that we have to shut off the valves and stop oil and gas. Yes, to one extent, but that would be highly disruptive, and we do not yet have all of the technologies that we need to get to net-zero. We still rely on technology innovation, and there is still a huge role to play for research, development and commercialization. 

Another big misconception is that we need to solve the problem on the technology side. We do need policies, and we do need to finance them. But we have to do so intelligently and strategically because not every technology will make the most sense in every jurisdiction. An example is hydrogen production; you can produce clean hydrogen in many ways. One way is to produce it from water using renewable electricity, called electrochemically, in water splitting through electrolysis, so it is electricity-driven. The other way is by doing steam methane reforming, where you take natural gas, heat it, and decompose it, which produces CO2. Still, you can put carbon capture on top of that, and you get what they call gray hydrogen, or no blue hydrogen, which is hydrogen that has had its carbon emissions stripped off. In certain jurisdictions, like in Quebec or British Columbia, where you have an abundance of hydroelectricity, it makes more sense to do water electrolysis and use that electricity to split water to make hydrogen. But in other jurisdictions like Saskatchewan or in Alberta, where you do not have much hydroelectricity, it makes more sense to produce hydrogen through Steam, methane reforming, and carbon capture. So that is just one example of how you can have one product and one clean technology. But it is highly dependent on the local characteristics and the resource availability of where you will deploy it. 

The point is that clean technology is not just this magical solution; it is very complex, complicated and not all equal. 

Life and aspirations

My typical workday is very variated. There is the internal, administrative and supervisory, and then the external, visionary, partnership, development, and resource. My day is relatively free. It is all meetings, and before the pandemic happened, it was a lot of travel, all over the place. I was at home in Toronto for the longest consecutive time without travelling three weeks in a year. I was always going somewhere else. It was either in Ottawa, Japan, Germany, California, Vancouver, etc. Part of it was managing the budgets for this fiscal year-end, looking at Operation spending and making sure that we get it on track with the budget. It was also project review, meetings with our research teams, talking about the latest research and how it impacts their work and giving guidance. to writing opinion pieces for clean energy technology publications, doing interviews with people like you, having partnership development meetings with several companies or industries and trying to figure out how to plan the next phase of my program because we are about to launch it and figure out all the steps for that… Many things are always different, and, there are always new challenges, new things to do. 

When it comes to work-life balance, I am a person who applies the saying “work hard, play hard”. I am very energetic, and I get energy from people. So I think you have to understand what gives you energy and what takes energy away from you. I can work hard, get up at eight, have a full day of meetings, do some more work, finish at seven, go out to a concert in downtown Toronto or a Raptors game, and then go to bed and be fine. Because all that energy that I used up fed into each other. It is funny how the pandemic reconditioned me, as I was forced to take that whole social side and bring it inside. However, my job does not feel like work because I have a lot of autonomy in what I manage to do daily, which is very motivating and empowering. I always have this nagging thought in the back of my mind that I am not doing enough and that I should be doing more and whether this is the job that I will have the most impact on. It is less about the work-life balance from the perspective of my social life versus my professional life. It is more balancing expectations upon myself, taking the time to reflect and live in the moment, be happy with what I have done, rather than always trying to do something better, which can be good but not if that becomes obsessive.

The part that I find the most challenging is the bureaucracy. I work for the government, so there are many checks and balances, due diligence, and good reasons! Our taxpayer money is being used, so you need to respect a level of responsibility and stewardship. One of the things that I love about working for the government is working for the people. I am not necessarily working for a board or CEO to line their pockets with profits, and in academia, I am not necessarily working to build my academic Empire. Still, we are working for the government, and I am doing work that impacts people’s lives, and I love that. 

So as with any large organization, especially one as risk-averse as the government, it can take time to move things forward. Since I am an energetic and impatient person, I can get frustrated. For example, I am trying to get the call from the next phase of my program online on a website. I could code it myself and put it up in 20 minutes, but it will take six weeks because it has to go through approvals and translations up and down the chain. I understand why we have to do this; I do; I am not the only person that needs to get something online since it is a massive organization. But I am the kind of person that if I see something in the way, I try to do it myself and figure out the solution. The frustrating thing about the government is that you have a role and responsibility. And other people have roles and responsibilities. So even if you can do something and do it faster, you are not allowed to sometimes. 

I want to retire and open up a coffee shop and record store one day. That is a very long-term goal since I love coffee and rockers. It is not easy to deal with long-term goals because I try not to think in the long term. For example, five years ago, I would have never guessed that I would be the director of the National Lab and that we would be in the middle of a global pandemic that has lasted over two years. However, there are things that I want to achieve. I want to have a family one day and maybe own a home in Toronto, but I want to accomplish those things. I want to make an impact and improve people’s lives. I also want to point to a technology or a process that has significantly contributed to emissions reductions in Canada or around the world. When I die, I want my Wikipedia page to read; Phil de Luna worked on and was instrumental to X and Y, leading to 15% emission reductions worldwide; those are what I would like to accomplish. Whether that is by continuing to work at the NRC or going back to academia, becoming a professor, going into industry and becoming a venture capitalist,  or running for office again, one day, and becoming prime minister: I don’t know! 

I want to live a good life, be a good person, and impact people positively. I want to help contribute to emissions reductions, drive science forward, and spirit curiosity, especially among young people and visible minorities. Being Filipino myself, I am the first Filipino in my family to have a Ph.D. or an advanced degree or even to go to undergrad. I am the only Filipino person I have seen in many stages of my career, whether in my Ph.D., as a startup entrepreneur, director of the National Lab, or as a board chair. So a big goal of mine is that I hope to inspire and provide examples to other young people, Filipino people, mainly, to show that more is possible. Just because there is not someone who looks like them doing something, it does not mean that they cannot do it themselves. 

Advice for the next generations

The best degree is what you like the most and are the most excited to learn about. It is so much easier to learn when you enjoy what you are learning, and it is so much easier to be successful when you do not look at it as hard work. Of course, every degree is hard work, and there are classes you will not like, but that is part of learning. I would also say look at degrees that give you opportunities to do work that augment the degree with real-life experiences. For example, there are degrees in the humanities that encourage you to be a contributor in your school newspaper, start a blog, write, film, or do all these other things. Do degrees that give you a good foundation and sense of what you are learning and the space and opportunity to apply those skills in the real world somehow. If your degree does not give you those opportunities, find them yourself. It is so competitive and hard to get a job with just a degree. So working for an organization is essential, and you can leverage that in so many ways. Those are soft skills, and they matter. It is less about the degree; it is more about what you do with it.

One of the first things that I look for is whether I can work with this person: are they collaborative? Would they work well on a team? Are they open? I am a very collaborative person with a flat hierarchical structure; I do not care what your title is; I want to get the job done. Other people have different work styles. That is fine; you have to learn how to manage around that. So I look into collaborative nature and how well we can work together. 

The next thing I look for is curiosity. I think curiosity is even more important than intelligence because it means that you will always be looking for the answer and exploring different angles to a solution. Intelligence suggests that you can collect information. I think that curiosity is what drives towards more creativity and better outcomes. Whereas intelligence is essential, it is retreading what has been done. 

Then finally, what I look for is a diversity of experiences: has this person been able to do a wide variety of things well? That will show me that they are adaptable. Maybe I want a specialist in the space, But often, mainly because of how the world is and how projects and priorities change, it is less about a specialization. It is more about adaptability. So yes, you should have specialization in something, but you should also be able to develop specialization quickly in other areas adjacent to what you know. 

The first thing is to read this book called “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter And How to Make the Most of Them Now” by Meg Jay. She is a clinical psychologist who works primarily with people in their 20s. I discovered this book towards the end of my 20s, but I wish I had found it at the earlier part of my 20s because it helps motivate you and describes why your 20s are an essential part of your life. After all, a lot of the foundation of your life happens then. It is one thing to go take a year off and travel the world and vlog, which you know, is excellent, but what about taking a year off, travelling, and doing something unique and contributing to your career capital. Maybe you are interested in international development, so you intern for the UN. There are ways you can have fun and do so strategically and learn. 

Another piece of advice I give to young people is that communication is probably an essential skill that I have. It is not how smart I am or how hardworking I am, although I think those are important. I think my superpower is how to communicate complex things in simple ways. I have a natural leg up on that because I am an extrovert which some people are not, and they need practice or some help, but practice does make perfect. So practice as much as you can: join debates or start speaking in front of people more often, and it will become easier and easier. The more you talk in front of people, the easier it is to speak in a boardroom or present to investors. I feel that I can communicate well, write well, and have a bit of a strategic mind. 

Some other advice, when you compare yourself to successful people, it is widespread to think that they had a very predetermined and linear path, but that is false. I am only where I am today because of the support that I have had from my mentors, family, partner, and luck. And I failed a lot: for the startup, I thought I would be the next Canadian Elon Musk, and I was heartbroken when my professor said that my technology was too early and that I should go take this job with the NRC. So it was not a failure, but it was undoubtedly a pivot and a pathway that I did not expect to go in.

So do not be afraid of failure because the most successful people are the ones who have failed the most. When you compare yourself to other people, recognize that there is a lot of help, mentorship and guidance that brought them to where they are. No successful person accomplish what they accomplished purely on their own. Be thoughtful, do not waste your time: work hard, play hard, but do not be paralyzed by choice and options. Just do something and if you do not like it, then do something else. But you have to have a relentless pathway of going forward.