The path to decarbonizing aviation
The path to decarbonizing aviation
Is hydrogen-powered aviation in our future? According to Jason Chua, co-founder of Universal Hydrogen, carbon-free flight will be a reality sooner than we think. In this episode, Jason talks about how Universal Hydrogen is tackling the issue of hydrogen distribution by doing for clean fuel what Nespresso did for coffee. He also shares his experiences leading agile teams at United Technologies, Airbus, Google and elsewhere.
Heather: Today, I’m speaking with Jason Chua, an innovator entrepreneur and Silicon Valley insider. Jason and I first met in a 70,000-square-foot, very cool industrial space in Brooklyn, where he was founding executive director of United Technologies Advanced Projects, a skunkworks organization where he and his team were rapidly piloting ambitious and disruptive products. When we reconnected earlier this year, Jason was on the other coast where he had co-founded Universal Hydrogen, one of the hottest startups out there, with the goal of tackling the challenge of decarbonizing aviation. He has worked at Airbus’s innovation center, for Google’s Project Ara, at Stanford Design School as a lecturer— and he’s only just hit his third decade on this planet. So very excited to have you here today. Welcome Jason.
Jason: Thanks, Heather. Thanks for having me.
Heather: Of course. So, your last three roles have been in aerospace. What drew you to aviation? And can you fly a plane?
Jason: That’s a great question. I cannot fly a plane, although I have flown in many planes. One of the things that really drew me to aerospace was sort of by accident. I grew up not really having any particular interest in planes, although I was a very frequent user of them. I flew around when I was younger and also for work. I got into the industry because one of my bosses at Google actually came from aerospace world. After he left Google and went back to aerospace, he asked me if I wanted to join him. And one thing that you find when you start interacting with people in the aerospace and aviation field is that it’s a field with people that are just really, really, really passionate about flying, about planes and about how to build complex things that prevent us from falling out of the sky and keep us safe. And it’s just kind of infectious. Anytime you’re around people that are really passionate about the things that they’re working on, it just lends itself to a really cool culture.
Heather: So, let’s go back to Brooklyn for a moment. You were at United Technologies in this Advanced Projects group. Tell me what that was like, what your remit was and the culture there.
Jason: So, at United Technologies Advanced Projects, we called it UTAP for short, it was really a place where UTC business units could come together and build new things that they otherwise couldn’t and do that on a timescale that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. So, the structure of United Technologies at the time was that there were two, sort of, building systems companies: Otis, the elevator company, and Carrier, the air conditioning and building systems company; then on the aerospace side of things, Pratt and Whitney, which makes jet engines, and Collins Aerospace, which does basically everything else inside the airplane besides the tube and wings and engines. They were run pretty much as four separate companies with four separate technology, roadmaps and development, timelines and processes…things like that.
My goal was to have them come together and say, “Hey, actually, you have a technology and you have a technology, and if you put those things together, what could you do that would be different and transformative for the industry?” And that included rebuilding a bunch of different processes—from how we could staff the organization with talent, both internal talent and external talent, to how we could incentivize them to take some risks and move faster.
So, the goal of the organization was to strip a lot of those layers away and say, “We’re going to do something really fast. We’re going to do something collaboratively. We’re going to bring a lot of disciplines together. We’re going to leverage the expertise that we have inside these incredible businesses, but we’re also going to augment that with new perspectives that come from outside the company and do it in a way that allows us to bridge these two worlds together and get something out the door.”
Heather: What are you most proud of about your time there and the work that you did?
Jason: I’m most proud of the fact that we were able to build an organization, build all new processes, set really ambitious goals, achieve those goals and do it in a way that did not leave people feeling like they were overworked, overstressed, under supported. We actually had the highest culture scores and success scores of the entire organization on my team. And this is amidst, you know, crazy deadlines and super aggressive goals. So, I’m really proud that we were able to bring everyone together in a way that felt really supportive and build cross-business unit collaboration and community.
Heather: …which is so hard. Of all the things, what do you think were among the most critical to actually achieving the kind of culture that you wanted to build?
Jason: I think everything comes down to empathy, right? Really trying to be there for people, because I think it’s one thing to ask a lot of people and ask them to produce some really incredible advances in technology or engineering in a very short amount of time. I think that’s exciting for a lot of people, but you can only do that for so long before you start to feel burnt out, overworked, stressed. So, it’s about that balance of how to get people energized by a really ambitious goal but also make sure that you’re saying, “Okay, I know this is really hard. I know that what you’re doing is really challenging, and I want you to be comfortable coming to me and saying, “I need some more support.”
Heather: We’re actually in a time when so many organizations have remote workers, hybrid workers or, in some cases, just completely giving up their space. There was something I would say really inspiring about being in that space that I referred to earlier in Dumbo and being confronted with the history of the organization but, as well, what it was that you were building and doing. How important is the space— and having a space—where it almost personifies what you’re trying to do and achieve?
Jason: I think it’s incredibly important. I think people are influenced by their surroundings in ways that they might not expect. You know, you can talk to an engineer who says, “I’m very rational, I can work from anywhere, it doesn’t matter…as long as you give me a computer and the right CAD software.” But I think being in a space where you feel free to walk up to other people, have conversations, have a whiteboard or some other surface to sketch out things and don’t feel overly constrained in your physical environment…I think that also allows you to feel less constrained in your mental environment and creative environment, as well.
So, with a startup that I co-founded, we ended up setting up shop in some hangars right on the runway of an airport. And I think being in that large space with huge ceilings—everything was very open plan—but, more importantly, you’d open up the hangar doors and you would see planes taking off every10-15 minutes. I think that sort of connection to, “Hey, we’re going to build something and eventually it’s going to take off from these runways.” I think that’s really powerful. And it keeps people focused on where we are headed.
Heather: Before you left United Technologies, you were involved with thinking through the strategic goals and the journey of United Technologies and Raytheon coming together: two huge organizations; storied backgrounds, and histories and cultures; and now a merger of equals. What was that like? What did you learn?
Jason: It was an incredibly interesting experience. You have two incredibly strong, historic companies coming together. And what I found is that the companies were more alike than they were different. So, on a service level, you talk to different leaders on both sides and they’re like, “Yeah, I know we do things very differently. We have this program, and it’s called this and it’s very unique to us.” Then you discover, actually, they’re kind of very similar. It’s just about the vocabulary that people use and how people refer to different things and different naming conventions and stuff like that. But there’s actually a good amount of overlap in how people thought about the development process, the engineering process and how to think through technology. So, it was kind of a puzzle: How do you fit these things together in a way that brings people along with you and doesn’t feel like you’re sort of supplanting something that they’re used to and that they have a lot of pride in with something new—especially something new that comes from the other company. Ideally, you want to do something that feels equally fresh and comfortable for both sides.
Heather: So, in March 2020, you and some colleagues went to dinner and started talking about forming this new company. I just would love to zoom in on the dinner and what you guys talked about.
Jason: It was a really fun dinner. There are four co-founders, and we all wanted to do something to address some sort of big problem in the industry. And the problem that we ended up focusing on was decarbonization of aviation. It’s one of the last industries to have a credible plan toward zero carbon emissions, and we tried to push the envelope on decarbonization.
One of the things that I launched at UTAP was a hybrid electric flight project. And that had a lot of potential; but a lot of potential in that context was 25-to-30 percent emissions reduction, and we need to do a lot better than that if we’re going to get to zero carbon. Where does the other 70 percent come from?
So we sat down and were talking about different ways that we could do it. Hydrogen was something that had bubbled up as maybe something we might want to take look at. And we had some interesting thoughts on how to approach that, how to tackle some of the biggest challenges that had been preventing the mass adoption of hydrogen as an aviation fuel. We had several bottles of wine…and around the last bottle of wine, we were like, “Okay, do we want to do this?” And we made the decision at the end and dinner, “Yeah, let’s go ahead, let’s try it, let’s do this.”
I think it was two days later when the entire city shut down, and we were all stuck at home. That’s where we had this realization: “Oh, we’re going to do this for the next two weeks or maybe a month.”
It turned out that we had a lot more time at home to think about and work on this—and so did all the people that we pulled into it, which actually lent itself to a lot of good heads down, focusing on things, as sort of a silver lining. And after a few months we were, like, “Hey, you know what? This could be a real thing. Maybe we should continue this.” And so that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.
Heather: So, you wake up the next morning and you’re, like, did we just agree that we were going to completely revolutionize an industry and start it ourselves?
When the company started, you wore three hats: co-founder, chief strategy officer, chief product officer. What were your days like? Where were you focused? Did you ever sleep?
Jason: It was actually more hats than that, because at a startup there’s unlimited amounts of hats that somebody can wear. We were starting this company in a pretty distributed way. Everyone was sort of in a different state and certainly a different city. So that gave us a good amount of flexibility as to when we worked and when we didn’t work—and there were endless amounts of things to get done. So that was kind of nice. I did everything except for hardcore engineering. I set up our IT system, I set up a recruiting system, I set up our financial model and I built our pitch deck. Our CEO was off raising money. Our CTO was off trying to do real hardcore engineering. And our other co-founder was making sure that we had the right corporate formation documents and contract templates and stuff like that. I sort of picked up the slack everywhere else to make sure that we had everything in place that we needed, at a bare minimum, to be a functional company.
Heather: Of all of those hats, what was harder than you would have ever imagined?
Jason: I probably should have predicted this, but recruiting is really, really tough. People are the lifeblood of an organization, and you want to make sure you get the right people. Having to do that in a remote environment—to make sure that you truly understand who it is that you’re inviting to be a part of the team and then convincing them that they should join your company—was really kind of tough, because it’s so important and also so difficult and incredibly time sensitive.
Heather: You know, in a way, another silver lining could have been that during this period of time, people had started to question how they spend their days and what they spend their days trying to solve.
Jason: I think the pandemic brought a lot of things into focus for a lot of people—you know, the importance of being able to travel and connect with other people and how you feel, and what happens when you all of a sudden can’t do that but also the power of nature. They’re real forces, and they can drastically affect how we live our life. I think, for a lot of people, the pause in travel during the pandemic created a time where people could reflect on why they were traveling and just be a bit more conscious about how they approached air travel, in particular. I think there was a growing awareness of the carbon footprint challenge that aviation produced.
Heather: So, a common analogy that you and the team have used, as it relates to what you’re trying to build, is wanting to do for clean fuel what Nespresso did for coffee. Unpack that for me.
Jason: Sure. The biggest challenge for hydrogen being adopted at mass scale for aviation is that there isn’t a great way to get it around the country, around the world. Toyota has been selling hydrogen-powered cars for quite a while, but you can only get them in California if you’re in the US—because you can’t get hydrogen anywhere else. You can’t fill up your car. So, there’s a distribution challenge. The oil and gas industry has had several decades and several billion dollars to build out, basically, ubiquitous infrastructure. You can get jet fuel at an airport, you can get gas for your car, basically, any street corner. And to replicate that for hydrogen was going to take really long time and a huge amount of money—decades and trillions of dollars. We don’t have decades or trillions of dollars in order to solve some of these emissions challenges that we have.
So how do we solve that? We can make hydrogen-powered planes. Hydrogen-powered planes have existed since the 1950s, so that’s not the problem. The problem is how to get hydrogen to the airport so you can actually fuel these things up. One of the insights that we had early on was the idea of these modular hydrogen pods, or capsules, that you could load onto aircraft using existing cargo-loading equipment and that you could ship around the world using one of the most efficient and ubiquitous forms of transportation and distribution that we’ve invented—the intermodal freight network.
That sort of became the core nugget of how we were going to solve this massive challenge for the distribution of hydrogen. And the more we thought about it, the more we sort of realized that this actually kind of resembled the Nespresso model. Obviously, we were doing a lot of work late at night, and a lot of work was powered by Nespresso. So, we were, like, “Well, it’s kind of similar to that.” You have these specially designed capsules that you fill up with this fuel; put it in a box and ship it around in trucks and trains and boats and get it to wherever you need to get it to; and you plug it into your coffee maker, and there you go. You have espresso!
So, in our analogy, the retrofitted aircraft is the coffee maker and our hydrogen modules are the Nespresso pods. The way Nespresso works is that they actually don’t grow coffee or produce coffee; they actually work with coffee growers to package their coffee and the capsules. Similarly, the plan for Universal Hydrogen is to use hydrogen production that’s being done by third parties, put it in capsules, ship them around the world and plug them into airplanes.
Heather: It’s a brilliant analogy and, you know, I’m sure that just kind of taking these complex ideas and simplifying them can be really important in talking to the media and investors and recruits.
What do you think has contributed to the success that you’ve been having?
Jason: I think I have to give a lot of credit, especially, to younger generations that have become increasingly vocal and voted with their wallets to say, “Hey, actually, it’s not cool to continue to pollute. You’ve got to change. You’ve got to make some really substantive changes in the way the world operates in order for us to be consumers again.”
I think that shift in sentiment by consumers has really led a lot of airlines to rethink. “Okay, we’re kind of in a crunch right now, and no one’s flying. What are we going to do in order to get people back?” And one of the things they decided was important was the idea of investing in some carbon abatement technologies, whether that’s sucking carbon out of the sky or investing in fuels that are less polluting—like hydrogen. I think that really created a movement that allowed us to gain traction with some airlines—and investors, of course—and I think that’s what’s going to help propel the industry.
Heather: There’s so much happening in so many industries that are ripe for disruption, in the role that technology is playing and turning on its head what’s possible—is there a technology or a trend or an innovation that’s been really exciting for you to see take shape?
Jason: I think that you hit the nail right on the head. There are so many interesting opportunities out there to explore. Oftentimes, it comes down to the team and having a team that is full of diverse perspectives and where people are just really passionate about trying to do something new. I’m particularly bullish on things that don’t live just in the digital world but also have some physical component to it and also some environmental-sensing components, as well. I think that allows you to have that sort of feedback loop of people and physical things, but then sensing what they’re doing and then being able to react and sort of create an experience that is all of that. I think you just get this really interesting confluence of the sort of activations, both on the sensor and digital side of things but also on the human scale. I think the way that people interact with objects and spaces is just really, truly an activation. And it creates something that isn’t there without people.
Heather: I love the fact that you’ve started with this idea that most potentially meaningful innovations will come from things that are not just digital or an intangible but the physical, as well, and what the connection point is. I think we’ve really recognized that, yes, through digital we’ve been able to do things that we could never have imagined while we were in lockdown for all this time, but it’s never going to really replace lots of other experiences.
So you have a master’s degree in product design and mechanical engineering from Stanford, and you’re now pursuing an MBA at Northwestern (which is my alma mater). Why get an MBA now? You’ve had so many amazing experiences. What are you looking to gain from it? And how’s it going?
Jason: It has been an incredible experience. If you sort of take a step back and take a look at the arc of my educational and career journey, it’s about understanding people, understanding what their needs are, understanding how to actually create experiences and product services that fulfill some of those needs—and then actually figuring out how to get those out into the real world in a sustainable way.
So, degrees in design, engineering and now business, right? I personally think those are the three things that are the core aspects of product development. I want to make sure that I not only can build something that has a good “why” behind it but also how to make sure that it’s something that can support itself so it can actually have a long-lasting impact.
Heather: That’s super exciting. I really love what Northwestern has been doing with some of its programming—The Ford Center for Design, the McCormick School of Engineering and Kellogg coming together and creating these hybrid programs. So, you’ll have the trifecta—which will be pretty amazing.
Jason: I strongly believe that the future is interdisciplinary. You can no longer say, “I only do engineering, and I’m going to only hang out with engineers and it’s all about engineering and technology.” I think all of the major advances in society are going to come from an architect, an anthropologist and a psychologist talking with a plutonium engineer or something. That’s where I think that the intersection of different disciplines is where creativity is born from.
Heather: Part of what we’re doing with the types of people that we’re interviewing on this podcast is the idea of building something that’s really meaningful, building something that can become iconic and the people that are behind it to get it to that point. Who is an icon for you, or what is an icon for you?
Jason: So I will say that what Stanford has done with the D school—David Kelly was sort of the visionary behind all of this, but a lot of other people have contributed along the way—to actually build a place where these disciplines can come together and support it with a framework that allows people to have to be a part of the process on more of a level-playing field and then take that back to the respective disciplines and sort of infect other people with this mindset—I think that’s been really incredible. Obviously, I’m incredibly biased. That’s where my training is, and I’ve lectured there and all that stuff.
I think everything sort of comes back to whether you are able to truly listen to people—not just the people that you collaborate with or the people that you’re trying to design for but everyone in general. And how do you incorporate that into things that you do? If we can create a world where people are more open and receptive and conscious of how what they do can affect and create impact for other people, I think we’re going to end up in a better place.
Heather: What you’ve done thus far is pretty amazing, and I’m just excited to see where you’re going to go next.
Jason: Thanks, Heather, I’m sure we’ll cross paths again—maybe in some warehouse on the West Coast next time!
The problem that we ended up focusing on was decarbonisation of aviation. It's one of the last industries to have a credible plan towards zero carbon emissions.