Ian Clifford | Do It Before It's 'Cool'
Scott D. Clary | Mental Models, Performance, Business & Entrepreneurship
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Stories worth telling.
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Do It Before It's 'Cool'
How freaking awesome would it be to say, "I designed a touch-screen smartphone before Apple did"? That's some serious clout. As entrepreneurs, this is the stuff we dream of – not just creating a bigger and better iteration of something, but inventing the original.
Believe it or not, this is pretty rare. Most ground-breaking companies and overnight unicorns are simply companies that took a rudimentary concept or model and made it better, faster, or cheaper. (And that's incredible, by the way. I personally have major respect for anyone who can do that.)
But behind the Apples and Amazons of the world, there are the originals; the IBM Simon was the first ever touch-screen phone, and the Boston Computer Exchange was the first ecommerce company. And guess what? Before Tesla ever hinted at its existence, there were people designing the first ever electric vehicles.
Ian Clifford, one of my recent podcast guests, is one of those people. He was making electric cars way back in 2001 – and now, in 2022, he's working on something totally new. Let's take a look.
Ian Clifford: Director, CEO & Founder of FuelPositive
Ian has always been a proponent of the new and cutting-edge – not in an obnoxious way, but with genuine curiosity and a desire to do things differently. At just 17 years of age, he was heavily invested in learning about the environment, sustainability issues, and the causes of climate change; the interest continued to grow with time.
“One thing that's remained really consistent for me is a strong sense of environmentalism," Ian told me in our interview, "A real appreciation for preserving this incredible planet that we've been destroying, and realizing that things have to change. If they don't change now, we're leaving a disaster for future generations.”
It always warms my heart to meet people who have a genuine care for the world around them. Ian's one of those people who is totally driven by a cause; there's no element of 'how much money can we pull out of this?' or 'how can we make this work for our benefit alone?' I could tell he's been passionate about reducing our footprint for a very long time.
“Everywhere I went in the world, there was this sense that we had to build and build and build and expand and expand and expand and create massive infrastructure, as opposed to simplifying things. So that certainly is the basis of what inspires me today.”
Always One Step Ahead
Speaking with Ian made me wonder whether he was an entrepreneur from birth; he's been thinking like an innovator since the start of his career, which he began by dabbling in photography.
“I was always a few steps ahead in terms of what was trending; my first big pivot was to move from traditional photography into digital photography. And that was before anyone was even considering it.”
It's pretty wild to say that you did something before it was cool. But this guy was experimenting with digital photography way back in the late eighties. So, yeah... he's definitely entitled to his claim.
Then came the age of the internet, and Ian was all over it from day one.
“Myself and several partners started an Internet Marketing Company, which was one of the first in Canada. We built some of the first commercial websites in Canada. Looking at where things were going has always been a big part of my interest.”
Tesla... Before Tesla Existed
By the time Ian arrived at his next destination – the electric car industry – he was well-prepared to take it by the horns and change the game. He'd gained plenty of knowledge and experience from a dedicated mentor for many years, and with time, his interest in sustainability had blossomed into something actionable.
“I had a fascination with electric cars for a long, long time," Ian said. "So in 2001, I started an electric car company in Canada. It's called ZENN Motor Company, and we built neighborhood electric vehicles. We sold about 1000 of them in North America made us one of the biggest electric car companies in the world at the time.”
How cool is that? I had no idea electric cars were around in 2001, let alone roadworthy 'neighborhood' cars. But there he was, building and selling them to people who were ready for a change. Unfortunately, those people were a meager few.
“The adoption just wasn't there. But I became really interested in energy storage and energy battery technology and sustainable production; how to shift our concept of what energy is on a global on a global scale.”
The Ammonia Issue
Now, you'll have to forgive me... I'm about to explain something I don't fully understand, so if I get anything wrong, please feel free to correct me in the comments.
Here's what I know: Ian is currently working on a project that will completely change the way we think about energy – and it all has to do with ammonia.
Ammonia, as Ian so eloquently described it, is just "that weird smell at the skating rink" to the layman. For people in the energy industry, though, it's known as a great zero-carbon energy source; it's been used to power things for over a century, including NASA-owned jets.
But while it's a zero-carbon energy source, it isn't actually sustainable. Here's why.
“About a year and a half ago, I became really interested in the idea of replacing fossil fuels. The industry that manufactures ammonia, and has for the last century, is one of the dirtiest industries on the planet from an emissions perspective. To produce a unit of ammonia is one of the most carbon intense manufacturing processes on the planet.”
The things you find out when talking to successful people, huh? I never would have guessed that a 'zero-carbon' energy source could be so harmful to the environment. But here's where Ian's latest project, FuelPositive, comes into play.
From Grey to Green: The New Ammonia
Ian explained to me that the reason we don't hear about ammonia nearly as much as other sources of energy is because it's not sustainable in its current state. Why spend resources on creating this new energy source if it's just going to exacerbate our problems?
But Ian has been working with a team of scientists to create a totally green method of ammonium production. And they've done it.
“The idea that you can change that and create a truly green alternative to the way that something's been done for a century was of great interest to me. April of 2021, we entered into a purchase agreement with Dr. Dincer and his team to purchase the intellectual property. And since then we've been commercializing it.”
Doesn't that get you excited? It gets me excited. Finally, somebody's making moves for a reason other than their own monetary gain. This is going to shift the entire industry – and Ian's the first cab off the rank.
“It's going to happen, and it's happening. We can't grow this company fast enough to keep up with interest.”
Key Takeaways from Ian's Approach
It's truly impressive how Ian has managed to pull this off. Here he is, at the brink of an explosive and innovative industry, with something entirely new to show the class. So many ideas are being flung at the wall from all directions – so how did he make his project stand out?
1. He Checked for Viability
So many ideas flop because their makers fail to consider viability. That doesn't just mean product-market fit; it means, 'do we have the infrastructure readily available to make this adoption possible?'
“You have to look at it from a number of perspectives. The reason electric vehicles are viable, of course, is that there's infrastructure. Ammonia never had any widespread adoption because you were kind of replacing apples and apples.”
Ian did his due diligence before making any big moves. He knew from extensive investigation that ammonia wasn't widely adopted due to its significant strain on resources – but with green ammonia, that would instantly change.
“With the advent of green ammonia, the whole paradigm shifts. The ease of conversion becomes very, very, very significant as a consideration.”
2. He Talked to the Right People
Now that Ian and his team are commercializing their green ammonia IP, they're keen to get the ball rolling with country and industry leaders.
“We have a lot of conversations going on at different levels within government and advocacy groups. The awareness is growing on a daily basis."
I appreciate how Ian is going above and beyond to get the message out; he's not just telling his target market, but also spreading sustainability awareness to government teams. It'll be harder for policy-makers to ignore a more ethical alternative when it's staring them in the face.
"For the rest of this week, we've got meetings with various agencies within the Canadian government who are really serious about understanding the viability of this.”
3. He's Got a Game Plan
“What very often happens is you'll get entrepreneurs with really great ideas. They'll bring the idea forward, but they won't have a commercial plan, right? I've seen it a lot, and I've done it.”
Great point. It's easy to get over-enthusiastic and forget about the practicals; what's your business model? Where's the funding coming from? What will adoption look like when this is released to the masses?
“I learned from experience that, in order to make a great idea stick, you've got to figure out how to manufacture it efficiently and quickly. And with proper distribution and proper support.”
Well, rest assured that Ian's got their game plan sorted – and it's super impressive.
“Gray ammonia, or dirty ammonia, has always been produced at a refinery scale production. Our systems are modular and scalable; they're small. They're intended to be deployed with end users as opposed to mass, centralized production and distribution of green ammonia.”
Am I hearing this right? Ian's team is producing something that will totally change the energy industry, but he's also coming up with a totally new distribution method. Damn.
“The supply chains are all screwed up. So what we're doing is not only revolutionary from a production perspective, but it also creates this independence for the end user.”
And that, folks, is why I do what I do. It's a true honor to speak to the Ians of the world; people who live to make a difference, walking the cutting edge with apparent ease (though nothing about entrepreneurship is easy).
Ian is a true entrepreneur; he's not just thinking about making money, but also about changing the world. And I have a feeling he's going to succeed.
Don't forget to watch the full podcast episode – you can find it here – and thanks for reading!
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