Max Senechal of CJ Biomaterials On The Case For Optimism About The Next Ten & Twenty Years

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Renewable Energy and the Rate of Technological Evolution and Adoption: Ten years ago, we were saying it wasn’t possible. Today in Iowa, for example, 80% of the power in the state is generated by wind power, and there is more renewable energy being brought into the grid. It’s always messy and disruptive, but there is reason to be optimistic because we eventually do the right thing. When it comes to today’s big problem — pollution, climate change, it seems insurmountable right now, but I am optimistic because if I take my experience, and what we are doing at CJ Biomaterials, we are developing materials that can drastically change things.

Reading the news can be so demoralizing: climate change, war, fires, epidemics, rogue AI, mental health, authoritarianism, extreme partisanship. But humans need hope. In order for us to create a positive future, we need to be able to have hope that there can be a positive future. What is the “Case for Optimism” over the next decades? What can we look forward to and hope for to help us strive for a more positive future?

In this series, we aim to explore and highlight the positive aspects, potential breakthroughs, and reasons for optimism that lie ahead in the coming decade and beyond. We are talking to authors, researchers, entrepreneurs, scientists, futurists, and other experts who can shed light on the exciting advancements, innovations, and opportunities that await us. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Max Senechal.

Max Senechal is the Chief Commercial Officer at CJ Biomaterials, a leading industrial biotechnology company focused on developing and commercializing biomaterials based on its PHA platform. He has more than 25 years’ experience in the chemical and material industries with the last 13 years spent on the development of biomaterials at Metabolix, Ginkgo Bioworks, and CJ Biomaterials. Mr. Senechal holds a degree in mechanical engineering from Laval University in Canada.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born in Canada and spent the first 25 years of my life there, growing up in the Province of Quebec. I was educated there, trained as an engineer, and have always been very connected with and close to nature. I have always been an avid outdoors enthusiast. Skiing was a big part of my life as a child and young adult, and I raced competitively in Canada in downhill Skiing. I have always liked nature and the outdoors have always been a part of my life, so it is not surprising to me that at this point in my career I am focused on trying to make a difference for the environment.

After graduation, I had the opportunity to move to the US, making the Boston area my home. I worked for a company that needed bilingual speakers (French/English) to work on pulp and paper manufacturing projects. They asked me for two years, I committed to one, and thirty years later, my wife and I are still in the US. This is where our kids were born and raised. Other than a three-year hiatus in France, we have essentially been based in the Boston area since we left Canada, which is really a great location to be connected to technology and innovation. In the early part of my career, I was focused on engineering, working as a professional engineer. That was the first 7–8 years, then I switched to management consulting, joining a technical consulting company called Arthur D. Little. There, I was exposed to a variety of technologies and challenges and stayed in consulting for nearly 15 years. During that span, I was in the US and Europe and exposed to global business and technology management issues while traveling the world.

In the latter part of my consulting tenure, I started getting involved in biotech projects, biofuels at the time. It was interesting and intriguing to see the future of biotechnology, even though at the time, industrial biotech was essentially focused on bioethanol. In 2009, a company called Metabolix came knocking. This was exactly what I wanted to do — apply my engineering and consulting experiences to make a difference, using and leveraging new technology that could make an impact on the environment. That’s how I joined the biotech industry, and I’ve been involved with it ever since, focused mainly on biomaterials, making products that have a better sustainability profile. It’s been a passion.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I have always been very curious about how things work, and it was clear early on that engineering was going to be a natural track for me. My father was an executive in a large paper company in Canada, and I spent most of my summers around paper mills. I was always fascinated by how we use technology to make things. That was the biggest inspiration. My kids ask me if I had the opportunity to go back to school, what I would study? I tell them I would always go back to physics and engineering because there is something satisfying about understanding how things work and how you can leverage this knowledge to make progress.

What motivated me to move to industry from consulting was observing the struggle that the technical field has to commercialize new technology, and I was fascinated by how difficult it is to take something out of the lab and make it work in the real world. So, for the last 15 years I have focused on linking technology to real-world applications — easier said than done! We’ll get into the details later, but the company I work for develops and commercializes biodegradable/compostable plastics using biotechnology. One of our biggest challenges, which you wouldn’t think of immediately, is connecting two value chains that weren’t connected before — biotechnology and polymer materials. For the past 70 years it’s been oil to plastics. To take two worlds that never came together and connect them into a functioning value chain is as challenging as developing the fundamental technology itself. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to minimize the incredible technical accomplishments and breakthroughs needed for advancement, but sometimes the “unlock” that leads to successful commercialization is broader and requires equal amounts of creativity in non-technical areas and this is what I find interesting and motivating in my work.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?`

I think this is where you supposed to say my parents, right? We are the sum of our experiences and the relationships we have, so I would be hard pressed to only highlight one or two individuals because several people helped me and impacted my career so far — not done learning. I typically think about it in terms of how the different phases of my career unfolded — engineering, consulting, and now industrial biotech — and how each phase helped shape my experience. Throughout these phases, particularly early in my career, I had the opportunity to work with a couple of very strong business-minded engineers who had a rare combination of technical skills and strong business acumen. This experience allowed me to get exposed early on to a comprehensive approach of managing technical projects and taking them through to implementation — and that is a critical skill to have to succeed in engineering. You start with a blank piece of paper, and then two years later you are building a large-scale facility producing a new product on spec. That is still mind boggling to me today — the Basis-of-Design to Constructed Facility process of the engineering profession. I worked with a few engineers who were extremely strong at that side of the profession, and that is probably what gave me a stronger focus on management of technology, rather than technical design.

In management consulting, I was lucky to work with senior partners who were experts in developing business and technology strategies. Their mentorship opened an entire new world for me, how to shape strategy and the future of a business, how to organize a business, how to manage technology within a business, making it a key thrust of the strategy. Consulting was a fantastic learning environment.

When I transitioned to the biotech world at Metabolix, it was an entirely new environment for me. A lot more entrepreneurial and fast-moving, and there I had the opportunity to work side-by-side with the founder of the business as well as with a very talented team of scientists, engineers and business managers. I learned a lot from all these people, and they have had a major impact on my career.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

CJ Bio is a leading industrial biotech company and the focus of our division (CJ Biomaterials) is to develop and commercialize bioplastics that will help solve the ever-growing and global plastics pollution problem we have. Earlier we were talking about what motivates me, when I look how committed our kids’ generation is to the environment and how they take it more seriously than we did — that’s motivating to me. We can get caught up in the debate of what is the best solution — compostability, biodegradability, reducing, recycling, reusing — but we must agree on one thing and that is that you can’t keep filling up landfills and oceans with plastics and organic waste. We must be honest with ourselves and recognize that we have failed and need to leverage all solutions available. That is a massive problem to solve, and what our team is working on is one of the promising technologies that could help in addressing the problem — biobased and readily compostable materials that could replace today’s plastics in a variety of applications.

Everyone is supportive of the three Rs I mentioned above — reuse, reduce and recycle — but we’ve tried that for 70 years and have recorded little success. We need to face the fact that we need plastic materials because they are convenient, relatively cheap, work well, render an important service — such as protecting food against contamination — but what we are using and how we are using them is not sustainable and we need better options. That’s what is exciting about what we are working on, and I am optimistic that today it is more than just cool tech being pushed on the market. At the societal level, there is the realization that something needs to get done, and today we have the technologies to do it — that’s what makes me optimistic.

We are working on very innovative materials that can make a difference. Today there are several biomaterials being developed and commercialized with a wide array of options in terms of end-of-life — some can be composted; some can be more easily recycled. At CJ Biomaterials, we are working on a category called polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA, which is a unique polymer made by nature, so it is bio-sourced, and it is made by fermentation. You make it with a natural, renewable feedstock, and you put it through a large fermentation process. The bioplastic is fermented the same way you would ferment beer, we recover it, and turn it into a basic material that can be used by a variety of converters. PHAs are readily biodegradable in a variety of environments, whether it is a natural environment, or industrial composting. The idea is to develop a resin that is convenient and can be shaped into all sorts of articles and products that can be used across a broad range of applications whether it’s packaging, injection molded parts, food and beverage applications, films. Half of the plastic used today is single-use plastic with a shelf life of four months or less. With bioplastics, you have more end-of-life options to dispose of them responsibly and sustainably. You can home compost them, industrially compost them, and if by accident they end up in the environment they will biodegrade naturally, at least in the case of PHAs, making them part of a circular solution.

The industry is still nascent, but companies are entering the market with new and complimentary technologies that can offer serious solutions to end-users that didn’t exist before. So, we can replace non-bio-sourced and non-biodegradable materials with a combination of products and technology that weren’t on the market less than ten years ago. There are many more options available, and there’s reason for optimism because the major brands are starting to look for better environmental solutions in packaging. That wasn’t the case before.

So yes, let’s reduce, reuse, and recycle, but we need a fourth piece to complete the puzzle and biomaterials can play an important role there.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  • Intellectually curiosity
  • Listen well
  • Inclusive in the thought process that leads to decision making

Intellectual Curiosity: Earlier I talked about how I transitioned from management consulting to industrial biotech — that was driven by a desire to understand how something new could lead to a new set of solutions for the environment. I was fascinated by how nature could offer the solution to the problems we created for ourselves. Intellectual curiosity is usually the trait that I look for in people we recruit because it typically leads to creativity and innovation, whether it be for technology or business solutions.

Being a good listener: Listening and gathering input is essential in bringing people along in the decision-making process. I am pretty decisive, but for me — at the beginning of a project there’s an understanding that you need to get your team members’ input and their unique perspectives. I like to think that I am good at doing that, asking additional questions, and then driving a final decision — that’s my job, but first I need to listen to the expertise that surrounds me.

Inclusive in decision making: This works hand-in-hand with listening. Some people believe in more autocratic decision making, but if you want people to come along with you, and if you are going to spend time to hire people you deem to be competent and capable and you’re not listening to their experiences and perspective, you are kind of wasting your money. There’s a saying that to be a good leader, you hire the right people and get out of the way. I didn’t understand what that meant earlier, but I understand it now. It is hard to do that because you get to where you are by relying on your capabilities and sometimes instincts, but there’s a lot of truth to the fact that if you surround yourself with great people and let them do their work, your life is a lot easier.

Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about the case for optimism. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. When we refer to being optimistic about the future, what exactly do we mean?

For me, being optimistic is not about being a cheerleader. I like applied optimism which requires understanding a problem so you can start working on a solution. Optimism without a story behind it is not interesting to me. So, the case for optimism is that, when harnessed correctly, it is an engine for progress. The reason to be optimistic today is that there are so many tools available to us to help determine the problem and start charting a solution. For example, I looked at the solutions you can start imagining with synthetic biology and the problems it could solve, whether they are healthier environmentally related problems — that’s a case for optimism.

Perspective is also important to discuss optimism. I like history and have always been interested by it, and most of the reading I do is historically based. What is fascinating is that through many periods of our history, humans have predicted the end of the world — predicting it based on their immediate experience. I read somewhere that when the crossbow was invented people wanted to ban it because it was probably going to be the end of humanity given how lethal it was and how many casualties it could cause at once — today, that sounds like a joke, but the point is humans have a propensity for predicting their own eradication. A case for optimism is that we seem to find ways to manage our way out of these dire crises we find ourselves in — whether it’s a crossbow problem, or the environmental crisis we have on our hands today. And if all else fails, as Churchill would say, once we’ve exhausted all options, we’ll do the right thing. I am not trying to make small of the environmental problem, quite the opposite, but we also need to act, not just discuss and prognosticate, by leveraging all the tools at our disposal to attack the problem.

Why is it important to have an optimistic outlook about the future?

There’s the old joke that two pessimists got together to start a pessimist club, and one of them insisted that it would never work.

More seriously, you need to ask yourself: What’s the alternative? For me, it’s not constructive to not be optimistic. It’s an interesting question because I don’t know what the option is. Do you stop the conversation, go home and wait for bad things to happen? I cannot come up with an example where being pessimistic ever led to a good outcome, except maybe for derivative financial investments. It’s a very personal question, but I believe being optimistic helps to find solutions to the challenges you’re facing. In general, it’s also a lot easier to be optimistic than pessimistic. It leads to better, more productive outcomes.

What are some reasons people might feel pessimistic about the future, and how do you suggest we address these concerns?

Expanding on my previous point, I am not saying there is no room for pessimistic thoughts, because those are very natural feelings and reactions, and it is easy today to get overwhelmed by the sheer size of the problems we face — including plastic pollution. That is something we all feel.

For example, when you are trying to launch a new technology, it’s easy to get pessimistic or jaded about the way governments or society in general work, and how entrenched special interests can make it hard for you to put a new solution to work. When you see those forces at work firsthand and all of a sudden, your product is blocked in an application where it should be a shoo-in due to a bad regulatory outcome — it’s easy to get discouraged — but you can’t take your toys and go home.

Change is messy. It’s difficult. Over the last 15 years, I’ve seen ups and downs about whether the technology we are working on will make it — so it’s easy to get pessimistic. Plenty of reasons to be. For me, and this is what I tell my team: There are good days, bad days, good quarters, bad quarters — but when you start stringing a few good days and then months and quarters together, that’s when you start having a positive impact. It’s the toughest thing to do — elevate yourself when you’re launching a new technology or product. Extracting yourself from the daily events that can drag you into a pessimistic thought process, it’s a discipline.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share with our readers your “5 Reasons To Be Optimistic About The Next Ten and Twenty Years?”

1. Renewable Energy and the Rate of Technological Evolution and Adoption: Ten years ago, we were saying it wasn’t possible. Today in Iowa, for example, 80% of the power in the state is generated by wind power, and there is more renewable energy being brought into the grid. It’s always messy and disruptive, but there is reason to be optimistic because we eventually do the right thing. When it comes to today’s big problem — pollution, climate change, it seems insurmountable right now, but I am optimistic because if I take my experience, and what we are doing at CJ Biomaterials, we are developing materials that can drastically change things.

2 . The Next Generation: When I look at my kids’ generation — those in their early 20s — they are all in with their commitment to the environment. They think about it when buying cars, food, clothes, it’s a way of life. Their overall attitude is that they are going to make a difference by making smarter decisions for the environment.

3 . Brands are Committing more and more to Environmental Responsibility: I have had two experiences in the biomaterials world. I worked at Metabolix, and now my second go-around with CJ Biomaterials. During that ten-year span, the philosophy among brand owners has changed significantly. Whether you are doubtful about the motives — some feel brands have no choice — whether or not they do, it is a positive development that large brands are now leading the charge in reshaping their supply chains to provide more sustainable solutions. Regardless of the reason, they are taking the steps needed, whether it’s packaging of foods, luxury products, consumer goods — there is an enormous amount of pressure being put on them by regulation and the new generation of consumers to be more environmentally responsible. They are making it happen, and we are heading in the right direction. Ten years ago, brands were interested but not committed. Today is different.

4 . Common Sense Regulatory Environment: For the first time, you are seeing systematic regulatory projects come into play that are not just focused on, “Let’s kill plastics.” It’s, “Let’s eliminate single-use plastic, let’s invest in our infrastructure to enable recycling, and composting of materials.” You can’t block the use of everything. People don’t use plastics because they love plastic, they do it because they’re convenient. So, rather than saying we need to eliminate these things, governments are investing in structures that would allow us to use them responsibly. There are sometimes unintended consequences with these regulatory projects, but in the big picture we should be optimistic.

5 . Realism Around the True Costs of Plastics: One big piece that was missing in this whole debate about plastic pollution was that there was never a true economic cost associated with plastics pollution. The problem is we have this open loop that is never closed, because the true cost to the environment was never calculated beyond the basic production and distributions costs of today’s products. Beyond production costs, we are paying for plastic use through healthcare costs, environmental costs, cleanup costs and more. So, we’re not paying for it when we buy a soft drink in a plastic cup using a plastic straw, but we are paying for it through the associated costs mentioned above. One of the reasons I am optimistic about our technology is that governments and the brand owners, and the people that depend on these products are starting to think about the cost of the plastic using these parameters — it sounds theoretical, but it is important. It is leading stakeholders to do the right thing and helping to shape more effective legislation. Beginning to close this open loop has been a tremendous breakthrough.

In what specific areas do you see technology having the most positive impact over the next 10 to 20 years?

Broadly — health and life science. Between Metabolix and CJ Biomaterials I spent three years at Ginkgo Bioworks, a leader in synthetic biology, which was such an eye-opening experience. We are just in the infancy stage of what we can do with biology. It’s going to have a massive impact. I have no doubt that biology will be the technology of the next generation — developing new drugs, custom drugs and specifically designing them for individuals. Having the ability to read and write biology like code is opening up many possibilities and will have a major impact on all segments of the economy. For example, I think synthetic biology will have a big impact on how we clean up the environment as well.

The field of bioremediation is exploding — how to use biology to clean up the mess we made. Biology always finds away, but it unfortunately takes it a few million years to evolve, so we have to help accelerate its evolution. We can harness this power to dispose of plastic and forever chemicals, amongst others.

Advancements in biology are coming that are going to address a lot of the environmental problems we are facing, and they will come sooner than people think.

While technology holds immense potential, it can also present challenges. How can we ensure that the progress we make in technology contributes to a more optimistic future and doesn’t exacerbate societal problems?

Education is fundamental. For a couple of reasons. You have to demystify technology, and also educate people on the opportunities and the risks or misuse of technology. There’s a great podcast called, “The End of the World,” by Josh Clark. It’s a ten-episode cast that goes through all the technologies that could end human life on earth — including nuclear, biotech, AI — all the hot topics, but when you start listening, the episodes have the common thread of educating its audience about the nature of various technologies and the importance of understanding the opportunities and risks.

People should understand how these technologies work and what they can do — both good and bad — you can put in laws and regulations to protect, but we need to demystify them and allow people to understand the good and the bad. I am always amazed that most people have no qualms about using chemically synthesized products. They aren’t completely spooked by it, and we know the bad things that can happen with chemical disasters — but then they have massive questions about biology. I am not saying biology is a cakewalk with no dangers, but it’s not unique, so we need to educate people. And of course, you need regulatory guardrails.

How do you maintain your optimism during challenging times?

Earlier, I mentioned you have to be able to jump in and fight the fight, and you need to poke your head out to remind yourself why you are doing it. Keeping perspective is so important. It’s so easy to keep your nose close to the page and not keep the perspective on what you’re trying to do — it’s a discipline you need to develop, or you’ll get dragged into the negative stuff.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

People are naturally good and want to do the right thing. I would like to have the ability to harness the personal commitment people make to do the right thing, for example making the right choices for the environment, and turning that into real societal changes. Today there is a breakdown between the consumers’ level of consciousness and the means at their disposal to aggregate their action into real society level change. Everyone knows we have a problem with plastics, we all know it’s a crisis, yet oceans keep filling up and every year we recycle less. This is crazy. Governments and regulatory bodies are failing to provide the framework to solve this. We need to inspire a different kind of movement that leverages this desire to do the right thing, and it has to be more than the “special interests are the problem” discourse. It has to make sense economically and it has to be inclusive.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 😊

Mackenzie Scott. She’s unselfish, dedicated, decisive and making an impact — she is also a reason to be optimistic about our future.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Visit the CJ Biomaterials website at We see part of our role in being a leader in the industry to help bring the industry together, and part of that is making time to talk with people about what we are doing and why. If they are interested in a follow-up conversation, they can reach out to me through CJ Biomaterials.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

Max Senechal of CJ Biomaterials On The Case For Optimism About The Next Ten & Twenty Years was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.