We joined Sarah Wilkin, founder of Fly Green Alliance, for the second edition of our Amsterdam Founders Series. Sarah shared stories about the origins of her entrepreneurial endeavours from selling home-made earrings as a child, to connecting corporates, airlines, and suppliers to a new wave of sustainable aviation fuel today. Her work enables the adoption of sustainable aviation fuel by working with policy makers and companies that would usually fly for business and would like to reduce their overall emissions from travel to become carbon neutral.
Tell us about FGA. What’s it all about?
We do consultancy work on Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), create sustainable travel solutions and work with investors looking to scale the production of the fuel plants. We're working on increasing the production and use of SAF. We set up the company back in 2019.
I wrote a grant with a professor from the University of Amsterdam. We met because I was working in sustainability at The Student Hotel and supporting some CSR projects.
We were looking into circular economy, and how we could apply it to the hotel and if we could involve waste. The professor was discussing all the different projects he was working on and they were making loads of differences, and it was chemistry! It was getting my brain so excited.
Then he told me that from waste you can make aviation fuel. So that was a bit of a revelation to me, and I thought that sounds pretty smart. And because I worked in hospitality and travel, I thought that sounded like a great thing to do with our waste.
I told her about turning waste into fuel and she said that is sustainable tourism. I agreed.
If we can turn it into the fuel that gets people around, then cool. So I went away and didn't really think too much of it for a while. Then I met a friend that was working at Booking.com at the time and was volunteering on a program called Booking Cares. I told her about turning waste into fuel and she said that is sustainable tourism. I said agreed.
That was April 2018. We were fortunate enough to gain the grant in December, 2018. Since then I became the business developer for the research to turn the waste into aviation fuel. It was quite a big career switch for me. I was a digital program director at the The Student Hotel supporting the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) team. So I started working in my new role, meeting lots of people, learning a lot, reading and going to conferences.
I realised it was very much about policy and it was a lot of debate in Brussels. So I started going to Brussels and met different lobbyists, public affairs managers, airlines, fuel suppliers, airports groups and the aviation associations. I was learning from them, and then started being part of the discussions, getting involved.
How do those conversations with the policymakers and academics tell you what's the most important thing to work on?
I did a lot of reading and I met a lot of people. Generally speaking, if people have got time they're more than happy to give you some advice and point you in the right direction. I also never said I knew everything, I just said, "Could you help me?”.
It's getting to know people and some people might be too busy and so that's fine, but generally people will be happy to have a 30 minute chat. And every time you have a chat, you learn more, you understand the opinions and discussions, different sides of the discussions, and how it's evolving and what needs to be done. And you see what is written and then hear conversations, and you can gain your own picture and opinion on things. And then, you get to a point where you've gained a lot of knowledge, so you can start to put it into your own work. So then I set up FGA so that I could start contributing to the work.
Can you tell us about some of the things you’re working on?
Well, we have set up a program called FGA Travel Smart. We work with corporates looking into their emissions and carbon neutral commitments and then specifically looking at their travel program.
So we go in and measure and monitor that carbon. We create a sustainable travel policy for them . We think about travel by flight, rail, virtual meetings... everything. We start to think about different ways to put it together, to reduce emissions, to think about the best cost application and then to make some decisions as to whether they want to go down maybe an offset route, or start to buy sustainable aviation fuel, reduce air, use more rail. And we're part of the partnership development.
Can you break it down in really simple terms - what is SAF? How does it work and what are some of the commercial applications that we'll be seeing in the next few years?
So SAF is the acronym for Sustainable Aviation Fuel. Quite often there is a term, biofuel as well, and that's a bit more of a general term because that could involve fuel for road and shipping as well. SAF is for aviation. It's essentially created from waste and processed to turn back into kerosene. Molecule-for-molecule it’s kerosene. To get any fuel into a plane, as you can imagine, it needs to be really safe and fully, fully tested.
So it goes through a process. It takes waste - and it could be municipal solid waste, it could be forest residues, it can be any organic waste. Also energy crops are starting to develop. There are some principles that energy crops need to follow to ensure they’re not interfering with the land use or the food supply chain and are compliant with a lot of social principles and regulations as well. So energy crops are developing, and are starting to be grown on fallow land or unused land in all the different places around the world.
What exactly is an energy crop?
It's a crop not used for food. It could be a grass. There's one called Carinata that is grown in Uruguay. There are loads of different developments because there's a lot of land that isn't used for food supply or being used at all and the crops can help carbon sequestration. So there's different things. Waste of course makes the most sense. But the energy crops are also going to be relevant contributors. The European Commission have directives to manage this work. It is what is called feedstock.
The feedstock goes into the processing plant, a technology is used, there are seven different technologies approved that can be used. It then turns into, well, after several processes (!), it turns into SAF. And then you've got an end product which can be blended with jet fuel. It needs to be retested once it's blended, but once it's in the global supply chain, it could go in any plane without needing to modify it.
Unreal. So do you think we'll start to see stuff in our day-to-day travel?
Yep, that is what we're working on. I mean, there are some examples: At Davos (World Economic Forum event) last year, the planes flew on SAF. KLM , BA, Lufthansa - there's a lot of work being done in this area and there are some examples starting to happen, but of course it's all new work and that's what our solutions work towards. It's how we can connect corporates that are looking to be more sustainable in travel, to airlines and fuel suppliers to bring it all together.
You mentioned the grants that sort of kicked things off for you. How have these helped, and do you have any other advice for other entrepreneurs in the sustainable space or otherwise?
It meant a lot to us. It meant I could be full-time and dedicate my time to developing the work, developing our contacts, partners and consultancy. If you can get a grant, then it's gonna really help. I did have some personal savings as well. So I contributed those and I put that to the business. But if you can be involved with a grant program, an accelerator, or have a mentor, do that. You need people to help you. Every step of the way people have helped me and advised me. Yeah. So it's important.
What was it that inspired you to pursue your own thing?
I thought it was so interesting in the first place. Even since I was age 12, me and my friend had a business. So I think it's been in the back of my mind.
What was the business we did when you were 12?
We made earrings and sold them to all of our friends’ Mums. We made them from scratch. So that’s what we did when we were like 12 or 13, I think, but anyway….
Then I was in a youth enterprise scheme when I was 17. Because I did business studies for A-level. And so that's always been in the back of my head. It was a real interest, and thinking about it, I've always been having business ideas. I’m also working on a mental health project. So I'm coming up with different ideas all the time, and of course I was excited once I heard about the technology, but I didn't know that it was going to be a business.
So a combination of climate action and sustainability - I just thought that it needed more support.
I could also have done similar work for a company. But yeah. I think it's personal passion. I guess in a way also a lifestyle choice. I've always wanted flexibility. So a combination of climate action and sustainability - I just thought that it needed more support. Definitely a personal drive to get more acceleration going. Then I was introduced to some great people. So it's never one thing. It's all of the things together - it’s through connections and having conversations.
So what's the most valuable thing that you've learned as a founder?
So there's a few things. Some of it is personally looking after yourself.
Tell me more.
I mean, I do a lot of things. Like yoga because it can be pretty stressful at times. Especially when it's a new thing and it's new technology and people, you know it might be one step one of maybe a thousand steps.
So you have to really maintain positivity and actually grow a bit of a tough skin.
So you have to really maintain positivity and actually grow a bit of a tough skin. So it's like just making sure that you're feeling good and you're exercising and that you're doing the yoga and like you're getting any stress out. That’s important.
And it's all about mentors because sometimes things do go wrong, or you’re expecting something to happen and it just doesn't happen. It can, you know, it can set you back. So you really need a balance, switch your mentality about things, and be patient.
Tell me about the team that you're now beginning to build around you.
Everyone here wants to progress their career in sustainability and climate. They have a people and planet focus. They also understand that it makes good business sense. It's the future. So we've got some graduates working with us, and they know that it’s the future of careers. They're seeing so much happening in sustainability. I think people that are coming out of uni at 21 already already having climate built-in and they know that it’s part of their working values so that's what they really want from a job.
So how do you contribute to creating a vision and a culture that's shared by your team?
We write a lot. We write about our findings, and about trends. We include everyone in the discussion. Because when you are starting to work with people, it's really important to know that you align and even down to the language you use. You want to build something that makes sense, but also is good for business.
How important is having a diverse group of people around you?
I like to support people that are less supported than others. I personally have been given chances by people. If I can give somebody an opportunity to give them a leg up, I will definitely do that. I think I've always had that, and I always will do that for people.
What does it mean to you to be based in Amsterdam?
It means I'm more relaxed. It's a lifestyle choice, to be honest, but I love London. I lived in Amsterdam for six months, 7 years ago. My life was easier here. So I came back, I love Amsterdam. It's such a good innovation and entrepreneurial hub. From an aviation point of view, it's a hub, and it’s now a sustainable aviation fuel hub too. So it's a good place to be for that. It wasn't the intention when I moved here, but there are a few companies here that are working on SAF. I can get around on the train. You know, like I can get back to London on the Eurostar so I think it's a good spot. It's a good base.
How does the community here in Amsterdam help you grow as a founder?
Obviously it's pretty challenging right now, but I'm part of a few groups online. I'm part of the Booking alumni. So we're in touch. I had previously also started to try out different co-working spaces too.
We decided to set ourselves a mission to increase the use and production of SAF.
What excites you the most about 2021 and beyond at FGA?
That it’s starting to happen. Sustainable aviation fuel is talked about more and more, and it's really nice to see it grow. We decided to set ourselves a mission to increase the use and production of SAF and we purposefully decided to go out and talk about it. And we're now being invited to different events, are working with clients and are being seen. And Amex Global Business Travel is our partner. For SAF it’s the switch from people not knowing to integrating into the businesses and that is a journey. So it's a staggered approach. It's step-by-step. What I really love is the growing part.
For anyone who's reading this, where can we learn more?
On our website, flygreenalliance.org.
Thank you for the great chat, Sarah!
The Amsterdam Founder Series is a Troopl initiative with the goal of shining a light on entrepreneurs in Amsterdam and how they are unlocking growth in their companies. If you are, or know of, a founder in Amsterdam who would like to be featured, please get in touch.
Each interview is combined with a portrait photography session conducted by Tristan and Benjamin, co-founders of Troopl. Portraits are made available to participants free of charge.