uOttaKnow podcast transcription

Season 5, Episode 3

Gwen: Welcome to uOttaKnow, a podcast that illuminates, inspires and entertains produced by the University of Ottawa.

Hello, I’m Gwen Madiba, host of uOttaKnow and a proud two-time graduate of the Faculty of Social Sciences. I am also the President of the Equal Chance Foundation, a non-profit organization that empowers women and Black communities across Canada. 

uOttaKnow puts you in touch with uOttawa alumni and researchers around the globe at the cutting edge of their fields. Listen in for thought-provoking conversations on today’s trending topics.

For the fifth season of uOttaKnow, our theme is curiosity. How does it propel us to ask questions, explore new areas of interest, and move into uncharted territory? Our extraordinary alumni guests this season will be digging deep to uncover what curiosity means to them, its impact, and how it has spiced up their lives.

Gwen Madiba: Today's guest, alumnus Phil De Luna is a scientist and research capitalist working to advance climate technology. He is currently an expert sustainability at McKinsey and Company. Prior to joining McKinsey, Phil served at the National Research Council of Canada as the youngest director ever. He was also an entrepreneur and innovator having raised 20 million as a carbon XPrize finalist and is an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto, where his research on Climate Technology is ranked in the top 0.01% of highly cited researchers globally.

In 2021, he was a candidate for the Green Party of Canada in the federal election, where he placed in the top 5 percentile of Green Party candidates nationally. Phil earned a master's in science and chemistry from uOttawa and went on to complete a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of Toronto. Hi, Phil, thanks for joining us today from Toronto.

Phil De Luna: Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Gwen: Reading out your impressive bio, there's much to congratulate you on but I'd like to start off on a personal note and say congrats on your engagement to uOttawa alum.

Phil: Yes, thank you so much. My fiancé Danielle, did her undergraduate in nursing degree at the University of Ottawa while I was doing my master's there. It's going to be a three-year engagement by the time we get married because of the pandemic. I proposed to her in the fall of 2020 and by the time we were ready to get looking at venues, there was a huge backlog and we really wanted to have a big party. Long engagement, but well worth the wait.

Gwen: That's amazing. Congratulations again. You're actually the second guest this season to have met their partner during their time at uOttawa. We had alumni couple Harley Finkelstein and Lindsay Taube on our homecoming episode in October, and they had met during a uOttawa speed dating event.

Phil: Very cool. It's interesting how my time at uOttawa I'll say this as well. I met my fiancée because one of my best friends met his partner, and they were best friends and we're still together. My best man and her maid of honor are also together. Also, uOttawa alumni. They're still in Ottawa but we're in Toronto. There's just something about the University of Ottawa that brings people together.

Gwen: There's definitely something about uOttawa. As a way to set the stage for our conversation today, I want to begin with a question that we will be asking all our guests on this fifth season on curiosity. What does curiosity mean to you?

Phil: Yes, it's a great question and when I think about curiosity, I think about being curious as a part of who I am, and a core component to what it means to be a scientist. As a scientist, our job is to be curious and to think about how the world works and to experiment and test and understand what happens when we change things and do things in the world. I've always been curious, even as a little kid, and it's funny. I think that kids are natural scientists, whenever they ask why is the sky blue. Why do bees fly the way that they do? When they ask these questions they're feeding to their curiosity and that's exactly what scientists do professionally. I think that curiosity is a way of understanding our world.

It's also deeply core to who I am as a person and I don't think I would be where I am today if it wasn't for the curiosity that I follow and it's always just been an interest that that keeps true.

Gwen: Phil your path since your studies at uOttawa has been incredible. You've completed a PhD, built and led a 57 million R&D program on Canada-made transformative climate technologies at the National Research Council of Canada, had success in entrepreneur and now in your role as experts sustainability at McKinsey and Company, it's no surprise you were named to Forbes Top 30 Under 30 and as a Globe and Mail top 50 change maker, among other recognitions. I'm curious on how these diverse experiences have shaped you and your identity.

Phil: When I was younger, I always envisioned my life as a series of chapters. I'd spend 10 years in academia, 10 years in government, 10 years in philanthropy, 10 years in business, and then I would retire off in the sunset somewhere but as I've entered the workforce, and I realize what it means to have a career in this modern day, it doesn't have to be and it shouldn't be and it can't be so discrete. We can actually do all of these things, I can do all of these things at the same time in many different ways.

I've been very intentional about crafting a career that allows me to make an impact at the intersection of the three levers, I think are the most important to move the needle on climate change, technology, policy, and finance. On the technology side of things, it's my academic career. It's what I've done as a scientist, the research that I've published and the startup that I founded, on the finance side of things, it's the work that I do now at McKinsey, it's the work that I do to mentor startups through different accelerators and on the policy side of things, it's what I did at the National Research Council.

It's the work that I did working with the OECD and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, and even running for office for the Green Party in the last federal election and the reason why I'm hell-bent on experiencing these different levers in these different sectors at the same time making the linkage of that interface is because I think that's where the greatest impact happens. It's when you're able to take the experiences that you've learned from one sector and translate those learnings and communications to another.

Because oftentimes, in our world, we don't speak to each other, we don't have the same nomenclature and it can be very powerful when you've developed the ability to speak to many different audiences and bring people together and I think that's what needs to happen to solve climate change. This isn't a problem that is going to be solved in silos and the more people that work to bring different parts of the ecosystem together with different perspectives and a diverse background, I think the better shot we'll have at actually solving the problem.

Gwen: Through all of this, what skills and knowledge that you gained through your masters of science that you uOttawa have stayed with you the most today?

Phil: I think there are three things. The first was my master's at uOttawa really taught me what it means to do good academic research, and professionalize that. The second piece is, it taught me how important mentorship is, and the relationship that you need to have with either your supervisor, your boss, or your mentor, people that will be in your corner for you, and what may happen if that isn't the case, how people's working styles and personalities oftentimes, are what drives strong relationships, less so your talent or your capability.

Then finally, it really showed me how important it is to have a strong social network and people in your life to support you through your career and through your professional endeavors. It's where I met my fiancee who I wouldn't be here today without her support and her love. It's where I met some of my best friends in my life that I keep into contact with to this day and understanding that work-life balance isn't necessarily about putting the same amount of time in both, but putting the same amount of intentionality and intensity into your work life and into your personal life and I think both of them feed into each other.

Gwen: Thank you for sharing, Phil. The work that you do around sustainability, technology, and climate change is important for our future as Canadians and for the planet. In uOttawa Strategic Plan Transformation 2030. What meaning do you draw from working in this field and any words to our listeners who want to make difference in their own way, whether through their work or more generally in their lives.

Phil: I want to answer this question first by scoping the size of the problem. When a lot of people think about clean energy or clean technology, they think solar cells and wind turbines, which makes sense, renewables. Electricity generation is only about 1/3 of our world's emissions. The rest of our emissions come from the things that we need to support our quality of life, industrial processes, transportation, food, agriculture, built environment.

At one point that material was underground and we needed energy to extract, refine and produce this thing. That energy produces carbon dioxide emissions. The scale of the problem of climate change is not just about electrifying everything, although that's a great start. It's about fundamentally changing the way that we make things, the way that we work, the way that we move within our environments, and our entire economies. That's a massive amount of capital reallocation that's going to need to happen over the next 10 years. Many experts say that we have until 2030 to put into place the biggest amount of emission reductions if we have any chance of meeting our net zero by 2050 goals.

While we do have lots of technologies today that can help us get there, about 1/2 of the technologies that we need to reach our net zero goals are not yet commercial. They either exist in the lab or being developed or are at a prototype stage, or they're in a demonstration somewhere.That's a massive amount of opportunity for people who are working in this space to develop these technologies, but it's also a massive amount of investment that needs to flow into the space in order for us to reach our goals. Developing climate technology is a lot different than developing tech, for example, in the computer sciences space.

If you want to go make the next Facebook or Shopify or Stripe, you need a laptop, a really smart person, and some time and money and you can scale that exponentially because there's a lot less of physical things you need to build. If you want to develop a new way to make steel or a new electric vehicle or a new way to produce fertilizers that don't emit carbon dioxide emissions, that takes a lot of capital expenditures, it takes a lot of money to build things to put steel into the ground. It's not as scalable, that's why it takes so much longer. What I would say to folks who are trying to get into this space, is first, develop an understanding of the scope of the problem that we face.

Second, work hard to understand a piece of that puzzle really, really well and develop the skills that are needed to either develop technology, scale that technology, or the policies that enable it. Find a niche for yourself and unlocking a pain point. Lastly, be patient because a lot of this stuff takes a lot of time to get to market, a lot of time to make an impact and I'm an impatient person. If you look at my career, I've switched my career path every two years, because I'm constantly trying to understand and find new ways to do things. It does take time to make an impact. Unfortunately, we don't have a lot of time. We have to find ways to accelerate that even faster.

Gwen: When we think in terms of doomscrolling or eco-anxiety around climate change, how do you stay in a good mental frame of mind in your field, knowing what you know of the challenges facing us?

Phil: Yes, it's a great question. I'm an optimist and I'm a technologist. I fundamentally believe that we as a society, we as humanity will be to solve this problem when it comes down to the crunch. Why I have that faith, a few reasons. First, climate change fundamentally amass an energy balance problem. We took fossil fuels from underground carbon, we combusted those fossil fuels to extract energy from it. Then we allowed that carbon to go into the atmosphere as CO2. These are molecules and electrons, we know how to move molecules and electrons around. I'm not concerned that we won't be able to find a way to solve this problem.

The biggest concern I have is that we're not doing it fast enough and that we're not prioritizing it, or we don't have the policy levers or the economic levers to do it at the pace required. I am confident that we can solve it because let's take an example of another worldwide problem that we faced that we were able to solve, the COVID-19 pandemic. In many ways, they're very, very similar. They both have lagging indicators. COVID-19 had deaths as a lagging indicator of infection. Climate change has temperature rise as a lagging indicator of carbon emissions. The only difference is one is in the span of a couple of weeks, the other is in the span of years to decades.

With COVID-19, we as a species, as a society, were able to find a vaccine in eight months on an entirely new technology platform, mRNA vaccines that hadn't been tested or used before, and scaled that out immensely worldwide. We did that because the entire world recognized a problem and were able to cooperate and work together to solve it. We can do that with climate change as well. The biggest concern as I said before is that we're not doing it fast enough. However, I am optimistic that we will get there because one, the private sector is starting to move.

Not only do companies have an understanding that sustainability is important, not only for the bottom line, but it's important for their fundamental existence as a company going forward. You're seeing so many more companies hiring Chief Sustainability Officers and understanding that this is important for their business fundamentally. Similar to how the digital transformation came in, we saw every company having a transformation to digital. That same thing is going to happen with sustainability. The second is that we're starting to see more and more advocacy for this and more and more young people who are the future care deeply and profoundly about climate change.

Ultimately, it is my generation and those after me that will bear the greatest brunt of climate change as time goes on. As the world heats up and as the years go by, it is the younger and younger generations that will have to live through that. Of course, they have the anxiety for it but they also have an understanding that something needs to be done now.

Gwen: You share that you ran in the 2021 federal election earlier. Now I wanted to touch on your experience running as a candidate in the 2021 election for the Green Party of Canada in the federal election. With your campaign, you were able to mobilize 120 volunteers placing you in the top 5 percentile of the Green Party candidates nationally. Watching one of your campaign videos a few things stood out for me. How you mentioned a vote for science, that you spoke as a young Canadian to other young Canadians and your own story of being born in the Philippines and moving to Windsor, Ontario with your family at the age of five.

I think a lot of this speaks to our uOttawa community that thrives on its diversity, the strength of our researchers, and a belief in the voice of youth in our communities. Can you speak to this experience running for office and how it impacted you?

Phil: Absolutely. It was a profoundly impactful experience in my life. Very few people get an opportunity to see a slice of Canada in that way, to go door-to-door and talk to your neighbors and folks who you would have never met in any other context and understand what problems they face and what concerns they have.

For me, I ran for office for three reasons. One, I wanted to bring more science to politics. Two, I wanted to bring more diversity to parliament and three, I wanted to inspire more young people to get involved because I see a trend and I continue to see apathy in young people but in our population at large. If we don't want to have a more diverse set of people who are leading this country with backgrounds and expertise in everything, not only science, but we need more nurses, and electricians, and teachers, and restaurant owners, and chefs, we need more everyone in office.

If we don't have that diversity, if we don't have that lived experience of a life outside politics, then we will continue to just have a political system that continues to become more polarized. I think that's scary and dangerous for our society. Those are the reasons why I wanted to run. I ran for a party that I knew I had a long shot of winning with and I ran regardless. Which leads me to my second question, what does success look like even if you don't win?

Many folks who run for office, especially if you're running for a larger party, running, of course, with the intent to win. I was running for the intent to win, of course, but there's a difference between running and knowing that you may not win and being okay with that and running and feeling and believing that you're going to win and then losing. I ran knowing that even if I didn't win, it would be a success. The reason being is my motivations were different. I wanted to inspire young people to run. What I did in my campaign is I actually vlogged my entire campaign, and I tried to be as open and transparent about what it's like to run for office so that hopefully it inspires other young people to do so.

Gwen: Thank you very much, Phil, for sharing this and for sharing this question. What does success look like even if you don't win because I think that it's a question that many people don't really think about when they focus solely on winning. That's very interesting. Thank you. Before we end today's conversation, I have one last question, a fun one. We are going to end all our conversations with this season. What is something that is currently sparking your curiosity? It can be completely random, something you don't know much about, but you have a thirst to learn more.

Phil: Oh, that's such a good question. It's hard to answer because there's so many different things that I'm curious about and want to learn more about. I'm really interested right now actually in history. I think that there are a lot of lessons in history. The thing about history is that there are so many different periods in time, and often if you study history enough, you start to see these patterns repeat over and over again. I think what we live in, we have a lot of bias as people to think that we are unique and the time that we live in is really unique. The reality is we're often learning the same lessons over again.

If we take some time to reflect upon our own shared cultural history as a species or our history as a country, our history as a people, we learn and we can see things that have happened before and anticipate things that may happen next. General history of our country, history of our nation is something that I'm very curious and deep about. A part of that is specifically is indigenous reconciliation. Something that I'm by no means an expert. I'm still trying to learn. It's interesting in many ways, being an immigrant to this country, I wasn't really taught when growing up the importance and my place as an immigrant.

What it means to be Canadian, and my role in indigenous reconciliation and the shared history that once you become Canadian, that is something you need to own as well, that you need to reconcile with and be available to make better and improve upon. Many immigrants who come to this country are trying to find a bearing with Canada and don't really understand or recognize the history, the dark history of this nation. That's something that I'm trying to educate myself with to reach out to people and understand much more because I think it's an important part of being Canadian. It's something that I personally have made a mission to try and understand.

Gwen: Thank you, Phil. Phil, could you let our listeners know where they can find you online?

Phil: You can Google me and lots of stuff will pop up. Find me on LinkedIn. You can find me at phildelluna.com. P-H-I-O-D-E-L-E-L-U-N-A .com. Reach out. Feel free to reach out. I am always available for a chat to speak about anything. I love to do that because I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for the advice and mentorship that I've received from many people in my life. I recognize my success isn't my own and my own solely. I have an intrinsic desire to help those who come after me because again, we only improve as a society if we help each other.

Gwen: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with uOttaKnow today. It has been such a pleasure spending this time with you. Thanks for sharing your story with our uOttawa community.

Phil: Thank you so much for having me.

Gwen Madiba: uOttaKnow is brought to you by the University of Ottawa’s Alumni Relations team. It is produced by Rhea Laube with theme music by alumnus Idris Lawal. This episode was recorded with the support of Pop Up Podcasting in Ottawa, Ontario. We pay respect to the Algonquin people, who are the traditional guardians of this land. We acknowledge their longstanding relationship with this territory, which remains unceded. For a transcript of this episode in English and French or to find out more about uOttaKnow please refer to the description of this episode