Michelle Chao, COO Phoenix Tailings

Five questions with Phoenix Tailings

25 November 2020

4 minute read

Michelle is the co-founder and COO of Phoenix Tailings, a re-mining company taking cutting edge materials science and applying it to extract value out of mining waste.

Michelle Chao is the Co-founder and COO of Phoenix Tailings, a re-mining company taking cutting-edge materials science and applying it to extract value out of mining waste. Using a combination of hydrometallurgy, solvometallurgy and electrometallurgy, the Phoenix Tailings technology platform creates the carbon emission-free, waste-free metal.

Michelle has a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering from MIT. From researching organic solar cells and building solar powered vehicles, to additive manufacturing, she is constantly looking for ways to leverage her background in materials engineering and build a more sustainable world.

01. What was the inspiration behind your company?

Phoenix Tailings is a little different from other deep technology companies. We weren’t founded by spinning out technology from a university lab. We started this company because we saw a huge challenge in tailings and got the right people around the table to tackle it together.

When we first learned about tailings, the scale of waste generated was hard to comprehend. If you were to collect all the tailings produced in a year, it would be enough to cover the entire state of California in a foot-deep sludge. When we dug deeper, we found that there is still a lot of valuable materials left behind. So, last summer, in my co-founder’s backyard, we set to work building prototypes, and running experiments to create a re-mining platform capable of extracting that value and thus Phoenix Tailings was born.

02. How do you feel being a female founder gives your startup a unique advantage?

I believe that diversity and inclusion starts from the top and am fortunate to work with co-founders that share that belief. This gives us the unique advantage of bringing a fresh, new perspective to a legacy problem within the traditional industry of metals and mining. We’re building a company culture where everyone’s opinions are valued and where there is no such thing as a stupid question. This enables creative and collaborative engineering and development, which are at the core of our company.

03. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned since first developing and launching your startup?

Be open minded. You never know where the next opportunity will come from. A second-degree connection led to our first output product sale, a cold reach-out turned into a great hire and a well-timed pitch led to our first contract deal.

Surround yourself with the best people you can find. Building a startup company is simultaneously the most stressful and most rewarding experience you will have. Just like any rollercoaster ride, it is more enjoyable if you can share the ride with people who will celebrate the highs with you and support you through the lows. 

04. How has the pandemic impacted your company?

Our company moved out of a co-working space and into our own laboratory space right before the US shutdown in response to the pandemic. Fortunately, we are a small team and were able to keep developing our technology in the lab with the proper safety precautions. 

05. Tell us about a role model or mentor who has helped you along your journey.

“In engineering, decisions are fairly black and white, and you can easily quantify if something worked or not. The rest of the business is not; it’s just a grey area. You’ll have to get comfortable with making tough decisions without all the data. Hopefully you’re right, but be quick to admit it if you’re not.” This piece of advice was given to me by a mentor back when I transitioned from an engineering role into a product manager role. It has proven to be even more useful as a founder.

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