Toxic Haste: Phoenix Tailings sees urgency of zero-waste mission
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
This article was first published as the cover story in the March edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication
By Bruce Deckert — Editor-in-Chief • Today Magazine
LET’S PLAY word association. But first, for the uninitiated, allow Today Magazine to introduce you to a startup tech company called Phoenix Tailings — led by CEO Nick Myers, a Canton native who was born and bred right here in the Farmington Valley.
Now, let’s play — with online dictionaries as the association arbiters.
Round 1 of our Word Association Game:
• The Word — tailing • noun
• Definition #1 — residue separated in the preparation of various products, such as ores and grain — usually used in plural • Merriam-Webster Dictionary
• Definition #2 — the residue of something, especially ore — “tailings from the mine may contaminate local waterways” • Oxford Languages Dictionary via Google
• Definition #3 — waste left over after certain processes, such as from an ore-crushing plant or in milling grain • Dictionary.com
Here is Round 2:
• The Word — phoenix • noun
• Definition — mythical bird in ancient stories that lives for 500 years, burns itself to death, and then is born again from its ashes, repeating the cycle every five centuries • compilation of online dictionaries
And here is Round 3:
• The Word — tail + tailing • verb
• Definition #1 — to follow for purposes of surveillance • Merriam-Webster
• Definition #2 — follow and observe closely, especially in secret • Oxford Languages via Google
• Definition #3 — to follow in order to hinder escape of, or to observe — “to tail a suspect” • Dictionary.com
• Thesaurus — bird-dog, chase, follow, hound, hunt, pursue, shadow, stalk, trace, track, trail
Naturally, CEO Myers is the best source — together with his fellow company founders — for the truest word association and best definition of the award-winning and accolade-garnering company known as Phoenix Tailings.
What exactly is the significance of the company’s name?
“Tailings are the technical term for the mining waste material we work with,” says Myers. “Phoenix is the legendary bird that is resurrected. Phoenix Tailings represents life being born from the ashes of the waste.”
Speaking of word associations, do you tend to associate the verb tail with a positive or negative connotation? Pursue, follow and chase — these associations can be seen as positive. Stalk, hound and hunt — these can be seen as negative.
In the case of Phoenix Tailings, these so-called positive and negative connotations can be complementary rather than competing — and we can blend the above connotations and definitions and concepts in an alphabet soup amalgam that summarizes the goal of this innovative tech startup as follows:
Phoenix Tailings is, indeed, tailing and chasing and hounding “the mission to leverage untapped value within mining and refining waste … [while] eliminating this harmful waste from the environment [and] sustainably creating valuable materials” — per the firm’s website.
Further, the term alphabet soup is doubly fitting here because the byproducts of the mining industry become a toxic soup that is discarded in large landfills called tailings ponds.
One specific type of tailing is called red mud, a toxic remnant of the industrial process that refines bauxite (aka raw aluminum ore) into aluminum oxide (aka alumina).
“Red mud is specifically bauxite residue, a byproduct of alumina production,” says Myers. “Tailings are the general term for all mining and metals production operations.”
Sometimes red mud is stored as a soupy sludge, and sometimes the mud is dried, thus becoming red dust.
“We’re bringing together the right people, the right brilliant minds, the right passionate individuals to find a solution for one of the biggest challenges in the world” — CEO Nick Myers
Rather than being resigned to a world where hazardous red mud and red dust sit indefinitely while posing a threat to humans and the environment, the Phoenix Tailings team recycles the valuable ore in the tailings — “treating them as a new ore” — and extracts useful primary metals “in a holistic and sustainable manner,” per the website.
The metals restored from the former waste ore are salvaged and then utilized as raw materials in the production of cellphones, automobiles, aviation components and more — in diverse industries such as aerospace, biotechnology, defense, medical technology and water treatment.
Located in Woburn, MA — about 10 miles north of Boston — the company has 16 full-time employees along with five consultants and three interns, and is poised to grow like a well-fertilized and well-watered garden.
“We’re bringing together the right people, the right brilliant minds, the right passionate individuals to find a solution for one of the biggest challenges in the world,” Myers says in a Phoenix Tailings YouTube clip.
Four young co-founders comprise the firm’s leadership team: COO Michelle Chao (26 years old), VP of partnerships Anthony Balladon (28), CTO Tomas Villalon Jr. (31) and CEO Myers (30).
Myers is a 2014 graduate of Saint Michael’s College in Vermont (B.S. in physics) and a 2010 graduate of The Master’s School in West Simsbury. He has earned two master’s degrees: an MBA in marketing from Rochester Institute of Technology (2015) and an MBA in finance from Northeastern University (2017).
He resides in Dorchester, MA — “technically,” he quips, because he has traveled on company business about 200 days in the past year.
Established in 2019, Phoenix Tailings began as a dream in the backyard of Villalon’s apartment in Cambridge, MA. At this makeshift lab, the four founders built their first prototype for drawing out valuable metals from tailings residue.
“It was a small chemical processing reactor — a metal box — that took bauxite residue from the tailings,” Myers explains, “creating iron and rare earths.”
This up-and-coming tech company has received some impressive honors, including UConn’s annual Wolff New Venture Competition award in October 2019.
The $20,000 prize represented “our first round of funding” and provided actual laboratory space, says Myers. “This moved us out of a backyard, and I still remember the feeling of this becoming something real.”
Myers distinctly recalls the exhilarating rush of the honor.
“The Wolff competition was the first opportunity for me to publicly present our dream and was one of the first validation points encouraging us to continue on our mission to bring about a zero-waste world,’’ he told the UConn Today news website. “Despite the incredible breadth of our dream, the near insurmountable tasks ahead of us, and all the challenges we face, the Wolff Competition gave us our first nudge of courage to never give up.”
UConn Today described Phoenix Tailings as “a startup that could rid the earth of vast cesspools of toxic sludge.”
Since then, investors and venture capital firms have clearly caught the Phoenix Tailings vision. The company has been funded with about $13 million to date, according to Myers — about $12 million in private funding and $1 million in government grants, including a Small Business Innovation Research award from the federal National Science Foundation.
Further, Phoenix Tailings was chosen as one of 10 startups for the esteemed Techstars Boston 2020 cohort.
On an individual level, Techstars and Barclays have selected Chao for their Female Founders First program — and Forbes has chosen Myers for its prestigious Next 1000 list that celebrates “entrepreneurial heroes” of the 21st century.
While Myers appreciates the recognition, he underscores that the Phoenix Tailings journey has just begun.
“I don’t care much for awards — we have a lot to accomplish, and I’m not content,” he says. “The awards are generally just fleeting publicity, which can be cool” — but he affirms that these honors must be leveraged in order to achieve Phoenix Tailings’ endgame mission.
If anyone remains unclear about the words that are best associated with Phoenix Tailings, Myers hopes the answers become evident as the company pursues its mission in the days ahead. +
• Related Story — CEO's goal: World with no toxic waste
• There is surely more to report about Phoenix Tailings — look for further articles in upcoming editions of Today Magazine
• Editor-in-Chief Bruce Deckert is an award-winning journalist, and he agrees with Myers — such honors are essentially worthless unless they’re leveraged for the greater good