Kelly Redmond, MS ’23: A Lab-grown Product that Works for People and Planet

Stanford Impact Founder Ecopreneurship Fellow is developing a synthetic alternative to palm oil.

August 22, 2023

| by Sarah Murray
Portrait of Kelly Redmond. Credit: Saul Bromberger

Kelly Redmond | Saul Bromberger

When Stanford engineering student Kelly Redmond decided to investigate ways of preventing the damage caused globally by palm oil — principally, rampant deforestation — extensive research, combined with her experience as an environmental scientist and engineer, led her not to a rejection of the industry but to an idea that would address its systemic problems, while recognizing and preserving the potential the industry has for environmental sustainability.

She had quickly realized that simply stopping buying products made with palm oil was not an option. “It’s really difficult to avoid it because it’s in almost everything — foods, soaps, oils, toothpaste,” she says.

Now, she is taking a different approach: developing a palm oil alternative that is environmentally sustainable and that benefits communities in the regions where it is produced. By turning its byproducts — palm fronds the industry discards — into a synthetic alternative, she and her cofounder Gabriella Dweck are developing a business that could reduce waste, cut carbon emissions, and, by using decentralized, artisanal production processes, contribute to local economies.

In rethinking a product that is as environmentally challenging as palm oil, Redmond is harnessing her many years of experience, including five years as an environmental engineer in the U.S. Army. While there, she traveled extensively, giving her insights into the impact of climate change and resource constraints in many parts of the world, including developing countries.

By the time she got to Stanford, she was keen to start finding solutions to some of the social and environmental problems she had seen during those years. “I wanted to work on a project that would have real-world impact,” she says.

It was at Stanford that she met Dweck and immediately recognized their shared interests. “We pretty quickly homed in on the fact that we wanted to work together,” she says. “We started brainstorming what our values were, what our shared passions were, and what skills we brought to the table — then we tried to find something at the intersection of all those.”

This turned out to be palm oil. Harnessing their many years of training and experience as engineers, Redmond and Dweck reviewed all the literature they could find on the product and its agricultural and production ecosystem. This led them to the idea of recycling the industry’s agricultural waste as a synthetic oil alternative.

“If it’s produced correctly where land isn’t getting cleared and we’re not producing massive amounts of agricultural waste, then it can be the most environmentally friendly vegetable oil,” Redmond says. “But the production problems have to be fixed.”

The Problem

While palm oil production is responsible for everything from deforestation and destruction of wildlife habitats to community displacement and worker abuses, Redmond stresses that palm oil should not be rejected as a commodity because of its potential for environmental sustainability. Compared to the world’s other top vegetable oils, she says, palm oil is the most efficient in terms of land use, with far greater crop yield per acre than other vegetable oils.

Redmond and her cofounder are focusing on developing a production process that involves local smallholders.

However, despite efficient land use, the sheer scale of production — the crop has been planted on almost 40 million acres of tropical forest worldwide — means palm oil leads to significant forest clearance, accounting for 23% of all deforestation in Indonesia, the world’s top producer.

As well as removing the carbon-absorbing power of trees when tropical forests are cleared, palm oil production generates significant amounts of carbon when palm oil trees are felled at the end of their productive lives (when they become too tall for the fruit to be harvested economically).

While some of the agricultural waste is removed and used beneficially, much is left on the field to rot, releasing carbon into the atmosphere, explains Redmond. Meanwhile, when farmland is taken from indigenous communities and small-scale farmers, it makes it hard for them to survive.

Nevertheless, Redmond argues that if production processes can be changed to address issues such as land clearance and agricultural waste, and if local communities can benefit from participation in the industry, palm oil’s efficient land use means it could be an environmentally and socially sustainable product..

The Solution

If the agricultural waste the palm oil industry leaves rotting on plantation fields is currently a problem, for Redmond and her cofounder, it is part of the solution.

Their company, Oleo Sustainable Palm Oil Solutions, is developing a method for turning the wasted palm fronds from traditional palm oil production into a fermentation feedstock for a synthetic oil alternative. Its low-cost pretreatment process, based on microwave technology, increases efficiency and reduces waste.

The initial plan is not to target food producers but those in the personal care products industry, since the artisanal batch-level synthetic palm oil will have greater traceability, something companies are willing to pay a premium for in order to meet their sustainability goals. However, with biodiesel accounting for the biggest share of the palm oil market, the long-term plan is to move into the biofuel market.

Importantly, Redmond and her cofounder are focusing on developing a production process that involves local smallholders. “They’ve historically been marginalized from the industry,” she says. “We’re looking at a decentralized approach that means they can produce the synthetic oil in smaller batches on their farms.”

Because Oleo’s process complements sustainable agricultural practices, increasing a farmer’s overall yield and earnings, she says, this will improve livelihoods for local communities in palm oil-producing regions.

While many efforts are underway to develop more sustainable palm oil production, Redmond believes this is what distinguishes Oleo from others. “Ensuring that smallholders get economic benefit from our process — that’s a differentiator,” she says. With additional grant support and invaluable mentorship from the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy, Oleo has been able to kickstart a technical feasibility assessment and the development of their minimum viable prototype.

The Innovator

With a desire to embark on a mission-oriented career, Redmond decided to pursue her undergraduate studies at the military academy at West Point. There, academic internships took Redmond on research trips to Rwanda and Haiti. Seeing the link between climate change, environmental degradation, and economic injustice in those countries inspired her to choose environmental engineering as her major at the military academy.

And on graduating, it led her to become an environmental science and engineering officer working both in the U.S. and South Korea. Even when in the U.S., she was implementing environmental programs in units that were the headquarters for the Indo-Pacific area of operations, adding to her experience of the region.

This, along with a three-month State Department scholarship in Indonesia while at Stanford, gave her insights which would prove valuable when developing her current project. “I didn’t plan that,” she says. “But it ended up transferring well into the Oleo implementation strategy and what we’re trying to do in Indonesia.”

In Indonesia, she learned the language and traveled to oil palm smallholdings to understand their production methods and business practices, to gather feedback on the idea for Oleo, and to build the foundations for future partnerships.

Despite having such valuable experiences, developing the business will not be easy. “Getting traction at the very beginning is really hard,” she says. But fixing her eyes on a big prize — the potential to create a profitable business while addressing global social and environmental problems — keeps her going. “All the issues that surround palm oil production are really problematic,” says Redmond. “So if we can pull on a lever there, there’s a huge opportunity to achieve the sustainability potential that it has as a product.”

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