January 21, 2021 • By Christine Byrd
For the first time ever, you can buy sunglasses, purses and smartphone cases with a negative carbon footprint. What’s more, every item is marked with a unique blockchain number that reveals details including when the carbon was captured to create the material. This is the wave of the future according to Scott William (Will) Wollack, EMBA ’19, who worked with a team of designers, chemists, engineers and programmers to launch the Covalent AirCarbon™ fashion line this fall.
“Just like every food has a label with salt content, every clothing article eventually will show the amount of carbon it took to create it,” Wollack says.
As Vice President of Applications, Innovation & Sustainability at Newlight Technologies, Inc., Wollack combines his undergraduate degree in chemistry, passion for sustainability and training in digital transformation from the UCI Paul Merage School of Business to launch groundbreaking brands like Covalent.
“After going through the Merage School program, I have become convinced that the confluence of the traditional sciences — like chemistry, biology and physics — and digital transformation is going to play a key role in addressing the challenge of my generation: climate change,” he says.
Wollack remembers the very class he was sitting in when he had this epiphany. It was a course on digital strategy, and Wollack began to see clearly how the coming digital revolution in science would define his own career pathway.
“I realized that I’m the person who can bring it all together,” he says. “I understand the technical aspects because of my chemistry degree, how to apply it to the business, and I can see these new digital technologies coming down the road.”
That’s exactly why Wollack chose the Merage School to pursue his EMBA in the first place.
“Other schools had their niches, but the Merage School is the digital transformation school,” he says. “I wanted to make sure I was making the right choice for my career moving forward.”
When he started his EMBA, Wollack had just started building out the Covalent fashion brand and applied lessons from the classroom to his job in real-time. Wollack took classes in blockchain and digital strategy while earning a certificate in digital transformation, but it was the combination of classroom and real-world experiences such as the annual Road to Reinvention conference and the international residential program that brought everything together for him.
On the immersive experience abroad, Wollack and his classmates toured innovative companies in Israel that were applying artificial intelligence to eyeglasses, online searches and even psychology. One company’s AI-powered problem-solving platform combed through years of research and data to develop a method to detect colon cancer sooner, and another company was developing software to monitor and predict an individual’s emotions, which would allow digital engagements to be perfectly tailored to the individual.
“I began to see how new digital technologies could be used to enhance complex chemical or biological systems, including humans, and find solutions to problems in weeks; solutions which have eluded scientists for years,” Wollack says.
“There’s the academic aspect with the classes, but actually seeing and meeting people in the industry to talk about what they’re doing helps you realize that technologies you think are five to ten years down the line are much closer than they appear, and are even being used today,” he says.
When he speaks to high school or college students considering a career in the traditional sciences, Wollack tells them they must understand how digital transformation will affect their career long-term, and not to be afraid to embrace it.
Wollack grew up in a small town in Illinois where the economy was fueled by plastics. His mother and grandfather both worked in the plastics industry, and Wollack started a job at a mom-and-pop plastics company while he was still in high school.
“I had a hand in putting millions and millions of pounds of plastic into the landfill early in my career,” he says. “I wanted to fix that, as best as I can.”
In 2014, the innovative work of Newlight Technologies caught his attention from halfway across the country. Newlight was replicating a naturally occurring ocean process where microorganisms feed on methane gas—a greenhouse gas partially responsible for global warming—to create a biodegradable material. Wollack reached out to the company and got his foot in the door as a chemist. After several successful product launches, he was promoted to positions overseeing operations and applications.
Wollack wanted to better understand the potential of blockchain technology so he decided to study it at the Merage School and then apply it to Newlight’s products.
“So many people use the word ‘blockchain’ but they do not understand what it means, myself included. But after the class, I had a clear comprehension of blockchain’s future and how to apply it to Covalent and beyond,” Wollack says.
Covalent is the first fashion line to use blockchain technology, backed by IBM LinuxONE, to track the carbon footprint of its goods. At each step of the manufacturing process, from when the fermentation tanks are turned on to create the material to when the product is packaged, data is submitted to the blockchain, where it lives indefinitely. Consumers enter in their product’s unique Carbon Date to see the details, and a third-party Life Cycle Analysis shows the product’s exact negative carbon footprint.
“Will is a true entrepreneurial learner who has the willingness to grind a new lens through which he can spot unique opportunities and translate those insights into actionable business models in a fast and turbulent market environment,” says Leonard Lane, a Merage School faculty member who led Wollack’s Israel trip.
For Wollack, the inspiration to innovate comes with a sense of urgency.
“For the next 20 years, addressing this giant umbrella of sustainability and climate change is what’s going to drive the world economy,” says Wollack. “We’re going to have to use a lot of tools to tackle this huge challenge, from physics to psychology, and we’re going to need to apply new digital technologies to these traditional areas of study to drive faster solutions.”