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Mint Innovation’s chair on why she meets every single employee

Sounding Boards

Chair Catherine Drayton and CEO and founder Will Barker discuss how governance changes from startup to scaling a global company. 


Fiona Rotherham

A worker at Mint Innovation's Sydney biorefinery

“I’m tired of companies where staff think 'oh, there are those board members [who are] special, unique and different with their special chairs, their special rooms and their special lunches',” says Mint Innovation chair Catherine Drayton.

She makes a point of meeting every staff member in the company so she knows why they are there – something CEO Will Barker says is unusual among governors.

“There are obviously benefits from Catherine’s perspective, but it is a huge benefit from a company perspective; feeling valued and known across every single facet of the company is hugely valuable. They feel heard and it empowers them to do better,” he says.

Drayton says she wants to ensure staff – now numbering around 56 at Mint – don’t feel afraid of board members. 

She was appointed independent chair of the Kiwi climate-tech company’s board in April 2021, soon after it had raised $20 million in a Series B round in late 2020.

Mint went on to raise $65 million in a Series C round in March 2023 led by Inspire Impact – the impact investing arm of Australian private equity firm Liverpool Partners.   

Having an independent chair and considering their track record is an important box international venture capital investors want to tick when considering companies to back, “but it is size and journey specific”, says Barker. 

Drayton has extensive governance experience and is also chair of New Zealand’s sovereign wealth fund, The Guardians of New Zealand Superannuation, and specialist mobile tower infrastructure company Connexa, and is a director of gentailer Genesis Energy and health insurer Southern Cross.

The chair is obviously a sought-after director. So why did she choose Mint? 

She was previously chair of Kiwi deeptech firm PowerbyProxi's audit and risk committee, which developed wireless charging technology. It was spun out of the University of Auckland in 2007 by founder Fady Mishriki and was sold to Apple in 2017 for an undisclosed sum (though it was over the $100 million threshold that invokes Overseas Investment Office approval).

Drayton says she agreed to go on the Mint board because she likes deeptech, where science and engineering are used to solve global problems. She had also worked previously with Movac partner and Mint director David Beard on the PowerbyProxi board, where they had had some “fabulous final moments – albeit that we had some bumpy bits along the way”. 

She was also liked Mint's founder and was attracted to its environmental purpose to create a circular economy of green metals. "Everyone in that company knows why they are working for Mint and they all believe that they can change the world, and they're all right."

Mint melts down old computer circuit boards and uses micro-organisms that act like sponges to suck up precious metals such as gold and palladium. The extracted metals are on-sold back to manufacturers for use in new electronics. 

Mint chair Catherine Drayton

The right timing

Barker says Drayton got involved when Mint, which was founded in Auckland in 2016, was shifting from an R&D startup to a commercial company with global aspirations.

The cleantech company is ramping up production. Its first biorefinery, in Sydney, opened in 2022 with the help of an A$4.2 million Australian Government grant, and it is in the throes of selecting a site for a second plant, which will be a "springboard for world domination".

The ultimate goal is to build the low-cost, low-carbon plants everywhere these waste streams exist, returning circular metals to economies around the world. The first plant will prove the economic model and the efficacy of the technology, while the second will prove scaleability and provide a commercial cookie-cutter that can be licensed throughout the world, he says.

Prior to Drayton’s appointment the board had been composed of Barker and two directors representing the major investors, Movac and Icehouse Ventures.

“We were all directors so we obviously all have fiduciary duties, but all of us have slightly different motivations and slightly different drivers. So the board collectively agreed it was time to get some independence on the board, and a chairperson made most sense to bring on that independence. We identified several and Catherine, for a number of reasons, was the top candidate,” says Barker.

Different governance skillsets are required when you go from a strong startup phase, where it is all about speed and efficiency, to a commercial world, which is much more around execution and maintaining efficiency, he says.

“They are moving much more into that commercial world – much more rigour around reporting and starting to think about what liquidity could look like down the track, so getting the right rigour around our internal and external reporting and those sorts of things. Catherine has an extremely strong track record in New Zealand around all of that."

Drayton says the essential and fiduciary duties of all boards are the same regardless of size and stage, but the cadence of activities can vary.

“Most people who like working in that governance space tend to either be in startups or private equity or listed or big private. I’m a bit of a variety junkie, frankly, so I like all of it and I just have to work quite hard to think about how I change my cadence,” she says.

With Mint that means trying to get more hygiene around systems and processes, looking a bit further ahead, thinking about optionality with cash and “trying to make sure that no-one wobbles off the reservation” if they have a slightly different set of motivations.

“That's a very different conversation from what we have, for example, from when I chair the Guardians. There we’re worrying about exclusions and we’re thinking about how we get to be double sized in 10 years’ time, but it’s different [to Mint] because we don’t have a funding issue, for example,” she says.

LanzaTech founder Sean Simpson also added his global experience to the board when joining last November. He founded the carbon recycling company in 2005, which transforms pollution into valuable raw materials for reuse, and has plenty of useful insights on building facilities concurrently and in multiple countries. 

Prior to founding Mint, Barker had worked at LanzaTech with Simpson for seven years as vice-president of external affairs. 

Mint CEO Will Barker

The role of a chair

A chair’s role should be that of a coach, in Drayton’s view.

“I’ve got a CEO here who is a very independent man. If I was to get in close all the time, first it would drive him nuts and destroy our relationship. And, frankly, I don’t think I could add any value – I can't help with the science, I can’t help with the engineering," she says.

"I'm more comfortable with if you both know each other and you know what's happening in the company, you know when you should reach out to talk to each other."

Barker says the Mint team know their ultimate goals and objectives, and are always talking with the board about how those will be achieved. But deeptech is hard and the execution side takes time, a lot of effort, and a lot of people doing that, he says.

The greatest value gained from governance comes from discussing execution efficiencies, which happens around the board table or through discussion in regular, between-meeting catchups between the chair and CEO. Those are typically monthly and less frequent than when Christchurch-based Drayton first came on the board – although that ramps up when navigating "sticky patches", says Barker.

When Drayton chaired the board of Christchurch Airport, she says then-CEO Malcolm Johns (now CEO of Genesis) was good at sending one-liners or two-liners to the board.

“You felt this strong sense of connectivity. You could see an issue emerging and going back into its box. There are lots of different styles and I don't think there is anything that is right; it is really [what is] right for the pair of people involved.”

Drayton says liking each other definitely helps.

“Part of the relationship between a chair and the board is you’re trying to steer a boat where there are quite a lot of options in front of you, and you’re trying to find a way that you can get everyone aligned behind a particular direction, a particular way of executing and, ideally, you’d like only healthy argy-bargy along the way.”

Boards are supposed to hold management to account, but Drayton dislikes that “very school-marmy” expression. “There is that component too, but I think it’s more, for me, about a partnership.”

Barker says it’s important to have a strong relationship with the chair, built on trust and respect.

“We’re in the climate-tech space and the whole company is extremely strong on principles and values, so when we’re looking for people to join us we’re asking the same questions and if your values align, then you’re extremely likely to get on.”

Both Mint Innovation and PowerbyProxi had a clear idea of where they could go, but had quite a lot of options within that, says Drayton.

“They both had bumps along the way. These organisations in life don’t have clear, smooth paths, so both have had to have been prepared to alter direction of travel to get to a similar North Star. Both have employees that are highly engaged [and] both have [had] great CEOs, which really helps.”


Fiona Rotherham

Fiona Rotherham has worked at numerous business publications as editor, co-editor and senior journalist. Her passion for startups was sparked while working at former entrepreneur magazine Unlimited of which she was also editor.

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