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Championing super Nova

You may not have heard of Project Speedbird. But you soon will. It is a major partnership between British Airways, LanzaJet and Teesside-based Nova Pangaea Technologies, and has just secured £9 million Government funding to produce sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and establish the UK as a decarbonisation world leader. The plan is to produce more than 100 million litres of SAF every year, which will annually reduce CO2 emissions by 230,000 tonnes. Leading the project is Sarah Ellerby. Here, she tells Colin Young the story of the Yorkshire farmer’s daughter who, having become the best professional cue sports player in the world, turned CEO, and has returned to the UK to put the North East at the heart of watershed environmental change.

Sarah Ellerby was once the world number one in eight-ball pool.

‘The Ice Maiden’ won more than 80 titles when she competed for several years on the circuit in the US in the late 1990s and 2000s, until her retirement in 2008.

She could walk back into the top echelons of the sport tomorrow – in a billiards blaze of glory too – and, because it’s in her nature, would very quickly start competing for that number one spot again.

But she’s having none of it.

Sarah was made for business and has returned to her North East roots to prove it, no matter how tempting the offers are to go back to the table.

“I don’t even own a cue or a table,” she says.

“I just haven’t got the time.”

Having completed several marathons, she now prefers running or cycling close to her home near Thirsk, North Yorkshire, where she’ll ‘potter around the garden’ during her rare moments of downtime.

But the green baize burns deep. “I really miss playing – more so snooker,” she says.

“I really love the challenge of the big table and tight pockets.

“I actually said to my family a couple of years ago, ‘right, I’ve got a week off. I want to go find the snooker table and hit some balls for a couple of hours.

“I can pick up a cue, play anybody and it just clicks. I go straight back into the groove.”

“And I get lots of challenges.

“I’ll play one-handed, I’ll play left- handed. Realistically, you’re going to be on the worst end of it because I’m going to beat you – and it won’t take long.

“I do miss it. I miss having a table to have a bit of a tinker and pot a few balls.”

But Sarah is not back in the region to play around.

She is here for business and, as chief executive of cleantech company Nova Pangaea Technologies, wants to build on the momentum of the significant Government funding that is backing Project Speedbird – which also involves

British Airways and LanzaJet – to produce sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and put the UK at the forefront of the fight against global warming.

Nova Pangaea Technologies has been awarded £7.5 million under the scheme, and took on multi-million-pound investment from British Airways’ and Aer Lingus’ parent company International Airlines Group last year.

The Teesside-based company is pioneering technology that transforms wood and non-food agricultural waste into high-value products, such as ethanol.

LanzaJet’s proprietary technology converts ethanol into aviation fuel at its alcohol-to-jet plant in Georgia, in the US.

It is the first of its kind in the world. But not the last.

Sarah’s task is to identify at least three sites across the country to produce biofuels by 2028.

These biofuels will then be converted into SAF for British Airways’ flights, helping meet the UK’s SAF mandate of producing at least ten per cent of airlines’ jet fuel from sustainable feedstocks by 2030.

“This is not just a big deal for Nova Pangaea Technologies, it’s a big deal for Teesside – it’s a big win for Teesside,” says Sarah.

“We need to deliver a complex network of facilities for Project Speedbird, and we’re going through the site selection process.

“I’m hoping the headquarters and first commercial facility will be on Teesside.

“I’m keen to locate here because of the amount of biomass handling we need to consider to deliver 190 million litres of ethanol.

“This is a very complex programme that we’re delivering for British Airways in the UK, which has made us take a little

bit of a step back and really think through the network of facilities, infrastructure, utilities, rail, transportation – the whole lifecycle analysis and greenhouse gas emission profile.

“I’m really excited about the next phase of our business, and the delivery and execution of Project Speedbird.”

MBA-educated, Sarah was destined to work in the family business, but her deadly acumen on the snooker table was to take her on a journey very few from North Yorkshire will ever make.

She won more than 70 titles in the UK, including the 1997 European Championship, in the process representing county and country.

But, frustrated by a lack of respect by the game’s governing bodies, she left home to take up the tour in the US, where pool is a popular sport.

After gaining an extraordinary talent visa for America, she travelled the country, often taking ten to 16-hour trips for competitions to break into the professional circuit, and worked her way up the world rankings – surging from 50th to the top within four years – to become one of the biggest stars in the game.

And while sweeping all before on the green velvet, the star from the North was also developing a keen sense of the business world, securing lucrative commercial contracts to put herself at the forefront of a sport where image, especially for American fans, is key.

“I was doing my own sponsorship deals in my teens,” she says.

“I had cars before I could drive.

“I was a professional athlete for nearly 20 years, and transitioned over into business quite seamlessly, because I was used to doing deals and strategic partnerships.

“I could see things.

“I was a natural deal maker and was always aiming high with whatever I did, whether it was sport or whether I was just starting to climb the ladder, which I climbed quite fast from a business perspective.”

Sarah retired from competitive sport 16 years ago and set up her own management consultancy, which was focused on turnaround, scale-up and growth, and working alongside iconic brands and multinationals in the health, biotech, energy and natural resource sectors.

Life changed again when she was introduced to The Honourable Robert Hanson, the Yorkshire businessman and financier, at the Kentucky Derby.

He heard Sarah’s story, introduced her to energy and has watched her never look back.

Sarah says: “We had a very memorable couple of days at the Derby, and we’ve been colleagues and friends ever since.

“He’s a global and international financier, who really shaped me from a finance perspective, by giving me lots of exposure to various deals and industries.

“I got a real schooling in his network; I spent 12 years looking at deals and different sectors, which was a steep learning curve, but the more I got into it, the more I loved it.

“The whole exploration side of things is fascinating; building out the whole capital programme in really challenging jurisdictions, where you have to land on the side of the mountain, build ice roads, helicopter in heavy drilling equipment, build out the budget and programme, and then get investors to back it.

“That was a challenge for me, and I really enjoy where I am now because of my time there.”

After 18 years in the US and various chief executive roles within energy and natural resources, and sensing the UK was starting to take carbon emissions and sustainable energy seriously, Sarah wanted to bring her experience and network back to the region.

She landed at Nova Pangaea Technologies, which operates from a base on the Wilton International site, near Redcar, where she’s looking to build a team of up to 100 over the coming years.

She says: “I was starting to get itchy feet in the US, and I thought to myself, ‘wow, look what’s going on in the UK’.

“We’ve got energy and renewables, we’re leading on innovation and we just need to get over the hump on the funding requirements from an innovation perspective.

“I thought, ‘it’s time to return, to come back and bring nearly 20 years of international experience to the region where I was born and bred, to have impact’.

“And I’m not just coming back for the sake of it – I want to shine a light on the region.

“But just because I’m the chief executive doesn’t mean I know everything.

“That’s why you surround yourself with smart people and build your team.

“If you have the right people and the right mindset and attitude, you can accomplish anything.

“The UK probably needs to invest £40 billion-plus per year to be able to realise the mandate that’s been set, which is significant investment.

“The sector has the potential to provide more than 20,000 jobs and we’re looking at in excess of £3 billion of economic stimulus by 2035.

“These are big numbers, and we have a big role to play, which is why we are taking our time; we need to get this right.

“The UK is a hard jurisdiction to get these projects off the ground, but I believe we’ll be able to do it.

“My goal and my legacy is to be able to lift the region back up.

“There have been a lot of failures, a lot of shutdowns, but we can reinvigorate the region with this type of project; invest in our people, upskill, reskill and provide really good quality jobs, which will have positive impacts.

“We need to find a way, from a decarbonisation perspective, because we’re seeing the impact of climate change – we’re seeing excessive rainfall and excessive heat.

“Time is of the essence. This is real and we need to accelerate.”

Just as they were when she was setting out on her career in pool, Sarah’s days are long.

Back then, she could spend up to ten hours a day practising – “I don’t do anything by halves” – but, as a farmer’s daughter, she’s not afraid of hard graft and long hours.

And as much as there may always be a temptation to pick up the cue again and return to what she once did better than anyone else in the world, Sarah’s focus is undoubtedly on making the world a better and cleaner place from North Yorkshire, rather than North America.

She says: “In order to do what I’m doing right now, you’ve got to have tremendous resilience – and that’s my work ethic.

“If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it well, or I’m not going to do it at all.

“It’s very black and white with me. I’m in or out.

“It’s lonely at the top because it’s not a team sport.

“I was a loner on tour, which is how I had to be, and it is very similar as a chief executive.

“I want to be successful and I have a tremendous drive.

“I needed that as an athlete to win the amount of times I did, and I have a tremendous drive and passion for what I’m doing right now.”

Sarah adds: “I do miss the US, I miss playing.

“It’s a different way of life, but there are similarities with being an individual at the top of your game in sport to being a chief executive – you need drive and ambition.

“I’ve had lots of opportunities to go back but if I did, it wouldn’t just be turning up for the sake of it.

“I would be turning up to win.

“I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have a chance, and that would take a lot of hard work.

“You never know.

“If I get invited to play in the World Championship again, I might say yes…”


Words by Colin Young

Photography by Mike Sreenan

Sarah’s outfit was supplied by Crowberry Wood, of 14 Castlegate, Helmsley, York, YO62 5AB. For more information, visit

March 6, 2024

  • Feature

Created by North East Times