(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)
Giovanna has a degree in Chemistry, a PhD in Materials Engineering, and more than 15 years of experience in R&D and technology commercialization. Passionate about technologies and environment she worked in DuPont MicroCircuit Material, with the Photovoltaic team, winning the 2010 Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Innovation. She also filed 24 patents of which 10 are granted in the US, Europe and Korea, for solar cells’ metallization pastes.
Attracted by the startup world, she joined the Technology Transfer Office of the National University of Singapore where she worked as a team member and mentor of young entrepreneurs participating in the LeanLaunchPad program. Then she worked as a Director for CleanTech and Advanced Materials in Budding Innovation, a venture building company.
In May 2018, she co-founded together with Profs Janet Scott and Davide Mattia her own startup – Naturbeads – where she covers the role of CEO.
Naturbeads Ltd is a UK-based spin-off company of the University of Bath scaling up an economic and environmentally sustainable process for the manufacturing of spherical cellulose to replace polluting plastic microbeads.
Plastic microbeads are used in multiple applications from cosmetics to paints and coatings, horticulture and agriculture, medicinal products and oil and gas. They are currently banned in several countries (US, UK, and Canada) in rinse-off cosmetic products and the European Chemical Agency is considering extending the ban to other categories of products due to their negative impact on the environment and potentially, to human health.
Naturbeads’ mission is to contribute to reducing plastic pollution in the oceans and positively impact the global environment. In fact, by substituting plastic products with natural and renewable cellulose-based products, not only we will not add any further plastic waste to the oceans, but we will also reduce the use of non-renewable sources since plastic products are made from oil while cellulose is obtained from plants, biomass or even industrial waste.
Naturbeads has received a grant from Innovate UK and seed funding from Sky Ocean Ventures to build the pilot plant, validate the process at industrial scale and test the cellulose beads in end-users applications.
What makes you do what you do?
Climate change and ocean plastic pollution are two of the biggest environmental challenges we are facing in the 21st century and I feel a duty towards future generations to use my knowledge and expertise to address them.
How did you rise in the industry you are in?
After experiences in academia in Italy, Germany, and the US and in industry, I felt that I was in a quite unique position to bridge these two worlds and help commercialize more bright ideas, inventions, and technologies that can have a positive impact on the health of our planet.
Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
Becoming CEO of a deep tech startup is indeed a challenge, but I have been preparing for it in the last 4 years working in the technology transfer office at the National University of Singapore, where I had the opportunity to participate as a team member and then mentor in the LeanLaunchPad program, and working as a Director in Budding Innovations, a Venture Building Company, helping academics to bring their technologies to commercialization.
Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?
I do not have a mentor yet. But I have been lucky to have the support from other peers who have gone through the startup experience before me (thanks Jason!), and we have also a business advisor in Mr. Roger Whorrod, serial entrepreneur and Pro-Chancellor of the University of Bath.
How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him/her?
Roger is very active at the University of Bath especially with the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT) from where Naturbeads technology originated and it has been a strong believer that this technology must be commercialized. So, it was only natural that when we formed the company, we connected with him to advise us.
Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I believe I have developed good people skills that allow me to spot people who are hardworking, trustworthy and passionate like me about technology and the environment. At Naturbeads we have a flat organization where everyone contributes to the best of their capabilities to our goal of bringing our technology to commercialization. Once you hire people you trust and who trust you, you keep them motivated by making them feel that their job serves a greater purpose which in our case is saving the oceans from plastic. They are empowered to do their job without much supervision so that everyone takes responsibility to deliver the tasks assigned to them. I think you grow your talents by trusting them with increasing responsibilities that stretch them enough to discover strengths they didn’t know they possessed.
Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I ‘unconsciously’ support diversity because to bring to success this challenging project I need the best and most committed people I can find and their gender, nationality, skin colour, religion, or sexual orientation are not the least relevant to our goal.
What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
To be a leader in a startup that commercializes deep technologies, you definitely need to be resilient as every day you need to face small and big challenges for which there are no tried and tested solutions, so setbacks, disappointments, and failures are on your agenda daily. This is fully repaid though by the excitement of winning a grant or successfully pitching to an investor and knowing you are moving another step forward toward success and feeling that you are contributing to making the world a better place.
Advice for others?
The life of the entrepreneur is a roller coaster, one day you feel at the top of the world the day after you feel lonely and overwhelmed. I am lucky to have a very supportive partner who is at my side when I feel blue and encourages me to pursue my dreams. I am working to build a strong team of smart people so that can we solve one problem at the time, together.
If you’d like to get in touch with Giovanna, please feel free to reach out to her at [email protected]