Five minutes with Catharina Paukner
Cambridge Nanosystems makes world-class graphene – the so-called wonder material discovered in 2004. The company produces the substance – a form of carbon – using a method that converts methane into a less harmful product, thereby improving the green credentials of the product. Better graphene, better world. Chief scientist Catharina Paukner reveals why the business should have collaborated sooner and how the future may belong to a material you’ve never even heard of.
- Describe your organisation’s purpose
Cambridge Nanosystems makes graphene to a very high purity. The material is incredibly versatile and can be used for everything from sensors in clothing to detect muscle movement, to coating materials to make them fire retardant. You can even use graphene to create a ‘spray-on’ heater that can be placed on any surface.
- How would you describe the culture at your organisation and how do you maintain it?
We have a relatively casual culture. There’s a lot of work to be done so there is no time for hierarchy or a sense of entitlement. Everyone has a say. We work well together because everyone brings different skills to the table.
We maintain the culture with team building activities held about every three months. We’ll go away and play paintball, or we’ll go to the pub, or we attend workshops that don’t necessarily have anything directly to do with the demands of our daily routine.
- How does your organisation prepare for the future world of work?
“Cambridge Nanosystems is what’s to come. Our material will revolutionise manufacturing and change what is possible in technology.” It will determine the way the future is built.
- In what ways does your organisation collaborate with others and why?
We work with most other industries to integrate our products into what they are doing – so we can make the most useful end product for the user. We also collaborate with universities on research and we sponsor PhD candidates.
- What is the main thing that attracts talent and retains talent in your organisation?
The novelty of the graphene and plasma technology attracts people. People stay because of the culture and the variety of the job.
For us, recruitment can be hard as it’s difficult finding experienced people. It’s a combination of strange fields, we don’t really expect people to have direct experience so we often pay more attention to the attitude. We want people who will go the extra mile.
- What has been the biggest challenge to your growth and how have you tackled it?
The biggest challenge to our growth centers on our product. Graphene has a lot of potential but it doesn’t have a large-scale application yet which means you can’t sell lots of it. Graphene is a non-standardised product meaning people can buy ‘graphene’ but end up with a sub-par product. This creates reputational problems that we’re working hard to overcome.
- What has been the best decision your organisation has ever made?
Combining our office, lab and manufacturing facility all under one roof. Initially, all three were separate, which made it difficult for our teams to fully understand what the other was doing.
Now we can do development and projects under one roof. It also means we can bring people here and show them everything in one place.
- What would you say represents the biggest opportunity for your organisation in the next five years?
The emerging electric vehicles market could bring big opportunities for us. Graphene has a use in electric car batteries and can also make them lighter. Batteries need to last longer and charge faster, the motors need to become lighter and so does the chassis – and that’s where graphene comes in as an effective solution.
- What one decision would you go back and change if you could?
I would go back in time and start collaborating with other experts much earlier on. “We thought we had to do it all on our own when we first started out, but it doesn’t have to be like that.”
- What is the best piece of business advice you’ve ever been given?
“Keep to the facts. Emotions are better left out of the picture.”
- What other organisation do you admire the most and why?
“I admire Tesla and Elon Musk.” He’s fantastic with the vision he has and sticks to it. He pulls it all off despite being so ahead of his time. It’s fascinating for me. “I admire his concern for the planet, I get the impression that he is not just financially motivated.”
- What does a Vibrant Economy mean to you?
To me, a Vibrant Economy is one where different players have a say and a role in where the economy is going. It’s an economy ruled by small and medium enterprises rather than one dominated by three or four large ones. Vibrant means lots of people benefit from it and can be part of it without a massive player hoovering them all up.
It’s a culture where people question things, don’t just do the same things we always have. A culture that questions the status quo.