As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing…
Arsheen Allam, Founder and CEO of CNanoz Inc., as well as of her latest venture, GOLeafe, which is developing game changing graphene-based technologies. A materials scientist and engineer, with an MBA degree from Duke University, Arsheen is combining her science background with her business knowledge to run her ventures in clean water and clean energy sectors. Recently named to 2019’s Forbes 30 under 30 list in the Energy category, Arsheen’s team is working on producing an array of innovative products including a graphene-based super capacitor to outcompete traditional energy storage devices today, such as the lithium-ion and lead acid batteries, in terms of efficiency, as well as eco-friendliness.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up visiting my parents’ home countries, India and Pakistan, and one of the things that really left a mark on my young, impressionable mind was that so many people did not have access to the most basic resources – clean drinking water and electricity. The desire to develop low-cost, attainable solutions for use globally led me to Materials Science and Engineering in college, and the launch of my first start-up CNanoz, which produces nanotechnology-based carbon water filters, and then the eventual launch of my second venture, GOLeafe.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Working at a startup and managing people is always interesting. There are many moving parts and changing ideas floating around in our little ecosystem. Although we are working away at developing solutions for what we believe are big problems, our team of a handful of scientists rarely considers the impact we may be having on a macro level. Following my naming to the 2019 Forbes 30 under 30 class, my LinkedIn profile began to get thousands of hits, with views and messages.
While it was exciting to connect with like-minded individuals across various industries, I figured the hype would calm down in coming weeks. That was until a few months later when I began getting emails and phone calls from the FBI who wanted to meet with me in the US. I was in India for work at the time, and did not get a chance to answer. A few days later, I had US colleagues reaching out requesting that I respond to the FBI, who had asked them to follow-up with me. So I did, unsure of what they wanted to discuss, though not worried.
Upon my return to the States, I met with two men from the bureau at a coffee shop who flashed their official FBI badges at me to ensure I felt confident about who I was talking to, I suppose. They both commended me on my accomplishments, and were there to provide information and tools for protecting our company’s Intellectual Property. They went on to inform me that myself and the work I am doing have been on several countries’ radars, thus I must take measures to safeguard it. I walked away from that meeting wide-eyed and with my two blue folders from the bureau filled with informative packets on protecting US “intelligence”, which I had never really considered to entail my particular world of science and engineering.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
Graphene— essentially atomic carbon— is the world’s strongest, thinnest and most conductive material. To put that in perspective, graphene is a revolutionary material that is a million times thinner than paper, more conductive than copper, and stronger than diamond. It can be used in applications ranging from energy generation to tissue engineering; including but not limited to displays, sensors, structural materials and high performance computing. Its lightweight, thin, and flexible composition has sparked scientists to call it the “wonder material” of our time. However, is also happens to be one of the most expensive materials on earth due to its difficulty to produce.
Current graphene production methods are limited by high manufacturing costs and health and environmental risks, thus graphene has yet to realize its full commercial potential. After several years of R&D, our team at GOLeafe developed an innovative patent-pending manufacturing approach, based on a scalable batch process that avoids harsh chemicals and expensive equipment. Not only does GOLeafe’s cost advantage enable it to compete in existing markets, but it also allows GOLeafe to explore graphene’s versatility in new markets.
We are now testing our graphene and graphene derivatives on various substrate materials to create a desalination membrane. Since graphene is also a very conductive material, we are developing energy panels to produce clean energy as well as super capacitors to store it, in parallel.
How do you think this will change the world?
The dream is to create a self-sustaining desalination unit — one that uses graphene as both the power source as well as the filtration technology. In my vision, this end-to-end unit will be independent of the grid, and of geographical and weather conditions. This versatile unit will be a far more efficient alternative to reverse osmosis systems. Furthermore, it will be a viable solution for last-mile communities, yet to have reliable sources of power and water, which in this day and age should not be the case and is a failure for humanity. We are working hard to bring these two basic human rights to all people, thus leading to more productive societies across the globe.
There are many applications for graphene in the defense industry, which I will not get into. Thus, as an avid believer in ‘Make Peace, Not War’, I do worry about this technology getting into the hands of the wrong people. However, this is the case with nearly any technological advancement, dating back to the discovery of gunpowder, for example, which was originally developed by alchemists who were searching for a life-lengthening elixir, not something that could take your life in a fraction of a second. At GOLeafe, we did not invent graphene, rather invented a way to produce it that is cost-effective and safe for the environment. Therefore, we do our part in preserving our patent-pending production process, and focus our product development on areas that will benefit mankind, not harm it.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
Upon graduating college and launching and running my first startup, CNanoz for some time, I quickly learned carbon filtration works well for groundwater and river water, but not salt water. With nearly 97% of Earth’s water in the oceans, I needed a desalination solution.
I dove back into the world of research and learned about a material called graphene, particularly through a paper published by MIT, which claimed graphene would ultimately be the best desalination solution, if not for its extremely high cost and difficulty to produce at scale. This led to the launch of GOLeafe, where our team took it upon ourselves to develop a new graphene production method, that would make graphene product applications, such as the desalination membrane, economically viable.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
Education. Although graphene was first discovered in 2004, it is still considered a relatively new material. There is an endless wealth of technical knowledge on the material in theoretical papers published by researchers and universities. However, real world applications are sparse. One of the reasons for this is because there is yet to be a standard established for how graphene quality is checked and is graded. At the same time, there are a lot of companies creating misinformation about the material by way of marketing and selling other carbonaceous materials such as graphite as graphene. Those who are new and unfamiliar with graphene will not know how to determine the difference and when they try to use it for an application which graphene is said to be good for in theory, they will be disappointed in the material. This has caused many organizations to grow skeptical and steer away from graphene until there is a better grasp of the material and its quality standards.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Be humble.One time, in my very early days as a founder, I fired the wrong employee. Productivity had been down and I had grown frustrated in trying to pinpoint the cause of it. After holding one on ones, I thought I had determined who was the problem. Turns out someone else was taking credit for this one quieter, hardworking employee who I just let go. When I realized the mistake I had made, and with the guilt I was feeling, it took a great deal of humility to call her, admit to it, and ask if she would consider coming back to work for us. She said yes and has been with us ever since; and that is a much greater feeling than being too proud to own up to the mistake and losing a valuable resource.
Be patiently impatient.Don’t be afraid to follow-up. I never liked following up, due to the fear of seeming to be “too much”. I’ve learnt that’s far from the truth. If I am working with someone on a project, we are working towards a common goal. So a delay from their end, just like a delay on my part is a delay to the overall effort, and a benefit to no one. While working on a collaboration with a larger company, I would often be waiting weeks on their CEO to get back to me. Finally I started just picking up the phone and calling him when I needed things to get done or questions to be answered, and everything started to move along much faster. I did it while still holding that fear of being “too much”, until one day he said “ you know what, my schedule is crazy, so thank you for calling when you have not heard back from me!” The lesson here is to do everything that is in your control and as for everything else, be patient, because it always does seem to fall into place in due time when you have done your part.
“Fake it till you make it” is the worst advice. Nobody knows everything. We all have our unique skillsets. If you don’t know something, admit it, learn it and move forward. This is far better than trying to do it on your own, doing it wrong, then having to start all over and possibly doing it wrong again. I get asked all the time, at conferences and meetings, where I earned my PhD. I do not have a PhD and I have no reservations in telling people that. It nearly seldom makes anyone think lesser of me, rather they appreciate the candidness and are more than willing to share their knowledge. Also, one’s work speaks for itself, irregardless of degrees on the wall. Although I do value my education greatly, the truth is I have learnt so much more during my career, working and interacting with others, than I did while in school.
You cannot change someone who does not want to change themselves. There are far too many stories for this one. If you will, just take my word for it, and it will save you a whole lot of wasted efforts.
Be empathetic. Take the time to understand others and their situations. As a startup, we have not always been able to pay competitive salaries. A couple of years ago, one of our factory employees in Hyderabad had his family home back in his village destroyed by a storm. He requested for us to help his family financially to rebuild their home. We knew he would likely not be able to pay back the money we were giving him, but that did not hinder our decision. Down the road, he eventually had to leave us to take over his aging father’s mom-and-pop shop in his village. A year late, we were reunited in Kolkata, where he took a 3.5 hour bus ride at 6:30am with his father, who he wanted us to meet, and gifted us cashews from his hometown. He reminded us of how we helped out his family when they were in a bind. This man has no formal education, nor does he speak English. Yet, he was one of the brightest individuals I have had the pleasure of working with. He told us he has worked many laborious jobs in his life, where he was just a component in the system, but while working for us, he was treated with respect and as a valuable member of our organization. Despite our non-non-competitive pay, we have never had an employee leave our company for any reason besides familial obligation, and that is a success factor I rank very highly.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
Stay curious – there is always something to be learned. New data and findings are emerging at faster rates than ever before. It’s too easy to get left behind and outdated if you do not stay current with what is happening in the world – be it scientific, political, celebrity news, etc. In order to stay relevant, surround yourself with intellectuals from every field and every age. Pay attention. Listen. Hold meaningful conversations.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
I would invest it in automating the graphene production process. Graphene has potential applications across countless industries. The demand for quality graphene will continue to grow. The way to ensure we stay ahead of the curve is by ensuring we can continuously produce consistent batches in high volume to meet the market demand. Once quality control is made much lesser of a concern, thanks to automation, I can focus my energy on developing new innovations using our material.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
“Will it matter in 5 years?” If the answer to this question is no, I reconsider the task or worry I am bearing. This significantly reduces the thoughts and ideas constantly firing away in my brain and helps me focus and deliver on things that matter. Turns out very few battles are actually worth fighting, particularly when it comes to people. I have found that people almost always come around, especially from emotional states, and things settle down on their own. And if they don’t, those people will not be in your life in 5 years anyway, and there’s nothing you could have done differently to change that, so why worry? I apply the same principle in the lab and at the office, when it comes to putting out fires.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Do things that make you happy hours and days after you do them, not just while you’re doing them, i.e.:
- Wake up early
- Eat healthy
Take breaks. Never do one thing for too long without pausing to think about what you are getting out of the time and energy you have invested into it. This helps you recalibrate and refocus, especially if a pivot is due. Often times this also helps you realize how far you have come and provides the motivation to keep working towards overcoming the challenge or achieving the goal you are progressing towards.
Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Graphene, a one-atom thick layer of carbon, is a revolutionary material is a million times thinner than paper, flexible, an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, and 200 times stronger than structural steel. This “wonder material” of our time can be used in applications ranging from cleantech, to structural materials, and additive manufacturing, as well as drug delivery! The graphene market is witnessing an astounding 38% CAGR (Grand View Research). We at GOLeafe are initially targeting our share of this market with our low-cost, eco-friendly, patent-pending graphene production process, which has enabled us to begin developing a graphene-based water desalination membrane, as well as clean energy products that will serve as alternatives to traditional silicon solar panels and lithium ion/lead acid batteries being used today. We aim to make our solutions reliable sources of clean water and energy accessible and affordable to everyone ranging from wealthy gulf country leaders to last-mile communities, leading to more productive societies across the global. Imagine a self-sustaining desalination unit — one that uses graphene as both the power source as well as the filtration technology; an end-to-end unit independent of the grid, and of geographical and weather conditions.
Warren Buffet. Bill and Melinda Gates. Chelsea Clinton. Soros family. Hult brothers.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
GOLeafe facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GOLeafe/
Personal LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/arsheen-allam-793b2933/