Spotlight Series: Interview with Florence Gschwend, CTO of Lixea

02 Feb 2021

Florence Gschwend - Spotlight Blog

Who are you?

My name is Florence Gschwend. I’m originally from Switzerland, where I studied Chemistry at university. I later came to London to do a Masters in Green Chemistry and subsequently a PhD project, where I started to work on the technology that we’re now commercialising with Lixea.  

What inspired you to start Lixea?

My PhD funding came from the Grantham Institute and ClimateKIC, two organisations with a focus on fighting climate change and preserving the environment. As a result, I saw the need for more innovative solutions to be scaled-up. Having worked on  a potential solution and the success that we had with it at least at lab-scale, motivated me to attempt its scale-up for eventual commercialisation. 

How does it work?

We use a new type of solvent called Ionic Liquids, to separate the three components wood is made of: cellulose, lignin and hemicellulose. Cellulose production is already run at a multi-million tonne per year scale using 150-year-old chemical processes, however high costs, pollution and low valorisation of by-products are major drawbacks of these processes. With our process, we make use of low-value waste materials, by upgrading them into higher value materials for renewable chemicals and materials industries. Cellulose is already used in the production of textile fibres and paper, and many more applications are being developed, some of which will be replacing petroleum derived products. Lignin can be used to replace toxic petroleum-derived chemicals in resins, adhesives and glues.

What makes working at Lixea so rewarding?

It’s mainly the potentially large positive impact on the environment that I find rewarding.

What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve faced so far?

A lot of the journey has been very lonely for me, and it has taken a rather large toll on my mental health. Often it has been very difficult to decide whether it is worth it or not. 

2020 was a challenging year for everyone. What's it like to run your business through a pandemic, and have you got any tips on how to keep things going?

For us  it has been the lab closures,  having to operate at a reduced capacity, restrictions on travel and general uncertainty. Fortunately, the furlough scheme allowed us to establish a new routine in the lab. However, it  resulted in some delays to our grant-funded project which we’re now trying to make up. Contingency planning has been quite important in keeping things going, but generally we take things as they come. Instead of thinking about the things we can’t do, we’re thinking about things we can do.

What’s next in the pipeline for Lixea?

We received a European grant to build our pilot plant, so we are very busy with that. Once our pilot plant is up and running, we will also be working more closely with companies developing products from the cellulose and lignin that we will be producing.

Women make up only 12% of UK’s engineering workforce. What made you decide to take up a career in engineering and why do you think more women and girls should get into science?

My dad worked as a chemist/chemical engineer but retired when I was relatively young, so I spent a lot of time with him. I think that had an influence, as he would explain a lot of chemistry-related things to me.

I think there is huge potential for engineering and science to help us address urgent problems, such as climate change and environmental destruction. I don’t believe men and women inherently have different cognitive abilities, but  societal gender roles mean that women and men, and girls and boys, grow up living somewhat different lives, seeing the world and its problems somewhat differently. These different viewpoints can be very helpful in coming up with new ideas or developing new solutions to important problems.

Women account for only 5% of leadership positions in tech – as a female CTO and co-founder, why do you think women make great leaders and what do you think needs to be done to encourage more women into the sector?

Women are under less pressure from society to be “outstanding” or to earn a lot of money. I think that women leaders are therefore, often working for their actual beliefs. For me, a good leader should be relatable, understanding, someone who you can be honest with, admit your failures, ask for help from etc, all of which is important for long-term success. Considering that women make up half of the world’s population, it is only logical that leadership positions should have a lot more women in order to have relatable people to look up to.

What advice you would give to a budding engineering entrepreneur?

Try to have a small network of people who are going through a similar journey, or who have already become established. Most of the news yousee on social media and startup websites are overwhelmingly positive, which may make one’s own problems seem unique. But if you talk to people, you’ll see that everyone has their struggles behind the scenes and being able to talk to someone about this is important. It’s good to hear how other people have overcome their problems too. Also, you shouldn’t take everything too seriously. And don’t try to follow everyone’s advice. Many people will try to give advice, but not all advice is good.  

What impact has the Enterprise Fellowships programme had on your business?

The Enterprise Fellowships programme was great for many reasons. It covers your salary for a year so you can focus on progressing your business rather than worrying where your next payslip is going to come from. The courses cover a variety of topics, some of which are really useful and don’t take up an overwhelming part of your time. There’s a really good balance between the compulsory aspects, the optional ones and leaving time for you to run your business.

Quick fire questions

Who is your role model?

I know this is boring, but there are a lot of people I look up to, including my mother, some colleagues and friends. I think there are plenty of people who can inspire you 😊

Tell us a random fact that not many people know about you 

I’ve never spent a night in a hospital and wasn’t born in hospital either.

What’s your guilty pleasure? 

I love a good butter croissant and to eat it with chocolate, preferably with whole hazelnuts in it.

When I was a child, I wanted to be… A dentist and then a Nobel prize laureate.

If I wasn’t an entrepreneur, I would be… a data scientist.

I don’t understand why… the windows in the UK is still mostly single glazed.

What’s your biggest weakness? Impatience

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? 

Albert Hofmann, Sarah Cooper, Jesus, Florence Nightingale

When I’m not working at Lixea, I am… Hiking, rock climbing, snowboarding, snowshoeing… activities involving mountains and fresh air.

What are your top three desert island items? 

A solar water distiller, a rope and a swiss army knife

Do you have any life regrets? 

Not fighting for my mental wellbeing sooner.

If I could have a superpower, it would be… to be able to fall asleep wherever and whenever I want.

If you could live a day in a life of another person, who would it be? 

My three year old neighbour Mattis.

Which fellow Hub Member are you most impressed by? 

Dr Enass Abo-Hamed CEO and Founder of H2Go.

 

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