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Interdisciplinary Research Centre

WHO? Engineer, founder and CEO of Cambridge GaN DevicesDr Giorgia Longobardi, was a Royal Academy of Engineering Young Engineer of the Year in 2019 and has been the winner of numerous accolades including Business Weekly's Woman Entrepreneur of the Year in 2021.

WHAT? Based on Longobardi's original research, Cambridge GaN Devices has developed a range of power devices using the energy-efficient semiconductor, gallium nitride (GaN), heralding a new era of greener electronics.

WHY? "As our lives becomes increasingly digital, our need for more energy-efficient ways to power them becomes ever more pressing. Swapping gallium nitride for silicon in electronics will save up to 50% of the energy used in everything from fast-charging our phones to running the vast data centres that keep our digital world turning."

Why gallium nitride? At Cambridge I was given a choice of topics to research - one was silicon power devices, which the group in the Engineering Department already knew a lot about. The other was the energy-efficient 'material of the future' which I would be the first in the group to work on. Of course, I chose the latter. I like a challenge!

I was given the opportunity to continue my research as a PhD student, working in collaboration with a major semiconductor company, NXP (now called Nexperia). It was like a dream come true. I was doing research at one of the best universities in the world but I was also spending time in industry, getting to know how markets work and what customers want. The company had operations in both the Netherlands and Belgium so it was also a fantastic opportunity to travel, one of my other passions.

When did you start to think about founding a company? I was awarded a Junior Research Fellowship at Gonville and Caius College, my application was based on the idea of spinning out a company. To be honest, I didn't have any real idea of what it meant and what it would take to do it. During my Fellowship, I continued to work with industry, consulting with two of the main semiconductor companies, Infineon and Vishay, getting good market knowledge and insight.

I founded the company in 2016, with my PhD supervisor - and serial entrepreneur - Professor Florin Udrea.

This all seems like a very smooth path? Yes and no. After raising the first £20k by winning the Cambridge Enterprise post-doc competition in 2016, I pitched  to Cambridge Enterprise again, this time for a Fast50 £75,000 convertible loan. On the same day, I also told them, "I'm going to go to Japan for a year." 

I had been offered a fellowship by the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science. For me, it was an amazing opportunity. Cambridge is fantastic but I needed to see something different. And this was the moment in my life when it would be possible, before partners, families or companies could get in the way. I managed to convince Cambridge Enterprise that it would be beneficial for the company - which it was.

In what way? We all talk about the need for diversity and the importance of listening to other people's ideas and perspectives. It was only when I went to Japan, that I properly understood the difference between cultures. In Europe, we have so much in common. But this was totally different. And that lesson informs everything I do. There are 32 people at CGD at the moment and 19 different nationalities.

What about gender diversity? Your board members are all male, bar one. Yes - because all the investors are men. It hasn't been a problem in that the board is very supportive. But I do think it's a challenge, if you are in a meeting, whether with your board, your customers or your own staff, and you are different from everyone else around the table. That's why I'm involved in lots of activities to promote STEM subjects to young women such as the Global Semiconductor Alliance's Women in Leadership Initiative.

Where is CGD now? At a very exciting time. We have launched our product range and have just rebranded. We are coming out to the world. Our first focus is the consumer electronic market but as we head into 2023 and 2024, we will have products for industrial and data centre markets. By 2025 we will have entered the automotive market with transistors that can be used in onboard chargers for electric vehicles.

For me, it's all about leadership rather than making money, about the impact our technology can have. Gallium nitride is the most energy-efficient semiconductor and if our technology is used by data centres, it will save more than nine million tonnes of C02 emissions, equivalent to the greenhouse emissions from more than 20 million barrels of oil consumed. That's our ambition. And we are growing fast. By the end of 2023 there should be 100 of us.

How are you finding scaling up? Anyone who says this is not a challenge, is lying. It's a challenge personally, and for the company. You have to adapt to whatever stage you are at and hire the right people to cover the aspects that can no longer be your primary focus. Understanding that this is necessary and letting those parts of the business go is vital. Of course, the CEO gives the direction but the people you hire are the key to the company's success. It's not about telling them what to do, it's making sure they share their ideas. If you do that, you can create an avalanche of innovation. It's beautiful.

If someone has a great idea for a business, what piece of advice would you give them? To believe in it. Don't listen to the 'maybe not' voice in your head. Talk to people. In Cambridge there are so many people willing to share advice for free.

What do you do in your spare time, if you have any? Scuba diving when I can, but I also run and and I enjoy yoga. I love to travel by train, with a good book. I've missed that in the last couple of years.