Founder and UC San Diego PhD alumna Alma Zhanaidarova shares her journey on creating a commercially viable solution - poised to become a crucial part of the zero-emissions economy
What has been your experience with UC San Diego and its diverse entrepreneurial culture?
I just finished my PhD in Materials Science and Engineering under Professor Kubiak, a world class famous professor in CO2 reduction in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. We incorporated Fixing CO2 in August 2019, only two months after I finished my program and dissertation. Our second co-founder Eldar already had entrepreneurial experience, founding a company in Silicon Valley that he sold in 2017 to a bigger company. We both knew Anya, our third co-founder, from Caltech. She has just finished her PhD and has been involved in the company from the very beginning.
At the time, I didn’t know much about the entrepreneurial culture at UC San Diego, patenting our catalytic material for the electrochemical CO2 reduction through the Office of Innovation and Commercialization. That was the moment I started thinking about founding a company. While we were filing our provisional patent, Victoria Cajipe from OIC recommended IGE’s NSF I-corps program, where we met our financial and business advisors.
That experience changed the course of becoming a founder – being introduced to customer discovery was extremely beneficial. It helped us with our company’s development and navigating the entire process. iCorps helps you to transition from student to workforce, from an academia mindset to business development thinking.
What excites you about your work?
The idea that my company can contribute to the mitigation of climate change, potentially impacting billions of people around the world. I love that I work for myself and that the success of our company depends on me and my actions.
The curve of climate change is so great. It’s a huge threat to humanity. Why aren’t we trying to flatten the climate curve? It’s a direct result of our living on this earth. I have been passionate about combating it since high school. Climate change is real. It’s a real problem that demands a collective effort.
Describe a typical day in Startupland. What does your day look like?
It’s not a routine job that’s for sure! Typically, I wake up, have my breakfast and then go to the lab. These days we fill out a lot of applications for funding opportunities, while still working on experiments in the lab.
JPL/Nasa offered me a job after graduation, but I knew this was the path forward - definitely riskier but I’m loving the journey.
How do you define innovation in the 21st Century?
Innovation is about sustainability - something that helps us work and live better with consideration for the surrounding animals and plants.
What role have mentors played in your success/journey?
Academia influenced me a lot in my career trajectory. My journey in electrochemistry started with the lab of Professor Harry B. Grey at Caltech. I worked at Caltech for 2+ years and Grey was always so supportive and encouraging that I decided to apply for grad school. Before grad school, I took a visiting research job at Stanford in the lab of Professor Hemamama Karunadasa. Working with her taught me to be resilient and to be persistent in reaching my goals.
Once arriving at Professor Kubiak’s lab at UC San Diego, Kubiak taught me to be an independent researcher. I will always remember his words: when experiments fail, you shouldn’t take it personally, because experiments don’t work sometimes. Pivot. Change strategies. Believe in yourself. I think these words are very applicable to the startup life too.
At UC San Diego, I really focused on the electrochemical CO2 reduction and got involved in MARS In-Situ Utilization Project (ISRU) with JPL/NASA. Because the Martian atmosphere consists of 95% CO2, there is great interest in building a CO2 reduction device on Mars. Our collaborator from JPL Dr. Simon Jones supervised me through my last years of graduate school and he has been very inspirational and influential.
What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in the startup process? How were you able to overcome them?
In the beginning the whole transition from academia to business was challenging. When you are a graduate student, you rely on your PI and surrounding lab mates. Your PI makes all research and budget decisions. When you switch to your own business, you start to really appreciate people that were there to help you to get to this point. Founding a startup is a whole different experience. You have to make decisions that will impact not only you but your teammates.
As a female founder, this was particularly challenging. You have to position yourself in a way so that people will listen and respect your opinions and decisions. Despite the fact that women are empowered in business and life in general, there are still more men than women that make decisions in VC funds. There’s still gender bias when it comes to funding opportunities. You have to prove yourself - that you and your ideas are worth their money.
What advice would you give to a UC San Diego student thinking about starting a company?
They say that most startups fall apart because people give up too early. I’d say if you want to build a successful company, you have to find ways to motivate yourself. I think there should be a balance between growing your business skills and your own inner growth and mindfulness.