Kryzstzof Kanawka

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Blue Dot Solutions (Poland)

Former researcher in sustainable urban development at Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvellines University (France) and Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFC) at Imperial College London (UK)

Kryzstzof KanawkaAcademic research experience

I’ve experienced academic research in three countries. First, at MSc level, at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces (Potsdam, Germany). Then I completed my PhD in SOFC, a type of fuel cells, at Imperial College London. This was followed by a two-year post-doc at Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvellines, which included time in industry at GDF SUEZ. The topic was energy and cooperation in urban systems for “smart cities”.

I left academia for several reasons.

Firstly, there is a “mantra” that you shouldn’t do more than one post-doc, otherwise you may get stuck in a temporary position. I did meet people from various universities who were serving their second, third or even fourth post-docs often with little prospect of advancement. Their experiences convinced me I should consider alternatives to academic positions after the post-doc.

Secondly, I personally feel that, for engineers, it is difficult to stay in contact with current trends if you are only active in academia. Often the academic world is slow to adapt and respond to rapidly emerging opportunities. In my opinion, it is better to have either a close cooperation with industry or “transfer” to a company. I really liked lectures and projects conducted by PhDs/professors with industrial experience – they were very useful and were often based on practical examples.

Thirdly, at Imperial College I was active in several student societies, notably these focusing on entrepreneurship and legal activities. These societies organised many challenges, competitions and training courses, enabling me to understand the basics of commercial activities. Many of these events were conducted with experts from top banking, consulting or industrial companies and it was a very valuable experience.

Finally, not all my interests were reflected in “regular” research during my PhD or post-doc. My main passion is the space sector. During my academic research years I spent my free time participating in projects and events related to the European space sector. This allowed me to interact with experts from the European Space Agency (ESA) and other passionate students.

In 2009, together with several colleagues in Poland with shared interests, a new activity – “Kosmonauta.net” – was started. It was converted into a company in 2012, several months before the end of my post-doc. This company served as a basis for Blue Dot Solutions, the company I created in 2014.

Transition from academic research

Just after my post-doc finished, I faced a dilemma: what shall I do? Although the results of my PhD studies and post-doc were interesting, I always felt it is (and will be) a non-permanent position and that I might not fit in the academic world. But at the same time, the newly created company was still too small to support even one employee. However, just after the end of my post-doc contract, a major space sector conference was held in Naples (Italy) – the International Astronautical Congress (IAC). It was neither difficult nor expensive to travel to this amazing city. Since I was still well below 35, I could participate as a “young professional” at the reduced registration fee. The timing was very good, coinciding with Poland joining the ESA. My paper, summarising activities in the space sector there, was met with substantial interest. This in turn resulted in some initial contracts, which allowed me to move to the commercial side of engineering R&D projects.

However, my transition was not at all simple or fast: it did not end until 2014, when the first “solid” and longer projects were secured. 2013 was a very stressful time, but it also gave me priceless experience in conducting negotiations, searching for partners, developing trust (or not), and general business development in the space sector.

Current job – and how it compares                         

Since October 2014 I serve as CEO of Blue Dot Solutions. This entity is based on Kosmonauta.net, venture capital investment, and projects my team has created in the meantime. My current tasks are: overall oversight of the company; strategic development of the company (including financial forecasting); searching for clients, projects, partners and stakeholders; representing the company, investor relations; some project management; review of scientific and industrial reports; and acceptance/sign-off of documents created in the company.

The company undertakes projects in the downstream space sector, that is, practical use of satellite data, with a focus on European constellations Copernicus and Sentinel. It is all very far from my PhD project, but there are some similarities to the post-doc, since some of our projects deal with urban areas. The really exciting aspects are:

Highs:

  • the company started with just two employees; less than three years later it is close to 20
  • the projects and activities are uncommon; generating excitement and more learning
  • the chance to meet fantastic people (more PhDs have joined our team or closely cooperate) and very important stakeholders, including government representatives, ambassadors, stakeholders, great scientists and astronauts who walked on the Moon
  • the feeling of achievement, especially when one single project is bigger than the complete turnover of the company just two years ago.

Equally, life as CEO can be tough and frustrating, due to:

  • the steep learning curve in company finance. Until liquidity is secured (not always an easy task) there is always a risk of bankruptcy and you are not sure about your own salary
  • documentation that simply never ends
  • the partners and clients who have let us down, wasting a lot of our energy, time, motivation and resources (though also giving us valuable experience)
  • unequal relationships with academia and public administration: when you are a small business, you are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to payment, attitudes and cooperation
  • sadly, derogatory and condescending attitudes sometimes exhibited by “big professionals from Western Europe” towards eastern European partners.(A personal note: the word “Eastern” is often overused and many find it offensive nowadays.) Some experienced companies still take advantage of the inequality in power and contacts among stakeholders, knowing that sometimes you have no alternative but to cooperate with them
    • no free time. I’ve had one week’s holiday in two years
    • difficulties in conflict resolution: procedures are often not solid enough in a young company to determine what has initiated a conflict

Of the many differences from academia, I’d pick out:

  • the much more dynamic environment (for better and worse)
  • finding proper equipment or software for testing is more challenging
  • greater need to focus on practical matters, and shorter-term prospects for development when seeking projects
  • little to no need to publish in scientific journals, although for sure you need to be up-to-date with scientific publications (not so easy to access!)
  • greater focus on marketing and sales: you need to present yourself, conduct interviews, travel to events, participate in Actions…

Competencies old and new

Academia develops competencies in basic research; basic observation of scientific phenomena or initial assessment of the technology, and in review of the current scientific “state of the art”. This is important for engineering companies, who always risk being overtaken by competitors. On the other hand, all competencies related to acting faster, with limited budgets and resources, have to be gained outside academia.

Academia (especially in science and engineering) is also not great preparation for the communication and social skills needed in a start-up. This is important when approaching stakeholders or potential clients.

Reflections on my career path

The academic world is heavily dependent on group managers (professors). While most of these professors are excellent researchers, many of them specialise only in their narrow fields. In medical projects it may be an advantage, but in the case of system-level engineering projects often this is a limitation. From the perspective of future work, a broader curriculum would be better preparation.

As for future plans, I want to stay on the commercial side of R&D activities and work towards further growth of the company. I hope there will be new opportunities to develop and create new products or services. I think that the main challenge will be to be constantly aware of the competition, which can emerge from a very unexpected angle.

My advice

After almost three years as a CEO, I’m convinced that entrepreneurship is not for everyone. I would not recommend it to anyone who needs or wants a stable life or has commitments such as young kids. It is rather for people who can risk part of their lifetime and do not discourage themselves easily after failures. In fact, there will be always more failures than successes. The real challenge is to review these failures and learn from them. It may need a new management procedure, a different pricing strategy or simply to share information with a client – all of these are very valuable, but only if you also remember the deficiencies that made them necessary, so those failures are not repeated. 

Think carefully about the changing business environment too. On one hand there are a great number of “transition” programmes such as accelerators or incubators, which can help to start a new company on the basis of academic experiences. There is also more funding available for new companies than a decade ago. On the other hand, the competition is also there and the risk of being unnoticed before funding runs out. Also, it is clear that some technologies are no longer interesting to work on from a commercial point of view, while others are rapidly emerging – although some of them certainly will be “dead ends”.

Finally, I’ve found the world to be less “friendly” than 10 years ago. Where in the past there was some degree of cooperation and understanding, there are now divisions. There is also more resistance to science results (especially in climate-related issues). I’m concerned that over the next few years the interest in technological advancement or environmental protection (which means better and more efficient technologies as well as better data processing, for example from satellites) will be limited, unfortunately, by political agendas. This may not be a good time to become an entrepreneur in a science/technology field.

LinkedIn profile

https://www.linkedin.com/in/krzysztofkanawka/