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From Chemistry at Bath to Materials Science Entrepreneur in Pittsburgh, USA

MChem Chemistry graduate, John Watkins talks about his fast-paced career working with start-up companies in the US.

John Watkins at his place of work
John graduated from MChem Chemistry in 2008

I started my studies at Bath with an MChem, which I graduated from in 2008. Following this, I completed a PhD in Chemistry in 2012, with Professor Frank Marken and Dr Steve Bull. After finishing my PhD, I decided to pursue a career in the US and moved there to become a post-doc at Princeton University, with Professor Andrew Bocarsly, specialising in new processes for carbon dioxide conversion.

Following a year at Princeton, I started a new role as a researcher at the US Department of Energy (DOE), with a team focussing on materials related to carbon capture. While working for the DOE I met other researchers who were looking for a faster pace of work and a lasting impact on materials science, so a small team of us joined forces to commercialise a new ceramic coating process. We set about forming a new company called LumiShield Technologies, where we could commercialise a new material as an anti-corrosion coating. As a result, I became heavily involved in the start-up ecosystem in Pittsburgh and was named an Innovation Fellow at the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. This experience gave me insight into what working for a fast-paced start-up is like and made me realise that this was the type of environment in which I thrived.

After funding for LumiShield sadly ran out in 2021, I started consulting for another start-up called ESTAT Actuation, developing new components in the robotics space. They were having problems with material development, so I joined them full-time in late 2021 as Head of Materials. I never imagined during my chemistry studies that I would be contributing to building robots and exoskeletons, but, it turns out, all industries need materials science support and it’s been very rewarding contributing to this area and working with robotics engineers.

No two days are the same

There is no such thing as a typical day at a start-up, and it’s one of the things I like most about this type of work. It’s a dynamic working environment, where the challenge is balancing a long-term vision for product development with rapidly evolving short-term research and development challenges. ESTAT is growing fast, having only three full-time employees when I joined but up to seven as of early 2022. Responsibilities are very broad, on a typical day I balance time between scientific research work, business relationships, writing articles, and applying for grant funding. This can include pitching new technologies to NASA and the Department of Defense while advising materials testing and developing new relationships with development partners. One of the most rewarding things about my role is that I have the autonomy to develop new technologies from my own ideas and grow a skillset outside of typical science, in leadership, writing, and product development.

I really enjoyed my time studying at Bath – the chemistry department is small, but the breadth of knowledge is immense with access to a wide range of expertise in different areas. I found that Bath really excels at understanding and cultivating the overlap of research areas. It’s this experience that left me open-minded to new exciting research areas and experiences off the beaten path. Being open to all types of science may see you working in a brand new field you never imagined before.

‘Being open to all types of Science may see you working in a brand-new field you never imagined before.’
Dr John Watkins MChem Chemistry graduate (2008)

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