Back
Jul
03
2017

Interview with Susan Graham: an impactful woman's insight to the world of science, robotics and tech

Susan is the co-founder and CTO of a startup called BioCarbon Engineering, which aims to plant 1 billion trees with the help of drones. Susan was also named one of the Forbes 30 under 30 of 2017. Find out more about where thinking big comes from, what propels success, and how women can get more involved in science and tech.

Tell me about yourself, BioCarbon Engineering and why that's a big deal.

My background is mechanical engineering and medical science, and within that it's been mainly nanoengineering as well as the mechanical side. My PHD was using ultrasound to activate nanoparticles to target drugs for cancer therapy. That combination of hard engineering with biological science is basically what BioCarbon Engineering deals with, where you've got the drones and the seeds that we've got to make compatible into a single system.

The idea is to use drones for both information as well as action. The first part is to understand the land better, using satellite images and detailed drone mapping. With drones you have a very detailed overview and information about the land, rather than just point data - this enables you to make informed decisions. To use say, traditional methods like hand planting, or to use drones where it's appropriate to plant trees and restore the land. Either way it enables you to make that choice.

 Susan Graham with a mapping drone

Robotics is best suited to tasks that are dull, dangerous or dirty. Any task that's particularly dull, for example driving, autonomous vehicles are taking over because robots don't get tired, drunk or distracted. In terms of aerial robotics, anywhere that's hard to reach, from an environmentalist's perspective that's difficult terrain with a lot of trip hazards. Whether you've got a ground based robot or a human, both are going to trip over them, which is why drones make so much sense in this situation.

 How do drones manage the planting?

We've developed a firing mechanism to fire pods into the ground so that you get good  penetration of the pod into the soil and it enables you to improve germination and survival rate by improving moisture levels, protection from predation, and providing required nutrients. The pod has a seed in it, in a supportive matrix that has moisture retaining materials and nutrients so that you support it at each of those stages of growth.

What makes you want to work on this?

Impact. For me, I have a biomedical engineering background. Having a positive impact on the world and consequently human life condition, whether you do that through medicine or through the environment indirectly, I think they're equally important. Our goal is to plant 1 billion trees a year. When we achieve that goal, we will be having a real impact on people all over the world.

Have you started planting?

We have, and we now have early results using a variety of seed types. Where we're at now, is we're testing in different environments, and then scaling in those areas.

Which geographical areas are you focusing on?

Most countries need trees. The areas we're focusing on are Brazil, Europe and Australia. We also are looking at other areas in the world but mainly those, because they need trees and they're high-cost environments. They're not able to replant the trees that they need without being very very costly, to the point, in many cases, that it becomes unaffordable. You have lots of land that have been left and they need restoration, as well as the current land that's being cut down that needs to be restored.

How did you get into startups and science?

Startups and science have always been part of my life, ever since I was a kid. My first business experience was when I was 14, and I was given a cow, a steer, which is a male cow. And I started a business, which was trading cattle. It was very basic. Buy one, sell it at a profit, buy a cow, which had a calf. So my herd was expanding. It was a traditional farming model.

But that wasn't entrepreneurship, because there was nothing new about that. A cow's a cow, the grass is grass, I was selling it to a known buyer. But that definitely got me excited about being able to use business to do something.

I've always been interested in science, as well as medicine and the environment. Perhaps the cattle experience got me more interested in sustainable environmental practices.

Then I studied medical science and engineering, which weaves more of the practical side of implementation through engineering and entrepreneurship through university, as well as the more hard-core scence.


Studies show that girls tend to lose interest in science around age 15
. How did you not lose interest?

It was never made aware to me that I shouldn't have been doing science. I was always told that I could do whatever I wanted, as long as I did that well or tried. I have 4 awesome sisters and all of them doing completely different things. So there was never a restriction from my home environment that I couldn't do anything.

At school, sciences were exciting and encouraged. It was a fun thing to do, and nobody ever told me I couldn't, shouldn't or didn't look like a scientist.

Did you ever feel that your peers were less interested?

No, I think I grew up in a special environment where everyone liked science. All of my science friends loved science, and all of my non-science friends loved what they were doing.

The first time I noticed was in engineering, where I was being asked to speak to schools about encouraging younger girls into science. So I read up on this problem and realized that other girls weren't encouraged to go into sciences.

It wasn't until my PhD when I had direct experience with someone being shocked that I would take such a lead.

Have you ever found yourself in a gender minority?

Absolutely. All of engineering and all of entrepreneurship, for me, I've been the minority. In one event that we held in Oxford, which was an entrepreneurship event, I actually thought there might have been a mass murder of all the women, because there were none of them, I was the only one! Have they all died? Why are they not here?

 The lack of representation of women in entrepreneurship is dismal, especially at networking events, where ideas form and things start. There are probably PhD students out there thinking about why that is and how to fix it.

From what I see, there must be something about the way that events are run which are not supportive of all personality types and people of both genders. Perhaps we will see more events in the future that are run in different formats, at different times, new ways to share ideas that are more inclusive.

What would you say to women who want to go into tech or entrepreneurship?

I think the community is the most important element. And we have discussions time and time again about the internet becoming a global, connected word, which is indeed true, but there's so much to be said about a local community, local support networks, people you can get embarrassed with and you can fail with. Because

Failing fast is not just a catchphrase, it's a way of life. And you can only do that if you feel safe. So I think local communities are important.

Any last words? How do you become a 30 under 30?

(laughs)

Be yourself and change the world.

I'd say from my point of view as an engineer, and as a woman, I see that most technology has been designed by, and by inference for, the 21 year old male. And that is missing a massive market opportunity and therefore there is so much low-hanging fruit for women, for older people, to get involved in tech and startups, that it's an exciting time to be in it, and it's definitely not defined by men in particular or any other particular group, it's everyone's for the taking. That's my approach.