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Born innovator

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A pregnancy test changed Neus Sabaté’s life in more ways than one

Neus Sabaté has collected a couple of weighty accolades this year. After winning the Royal Spanish Physics Society’s innovation award, she became a finalist in the 2020 EU Prize for Women Innovators.

Sabaté is a professor at the Institute of Microelectronics of Barcelona and the co-founder of Fuelium, a company that develops eco-friendly diagnostic devices with batteries activated by liquids such as saliva. But rewind eight years and Sabaté was at a crisis point in her research career. “The system was kicking me out,” she says.

In 2005, she had returned to Spain from a postdoctoral position in Germany, having been offered a chance to launch a new research line in micropower sources by her former PhD supervisor at the University of Barcelona. At the time, there was lots of excitement about the potential for miniature fuel cells for portable electronics, but after several years of research, she realised that fuel cells were never going to be integrated in phones and laptops, since battery technology had taken such big steps forward.

Around the same time that Sabaté was questioning where to go in her research career, she became pregnant with her second child. After using a digital pregnancy test, she took the test to the lab, opened it up and found that it was powered by a coin cell battery.

“I was certain that everybody was throwing the test away in the regular bin and I realised this was highly polluting,” she says. “It was a eureka moment and I said, ‘OK, maybe I can use urine as a fuel, and I can build a very simple battery that is really sustainable.’”

At that time, Sabaté was on the Ramón y Cajal programme for postdoctoral researchers, a scheme run by the Spanish State Research Agency, which offers a five-year contract with the possibility of a permanent position in the public research system. But in 2012, in the midst of a financial crisis, the Spanish government said it could not offer permanent positions any more, Sabaté recalls, “so that’s when I decided to jump into entrepreneurship”. 

“I could have been working for other projects and for other researchers, but I was so convinced the idea was good that I thought, ‘OK, if the government doesn’t offer me a position or a contract to push this technology forward, I will do it at home—in my garage, if necessary,’” she says.

Starting up

As it turned out, the garage wasn’t required. Sabaté submitted her idea to a funding programme for green technology innovations from the oil company Repsol and won. For the first year she received €2,000 per month, which the three founders of the startup had to match from other sources. After a year, the company won a second award from Repsol, which increased their monthly support, helped set up a pilot plan, and offered business advice. “After that we were able to fly alone,” Sabaté explains.

“I had a very important turning point [when I started] the company, because I was super excited and discovered that I actually liked creating the new business,” Sabaté says. Having spent the first year working solely on the business, she reached
the point where she didn’t want to go back into research.

But while applying to Repsol, she had applied to the European Research Council (ERC) for a Consolidator Grant, which she also won. “I got this €2 million funding and I really didn’t want it. It was like, ‘Now it’s too late!’” she remembers thinking.

She spoke to a colleague, who had set up his own company, about leaving research for good. “He said, ‘Look, you’re an inventor. What you’ve experienced and enjoyed is creating something new, but after two years you will find yourself paying salaries, dealing with taxes, all these boring things,’” Sabaté recalls.

So Sabaté accepted the ERC grant, and kept a foot in both the research and business worlds. And having won European funding, the Spanish government then offered Sabaté a permanent position. “At one moment I was useless, and the system was kicking me out, and the next year I was super-successful,” she says. “It was a crazy year—and I had two small kids at the time.”

Time out

Sabaté thinks spending time outside the lab should be compulsory for applied researchers. “What I’ve learned from reality, from real life, is amazing,” she says. “Once you come back to the lab, you cannot see things in the same way again.”

In particular, it has changed how she views the academic publish-or-perish culture, which she describes as “terrible”.

“My publishing track record is getting low because I only publish what I think is relevant,” she says, adding that she now considers the testing of ideas in the real world as the primary aim of her research.

And she is trying to pass this mindset on, pleased that one of her PhD students wants to launch her own company from the research they are doing together. She says, “I try to discuss this with other researchers and also try to teach my PhD students: ‘Let’s try to see if your ideas work in reality.’” 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com