Suzanne Zamany Andersen is a postdoc at DTU Physics in the department of surface physics and catalysis. Her future startup, Nitrofix Solutions, is in the new Villum Power-to-X accelerator, and in this interview, she shares her journey from Ph.D. student to postdoc to entrepreneur.

Please tell us what your research is about and why it is important.

I have spent the past 6 years studying electrochemical nitrogen reduction, which is a process of synthesizing ammonia using electricity as the driving force. Commercial ammonia production was developed over 100 years ago and has been hailed as the most important invention of the previous century. Without it, half of us today wouldn’t be alive, because ammonia is used as a synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizer, thereby enabling the explosive population boom of the past century. But the process emits around ~1.3% of our global CO2 emissions, and the production takes place at huge centralized +billion USD facilities that developing countries cannot afford to build. Farmers in remote locations must transport it halfway across the world, thereby emitting even more CO2, and they must purchase the fertilizers at a significant mark-up because of this extra transport, putting them at a significant disadvantage.

My research can change that, as we have found a method to produce ammonia decentralized and sustainably, directly at the farm, using only air, water, and (green) electricity as the input.

What possibilities does the Villum Power-to-X (VPX) accelerator fellowship open to you and what are your plans?

Through years of fundamental research at the research groups of SURFCAT and CATTHEORY here at DTU Physics, we found a novel method to make ammonia using only air, water, and electricity, and we have proven that it works on a small-scale in the lab, on the order of milligrams to grams. But now we need to scale that up to a pilot unit capable of ~kilogram/day ammonia production. And VPX can help us bridge that gap. Access to the Villum power-to-X accelerator has enabled us to hire employees who can help us upscale our system from a small research project to a pilot unit we can bring out and test at a farm. The accelerator has therefore catapulted our development, and we are extremely grateful to have been picked as the first cohort.

What was your motivation to pursue a career in physics and later, to become an entrepreneur?

I have always been curious to understand how things work, and I have also always been a problem-solver. When I was a kid, my parents would receive an endless stream of questions about how everything worked, and at some point, my father got tired and gave me an encyclopedia, which was my favorite book at age 10. Studying engineering, and specifically physics, made a lot of sense to me, since I could finally get some of the answers I had hungered for since I was a kid.

After finishing my M.Sc. in Physics Engineering at DTU, I knew I wanted a Ph.D., because I wasn’t done studying and learning new things. I really enjoyed the applicability of catalysis, and specifically the ammonia project was exciting because of the huge potential humanitarian impact it could have. Once the project started to get results during my Ph.D., I just knew I had to bring it to market, which has now led me towards becoming an entrepreneur.

Have you had any role models or mentors? If so, what inspiration did you get from them?

So many people have both inspired me and without the support of these incredible people, I would not be at the point I am today. And this section is not big enough to cover all of them unfortunately, so I will just point out a few.

Prof. Peter C.K. Vesborg, my Ph.D. supervisor, has been a huge inspiration as a scientist, because he is a person who knows a lot about many topics, and a little about everything, whether it’s rocket science, catalysis, batteries, transportation, infrastructure, history, etc. He genuinely cares about the Ph.D. students he supervises, and his door is always open. Prof. Ib Chorkendorff is another big inspiration, as he is the mind behind the ammonia project, and saw the importance of decentralized fertilizer production 20 years ago. Furthermore, he expects the highest level of rigor and thoroughness from his students and has instilled this sense of proper work ethic throughout the section.

I did a special course with Prof. Anja Andersen during my M.Sc. at the dark cosmology center, and her passion for understanding the universe was absolutely contagious, and additionally, she was just a phenomenal supervisor. On top of this, she is incredibly enthusiastic about teaching astrophysics to both children and adults, and if more professors were like her, the public would be much more excited to learn about STEM sciences. I also want to give a shoutout to Dr. Mattia Saccoccio. He will be the CTO in Nitrofix Solutions, and his technical brilliance and overall thoughtfulness makes him a perfect partner to do a startup with, and I probably would not be pursuing the startup if he hadn’t joined me on this journey.

What advice would you give to young people (in particular women and minorities) who would like to pursue a career in science and/or entrepreneurship?

First of all, it is important not to let negative comments get to you. There will always be someone who through their own insecurities thinks that by putting others down, they raise themselves up, which is obviously not the case. I have gotten many sexist comments throughout my degree, and the best thing to do, is to ignore it. And the best way to do that is to surround yourself with people who support you. Find a good group of fellow students that you can work together with, because STEM is hard! The best way to get through your degree is to share the load and do the work together with others. Plus, groupwork is an important skill to have for your professional career. Also, it is okay not to be great at everything. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and while it is good to work on improving your skills, it’s also okay to accept that you don’t necessarily excel at everything.

My journey into entrepreneurship is still at the early stage, so I can’t say that my advice here is based on much experience, but overall, the most important part thus far has been networking. You cannot do everything yourself as an entrepreneur, so it is so important to have a strong network of people who can support you, advise you, and introduce you to the people you need. Don’t be afraid to reach out. It continuously amazes me how many people are willing to take a ~30 min coffee meeting, and most of these are also very open to helping you advance your startup.  

What do you think can be done to advance the careers of women and minorities in science and encourage a more diverse group to become entrepreneurs?

I think we need more role models to look up to. In my experience, most of the people above me in the hierarchy are Caucasian men above a certain age, which makes it hard to find someone that I can see myself in. Furthermore, there is a huge bias against women and minority entrepreneurs. Recent Danish statistics show that roughly 33% of entrepreneurs are women, but they only receive around 1% of the total funding available. And this is despite the fact that businesses founded by women ultimately deliver higher revenue – more than twice as much per dollar invested – than those founded by men, making women-owned companies a much better investment. During these investment rounds, women also get different types of questions compared to their male colleagues. Male entrepreneurs typically get opportunity-based questions, while female entrepreneurs receive more questions based on risks and potential for failure. The easiest solution here is to ask the same questions, regardless of gender or nationality, and additionally ensure that there are more female and diverse partners in venture capital firms. We need to create equal opportunities throughout all levels of society, and the fastest way to do that is to start diversifying the higher up decision-making positions.

Photo credit: Victor Juul Grønbæk, Effektivt Landbrug.