Giorgia Longobardi is the co-founder and CEO of Cambridge GaN Devices (CGD), a University of Cambridge spin-out that delivers the most efficient and easy-to-use transistor, based on Gallium Nitride (GaN), the semiconductor of the future. The vision is to use CGD transistors to power up the new era of consumer, industrial, and automotive electronics via efficient and light power components. Why using bulky, slow and hot chargers when there is an efficient fast and light solution? Thanks to their proprietary technology based on GaN, CGD enables the design of power supplies for consumer electronics, data centres and on-board chargers of Electric Vehicles that can deliver more power per unit time, speeding up the charging process and ultimately saving energy. In applications such as data centres power supplies, CGD transistor can enable up to 10% savings in energy bills and can save millions of tons of CO2 emissions. IQ Capital invested in CGD’s Series A round in January 2021.
IQ Capital: Could you tell us more about your own background?
Giorgia: I am from Napoli in Italy, it is a very interesting city so alive and at the same time full of challenges where people have to learn how to make things happen, and I think this is really where everything started. I was studying Latin, Ancient Greek and philosophy at secondary school, then I decided to keep that as a hobby and pursue electronic engineering (I still have many books at my parents’ that they are desperately trying to get rid of, but have not managed to yet!). I’ve always liked physics and mathematics because I loved the challenge of finding a solution. I loved the abstract side of mathematics, reading that language, solving something and arriving at a certain conclusion has always been a thrill. I chose engineering because I wanted to apply math and physics and make something out of it.
I was studying math and electronics every day before my lectures. Even as I caught up with the class, several people were telling me that I had no place in electronic engineering. I had moments when I thought “maybe this is not my place” but you just have to believe in yourself. I have that challenging mindset, that’s what’s driven me all this time. At the end of my Master’s degree, I came to Cambridge with an Erasmus programme for six months, then I did a PhD at the University of Cambridge in Gallium Nitride power devices and the analysis of trapping mechanisms.
Could you also tell us more about your company, Cambridge GaN Devices?
We design and commercialise power switches. A power switch is like any other switch but it is controlled by voltage and current. Depending on the voltage you apply, you either have current flowing or not. What we do is a switch based in Gallium Nitride which is the most efficient semi-conductor material. We make sure that as well as being efficient, we also make it easy to use and reliable which means that all the power supply manufacturers don’t have to waste years to adopt this new technology. When you have a switch like that, its application areas in low-power devices can be phones, computers and also gaming consoles. Those power supplies will also be more energy efficient but also more compact, which is something you want if you are travelling and want to charge multiple devices with one power supply. On the other hand, in high power applications the switches can enable technology such as electric vehicles because if adopted in on-board chargers then you can have something much lighter, and if you save energy during transfer process then the battery can last for longer because it transferred more energy per charging time.
Were there any particularly useful programmes or people that helped you learn some of that, or was it is all just learning by doing?
Being supported by so many people has been instrumental, on my own I would not have done all of this. Cambridge Enterprise helped first because of their Post Doc business plan competition, which was very useful because as an academic you’re always focused on writing papers, deadlines, h-index, etc so you are always trying to get to the next citation and the next paper. The business plan competition made me stop, put papers aside for a moment and concentrate on the process. The mentors and entrepreneurs in residence helped me shape the business plan. After that, there were many people who supported me: the Royal Academy of Engineering via their SME Leaders Programme, the Fellows at Gonville & Caius College at the University of Cambridge, all the people in the Cambridge ecosystem as well. Once I received the Seed funding, I also had support of the investors on the board, as well as the senior team within the company. And the rest is a lot of learning by doing and believing in your own vision.
Could you tell us about how you chose IQ Capital as a partner in your journey?
What I liked about IQ was the understanding of the business and the experience in investing in technology-based businesses. I also met Kerry Baldwin [Managing Partner at IQ Capital] in a previous panel about raising Series A investment. It was very early-stage for us because we were only a few months away from starting to raise capital but what she said in the panel about the vision around the team and how much you wanted to get to meet the team and see that it wasn’t just the technology. That is also something very important to me so that was the very first reason why I wanted to work with IQ Capital.
“What I liked about IQ was the understanding of the business and the experience in investing in technology-based businesses.”
It is still early days, but are there ways in which you see how IQ Capital could be helping you in the future, or how we started to help you on your journey?
I’m sure there are going to be many ways going ahead, seeing how things are going at the moment. For instance, the team have been very helpful with hiring key people, putting together the right corporate governance in the company, sharing our job ads. Also, I have recently participated in a portfolio event on SPACs and IPOs which was a totally new subject for me and engaging with their other portfolio founders. Anything that can expose me to what comes next is absolutely useful, and marketing is also very important for companies at our stage.
How would you talk about the sort of environment and sustainability aspect of the technology, it is a core piece of what you are doing: is this something that absolutely matters a lot to you?
That is key for me but also for the rest of the team. A few months ago, we did an exercise to refine our values and purpose, and the whole team agreed on the purpose being to Commit to a Greener World and a Sustainable Future with Advanced Power Electronics. . All the team members really want to make an impact with the technology, which goes beyond selling products and making money. That is a key part of our strategy, so we have identified several points defining the company going ahead, what I call the “eight strategy points”, and one of them is about green policies and partnerships. I will also be focused on developing policies in the political sphere to make sure that CGD can influence them as much as possible.
In terms of advice to people setting out on the entrepreneurial journey, what would your key advice be to other scientists and deep tech founders thinking of setting up a company? And what would you advise your younger self?
The first advice I’d give is to ‘be there’. It can sometimes be difficult, especially in Cambridge where there is so much going on, and there are always opportunities and things to be done if you’re successful in your career. There is always something new that you can be involved in. I would also advise them to find advisors because that’s the advantage of the Cambridge ecosystem: there are numerous people that are willing to share their experience and help you believe that you can make it and give you confidence. I would say to go out and talk to people.
My advice to my younger self would be not to be afraid to make mistakes and to always be yourself Also, I would tell her to believe that things can happen even if there isn’t a perfect plan in place yet. It is very important for any entrepreneur because the plan comes together as the company grows, so anybody who wants to have everything fully designed to start with might have a bit of a shock during the journey.
How about any advice specifically around raising venture capital institutional investment?
I would say to start the process as early as possible to make sure you understand your investors and what they are looking for. Getting to know the investors that are going to join you on the board and on the journey is very important, so talk to people who have the same investors on their boards as you and get to know them, not just being focused on making sure that all the questions are answered but also trying to initiate that relationship which is going to be quite important going ahead.
“Talk to people who have the same investors on their boards as you and get to know them, not just being focused on making sure that all the questions are answered but also trying to initiate that relationship which is going to be quite important going ahead.”
Could you tell us more about what the culture is like at CGD, and how would you define it?
The culture is well described by some of the values that we have put together, for instance empowering people. It means all of us taking responsibility and knowing where we are going. CGD is a company where I want to give clarity and transparency, and people have to be part of the journey, the team knows all the details of what I am currently working on. Although there is a hierarchy because that is important for certain things, information is shared and opinions of people are heard independently from their level within the structure. There are lots of people who have joined us because they see in CGD a company which creates and is always working on an innovative idea and that’s what stimulates many of the engineers, as well as anything associated with the green impact.
In terms of hiring teams for early-stage companies, have you found any guiding principles to be really useful or do you have any general advice on a good approach? What about company culture?
Make sure you hire people you can work well with, and who share your values. Many things can be learned but if people are not sharing your vision, or your values more importantly, then it becomes a challenge later on. This is what I have followed, and it’s been very useful all these years. There are challenging moments but when you see that the whole team is facing them together, it becomes suddenly much easier to work through these.
I spent a lot of time defining CGD’s culture, particularly during and after the Seed funding, and after the Series A. Every time there are a few people being hired at the same time, I make sure that the company culture is transmitted. In practice, I spend a lot of time making sure that the management team pass on our values in their communications, embrace the culture, and include that culture in their own conversations with the team. This is very important as the company grows and teams are created. At the moment, I only have one meeting a month with the whole company and only by working with the managers the company culture can be transmitted in daily communications
“Every time there are a few people being hired at the same time, […] I spend a lot of time making sure that the management team pass on our values in their communications, embrace the culture, and include that culture in their own conversations with the team.”
Do you ever have time to relax and if yes, how do you relax?
I have to find time for relaxing. I love to run. I used to be an athlete when I was younger. These days I just run 5-10km. I also do yoga, and I particularly enjoy hot yoga. I also love to stay at home to read. I started running when I was 10 in middle school, and I just remember that there were entry tests in history, mathematics, physics and athletics. I had no idea about athletics but I wanted to do it and to pass this test. I had no idea what the long jump was, and I was in the street with whatever shoes I had at that time I was just putting a line on the road, always jumping still from one point to another, always trying to go to the next one. At the end of the three years, before entering secondary school, I was the fastest in the school. It was the best time of my life!
These days, my favourite way of relaxing is scuba diving. Whenever I am under the water, I feel like I’m starting to breathe so it’s kind of strange but it’s something I feel. The first place I experienced it was in Pemba, a small island in front of Tanzania. Your mind is so still when you dive, and at the same time you know you are very privileged to be there, you had to gain the access, it’s not given to you just because you go out. What I also love about scuba diving is the moment when you come out and share what you’ve just seen with a group, because under the water nobody can talk but you see so many things. That moment when you emerge from the water to share your dive with others is incredible.
What would you say is your greatest achievement, either personal or with the company? And conversely, what about your biggest challenge?
My greatest achievement is having convinced the team to join us on our journey. We have raised investment and demonstrated the technology, but having people, and especially young people, to believe in a company that is growing and they want to grow with the company is an even bigger thing. We are still an early-stage company, we have already won some prizes and grants, but the best is yet to come!
In terms of challenges, adapting to the company needs as it grows can be challenging. As a CEO that has been leading the company since its first steps it was important for me to realise that the shift of focus of my work changes with time and the team has to grow dynamically and fast to allow this shift. This translates in developing an effective management style which can be challenging and it is something I want to work on. Everyone is different and is driven by different things, it’s important to understand that and make sure that the communication works in such a way that that diversity is properly channelled in both the individual and company success.
Are there ways in which you do or you plan to give back to the ecosystem?
One of my aims is not only to grow a company and bring it to become market leader, but also have an impact which goes beyond helping the environment. As a female entrepreneur at my age, I have a responsibility to share and help others. If there is anything I learn and I can pass on, I would love to do so. My diary is crazy but if there is a chance of helping someone else, maybe have a quick chat with a post-doc or perhaps give a talk to someone that is at an earlier stage than mine, I try to find the time because that’s what helped me grow and reach the steps that I have reached.
Credit photo: Cambridge Graphene Centre – University of Cambridge