A conversation with Ffion Rolph, Rapid Innovation Group Project Director

RIG’s summer intern, Nadya Kelly, sat down for lunch with Ffion Rolph, RIG’s project director. Over some pizza and coffee, they discussed Ffion’s time at RIG, technology interests, and gender issues.

NK: How did you end up working for RIG?

FR: Honestly, I came out of university, and like most people, didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had a couple of ideas. I’ve always been into politics – I studied it at university and had been working at the Welsh Assembly for a while before I came across RIG. A friend knew someone who worked here. I decided it looked interesting and after meeting Shields a few times, it seemed like the right fit.

NK: What did you want to do as a kid, and how does working at RIG square up to your first aspirations?

FR: When I was younger, I was (and still am) really into sports. I wanted to be the first female Formula One champion. I’m a bit of a speed freak. As I got older, I wanted to be a barrister for a while, but I’ve always had a strong interest in science and technology. I feel like at RIG, I’m really engaging the geekier side of my personality and getting to indulge that.

NK: What do you say when you meet someone new and they ask you what you do?

FR: I tend to tell people about the tech and the specific challenges that I’m working on at the time. I find giving examples really helps. Most of the time people find those technologies interesting so it’s a great starting point!

NK: Do you enjoy having a broad scope of work at RIG or would you like to delve further into specific companies that really interest you?

FR: Deep down, I am probably a generalist. I really like variety but sometimes it can be rewarding or even essential for RIG to develop an intimate understanding of molecular level science. We have to get to know the industries in which we work, inside out. I enjoy new challenges, learning about new technologies, and maintaining the possibility of getting involved in many different fields.

NK: The natural next question is what are your specific interests in technology, and what do you think is particularly interesting right now?

FR: At risk of sounding cliché, energy is a huge challenge facing the world right now. There’s an emphasis on finding solutions for energy generation but that really is only half of the puzzle. Now we have a variety of renewable energy sources generating intermittent energy, there will be challenges to do with ensuring supply if we are to successfully transition to a renewable grid.

The automotive industry is really what is driving things forward in terms of battery storage but I think there’s also space for other solutions that might be more geared towards grid-scale storage; things like Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES). I think that the energy storage challenge definitely needs a bit more attention and funding over the next decade or two. Once we match storage with generation, we will have a complete solution.

The other thing I think is probably water. I’m going for the big themes! We’re always told that the world has enough food to feed itself two or three times over but that we just can’t distribute it. With water, we will have to address increasing shortages otherwise we face significant political and humanitarian consequences.

I think people are starting to become aware of the issues around meat and how much energy it takes to create one serving of beef, for example. People are starting to think about sustainable farming, how we distribute food to the areas of the world that need that food. We might be looking back at subsistence farming, which is how agriculture started. So I don’t think food is so much of a problem, but water, especially with climate change, is going to become a very scarce resource, so making the most of the water that we have, being able to reuse it, treat it efficiently, to use less energy when treating it, is going to become very important. So, what’s interesting today is working with the technologies that address the treatment of water and the energy required to use it.

NK: Do you enjoy a particular part of the process of helping companies to grow the most?

FR: I think because I like learning a lot about new things, the first few months – which are all about having conversations with experts in the market, learning about why or why not a technology might be interesting, becoming an expert in that sort of space – is always very satisfying. If you have any intellectual curiosity, you’d love doing that kind of thing. Once you’ve got enough knowledge of the market to understand how the technology might succeed, it’s very exciting to put together significant commercial deals either with a large internationally recognised partner – the Veolias of the world – or to get involved in direct sales. There is a certain excitement involved in sales and a sense of achievement in completing any deal, so I think that’s probably where I would look to focus in the future. I’ll still retain the intellectual curiosity but I think putting together relationships to deliver technologies that make a sustainable and meaningful difference to people’s lives is fairly exciting.

NK: Given a good idea, do you think your experience at RIG means you would now be excellently placed now to become an entrepreneur?

FR: Definitely, and I’d like to think if I came up with an idea for a company and there was an opportunity to do something then maybe I could build that within RIG. I wouldn’t want to hand it over to anyone else. If I started a company tomorrow, I would grow it by following everything that I already do at RIG to the same principles. I would love to be able to do that one day. I mostly want to own a restaurant which is still being an entrepreneur but a bit more on your feet!

NK: Do you think there is a gender issue at RIG? Is it problematic?

FR: I think when you look at the company, yes, it is easy to think that there’s a gender problem because there aren’t many women, and all the equity partners and directors are male. I don’t think, however, that there’s any lack of desire to hire more women. We would really like to have more women on the team; we’d like it to look 50:50 at least.

While RIG has its part to play, there is also a societal challenge around getting women into STEM subjects and careers. We still want to do everything we can to change that. I play an active role in recruitment: I place vacancies for grads and interns, and the ratio of applications that we get is really five-to-one male to female. So, while we want to hire more women, when the pool is so biased, it can be difficult. That isn’t to say that we don’t make a concerted effort to hire women but it does highlight part of the challenge faced by RIG and companies like it.

So yes, there is a challenge around gender at RIG but the company undoubtedly has several feminists, including men. Everyone, including women, can be guilty of internalised sexism but RIG is definitely an atmosphere where those notions can be challenged. People are very open to new ideas.

NK: What’s been the most challenging thing for you at RIG?

FR: Learning to understand that not every company we work with will succeed. Obviously, what we are interested in is building companies that solve macro-challenges, global challenges. Some of those companies may grow to be very big but Shields has always said we’re quite good at keeping companies going or maintaining a reasonable rate of growth, but that’s not why we or any of the entrepreneurs we work with are doing this. It’s a cliché but it comes with the idealism of entrepreneurs: they want to either ‘change the world’ or build huge financially successful companies. I still do and will always find it difficult when we stop working with a company. There are many reasons why: the company stops being successful; we discover that there is no market for its technology; or there is a technical issue which cannot be resolved. Regardless, it always feels a bit like a break-up.

I’ve worked with a few technologies which, on paper, sounded great. There was one which had a great story… We were setting up conversations with global players across a number of industries. Things were progressing well but once we started testing programmes with some of these potential partners, the technology did not perform as expected. That was sad and it’s fair to say I found it tough.

NK: How do you address the subtle diplomacy involved in dealing with clients?

FR: I think you have to be fairly emotionally intelligent and have a good deal of empathy. I think you have to remind yourself that even though it may be clear that the market is saying one thing (i.e. it challenges the entrepreneur’s views), you have to imagine that if you had developed the technology over 3, 5, 10 years like some of our clients, it would be like your child. If someone tells a parent their child is naughty or does something wrong, the parent doesn’t take kindly to it. It might be a weird analogy but I think you know what I mean.

All of us want to see the technologies that we work with succeed, but it’s all about how you deliver messages. We’re all on the same team at the end of the day. We have the same objectives but the honest feedback is not always what people want to hear.

It is important to appreciate they (our clients) are experts in what they do; visionaries who’ve developed something entirely novel. They’ve seen an opportunity, they’ve developed a great idea, they’ve built a technology. That requires a great deal of capability so you have to be conscious that some of their objections are quite valid. It doesn’t mean it’s not sometimes frustrating!