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By helping bridge the gap between PhD and research fellowship, the EPSRC IAA Follow-on Fund has enabled Dr Giorgia Longobardi to work on prototyping a new generation of power devices, file two patents and set up her own company.

Since she completed her PhD in 2014, Dr Giorgia Longobardi has achieved extraordinary things. As an electronics engineer, her PhD focussed on the physics of power devices – the things that sit between the grid and batteries in our computers and mobile phones.

The trouble with these devices is that because they become hot, they waste significant amounts of energy. Longobardi believes that by developing new materials and designing them in new ways, she can make such devices much more efficient, saving energy and cutting carbon emissions.

“The way I'm trying to do this is by making these devices in gallium nitride, a material which has physical properties such that when there is energy on them the power dissipation is much lower. I am using this novel material and developing novel designs, with different geometry and physical elements, to make the devices more efficient,” she explains.

She applied to the EPSRC IAA Follow-on Fund with her group leader Professor Florin Udrea, and the £75,000 funding has played a major role in getting Longobardi to where she is now. “Without it, I would probably have looked for a job because it was too early for me to get a research fellowship and I needed a salary,” she recalls.

Thanks to the Follow-on Fund, she was able to continue with her research and acquire the other devices on the market in order to study them and compare them with her own idea. “The funding gave me some breathing space to work on my idea, which meant I could apply for a research fellowship at Gonville & Caius College to fund me for the next four years,” she says.

The project attracted interest from two semiconductor companies, which led to a collaboration with the Department of Engineering, and in 2016 she entered – and won – the Cambridge Enterprise EPOC Business Plan Competition and established a spin-out company, Cambridge GaN Devices.

Longobardi attributes her success to several things, including her personality. “I was always thinking of why I wanted a PhD, what it was for; it's part of my character,” she says. The environment at Engineering and within her research group – in particular the experience of her supervisor Professor Florin Udrea – was also key. “My PI has always been supportive of my research, and kind. He talked about the successes and failures of his own companies, and that was really important – passing on a picture of what it's like to run a company.”

Given that she is breaking new ground, it goes without saying that the physics is hard. But communication has also been a challenging part of the IAA process. “The first challenge was writing the application. It was the first time I'd had to put my knowledge and ideas into a simple business plan, talking about the market, my competitors and potential collaborators,” she admits.

Developing the confidence to talk accessibly about research in order to engage with a wider audience has been both challenging and rewarding: “Being able to communicate with investors and others outside academia is crucial,” she explains. “It's about helping them understand rather than showing them how much you know.”

Longobardi has also learned that much of what she feared about commercialising her research – registering a company, for example – has been far easier than she thought, not least because of the other postdocs and mentors she met through Cambridge Enterprise and EPOC, the postdoc entrepreneurship society. “It's important to have role models, to be inspired by others. Commercialising your research isn't for everybody, but if you do it, having the opportunity to ask simple questions of people who've already done it  is really important,” she says.

Occasionally, she still has moments when having a job in someone else's business seems attractive. But such thoughts don't last long. “What I am doing is so exciting. I'm doing technical work and research, which I love, and at the same time I'm learning how the business world works. And I'm creating something,” she concludes. “I've created a job for someone to fabricate something I believe in – and that's an amazing feeling.”