Gates Cambridge Scholar (2011) and alumna Dr Andrea Cabrero Vilatela talks about her experience with start-ups, biomechanics and smart clothing.
At school, Andrea was always curious about how things worked and was naturally drawn to science. She taught maths on a voluntary basis in disadvantaged rural communities near her home and also began teaching sciences at school.
Dr Andrea Cabrero Vilatela hails from an entrepreneurial family and developed a strong interest in science while at school.
Since earning her PhD in Engineering, Nanoscience and Nanotechnology from the University of Cambridge in 2016, she has managed to combine business and science, co-founding a company which embeds different nanomaterials in textiles to make smart clothing, such as sports shirts that monitor the wearer’s breathing rate. The company builds on her academic expertise in nanotechnology and engineering and her experience of working with multiple start-ups at Cambridge.
Last year, Andrea had to make the very difficult decision to close the company. She is now using her experience to mentor and advise other start-ups and plans further entrepreneurial ventures in the future.
This is her story.
An enterprising family
Andrea was born and raised in Mexico City. All of her family, including both of her parents and two sisters, are entrepreneurs. Her two sisters are in start-ups in the natural, healthy food industry, specifically avocado and guacamole food products with no preservatives; her father owned and managed a plastics factory and her mother is a nutritionist who developed an online programme that plans balanced meals for industrial cafeterias and houses. Her mother also designed and led a national educational programme to teach children about the importance of balanced eating and physical activity for a healthy lifestyle.
At school, Andrea was always curious about how things worked and was naturally drawn to science. She taught maths on a voluntary basis in disadvantaged rural communities near her home and also began teaching sciences at school. At first this was for her friends’ siblings, but she was soon offered payment for her services and formalised her teaching.
By the end of high school, she knew she wanted to study science or architecture. Professor Mauricio Terrones, a family friend, who became Andrea’s mentor, advised her to do Engineering Physics since she liked to travel. She followed his advice and was awarded a scholarship for academic excellence at the Universidad Iberoamericana.
During her four-and-a-half years of undergraduate studies, Andrea did a lot of academic and dance teaching. She also worked in the nanoscience and nanotechnology laboratory of her university, doing fundamental research, and undertook several internships, including at Rice University in the US, the Potosino Institute of Science and Technology in Mexico and at the National Institute of Optics, Astrophysics and Electronics, also in Mexico.
In 2008, during her third year, Andrea had the opportunity to do industry-funded research at the Department of Material Science and Metallurgy at the University of Cambridge. This involved microrheology and themodynamic tests on oil and water when different types of carbon nanotubes were added. It was Andrea’s first experience of doing research with industry. The research was during the academic term, and Andrea still had to attend lectures back in Mexico, so she negotiated with her university to let her do online lectures. It was at this time that she fell in love with Cambridge. “It was like a magical town to me,” she says.
Becoming a Gates Cambridge Scholar
Andrea applied to do her master’s in Micro and Nanotechnology Enterprise at Cambridge and started in 2011, just after getting married. She was awarded the Gates Cambridge Scholarship to do her MPhil. Her master’s was very intense and it was not until her PhD, that she got involved with the community side of the scholarship, helping to pilot and lead what became the Gates Learning for Purpose professional development programme.
Andrea’s MPhil dissertation project involved testing carbon nanotube fibres in extreme environments. She was awarded a scholarship from the Cambridge Overseas Trust and the Mexican Institute of Science and Technology, and moved to the Department of Engineering, where she shifted her research to working with graphene. “The focus was on optimising the growth and transfer of electronic grade graphene,” says Andrea. Her research was part of efforts to develop graphene applications in flexible electronics, such as organic LED and liquid crystal devices.
During her PhD in Engineering, she also became more involved in a number of different entrepreneurial activities, including working with different start-ups. She volunteered for Simprints, the digital fingerprint ID company co-founded by Gates Cambridge Scholars, doing work to develop a world-class HR function. She was also director of operations at Cambridge University Technology and Enterprise Club and volunteered at start-up Sparrho, doing marketing work.
Making an impact
Andrea finished her PhD in 2016 and has since published papers on it. Andrea and her husband moved to London where she began a programme called Deep Science Ventures, an intensive six-month venture creation programme, that supports high-performing scientists and engineers to start companies with the potential to make a big impact, providing funding, facilities and a batch of exceptional potential co-founders. During this programme, Andrea co-founded Continuum Technologies, a smart clothing company.
The company attracted investment and started working with a professional sports team. Andrea’s co-founder then left and she continued on her own. She successfully pitched to Nokia, winning the Nokia Open Innovation Challenge at the end of 2017 and was awarded an Innovate UK grant. Her husband, who is a biomedical engineer, started helping part-time as the work became more intense, but Andrea began to reflect on what she wanted in the long term. In order to secure further investment, investors wanted her to commit for several years. She made a difficult decision and decided to close the company.
Andrea still has the patents and feels she could start the company up again, maybe with more of a team next time in order to diversify skills and share the journey. For now, she has gone back to teaching, which she missed. She is also working part-time with a friend in a start-up in Cambridge, and has started doing part-time work with a US start-up which wants to enter the European market. The company is developing new technologies with graphite and advanced graphite materials, so it aligns with Andrea's previous work. “My experience with Continuum Technologies is invaluable. I'm now using it to help contribute in other teams and I will probably draw on it in the future to start a new venture," she says.
This article has been edited from the Gates Cambridge website.