Appetiser by Morten Grønborg
When she was 16, Sara Naseri had an idea that could change the world. Because she had a second idea that made it possible to bring the first one to fruition, she now works with scientists and travels around the world as the CEO of her own company. Read her story about creative talent, ambitions and the persistence to get to the top as a global entrepreneur
The first good idea
I talk with Sara several times on Skype. She is in Silicon Valley, I in Copenhagen. I ask her to tell her story from the beginning. We are back in October 2008, to her high school days in Denmark, when the two students dreamed of studying medicine after graduating. Their hope was one day to be able to cure skin cancer. They set themselves a more realistic (if still ambitious) goal – to study how existing sunscreens could be improved to provide better protection against cancer. This was done before, during and after physics lessons at school.
“Back then, we spoke with a number of local pharmacies, bought a bunch of sunscreens and went nerdy with tests all the time. It was creative, and we built the glass frames for the tests ourselves,” Sara tells me.
However, after a number of tests, it became clear to the two girls that it simply wasn’t possible to improve existing sunscreens. The chemical grids of metal oxides that traditional sunscreen is made of cannot be made tighter. Alternative thinking was required, and the idea of adding ozone thus came into being:
“We thought that when there’s a lack of ozone in the ozone layer above us, then it should be possible to bring the ozone down to the ground and create a personal ozone layer on the skin. It was as simple as that.”
The girls decided to take part in Science Cup, an annual Danish entrepreneurial contest for students in secondary education. They had about six months to get their idea ready for the regional finals. Their goal was to win and go through to the national finals.There was just one problem: ozone is very corrosive. It is a so-called aggressive oxidiser, which in larger quantities would attack mucous membranes. This means you can’t simply add ozone to sunscreens.
At about this time, good idea number 2 came along.
The second good idea
If ozone is too dangerous to add directly to the sunscreen, it should be possible to encapsulate it in something, the girls thought. But what? The answer came during a chemistry lesson in which Sara saw an image of a so-called buckyball. This is a naturally occurring molecule resembling a soccer ball that scientists have managed to reproduce artificially.
“When we saw the buckyball, we got very excited and started googling. It should be possible to put ozone into one of them, we thought – a bit like opening one of the panels of a soccer ball and closing it again. This meant the ball could serve as a container,” Sara tells me.
The girls started researching who in the world knew anything about buckyballs. Among those they contacted were chemists at Aarhus University, and in a professor’s office they saw a poster of a buckyball , on which a Nobel laureate professor also appeared.
“We saw his name and thought: Hey, we’ve got to talk to him! So we went hunting for his phone number and called him at his office in Florida, but only got his secretary. I called EVERY day for many weeks, a couple of months I think, and I ended up becoming good friends with the secretary. But then one day, which I figured would be one of the usual no-luck days, he suddenly WAS on the line,” Sara grins. Her English is good, because she and her family lived in England for some time as a child.
The professor turned out to be enthusiastic about and impressed by the idea of using buckyballs commercially in connection with ozone. He put the girls in touch with other leading scientists in the field.
SCENARIO: Did you tell him that you were 16 and a high school student?
Sara: “Um, I can’t quite remember. I guess I did mention what I did, but I’m not certain that he took much note of it. He was just enthusiastic and responsive.”
Encouraged by the conversation with the professor, the girls worked on the their project for the next six months leading up to Science Cup, which was scheduled for April 2009. Among other things, they spent a lot of time at Aarhus University making calculations and verifying their idea about using buckyballs as containers. They also tested the professor’s method of making buckyballs synthetically.
“We worked very hard, did things that nobody else in the contest did, and found sponsors. And then we got in contact with Østjysk Innovation (an organisation that invests in the commercial development of innovative high-tech business ideas; ed.), which showed great interest,” explained Sara.
“Well, right from our very first meeting they said they would like to collaborate to look closer at our idea and possibly invest in our project. This is the first time we realised that there might be money in our idea. We went back to school and were quite out of our minds. To think, a grownup man was sitting there offering us money! At this point I think our school realised that we needed help from adults.”
Pia Møller Jensen, the girls’ physics teacher, stepped in, and over the following years she took on a key role as sparring partner, advisor and confidante.
“She has been with us on almost all our trips around the world. She has been much more than a physics teacher to us – an indispensable friend who has always looked out for us and supported us in all our ups and downs,” Sara tells me.
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