Alumni talks: Joan Hereu Morales
Transferring what you study into the real world is often a challenging task, but it is one that researcher Joan Hereu Morales is taking in his stride. CommUnity by EIT InnoEnergy spoke to him about his studies, how his work is contributing to the energy transition and how the pandemic has affected it.
What was the main thing you took from your academic studies into the “real world”, if we can call it that?
My Master's was a very complete course. I got a hint of more technological things with regards to renewable energy as well as some business insights. It was very diverse in concepts. But the most valuable thing I got from it is that I realised that when you put people together with the same mindset, with the same goals and the same vision, then you get amazing things happening. I got the chance to work at two cleantech startups. And there I saw it for myself, I saw that when people are really motivated for what they do, when they identify with what they do, that is when you really see great work.
Was it good preparation for what you are doing now?
It was quite practical. Of course, there are always theoretical classes and theoretical subjects. You cannot go into the practical world without getting a hint on the theory first. We had a couple of projects with very big, important companies from the energy sector. And that was very positive hands-on work, where we got a lot of a lot of insights and learnings. The internships I did on my own initiative is where I really got my first real experience of entrepreneurship and innovation. I got to see for myself what a startup is, and how it works.
What is your current role?
I’m currently innovating within sustainability on two different sides. On one side, I’m working as a full-time researcher, pursuing a PhD on sustainability in UPC since November 2019. My research is focused on the understanding of sustainability and the creation of new tools and methodologies to quantify it and integrate it within decision-making processes.
On the other side, I work on my own start-up project within consumer sustainability, called Sorvi, which started two years ago, before the PhD. In October 2019, it started to be incubated by Innoenergy via the SideWalk programme. In June 2020, Rafael Martins, a colleague from the M.Sc. RENE joined as UX/UI designer, and together we completed the SideWalk last December. We’re now going through the process of professionalising.
Personally, I have been working on both the PhD and the start-up project over the last year. It was doable when both were at an early stage, and they complemented each other with great value. It came to a point though, when I could no longer be in charge of both. I am very happy to share that since the beginning of 2021, Rafael is taking good charge of Sorvi. My task now within it is to complement the entrepreneurial work with a scientific backbone, making sure that what we’re creating is based on science and adds value to our society.
Tell us more about the project and its link to the energy transition.
We have realised that the way we consume, the way that consumption patterns are happening right now is very impactful on the environment, as well as on society itself. Here is where we want to make a change. We're trying to develop an online digital marketplace, which is full of sustainable products. People can see not only that those products are sustainable because we say they are, but also check by themselves. Why are those products sustainable? And what impact do those products have on environmental, social and economic aspects? We believe that by putting this issue closer to people, we are going to be able to change the way we consume and foster more sustainable behaviour. We believe that we can make an impact on the way our world behaves, and on the impact that our society has on the planet.
Have you taken inspiration for this from somewhere else or is it a totally unique idea?
There are already some solutions that work on similar concepts. In the beginning, the project was focused on carbon footprint. So the inspiration came from online carbon footprint calculators, which have been going on for years, even decades. But what we're trying to do is to take a much more practical approach. One big disadvantage of carbon footprint calculations is that they take a lot of time for people to go through. You have to input a lot of data, and you spend a lot of time just to get one number at the end. And then there's another problem: this number, this X kilogrammes of CO2, doesn't represent the whole spectrum of sustainability, because how we affect the environment is not only related to CO2. There are many other environmental factors, to which we need to add the social and economic sides of sustainability. People also don't understand what "100 grammes of CO2", for example, actually means. You can put it in more understandable units, but you’re still using a core unit or quantity that nobody is able to understand practically.
Realising these things encouraged us to move away from carbon footprint. What we're trying to do now is to put real scientific information about the sustainability of products closer to people. We want to encourage consumers to buy things based on sustainability tips, on synthesised information that they can understand, on concepts that they can integrate into their daily decision-making with regards to consumption.
How has your transition between learning and ‘doing’ gone? Have the skills transferred?
In the beginning, I was inspired by carbon footprint calculators, and there's a scientific method that goes a step beyond this, the LCA, life-cycle analysis, which I learned about during the Master's. I also developed, especially thanks to my experiences with startups, dynamic startup capacities, and this capacity to organise yourself, to classify your tasks and focus on what’s most relevant, as well as analytical skills, adaptability and flexibility. In startup environments, and innovation projects, things are always changing, pretty fast, and you need to adapt to these changes. I learned that the way you shape an innovation project is not the same way you design something in engineering, which was my background. One of the most direct things that I learned during my studies was how to learn within this dynamic atmosphere, which was new for me. So the main insight was on the process of learning and adapting more than on exact technical things.
How has the pandemic affected you? Will it change the way you work?
I think the pandemic has had both positive and negative effects on what I do on a daily basis. On the positive side: the fact that we are digitalising so much, especially in our workplaces and our working environments, means it's now more common to see people working from home. That makes it easier for us to progress. From the very beginning, it was clear that we have to be a remote company, because of our circumstances: Rafa lives in Antwerp, Belgium, while I’m currently living in Girona, Spain. Maybe a couple of years ago that was difficult to explain to investors, to customers, to your users, to the people you work with on a daily basis. And now, it's like it's normal, it doesn’t matter if a person is in Portugal, in Belgium, in Greece, or in Finland.
But it has had negative effects as well when it comes to my ongoing studies. For a lot of it, I have been alone and isolated from colleagues and advisors. It has taught me that it's really good to have people around you doing what you're doing as well. Now I have a colleague in the innovation project. Now I have a colleague as well inside the research group. And I appreciate that a lot. When you work together with people, and these people have more or less the same objectives, the same vision, even if they have different backgrounds and different ways of doing things, it's really good to get this constant feedback and have these human interactions. In the end, we’re human beings, not machines.
What are the next steps for you? With the app, for example.
We have some pretty interesting milestones coming up. We don't have a commercial application yet. Our goal is to have this by the end of this year. But we have some other important steps to take before that. We're registering the company very soon and diversifying the team, which will help us have the strong basis and environment we need to get to the goal of having a commercial version by the end of the year. On the academic side, I hope to become a doctor in sustainability in the following years. What I'm doing in the PhD aims to design methodologies and tools that can help us quantify and integrate sustainability on a daily basis, which actually fits well within the start-up vision. So now when we talk about sustainability, especially from a scientific point of view, it's a very complex concept. And it's a significant challenge to translate this complex concept into easy insights that can help people in their daily lives. I believe that expanding the expertise on this aspect of sustainability via the PhD will help the start-up very positively, especially in maintaining the core sustainability value of this new way of consuming, which we want to foster.