Boris’ technology delivers a larger crop of fruits and vegetables while cutting carbon emissions
Hi, I’m Boris and I work at Lambda Energy as chief scientist.
What do you do at Lambda Energy?
As chief scientist at Lambda Energy my main role is research into our light management technology. We take incoming sunlight and alter it to increase the yield of crop plants. For instance, we have shown we can improve the yield of basil plants by around 9.3%.
By applying material that we developed on the outside of a greenhouse, the sunlight entering the greenhouse is altered in at least two ways:
- The light becomes diffuse; in other words, it spreads out, which helps it penetrate deeper into the canopy of the plants. That way it can reach parts of the plant that straight sunlight wouldn’t be able to reach. This is helpful for plant growth.
- The material changes the wavelengths of the incoming light, absorbing the short-wavelength light and re-emitting it as red, and red is a wavelength that crop plants particularly like – it makes them more productive.
How does your job affect the world around us?
If we can get our technology to be widely adopted, it will ultimately lead to cheaper and hopefully more abundant fruits and vegetables for everyone. Being able to grow food domestically will allow us to reduce the amount of fruits and vegetables imported from overseas, thus reducing our carbon footprint.
Our technology will help growers lower the electricity they spend on LED lighting to supplement the sunlight. We can even coat miniature garden greenhouses with our paint and feedback from our customers confirms it really does make a difference.
Find out more about how Lambda Energy’s technology makes a difference:
Salary range, skills and qualifications required
- Skills: Technical skills, problem solving, curiosity, acuity, teamwork and communication.
- Salary range: Starting salaries are ~£40k but increase with seniority
- Minimum qualifications: PhD in chemistry.
How did you find your job?
I started as an undergraduate at the University of Heidelberg then went to Florida State University to experience studying abroad. I decided to stay at Florida State University rather than finishing my degree at the University of Heidelberg as I could start my PhD without requiring the master’s.
After I completed my PhD, I had a very short postdoc at MIT – this lasted less than a year due to lack of funding. After this, I had a longer postdoc in Cambridge. When I finished this postdoc, I attempted to establish myself in academia as a group leader but couldn’t get the funding to do so. I then entered the startup world where I worked for a few years before I joined Lambda Energy. I got my current job because my former colleague Monica co-founded Lambda and asked me to come aboard.
What did you learn during your qualification?
Chemistry is the science of matter and of changing matters. You learn a great deal about how the physical world around you works. By the time you understand how things work, you learn what you could do to make them work maybe slightly differently and to your advantage.
What’s your typical day like?
There aren’t really any typical days. My main job is research, which involves doing material development and characterisation with the research group of Professor Dominic Wright at the University of Cambridge. However, there are also a whole lot of other commitments that are absolutely essential if you are workting at a startup, including: applying for funding, investor meetings, explaining the possibilities of the technology to interested parties who may not have much scientific knowledge, briefing external contractors about what we require to grow, site visits and business trips.
What do you love about your job?
Well the pay is not what drives me and the hours are, if anything, a deterrent. The UK is particularly bad when it comes to paying scientists.
The appeal is twofold: I am trying to solve a problem and that is highly motivational and it is amazing to work at a startup. I get to do something that hopefully leaves the world in a better state than I found it. I am doing something beyond providing my kids with an education, money, food and shelter. Something that will, hopefully, make their lives easier and more liveable.
Doing the research in a startup gives me variability, even if that may be distracting sometimes. Ever since I started here, I have not had a single day where I didn’t learn something, and that’s just fantastic – you constantly do something new. Also, as this is a small company, you get to work in other areas of the business and to have a say in what happens. Me, my colleagues and our collaborators also get along very well – it’s a very good atmosphere.
Why did you choose chemistry?
I had a very good teacher in school. He was fantastic. He provided you with information but left enough for you to keep asking for more. He just had a natural talent. For me, it comes down to that. I happened to have had a very, very good chemistry teacher.
What barriers did you encounter on your journey into your role?
As a postdoc I could not secure funding to start up an independent research group in academia which was a barrier at the time but led me into my current role. Now there is a never-ending struggle for funding. Unlike academia the search is for private investment rather than applying for public funding.
What tips and advice would you give to someone who feels inspired to go into something you’ve described or just considering a career in chemistry?
Don’t go in there if you think it’s about money – it’s not about money. Don’t think about things such as personal glory because it’s a team effort – always is and always will be. It is about people pulling together for a common goal.
Other things to watch out for include being prepared to work long hours, trying hard not to get boxed into a corner in terms of scientific sub-speciality and learning how to communicate effectively. You will need to be able to communicate with people from different backgrounds and with different levels of knowledge.
What do you see yourself doing in the future?
It would be great to take Lambda to the point where we really can make a large-scale difference in the world. Right now, we’re using light management for greenhouses, but ultimately you can apply the same or very similar principles to other areas – anything from medical diagnostics to solar PV. If Lambda were to grow, that would be a fantastic thing.
Want to know more?
Boris Breiner, chief scientist of Lambda Energy.
Published October 2023.