Professor Ji-Seon Kim“I am very happy in the lab working on fundamental research, and where it can be directly used for industrial partners I have been pleased with those interactions. To set up my own company would shift my attention away from my research, so I enjoy working in this way for now.”

Ji-Seon Kim is a Professor of Solid State Physics and Director of the Plastic Electronics Centre for Doctoral Training at Imperial College London. Her research focuses on soft (plastic) electronics, which are very different from standard silicon-based electronics. They use the processability and functionality of soft electronic materials (organic and organic-inorganic hybrid semiconductors) for new devices including displays, solar cells, transistors and biosensors.

“Much of my work is to understand the basic science of these new carbon-based soft electronic materials. If you understand the materials used, you can change their optical and electronic properties by manipulating the way you process them. Understanding their structure-property relationships is critical”, Professor Kim explains.

She and her team make all of their devices from semiconductor inks and can print them rather than using the expensive tools needed to make silicon-based semiconductor devices. They are more flexible, light, thin, stretchable and low-cost than those made from silicon.  There is no limitation on size as they are printed, and as they are carbon based they are compatible with biosensors. It also means her work is incredibly attractive to industry, which she has been collaborating with since her PhD.

Proving consultancy

During that time, working under the supervision of Professor Sir Richard Friend in Cambridge, who had his own spin-out company, Professor Kim began to provide scientific support for companies as a technical consultant working on display devices. In the two decades since, she has researched and consulted for corporations like Samsung, CDT Ltd, CSEM Brazil and KP-Tech, including on work to develop flexible solar cells, image sensors for mobile phones and soft electronic devices for healthcare.

She has no strong current desire to set up her own business but enjoys three main interactions with industrial partners: firstly, as in her early research career, she acts as a technical consultant, performing research and giving advice; secondly she supports students in their PhDs engaging them with industrial partners; and thirdly securing funding for larger research projects for organisations like Samsung.

Building trust

Professor Ji-Seon KimProfessor Kim has advice for others looking for funding from or collaboration with the private sector: “Most people think that interaction with industry brings big funding in the beginning because industry is connected to the real market, but it’s not true. My experience is that building trust in the initial stages is critical. They are testing you and your ability, and once they realise what information you can provide, then you can have deeper interactions. Gaining trust between academic and industrial partners is the first, but most critical step and from there the relationship can grow.” 

It is not always easy for female entrepreneurs, particularly in male-dominated fields of research like hers: “We need female power. Sometimes I feel like if we do industrial projects with colleagues, most of whom are male, even though I am the lead, there is an assumption that the man is the leader. Cultural factors play a role in women’s confidence, and I’ve noticed that in some of my industry interactions people haven’t had much opportunity to work with female academics.”

She concludes: “I would like to see more mentoring schemes, matching female academics with strong skills in certain areas to those who have already been through certain routes to build confidence. If I had known and had had discussions and close interactions with mentors, then I may have had more confidence. There have been improvements in the way things are during my career but there is still a long way to go.”