Dr Manuel Piñuela
When Manuel was a young boy and was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, his answer was always the same: “I want to be an inventor!” Fast-forward 30 years and he has launched three technology start-ups. His latest venture, Cultivo, is helping restore the natural world around us.
From building Lego to growing start-ups
Manuel’s success story started in Mexico where he grew up and completed his undergraduate degree in electrical and electronic engineering, focusing on the development of biomedical devices. He recalls, “When I studied my undergraduate degree, they set challenges to push us, such as creating an incubator for new-borns for $5. The whole point was learning how to make something that works, with not a lot of money. And I took these skills to Imperial.”
He realised a PhD was the logical next step for him: “When I decided to do a PhD, I already had a start-up and had moved to Houston, Texas, to work a for a large corporate organisation. But I already had ideas of what I wanted to do for a second start-up. I realised it would be easier to make it happen if I had a PhD.”
When I was 18 years old, I had the privilege to go backpacking. I loved London and knew I wanted to do my postgraduate degree in the UK. I knew Imperial had great ratings, but I’d also talked to family friends who had studied at the CollegeColl.
When asked why he picked Imperial, he replies, “The Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering offered a programme that had been running for a couple of years on energy harvesting. Specifically, I explored how to power sensors without batteries, or batteries that would replenish from the energy around us.”
Thinking like an entrepreneur
Growing up, Manuel always told people: “I want to be an inventor!”. However, “Being an inventor wasn’t necessarily linked to being an entrepreneur,” he reveals. “I grew up playing with Lego and Meccano. It was very mechanical. My dad is an engineer, and my mother always put different things in front of us to challenge us and make us think. From there, I started creating things. To begin with, I was very interested in robotics.”
“At Imperial, I realised it was about inventing new ways to work with people too.”
So when did his inner entrepreneur emerge? “My family, especially my wife, say I’ve always been an entrepreneur. But I’d always seen myself as just an inventor,” he shares. “However, as time passed by, I started to ask myself what’s the point of being an inventor if your work doesn’t have a bigger purpose. There were many times during my PhD when I wondered if I was going to be able to help anyone. Early on, I realised I needed to think like an entrepreneur.”
The beginning of Drayson Technologies
It was at Imperial where he developed Freevolt, a patented wireless charging technology capable of recharging batteries from energy from mobile phones and other sources. But, as his PhD came to an end, he wasn’t sure what to do next. He had a few options including returning to America or selling to investors.
Then everything changed. Thanks to Imperial’s technology transfer office, he had an opportunity to present his product at an event. It was here that he met Lord Paul Drayson. He describes what happened next: “Lord Drayson was so impressed by my technology that he immediately met with me to set up a company, Drayson Technologies.”
Manuel supported product development, as well as raising more than £100 million in investments. The company evolved from Freevolt to a range of healthcare system products using sensors to collect medical data and environmental data. In 2018, the company became listed under the Sensyne brand in the AIM London Stock Exchange.
A new challenge to help the climate
It was at this point that Manuel decided to focus on one of the most pressing issues today: the climate crisis. Knowing how land degradation impacts the future of the planet, he felt frustrated and wanted to play his part in restoring our natural world. He explains, “I decided it was time for my next start-up. And Cultivo was born. The business focusses on how to invest in nature. Over the last few years, we’ve really been growing.”
When asked what challenges Cultivo helps solve, he says, “Landowners know their land, but they don’t know if it can bounce back and who will pay for it. Then there are investors that want to invest in nature but don’t know what projects are high quality.”
Cultivo brings together benefits for landowners and investors with a proven business model where financial returns don’t compete with social returns. Capital is used to restore nature and boost biodiversity of forests, grasslands and mangroves, also protecting species like the bobcat, the monarch butterfly, the ocelot and the American bison.
Don’t overthink it
Like any entrepreneur, he’s faced challenges along the way. Manuel admits, “The hardest thing to do is make sure the team working with you and the product you’re putting into the market are in sync. No one should be afraid of asking tough questions. Of course, I’ve made some mistakes along way – the learning process never stops.”
Very recently, we completely funded a project restoring a grassland in Mexico. I’m very proud of this. And knowing there are many projects like this to come is exciting for me.
Looking to the future, Manuel says his goal is “to invest $3billion in nature". He explains, “More importantly this should mean that there is a significant part of the planet that has been restored.”
When asked if he’s got any other start-up plans, he responds, “When I’m in the midst of the start-up, it’s hard for me to think of the next one. Cultivo is growing very fast. Whatever happens with the company will influence what happens next.”
What motivates Manuel
Although the bigger picture is the driving force behind Cultivo, what really motivates Manuel is closer to home. He admits, “For me, the things that motivate me are my wife and my family.” He’s often inspired by things he sees in the world too. “I often see things that aren’t working and want to fix things. So, challenges really drive me forward. I struggle to leave problems to someone else to fix,” he shares.
He wishes he could tell his younger self, “Don’t overthink it. Just do it. It’s as simple as that.” To students who want to become entrepreneurs, he wants to tell them, “Check that what you’re doing is worth it. You really need to believe in your idea if you’re going to attract investors. And most importantly, never think your product is just for the local market. I’ve really benefited from making my business global – especially during the COVID crisis.”
Making his mark
Manuel’s entrepreneurship has been recognised in more than 20 patents, as well as in the MIT Technology Review 35 Innovators under 35 Latin America award in 2017 when he was named Inventor of the Year.
This award from Imperial means a lot to me. It was first and foremost a surprise. It takes me back to Imperial and what it means to be part of the community. It’s a place where I had an amazing experience.
A turning point in his life
Manuel knows the opportunities at Imperial helped him get to where he is today. “I was able to pair my PhD with the Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Design fellowship,” he explains. “I took part in shark tank competitions working with MBA students from the Business School and designers from the Royal College of Art, which was a great experience.”
He looks back on his time fondly: “I had a great time at Imperial. My wife had also got accepted to do a PhD with the Department of Chemical Engineering. And so, we started to build friendships around the campus and outside the College.”
“Everything that then happened is down to Imperial. I was about to go back to the US. I was feeling disappointed that I hadn’t attracted investors. Then we had to present our inventions – and that’s when I met Lord Drayson.”
Surrounded by inspiring figures
“I can’t name just one person I found inspiring at Imperial,” Manuel says. “There were many incredible professors within the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, as well as in the Business School. I was amazed by how they had taken ideas from the lab to commercialisation.” As well as his work with the Department, he remembers the great times he had just “having lunch with friends or winding down on a Friday afternoon after a challenging week”.