Dr Harsh Pershad

Harsh realised just how clean energy can avert the worst effects of climate change while studying energy in living cells. But he wasn’t planning on a career that revolved around energy and climate at the time. Instead, he was gearing up for a career in biotech.  

Profile shot of Harsh Pershad

Harsh gained his undergraduate degree in Chemistry at Imperial, before completing postdoctoral research at the University of California at Berkeley and at the MRC in Cambridge, and returning to Imperial to complete his MBA. “I was learning about energy transduction in cells when I discovered something valuable. I saw similarities between what cells do and what human society needs to do.” 

“Cells need to transfer energy from a bunch of sources, store it, then use the right amount in different locations at different times. They do it by sending signals across cells. We need to send signals across society to get the change in energy production, distribution and usage that we need."

“Energy flows in living cells were optimised over billions of years. We barely have around 20 years to change our energy system and avert the worst risks of climate change.” 

Inspiration for change 

Finding others with the same sense of urgency and passion can be tricky. But Harsh has been lucky. “I got to work in a startup called Element Energy and see how much interest there was.” 

“We were creating effective CO₂ reduction strategies, recognising what people might want to see and what the costs and the implications of trying to do that are. Those were exciting projects with exciting people.” 

Harsh remembers the startup culture with fondness, “Everyone's going above and beyond to make things work well. That resonates with me. I've been fortunate to find teams that are passionate about a vision, providing robust advice, or opportunities to improve the environment.” 

Is it harder to find this passion in bigger companies? Harsh doesn’t think so:  

Passion is a function of an organisation’s values. If you have strong values, you can get a positive feedback loop, and that helps you find and keep good people.

“They have space to deliver what they think is important and can work with others to do that.” 

And it’s vital such passion isn’t limited to startups: “We need to inspire the biggest companies in the world to change their business models to ones that are sustainable, and governments to be enthusiastic about change.” 

Repurposing technology  

Harsh says one way of achieving change involves using technology and innovation. It’s something he believes is currently underestimated. “We can extract or recycle material more efficiently if we use technology to track where materials are over time,” he explains.  

“For example, we could move end-of-life batteries and use them in less demanding applications. Technologies like this could reduce pressures on the environment and improve quality of life.” 

“We don't want to end up switching all high-carbon systems to ones that are just as resource intensive but don’t use carbon. I think this model will gain support, but we can't allow it to be as slow as it's been for carbon optimisation.” 

Harsh charging his electric car

From idea to deployment  

Harsh has received several awards for his work. But he’s more pleased with the work itself and the influence it’s had. “At Element Energy, we were working out how to cost-effectively reduce CO₂ emissions from power stations, heating and transport, using spatial optimisation.” 

This work would provide Harsh with the foundations for a later project in his current role at Innovate UK, “From 2006, I’ve been pushing for decarbonisation through hydrogen and carbon, capture and storage networks built around the UK industrial clusters. That's taken a long time to get started but is now going well.” 

“We’re seeing ideas people were having in the mid-2000s now in deployment. Sometimes it takes a lot of effort and time to put the right structures in place. I am most excited when researchers, NGOs, industry and public bodies work together to drive change.” 

The right workplace culture 

Inspiring big change comes with plenty of challenges. Harsh says working with others helps him solve them. “I’m experimental, outcome and relationship-oriented and collaborative, so I can get different perspectives on what’s going on. If you've got diverse views of what's going well and what's not, it helps you anticipate and deal with problems before they become too serious.” 

He’s also learned about the value of self-care, and nurturing environments where it’s okay to say you’re not okay. “Seeing the old way of working like a machine that never breaks can create toxic structures.” 

It’s better when you create a workplace culture where it’s okay to say, ‘This isn't working, what do we do about it?’

“Reflecting on the experiences I've had, the working relationships I've had with people, what's gone well and what hasn't, has been helpful too. So has speaking about when things go right. Otherwise, people don't realise how much work your team has done and how much things have changed and for who. That can undermine future resourcing, and your team's motivation. There’s value in sharing something you’re proud of.” 

Giving mentees space 

Harsh has also spent time mentoring others. Although he calls this reverse mentoring. “We listen to mentees and find out who they are and apply your own experience to their situation. Or if you're feeling inspired, you can try and come up with something fresh for them.” 

“I'm candid with people about the projects that have gone well, and the ones that haven’t.” 

Mentoring isn't about telling people what to do. It’s about giving people a space to help them work out how to solve things, or to get something off their chest.

Being relationship oriented also helps. “People don't always know who to talk to and I'm not the right mentor for every situation. Keeping a broad network means I can help mentees find someone who can address what they need.” 

Harsh pictured with his Mum
Harsh painting a picture as his desk

Increasing visibility  

As well as being a mentor, Harsh has supported those in underrepresented groups to be more visible in the workplace. He noticed they had something in common. “Whether they were women, LGBTQI+ or an ethnic minority, they felt enormous pressures that were difficult for other people in their organisation to relate to.” 

It all stemmed from invisibility. “If you're fighting an extra mile to get to an equally visible point, you’re exhausted by the time you get there.” Harsh has tackled this issue through leading by example. “It doesn't help to be self-effacing and not asking for opportunities. If you hold back, if you're a bit less than yourself, then others feel they have to be a bit less than themselves.” 

Harsh as an undergraduate at Imperial, taking part in ballroom dancing competitions.

As an undergraduate at Imperial, taking part in ballroom dancing competitions.

As an undergraduate at Imperial, taking part in ballroom dancing competitions.

“There was an opportunity at Innovate UK for me to appear on a podcast about being LGBTQI+ in the workplace. I originally said no, thinking being gay and being at work are two different things. But I eventually said ‘yes’ and it was fascinating to discuss that. And then I got feedback from LGBTQI+ people, who appreciated what I’d done.” 

Visibility makes life easier for others and yourself. You don’t have to hide your partners or pronouns, and can be more authentic at work.
Harsh taking part in a same-sex ballroom dance competition

A more recent dance competition, Harsh continues his love of ballroom dancing.

A more recent dance competition, Harsh continues his love of ballroom dancing.

 The work at home 

Harsh has inspired change in his personal life too. “I moved into a block of flats in 2011, and the whole block had single glazed windows. The windows weren't owned by the same people who owned the flats, and not every person in the block owned their flat.” 

So Harsh came up with an idea: to persuade the block’s residents’ association to come together and invest in double glazing. He describes the experience as an “uphill battle” with plenty of its own challenges. “When you start asking tenants to pay more, they say ‘But why would I pay more rent for double glazing?’ It taught me a lot about human decision-making and how to get things done.” 

He got insight on what future battles might look like. “There were all sorts of complicated discussions. I can imagine that when we come to more substantial things like trying to change peoples’ heating systems, it's going to be an equal struggle.” 

Learning from other cultures 

With all he’s achieved, what advice does Harsh have for his younger self? “I tend to jump first. I'd say you could ask a few more detailed questions up front. Be clear when something's not working, rather than frantically trying everything you can to make it work. And get mentors!” 

He also says to put yourself on a level playing field with others. “Don’t be intimidated by people with authority, people with prefixes like Professor X or Y. Titles were quite intimidating for me when I was younger.” 

Lastly, Harsh says going to France while studying for his undergraduate Chemistry degree at Imperial in the 90s, and later living and working in the US, were transformative. “I got to immerse myself in different cultures. It was incredibly valuable.” Harsh feels lucky to have been able to maintain many of the friendships that he started at Imperial and in France and later as he moved around.  

Harsh remains passionate about clean energy and in January starts a new role as Head of Hydrogen at Tevva Motors, where he will be supporting the commercialisation of hydrogen trucks.   

Climate change is one of the most pressing problems of our time. We need to inspire the boards of the biggest multinational companies to start using sustainable business models, and persuade governments to be passionate about switching course.

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Harsh with his sitar