Venture Voices: AutonomiCity

Historically, the construction industry has been a male-dominated industry. Two female founders are aiming to provide durable and sustainable solutions for our buildings. They discuss the challenges of being a female engineer and founder in this endeavour.

3D drone satellite aerial view of illuminated London United Kingdom at night

Introducing the female founders of AutonomiCity

Ioanna Papanikolaou
Liz Zijing Li

Liz Zijing Li

I am Liz, a PhD in engineering at the Geotechnical Group, University of Cambridge. My doctoral research investigates innovative vascular based self-healing system for concrete and was reported by BBC. Having versatile research experiences in engineering, design, geochemistry and environmental remediation, enable me to combine biomimetic ideas with novel techniques to generate durable and sustainable solutions to creating a living future for our next generation. I relish the challenge and moved from academic research into venture enterprise to bring my inventions further via launching AutonomiCity with my venture partner Ioanna.

Ioanna Papanikolaou

My name is Ioanna, I hold a MRes and a PhD degree in Engineering from the University of Cambridge. I have been working as a Charted Civil engineer and R&D manager in the UK with Costain Group at various

projects such as the £1bn London Power Tunnels project and the £4bn Thames Tideway Tunnel, and oversaw Costain’s R&D programme and university-relationships. Now I have joined KPMG working with the infrastructure Advisory Group in Asset management and Infratech.  Having been working with Liz, I believe there is huge potential in developing her inventions and this will help us to bring further sustainability to the future infrastructure.

The challenges we are facing as female engineers/founders

When we mention the construction industry, people would normally think of a group of men. This feeling also coincides with the data which shows: Women comprise 9.3% of all construction employees and only 13% of construction firms are owned by women. We still remember the first time talking to our mentor about our venture; he said ‘It is such pleasant to hear two female civil engineers who founded a venture in a male-dominated industry.’

Being a female engineer, or a female engineering researcher, women normally face a higher risk of workplace injury due to poorly fitted personal protection equipment. Since women are the minority in this industry, many types of equipment were designed and tailored for males. In most cases, we need to put on an oversized safety jacket, large steel-capped boots that we can’t even walk properly, and a huge helmet that doesn’t adjust to our head. And these ‘safety concerns’ made female engineers/researchers be portrayed as incapable of handling the problems or too weak to stay at this workplace.

More generally, stereotypical image and gender biases still exist, as men toned voice is suggested to use in public speaking and is often considered to be more convincible and conveyed a sense of authority. Besides, there are assumptions that female founders are more emotional and difficult than male founders when we express our opinions.

We are still facing those challenges, but we have seen more and more female engineers and founders playing more important roles, and our voice has become louder and can be heard more often.

About AutonomiCity and our technology

AutonomiCity was founded by Liz and Ioanna, and we are aiming to provide durable and sustainable solutions for our buildings via a smart vascular based self-healing system.

Infrastructure, such as roads, skyscrapers are used by everyone in the city. They enable trade, power businesses and protect cities from an increasingly unpredictable natural environment. For infrastructure themselves, the fact is, they all crack, no matter how carefully being stored or reinforced. Most of the damaged cementitious structures will end up being replaced and reconstructed, which normally cost 40 billion pounds per year in the UK.

Can buildings “magically” heal the cracks like our skin? Our ground-breaking innovation mimics the human self-healing system and promises to reduce the costs of concrete production and maintenance, as well as opening up a new way of reusing waste plastic.

‘Implanting’ vascular into buildings sounds like a utopian scenario just a few years ago will soon become reality as we had collaborated with the UK’s Tier 1 construction company Costain and are now planning for industrial trials.

It is a try-out of pursuing long-term sustainable infrastructures and meanwhile minimising expenditure. We hope to create together a living future and this is what we are trying to do.

Support from the Cambridge Judge Entrepreneurship Centre

The Cambridge Judge Business School Entrepreneurship Centre provided us with a stage to learn and create. The EnterpriseTECH STAR programme first guided us into this fascinating world via engaging workshops, lectures delivered by top professionals, mentoring sessions with industrial experts and opportunities to pitch to angel investors. This helped us to open up a door of all the supportive connections and entrepreneurial community. Through this program, we got the chance to join Accelerate Cambridge, and we are now able to bring our venture further.

AutonomiCity joined Accelerate Cambridge in January 2021, the structured lectures and coaching system helped us to reshape our commercial route and linked us to the industrial network. Though the time staying in Accelerate is not long, we have already experienced a wide range of business lectures, ranging from branding, patent, marketing, business model, finance, funding, digital media to legal document. Besides, we have coaching sessions with industrial experts every week to catch up on how our idea grows, and most importantly, pitching training prepared us with hands-on experience to be able to showcase our venture idea to investors. It has been a fascinating experience in Accelerate, and we believe by having the supports and resources from there, our smart concrete will be one day used in our life.

Dr Liz Zijing Li and Dr Ioanna Papanikolaou

Dr Liz Zijing Li and Dr Ioanna Papanikolaou

Dr. Liz Zijing Li, is the Co-founder & CEO of AutonomiCity, a venture that brings further durability and sustainability to the future infrastructure. She is a PhD in Engineering from the University of Cambridge. Prior to her PhD, she has a BSc degree in Geology, and won the top geology award and Sci. & Tech. Innovation Model of the year. Then she moved to civil and environmental engineering during her PhD and investigates innovative 3D printed models and fugitive ink manufacturing platforms for vascular self-healing construction materials. Dr. Ioanna Papanikolaou, is the Co-founder and COO of AutonomiCity, holds a MEng degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Surrey and a MRes and PhD degree in Engineering from the University of Cambridge. Ioanna has worked as a Chartered Civil Engineering and R&D Manager in the UK with Costain Group at various projects, including the £1 bn London Power Tunnels project and the £4 bn Thames Tideway Tunnel. She has now joined KPMG, working with the Infrastructure Advisory Group in Asset management and Infratech.
Dr Liz Zijing Li and Dr Ioanna Papanikolaou

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