The Future Is Now: Neill Ricketts of Versarien On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up The Tech Scene

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Build a plan for yourself around what makes you happy. So many of us are not happy and put up with it instead of taking control and changing our lives. Being happy is not an accident, it is something you must consciously take steps to achieve. Life goes by quickly and it is far too easy to spend most of it unhappy.

As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Neill Ricketts.

Neill is the CEO and founding director of Versarien. Neill was responsible for driving Versarien’s growth from two men in a garage in 2011, to a team of 100 employees within four years.

As a graduate engineer, with 20 years of senior-level experience in manufacturing and engineering companies, Neill brings to his position a wealth of knowledge and insight. He has demonstrated success in introducing and commercializing new technology, including new materials and coatings for diverse sectors from aerospace to Formula One, including significant work in the oil and gas sector

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I started my career on the engineer side of the business as an apprentice and spent a number of years working with and leading teams of engineers. Most of my career I was working and making money for other people and always thought I could do it better myself, so I decided to start my own business.

I ultimately failed the first time, and went back to work in the industry, but what I learnt from my failure about how to start and run a company was invaluable. When we started Versarien PLC, I knew a lot more about raising money and how to maintain momentum and vision through the inevitable obstacles that are put in front of you. Even though I no longer work as an engineer, the logical skills I developed in that role put me in good stead when setting up Versarien. Those skills have been an integral part of enabling me to recognize the possibilities and opportunities graphene presents when others perhaps can’t.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I’ve been fortunate to have had a colourful career based around introducing technology to new sectors. I was proud of being able to meet David Cameron and Theresa May on various occasions. I even accompanied Theresa May on a trade mission to China in 2018 and was honoured to represent Versarien and British business on such an elevated level.

Can you tell us about the cutting-edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

Graphene has been written about for a few years now and its impact on industries like electronics are well publicized. What excites me most, though, is the significant environmental boost graphene can bring to everyday products. I’m a passionate diver and see first-hand the destruction we are subjugating the natural world too.

Concrete is the second most popular man-made substance on earth, but cement production is responsible for up to 8 percent of C02 emissions globally. By enhancing concrete with graphene, around 30% less cement is needed in production. This makes the concrete production process a lot less energy intensive, but the end product is just as strong. We recently partnered with Nationwide Engineering and the University of Manchester, to lay the world’s first graphene enhanced concrete a few miles away from Stonehenge. The results we have seen are remarkable, and we believe that graphene enhanced concrete can contribute significantly to meeting emissions targets.

How do you think this might change the world?

There is not an area of society that will not be affected by the capabilities of graphene. As well as environmental there are healthcare implications for technology. The light and flexible nature of graphene, coupled with its incredible conduction properties means you can seamlessly add graphene technology into any piece of clothing. In ten years, we could see, instead of heart monitors and blood pressure tests, graphene enhanced hospital gowns providing real-time updates to nurses of a patient’s vital statistics in real time. There is a fourth industrial revolution going on, driven by the Internet of Things and automatic machine-to-machine communication, and graphene has an especially vital role to play in this.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

With the pandemic changing the ways we interact it is important that anyone working in innovative tech learns from the good and bad experiences of the last 18 months.

Human interaction is vital to all aspects of business, and I have seen the issues that come when that contact is taken away. In normal circumstances I’m a natural networker. I love connecting with people, finding out their goals and seeing how we can work together and making friends. Working from home and connecting via zoom, is not my preferred approach to work. While it’s incredible we have managed to keep going as a society despite lockdowns, it’s taught me the possibilities and limits of our technology. As we continuously move forward with technology, people in tech must ensure we do not eradicate the human aspect in favour of progress and continue to find ways to keep both.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

Yes, there was. As a CEO, you have that four-to-five-year vision most other people do not have. Looking ahead, you can see what the world looks like for your business and a big part of your job is to take people with you to realise that vision. We first hedged our bets on graphene in 2014 and it was not until a few years later when we launched our first product, a watch, that the technology stopped being a collection of test results and became a fully realised object. That to me was the tipping point that made me realise what Versarien could really do with graphene.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

We need a push from all directions, public and private, to ensure that we do not continue down a path of destruction. The pandemic has been a tragedy, but many have pointed out the opportunity it presents for us to do things in a different and more sustainable way. In the past, it took devastating world wars for technology to take a leap.

Consumers want faster, better, and more sustainable products, from textiles to electronics. Graphene can give us that and so much more. Graphene is a futuristic technology, but it is here now, helping to solve some of the planet’s biggest problems. If big global entities realise the possibilities of graphene, the sky is the limit for its adoption.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

I’ve always found that you can’t be disruptive in one area. A truly innovative and disruptive business is creative in all areas. With this in mind, we have done some slightly left field things in the past, including engaging with Snoop Dogg to promote some of our products. We’re always looking at the slightly unusual and unexpected as inspiration when telling people about Versarien and graphene.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

You cannot achieve success without people helping along the way. I’ve been unbelievably lucky during my career to have worked with and for some amazing people who taught me a lot. Years ago, I interviewed with John Deer at Renishaw and his views shaped a lot of my thoughts at the start of my career about what I wanted and how to get there. Starting Versarien has allowed me to hire and work with some of the finest people of my whole career. Still, not a day goes by where I don’t learn something new and I’m incredibly lucky to have that.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

The work we do at Versarien is about using the best technology to help solve some of the biggest issues the world faces. I’ve always found that there is no joy in success if you don’t give something back, and I’ve always been a better giver than receiver. I opened Versarien in the West Country of the UK, where I’m from, because I want to give back and provide jobs to my local community.

I helped fund a steam lab at my old school and we work with a lot of charities around local and national issues. I think successful people can sometimes lose sight of the people and places that created them. It’s important to me that I don’t lose that, so I keep that connection alive with Versarien and the work we do.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Don’t put off what you want to do. If I was to have my time over again, I’d say to myself get on with it and do it.

We create our own constraints. I went to a regular comprehensive and the career advisors said I had one of three jobs I was ever going to do. I ignored them, backed myself and have achieved more than I could have imagined back then. People need to challenge institutionalized views; you know yourself better than anyone else.

Build a plan for yourself around what makes you happy. So many of us are not happy and put up with it instead of taking control and changing our lives. Being happy is not an accident, it is something you must consciously take steps to achieve. Life goes by quickly and it is far too easy to spend most of it unhappy.

Believe in yourself, back yourself and keep going. It took me twenty years to do what I really wanted, and I kick myself for all the years of self-doubt that stopped me from doing it sooner. You’re far more capable and resilient than you think you are, and failure is far better than regret.

Stay healthy and keep the people you care about around you. Making money and having a successful career is fantastic but pointless if your health fails you or you are alone. It does not matter who it is, but people are what get us through life.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I were to inspire a movement it would be to encourage people to achieve their passions and goals. Versarien work with a lot of schools and universities talking to pupils and students about their goals and what drives them. My dad is 72 and wanted to be a marine biologist his whole life and never did it. He still regrets that, and I don’t want anyone to feel that way because they didn’t believe in themselves or were too scared to fail. Taking away the stigma of failure is one of the biggest lessons I hold myself and my kids to.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Muhammed Ali — ‘He who is not courageous enough to take risks in life will achieve nothing in life.’

Taking risks is what life is all about, because when you fail you learn and there is nothing in the world like succeeding at your biggest and toughest goals. Ali was someone who had enormous challenges in his life and rose to all of them, from racism and being banned from boxing over Vietnam, to his battle with Parkinson’s. I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from him this quote to remind me to take risks and keep going if I fail.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

The opportunity Versarien and graphene present to change society is enormous. Faster, lighter, and more flexible tech in a sustainable and tough material. Concrete, textiles, aerospace, and consumer electronics are all being transformed by graphene. There is no price tag on what we are going to achieve over the next few years and getting on board means joining with the future.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I am on Twitter @neillricketts or @CEOVRS1

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

The Future Is Now: Neill Ricketts of Versarien On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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