Dr Imke Sittel (PhD 2017): tackling climate change through plant power 

In 2019, co-founders Dr Imke Sittel (PhD 2017) and Dr David Benito-Alifonso set up Glaia – an environmentally conscious startup which is on a mission to reduce the carbon footprint of agricultural food production. The revolutionary technology behind Glaia, which Imke and David developed at the University of Bristol, uses nanomaterial-based solutions to allow plants to harvest light more efficiently. By increasing crop yields and lowering emissions, this forward-thinking startup could play a pivotal role in tackling climate change and ensuring food security in future years.

We spoke to Dr Imke Sittel to find out more about startup life and to hear her fond memories of her time at the University.

How did you and your co-founder come up with the idea for Glaia and what is your mission?

David and I started Glaia because we felt that we could have a real impact on one of humanity’s most pressing issues – climate change. We wanted to aim for a future in which we can feed the growing world population without causing any more harm to our planet. Our background as scientists enabled us to do this in a way that had previously been believed to be impossible – by improving the biological process responsible for virtually all life on our wonderful planet: photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis is the process by which plants transform energy from the sun, together with CO2 and water, into chemical energy. They then store this energy in the form of sugars, i.e our food. Unfortunately for us, photosynthesis has not been optimised to feed the almost 8 billion people living on the planet, but rather to ensure the survival of the plants so that their DNA is passed on. This means that photosynthesis is not very efficient in terms of food production and usually less than 1% of the available sunlight is transformed into food. This is where our technology comes into play.

Our product can make this natural process more efficient and thereby increase yields. Because photosynthesis relies entirely on green resources (solar energy, carbon dioxide and water) we can also reduce emissions stemming from crop production which will help in the fight against climate change.

Can you talk me through a day in your working life?

One of the benefits of working in a small startup is that there is absolutely no routine to my working days. One day I might be focused on lab work and the next I am talking to investors or looking at our finances. Often, I get all of the above and more in the same day. The only consistent thing is that each day is different and comes with the opportunity to learn something new. And so far, I have enjoyed and embraced every single one of those days!

What’s been your proudest moment in your journey with Glaia?

My proudest moment was when we were able to prove that our technology works outside of the lab in commercial conditions. When you set out to commercialise a specific technology that was developed at a university, you’re confident that it will also work in the “real world”. But inevitably you will always be a bit nervous about taking that step. The results from our commercial trials showed how our technology impacts profitability for farmers and how it can benefit every person on this planet by increasing food security and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from crop production.

What’s your fondest memory from your time studying at Bristol?

The feeling of community. I always felt that no matter what problem I might have had, I could always speak to the right person to help me solve it. From a friendly chat with the porters in the mornings to the help from the technical staff or the support on a scientific level from my supervisors and colleagues. I never felt I was left alone with anything and often a helping hand was offered before I even got the chance to ask for it.

How did studying at the University impact you as a person?

Studying at the University of Bristol impacted me as a person on many different levels. I don’t think I need to emphasise how excellent the education that everybody studying at the University receives is; the reputation of the University around the world speaks for itself! But for me, studying at the University of Bristol was so much more than just receiving an excellent education. Coming to a multicultural city like Bristol from abroad taught me so much about different cultures and ways of living and I now have friends from all over the world. It really impacted me on a level that I hadn’t expected. Studying abroad also taught me a lot about myself and made me a more independent and strong person.

You recently volunteered as a speaker for a Bristol Connects Live event, which focused on careers in sustainability. What made you want to take part and how do you think sharing career stories can help young graduates?

I wanted to take part to show the participants that working in sustainability and doing your bit to fight climate change does not necessarily have to mean getting a job in conservation. The work we’re doing at Glaia is not what I would call a typical job in sustainability. But through entrepreneurship we’re bringing a revolutionary product to the market that can affect emissions on a global level and thereby contribute to sustainability.

I remember being unsure about what I wanted to do after finishing my PhD. Back then I would also go to events like these to get more ideas on what I could do with my degree. I hope by taking part, I was able to give the students a different option for a career choice to the seemingly obvious ones.

What advice do you have for other alumni who are hoping to use what they’ve learnt in their degree to tackle climate change?

My advice would be to be passionate, creative, persistent, and not to give up just because their first option might not work out. I personally think that sustainability and climate change are our top priority problems on a global scale and the more people that are dedicated to actively working on solutions the better. Working towards net-zero emissions requires not only the obvious solutions but also a lot of out-of-the-box thinking.

You can read more about Imke’s work at glaia.co.uk. To find out about future Bristol Connects Live careers events please head to our website.


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