"Being an innovator isn't easy, but it's an amazing life"
Dr José Carlos Rubio Ávalos, a Mexican Leaders in Innovation Fellowships (LIF) fellow, invented a cement that absorbs natural and artifical light, and 'turns on' to emit light when it gets dark. We interviewed him about his inspiration, life as an innovator, and tips for his fellow entrepreneurs:
What is it like being an innovator?
Being an innovator isn’t easy, but it’s an amazing life. It requires a lot of hard-work and of course, knowledge.
At the beginning with any startup, you do everything: the inventing, intellectual property protection, business management, legal contracts. At my company, Sialato SA, we designed and built our own industrial equipment, including kilns, special mixers, vibration tables and a small packing line. The only suppliers available were abroad, and for a family-run startup without external investors, paying in euros or dollars was impossible.
Can you describe your innovation, and how it came about?
A Mexican company hired me to develop a fluorescent composite material for traffic signs. From my PHD on the chemistry of cement, I knew that while metals corrode and polymers are destroyed by UV-rays, cement is a weather-resistant material.
I thought about making an extraordinary cement, like commercial cement with its adhesive properties and mechanical resistance, but with a big difference: it would contribute to solving global energy and pollution problems.
I imagined a cement that would absorb natural and artificial light. When darkness came, it would ‘turn on’, lighting up the surroundings and emitting a green or blue light for up to 12 hours. It would produce clean light energy with no environmental or noise pollution, no power cables, photovoltaic panels or electronics.
Did you succeed?
After several years working on cement microstructures and chemical compositions, I created Lumicem, a light-emitting cement. It can be used anywhere: in apartments, hospitals, swimming pools, bike paths, or artworks. The cement will continue absorbing and emitting light for as long as it is used, which could be more than 50 years.
How did LIF impact you?
I learned that it is possible to do two things: publish papers and create technology-based companies. As academics, we can write hundreds of papers in scientific journals (and I always found this part easy), but our research will not benefit anyone directly.
It is fascinating becoming an innovator and business person, combining new experiences with my life as a researcher and professor and sharing this with my students.
At LIF I also focused on learning about legal contracts and commercial strategies – because if you don’t make sales, and you can’t protect your innovation, you will certainly fail.
What have you learned on your entrepreneurial journey?
I have learned most from my failures, and I would like to share some lessons with my peers:
Quality control is very important, pay attention to it! Producing one kilogram is not the same as one tonne. You need to sample each batch, create quality charts and follow the complete production process closely.
You need the right equipment - if it fails, production and sales stop.
You can invest your savings to launch your product to market, but be aware that your investment won’t return immediately. You need time for the ‘produce it, sell it, feed-back’ cycle. Has your innovation been successful? What improvements can you make? Are you in the right market? It is up to you understand the behaviour of your product in the market and to listen to your customers’ feedback – then improve it and try again.
What stage are you at now?
Lumicem has launched in the domestic market, which is very satisfying. We have a few customers, and interest from others in touristic areas such as Cancun and Los Cabos. We are in contact with potential clients abroad, including in Colombia, Brazil, Canada, the US and Dubai. We continue inventing and now have more than 30 products at pre-commercial stage.
I have been very lucky, I have spoken at over 150 conferences across Mexico and abroad. This year, I am participating in the Mexican National Prize for Science, in the Technology, Innovation and Design category. This is the highest distinction for a scientist in Mexico, and it will be awarded by the President, Enrique Peña, in December. I hope to win!
What are your hopes for the future?
Through LIF I discovered innovation hubs, which are amazing motivational spaces for entrepreneurs to create, invent and share problems and ideas. There aren’t any near me, so in the future I’d like to build one at San Nicolás de Hidalgo Michoacana University, where I work as a researcher.
LIF also gave me the opportunity to travel, and opened my mind to the possibility of commercialising some products in Europe. My dream is to have a distribution centre in the UK for Europe and the Middle East, and I am now working on international trade laws and customs regulations. Life is short but I am on the road…
I am doing something that I love, it’s my life’s work and I won’t stop trying every day to make Sialato SA a globally-recognised company.
Read more about Lumicem concrete: