Inventing sustainable solutions – one scientist’s journey

This year Forbes 30 under 30 – Europe named doctoral candidate, Nicole Aegerter to its Manufacturing and Industry list for being the first to efficiently manufacture thermoplastic composites for large, high-volume structures. Her journey reveals how to survive the lows of becoming an inventor.
Nicole Aegerter, Doctoral candidate in ETH Zurich’s Composite Materials and Processing group. (Image: ETH Zurich)

Making an impact in her own way

Nicole Aegerter grew up in Davos, Switzerland with a family who inspired her sense of social responsibility. She is the only scientist in her family. Her parents work in real estate and secondary education, and her younger, twin sisters are pursuing careers in business and music education. “We are all different,” she says, “but we all strive towards making an impact on the world in our own ways.” She claims that appreciating the differences in people is, perhaps, one of the most valuable lessons that she has learned from her family.

Fascinated by taking things apart and putting things back together, Aegerter’s childhood dream of becoming an inventor is well underway. Her teachers at Alpine High School in Davos, encouraged her to focus her studies on languages and mathematics – the basis for nearly everything in life. Following high school, she took some time off to study abroad in Kimberley, British Columbia (Canada), where she improved her English language skills and fostered a deeper appreciation for floor hockey, the mountains, and all things outdoors. Today, she runs, hikes, bikes, and goes alpine skiing and touring. When she’s not transforming the manufacturing world, Aegerter – a former national level competitive unihockey player - coaches a Swiss national B-level unihockey team.

“Sunrise is one of the most beautiful moments of the day,” says Nicole Aegerter, “morning is the time when I’m full of energy and my thoughts flow freely and creatively.” A doctoral candidate in Mechanical Engineering at ETH Zurich, Aegerter has capitalized on these moments of ideation by becoming the first to efficiently manufacture thermoplastic composites for large, high-volume structures. She and the pioneering team at Antefil Composite Tech – co-founded with Christoph Schneeberger and ETH Professor Paulo Ermanni - are poised to revolutionise the value chain and production of fibre-reinforced plastics for lightweight structures, such as wind turbine blades. Her work also presents potential opportunities for industry in the marine and automotive sectors. At the core of this innovation lies the manufacturing of sustainable reinforcing fibres about 7 times thinner than a human hair, and individually clad with a layer of thermoplastic polymer. Building upon existing research, Aegerter co-developed a scalable, and economically viable, process for fabricating such fibres at high speed. With heat and a minimal amount of pressure loose fibres are transformed into high-quality, large-scale lightweight structures. This feat earned her a coveted spot as a featured honouree on the 2021 Forbes 30 under 30 – Europe list, but how did she do it? And what inspires her, even in the tough times?

As she shaped her dreams, they led her, quite literally, to the bathroom when she accepted an internship with the Geberit Group – a well-known European leader in sanitary products. There she learned about industrial operations, fresh and wastewater piping, and expanded her horizons on environmental issues.

Great achievement comes from surviving the lows

As a young scientist, Aegerter expresses concern for the lack of female mentorship for young women to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). She observes, “We need brave women in STEM at all levels of the education system who can inspire young women earlier in life, as well as later in life, showing us how to balance personal aspirations with academic goals…the entrepreneurial world needs female investors and role models too.”

Emerging inventors often face tremendous set-backs. Even Thomas Edison, who is not only famous for inventing the lightbulb, but also for never giving up, once said of his failures, “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” The key to survival, according to Aegerter, is perspective, patience, and resilience in the face of adversity. “If things do not go right, go left,” she says.

Aegerter is quick to note; however, that success does not take place in a vacuum. “It takes a team, a family – an entire support network for anyone to be successful.” She credits her parents for always making her feel valued. She also expresses gratitude for her Antefil co-founders who supported her through both the good and the bad times. They held up a mirror that helped her reflect on her progress and see her way through the moments of disappointment when she all but considered giving up on her experiments. Thanks to their support, the Antefil team has filed a patent and Nicole Aegerter is finishing up her doctoral dissertation. With some reflection she says, “Some of my greatest achievements in life have been simply surviving the lows.”