Role Model Nicole Kleger on light blurred background wearing a pastel green jacked and white turtleneck pullover

Role Model:
Nicole Kleger

Role Model:
Nicole Kleger

Every month we ask one individual in our network a few questions about their way into tech, their motivation and their lessons learned.

Let’s start from the beginning. Tell us about where you’re from!

From an educational point of view, I grew up and went to school in Zürich, before studying materials science (BSc and MSc) at ETH Zürich. Following my studies, I did a PhD also in materials science to strengthen my scientific background and to dive more deeply into the construction of materials for tissue engineering. Based on the technology I developed during my PhD, we now spun out of ETH Zürich with the start-up sallea.

From a more personal perspective, I grew up in a family where gender equality has been lived for more than three generations. Both of my grandmothers had dedicated jobs as translators in Brussels and in politics, respectively. Similarly, my mother is a trained lawyer and has her own business, just as my father. They all managed family and job in one, and I therefore never questioned that this works for me as well

However, it was my grandfather that got me interested in tech. He spent his life at ETH Zürich, did a lot of crafting and electric circuits with us and explained all the proofs in physics to me during my time at high school.

What valuable advice did you get from your parents?

I think it was not anything specific that they told me, but rather the environment I grew up in that shaped me. I never questioned that I could have the same career as my male colleagues and that there is always a way forward. I also experienced a lot of freedom and trust my parents put in me, which helped me early on to take responsibility for my own decisions and actions.

Additionally, my parents always supported me to aim high. My father once told me, that there is always someone out there who is even better at what we do, and we should always aim for that. He might not remember, but it keeps me motivated to do the best I can.

How did you become interested in tech?

I was always fascinated by how things work, and I wanted to understand things more deeply. On top of that, I loved to be creative and was doing a lot of crafting as a child and teenager. As mentioned above, my grandfather fueled this interest. It was therefore always clear to me that I wanted to go to ETH Zürich. The biggest challenge was to find a discipline that combines as many aspects of tech as possible. And I still believe that materials science ticks many of these boxes.

You co-founded an ETH startup that has a lot to do with tech – adding the third dimension to cultivated meat and fish. What encouraged you to go down this path and how did your tech education – you studied materials science – influence you?

As mentioned above, I have always been interested in how things work, and how we can change and improve to have an impact on our environment, our society, and our well-being. As materials scientists, we are trained to look at the full picture and include different aspects from various technical fields. I guess it is this “bigger picture” approach that drives our curiosity beyond the technical aspects of engineering and technology. I am driven by the challenge of using technology to realize a profitable business to leave a positive impact on the environment, society, and well-being. And I am convinced that we need to consider the financial aspects of a new technology alongside the technological advancement itself to create a true impact.

Do you believe that technology can help solve the current climate problems, for example?

Absolutely! But in many cases, the technology needs to be economically viable. This is crucial to ensure a broad adoption of the new technology, which is key to leveraging its full potential. As a scientist, this can at times be frustrating, as slight price increases might result in a full stop of the development of a novel technology. As a start-up founder, however, this is the challenge that drives us.

Have you ever had a role model that inspired you on your path?

My grandmothers are my biggest role models. They managed stellar careers while being loving and caring parents at the same time. And they did so with many more stones in their way compared to our situation now. It is still not easy, and a lot can be improved also today. But their eagerness, drive, and motivation to create a positive impact with their work impresses me deeply.

What aspects of your work are you proudest of?

Tricky one. It is probably the development we have gone through with the technology behind sallea, starting with the first idea at the beginning of my Master’s Thesis. At the time, I was provided with a current challenge in bone grafts. Combining different aspects of my previous lab project, we developed a first prototype during my thesis. As so often, the whole development would not have been possible without the support and input of many amazing friends, supervisors, and collaborators on the way. But seeing my initial idea developing over time, towards a functional product is simply amazing.

What drives you at work?

One of the biggest motivators is to use technology to support the transition towards a more sustainable food system. We are and will be facing massive challenges to feed the growing population with valuable and complex proteins while reducing our environmental footprint, the risk of zoonosis, and improving animal welfare. With sallea, we work every day on providing a feasible alternative to conventional livestock farming.

From a more scientific perspective, I am still fascinated how various disciplines have to work together in order to progress. Cellular agriculture includes knowledge from materials science, medicine, biotechnology, sustainability and food processing, and everyone has to work as a team to move forward.

What has been your toughest challenge you faced while working in tech?

I turned the biggest disappointment into a challenge worth solving. As an eager scientist and engineer, it was tough to realize that often amazing new technology is not adopted by industry because it slightly increases the cost of the end product – may it be because of expensive certification, low risk-affinity of the end-user, or increased material cost. As an entrepreneur, I now see it as our biggest challenge to provide amazing technology while educating the end-users about potential direct or also indirect cost savings. Because only if we succeed in both, technology will be adopted at a large scale.

Do you have a favorite book or podcast?

I like listening to the podcast: “Kopf voran”. It is an easy-to-understand tech podcast of about 30 min per episode. I love it because it gives me insights into (tech) topics that I would not have read about otherwise, in a timeframe that matches my bike ride to work. And all of that without overloading my brain too much after a tough work day.

What advice would you give other women in tech?

Believe in yourself, whatever path you are choosing. Try to find a role model that did something similar and ask for advice – but never get discouraged. And if there is no role model, become your own.
Role Model Nicole Kleger on light blurred background wearing a pastel green jacked and white turtleneck pullover
Nicole Kleger

And what advice would you give women not yet working in tech that want to enter the field?

I double on my answer above. Stay curious and believe in yourself and just do it!

If you still have open questions, do not hesitate to reach out to others who are already working in the field and ask them about their experiences, and here I am talking about men and women. Most of us are very approachable and love to help wherever we can.


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