An Interview with Jiajun Cen, Forbes (Europe 2019) Manufacturing & Industry

(#00058) — When we have ambitions of achieving great things, we must have a ‘never give up’ mentality.

  1. Who is Jiajun Cen?
  2. Forbes 30 Under 30
  3. What is AquaBattery?
  4. Five Must-Have Success Habits
  5. Dealing With Challenges In Life
  6. What Matters in Life
  7. Working Environment
  8. Coping With Stress
  9. Future Plans
  10. Final Advice for Young Busines Owners

People who strive to leave a positive impact on the earth, one way or the other, should be an example for all of us.

In times when the world needs us more than ever, it’s necessary for more individuals and businesses to aim towards sustainable solutions and eco-friendly alternatives for every-day life.

AquaBattery is a company that develops innovative and sustainable energy storage methods through water and salt. The business is environmental-friendly and leaves a good example that should be followed by other entrepreneurs and business owners.

But AquaBattery wouldn't be what it is today if it wasn't for Jiajun Cen, the co-founder, and CEO of the firm.

Jiajun Cen is an amazing entrepreneur who strives to make a positive impact on the world through his business model.

His efforts were recognized by Forbes, when Jiajun Cen was listed on their 30 Under 30 Europe 2019: Manufacturing & Industrylist.

I had the pleasure to interview him recently, and I warmly recommend everyone to take the time and read Jiajun’s success story.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Hi Jiajun, and welcome to this interview! Before we start, I would like to thank you for being a part of this mission, it really means a lot to me! Now, can you tell us more about yourself? Who is Jiajun Cen? What was the reason for choosing the career that you have today?

It is my pleasure to be part of this mission to motivate the next generation of entrepreneurs.

My name is Jiajun Cen, co-founder, and CEO of AquaBattery.

I was born in Foshan (China) and grew up in the Netherlands.

As a child, I particularly enjoyed learning about science and engineering.

I am passionate to understand the complex dynamics underpinning every physical phenomenon.

To do so, I learned to simplify and model complex systems using tools in mathematics.

This passion has put me on the track of an academic career. I have obtained a Ph.D. degree in Chemical Engineering from Imperial College London and had ambitions of leading my own R&D lab in the future.

During my Ph.D. research, I discovered that most of the research performed at universities has the potential to transform the world, but many of those did not make it.

There is a lack of entrepreneurs trying hard enough to bringing new technologies and solutions to the market. This is also what I enjoy doing, and it has become my career.

I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate you for your spot among Forbes 30 under 30! Was this a dream come true? What do you believe most contributed to this success?

Thank you! It came to me as a surprise and I really appreciate that my work is being recognized by Forbes.

I couldn’t have achieved this on my own: it is the combination of having highly motivated people working with me (who share my vision) and opportunities (such as launching customers and funding for research & building demonstration pilots) coming at the right moment that contributed to this success.

What is AquaBattery? How did you come up with your business idea? What is the mission of your business? What makes it different?

AquaBattery develops novel energy storage methods using water and salt.

One of our flagship products is the Blue Battery, which can store excess renewable energy (during peak generation periods) in water and table-salt, i.e. H2O and NaCl.

Storing renewable energy in these abundantly available materials makes our technology environmental-friendly, affordable and highly-scalable.

The Blue Battery is a so-called flow battery, which means that the power rating and the energy storage capacity are decoupled.

The power rating unit consists of stacks of ion-exchange membranes and the energy storage capacity is determined by the size of the tanks (or bags) containing the salty water.

This means that the energy storage capacity can be much larger than the power rating unit, allowing for adequate long-term energy storage which lithium-ion and lead-acid batteries cannot provide.

The mission of my business is to help accelerate the energy transition towards renewable sources. Renewable energy from, for instance, solar and wind are fluctuating and intermittent.

To guarantee a reliable supply of electricity from renewable sources, we need to store excess energy for periods wherein demand surpasses energy generation.

According to you, do habits make us who we are? What are the top five must-have success habits? Why? Please explain.

In my opinion, habits on their own don’t make us who we are. Good habits are installed for consistent and effective execution.

However, it all begins with having the right mindset. Thus, in my view: mindset + habits make us who we are.

I don’t know what the top five must-have success habits are. I can only share the five habits I personally find useful:

1. Always carry a notebook with you.

Avoid having a cluttered mind. Capture everything that you find relevant in a notebook so that you can focus on the work that has the highest priority. Also, use it to write down personal and business goals for the coming period and try to sketch a realistic timeline for achieving those goals. Besides, life is a wonderful journey, and it is worth capturing ideas, creative thoughts and exciting moments.

2. Set long-term goals and daily priorities.

To progress consistently in a direction, we must have long-term goals. To keep ourselves motivated we have to break it down into manageable chunks, which become our daily priorities.

3. Be proactive.

Great opportunities don’t come to you without you first taking the first step. Also, when it comes you need to be prepared for it. A proactive attitude in your personal and professional life is of paramount importance. To progress, you need to proactively learn new skills and look for opportunities to improve yourself and your business.

4. Have a never give up mentality.

Some challenges may look extremely daunting at first, and we tend to give up rather quickly. When we have ambitions of achieving great things, we must have a never give up mentality.

5. Focus on energy.

After you have set priorities, the next step is execution. For this, you need to focus on your energy. You only have one body and one mind, keep them healthy and try to become better and stronger every day.

Have you ever failed before succeeding in business? If yes, how did you recover from failure? What are the best ways of improving the mindset?

No. AquaBattery is the first company I started. Since then I have built the company to today’s size, of roughly ~12 FTE, without using any personal savings or having the need borrowed money from friends and family.

The first bit of money required to start the company came from winning competitions and obtaining research grants.

In life, there always will be challenges that we struggle with. Some are easy to handle, and others may look so daunting that our brain wants us to hide from it and stop facing it.

It is a mechanism that is activated to protect ourselves.

However, the failure as a result of not acting (in time) makes it even worse. It increases the level of stress and causes depression.

For those recognizing this, I would advise you to take a deep breath and most importantly stay calm.

Try to break down the challenge into small manageable chunks and tackle them one at the time.

Like a muscle being exercised, you will become more capable and quicker in handling tough problems. Sometimes it may help to think about and explore what the worst-case scenario is; it may not be as bad as you initially perceive it to be.

What would you be doing if you were not running your company? What do you enjoy doing besides work? What matters in life?

I aim to make a positive impact in the world and help tackle global challenges that we are all facing.

Think of help providing a dent in the water crisis by developing desalination technologies that are powered by renewable energy sources. Or making environmental-friendly, long-lasting and recyclable batteries to help decarbonize the global economy.

If I am not running AquaBattery, I would have founded another company and aim to bring another technology to the market that would create a positive impact on the world.

Besides work, I enjoy running, traveling, photography. I meditate while running, and this helps me to clear my mind and think through the challenges/problems ahead.

I like exploring new places when I travel. In practice, this means going to a place and walk around without planning the route. On some days, I can walk more than 30 kilometers and take hundreds of photos.

These photographs can often give me another perspective of the places I have been, and I love seeing that.

What matters in life? Interesting question and I think the answer varies with one’s life experience. At the moment, I desire to:

  • Have close friends and family with whom you can share joy and sorrow;
  • Have new and exciting experiences now and then.

If you had to come up with three words to describe your work environment, what would they be? What values do you want to install in your team members?

The three words that I would use to describe my current work environment are 1) focus, 2) personal growth and 3) joy.

  • To achieve amazing results as a team, we must focus on well-defined goals.
  • To keep every team member motivated, they should experience personal growth while achieving those goals.
  • Also, of course, the journey itself should be fun as well.

The core values that I am sharing with my team are:

  1. Make an Impact and Do Good
  2. Honesty
  3. Joy
  4. Sharing
  5. Challenge Status-Quo

What was the hardship you had to face working in your position? How did you overcome it? What are the best ways to cope with stress?

As a co-founder and CEO, I sometimes need to make difficult decisions.

In a few occasions, taking a wrong decision may bankrupt the business. In these situations, I would try to remain calm and think through potential outcomes when I make a specific decision (I call this “exploring the solution space”).

Having well-defined selection criteria may help. In my experience, I find that taking a quick imperfect decision is often better than delaying it. Have the courage to take a risk.

In the next 10 years, where do you see yourself and your company? Do you have any milestones you want to reach by then?

The focus of the coming 2 to 3 years is on research and development (R&D) of battery technologies which I believe in.

After that, AquaBattery will roll out modular battery units that are environmental-friendly, have a long lifespan and recyclable.

To make these batteries competitive in the energy storage market, I need to scale up the production and set up a logistical center where we assemble and prepare the battery systems for shipping.

In the next 10 years, I aim to build three large logistical centers on different continents.

At the same time, my team will continue with R&D and try to bring other technologies with a positive impact on the market (through a spin-off of AquaBattery).

Lastly, what would you advise everyone who struggles with their businesses? What do you think more young people need to know?

To those struggling with their businesses, I would advise to keep calm and leave the office for a day. Immerse yourself in a different environment, explore and assess your solution space and act as soon as possible.

Sometimes it helps to spend a bit of money and bring in a useful human resource (an expert in the field) to help tackle your problem.

To the young folks who have the ambition to start a business: Have the courage the take the first step and be proactively looking for opportunities. Find experienced and knowledgeable mentors that can help you on the way.

There is no magic button that gives you instant success. You will need to work hard, take on challenges step-by-step and become better at it on a daily basis.

There is no better way to say it. If you want to success, you’ll have to put your best effort into getting the wanted results.

There will be challenges, and failures, but if you are passionate about something, you will eventually reach the end goal.

Let Jiajun Cen's story inspire you to pursue your dreams, but also to keep an open mind and to stay aware of the things around you.

Work hard to improve your future and the future of others.

Ultimately, it’s up to us to determine in what world we want to spend the rest of our lives, so let’s strive for more.

“The Mission to Empower 1 Million Entrepreneurs”

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