Women In Innovation Success Stories: Ying Lia Li, Zero Point Motion, South West England
Developing new technology to improve sensitivity in sensors
As a woman physicist with a Chinese heritage, Ying Lia Li (Lia) has beaten the odds to become the CEO of a semiconductor chip company. Despite having been raised in the UK and having a British passport, she has not been immune to racism and sexism at school and in her career.
Now, as CEO and CTO of Deep Tech startup Zero Point Motion, she has found that the business world is no less challenging.
“I experience different types of microaggressions ranging from being mistaken for the secretary to assumptions that I don’t understand my own technology,” she says.
“Society does not naturally accept a woman as the CEO of a Deep Tech hardware company, let alone someone with pink hair! Like all the Women in Innovation awardees, I’ve been fighting against various stereotypes, and am proud to represent women in STEM and R&D, especially when I was working in the defence industry and then as an academic physics researcher.”
“The gender representation for women in these fields is pretty similar to that of women founders. I think a big challenge ahead of me is maintaining my role as CEO – although the number of women on boards in FTSE 100 companies is 40%, there are only nine female CEOs running FTSE 100 companies.”
Funding an important breakthrough
Zero Point Motion is an innovative company that develops chipscale inertial sensors that measure motion and rotation – these sensors are found in cars, phones, robots and motion capture wearables. The ones being developed by Lia and her team are unique because they use light, which boosts sensitivity.
When she joined Innovate UK’s Women in Innovation Programme, Lia was just raising her first seed round and beginning the process of leaving academia, having filed two foundation patents the previous year.
Thanks to the Award funding, she was able to grow her team and to reach what she describes as a “really important milestone”, commissioning an external partner to help Zero Point Motion combine chip scale mechanical structures with photonic structures.
“This allows us to use light to measure the motion of a tiny silicon structure that reacts to acceleration and rotation,” she explains. “We’re a fabless semiconductor company which means we design the chips but external foundries fabricate them, so getting the mechanical and optical chips is relatively easy but combining them isn’t! Getting this integration step right, and generating the intellectual property within the UK, is an important step when you consider the inertial sensor market is worth $16 billion.”
Growing her team and her confidence
The Zero Point Motion team has grown 250% to 8 people since Lia joined the Women in Innovation Programme. They are now conducting initial customer testing and building relationships with suppliers with the hope that they will be able to generate demand for over 100 million units per year in the future.
Underpinning this success has been the support and advice Lia has had through the Programme. She says she learned a huge amount from listening to her fellow winners, from how to deal with recruitment to how to think about challenges and keep a healthy work/life balance.
“The other important lesson I learnt was to embrace my position as CEO,” she says. “To not let imposter syndrome prevent me from becoming a confident leader, and to be proud of how far I’ve come, which is already far beyond the dreams I had when I was a kid.”
To anyone thinking about applying to similar Innovate UK opportunities, she has nothing but encouraging words: “Even if you don’t think you’re ready yet, submit an application! Even if your product is hard, really hard, and you think the journey isn’t going to be straightforward, don’t let that hold you back. And remember, the financial support isn’t meant to solve all your problems or get you to profit immediately – it’s what the programme offers beyond the money that will help you.”