Women In Innovation Success Stories: Zoe Tolkien, Advanced Furnace Technology, East of England

Posted on: 02/05/2023

Providing advanced cleaning solutions for semiconductor device manufacturing

Zoe Tolkien is the head of business innovation at Advanced Furnace Technology, providing graphite cleaning, purification and coating services to the materials industry. When she joined Innovate UK’s Women in Innovation Programme she was developing her product as part of a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship.

Fast forward a year and success has followed success, with two further grant wins from Fast Start and Analysis for Innovators (A4I). The AFTech team have also secured two important collaborations, one with an academic partner and one with an industrial partner, and are now working with the UK’s designated institute for chemical measurement as well as a leading market intelligence agency in the sector.

Zoe has been building her own profile alongside her business, and she’s been asked to speak at a number of events, including the Innovate UK East of England Conference, a Women In STEM conference at The University of Manchester, and the ARC Innovation Festival. She has also been selected to join the East of England Innovate UK EDGE Peer to Peer Group, designed for business leaders to address their most important business growth priorities and challenges.

Investing in the future of our workforce

But for Zoe one of the most important measures of her success since joining the Women in Innovation Programme has been the way she has been able to invest in developing her team.

“The funding has not only enabled innovation in my company but also ensured the future continuation of our skilled workforce,” says Zoe.

“In terms of business milestones, the one I am most proud of is recruiting a junior female mechanical engineer to the team. I have high hopes she will become a future leading engineer in the business.”

Zoe says being paired with her Innovate UK EDGE Innovation & Growth Specialist, Stephanie Aldridge, has been key in helping her achieve this success. “She is brilliant!” she says. “She has taken the time to understand my business, the stage I’m at, what I’m trying to achieve, and she looks for opportunities that fit the remit. She is also a brilliant listener and supporter.”

How to deal with not being taken seriously

Over the next year Zoe has plans to finalise her product ready for market commercialisation. There are also great opportunities to expand into countries such as Japan, South Korea and China in the future. This will bring challenges but she feels confident that she can face them.

She says: “I think a lot of the challenges I’ve faced are around not being taken seriously. I have to work very hard at that. Sometimes people – and it’s always men – assume they can delegate their workload to me, even with contractors who I’m paying to work for me. I find that lazy stereotypical attitude absolutely maddening but you can’t let it get to you and I make sure I always remain professional. I stand my ground and generally achieve the outcome I’m after.”

Now she wants to encourage other women innovators to do the same and recommends applying for awards and other programmes offered by Innovate UK as a first step – not just for any funding involved, but for the support and network opportunities they provide.

“I have always been excited by new ideas and the possibility of making them a reality,” she adds. “Now, I feel I’ve acquired the tools for the more practical side of reality-building!”

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Women in Innovation

Enabling brilliant women across the UK to fully achieve their vision for their businesses and change the world, while championing and celebrating gender diversity throughout UK innovation.


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