Pioneer Portrait: Amir Nejadmalayeri of Phoelex
Whatever name you give your tech startup, it should definitely contain the letter ‘X’. That was one of the more obscure lessons a young Amir Nejadmalayeri picked up on his journey from Tehran to Cambridge, UK – via Canada, Germany, USA and South Korea – in creating his company, Phoelex.
The company’s name reveals more about the startup’s operation as well as its creator’s truly left-brain character. Amir wanted it to contain exactly seven letters, a lucky number. The ‘pho’ is taken from photonics and the ‘ele’, electronics. It’s at the intersection of these two fields that Phoelex operates (more on that later). And finally, the ‘X’ at the end is there because, well, any tech company should end in X, right?
The first of many pivotal events in Amir’s trajectory occurred one night in Tehran, back in the 1990s. It was the eve of an exam that would determine the rest of his life: a nationwide university entrance exam taken by hundreds of thousands of Iran’s brightest pupils competing for just a handful of places. For the first time in his life, and to his parents’ dismay, he couldn’t sleep. The exam ahead was a gruelling four hours of intense grilling on mathematics, physics and chemistry. Fortunately, despite the restless night, Amir came nineteenth in the country overall, and first in physics amongst his cohort at the University of Tehran. His place to read electronic engineering was secure.
It’s hard to summarise Amir’s onward march through some of the world’s best electrical engineering and laser optics departments. Suffice to say, that in almost every case, he was following in the footsteps of Nobel Prize winners in specific fields such as laser invention (Arthur Schawlow at Univeristy of Toronto, Canada) and atom cooling (Wolfgang Ketterle at MIT).
“You won’t catch me bungie jumping, but mentally, I’m totally adventurous”
Every entrepreneur can point to the people who inspired and helped them along the way. One particular mentor of Amir’s, Dr. Taj Manku, stands out for giving the young Masters student the freedom to be adventurous. “I’m not adventurous with food, and you won’t catch me bungie jumping, but mentally, I’m totally adventurous,” says Amir. Dr. Manku encouraged him to explore mentally and discover what he loved. The result was a switch from electrical engineering to laser optics and Amir is now a rare – if not unique – breed of scientist in the multiplicity of fields in which he excels. This incomplete list gives an idea: ultra high speed analog-to-digital converters; silicon photonics; ultrafast lasers and nonlinear optics.
Which brings us to his company Phoelex. Its goal is to solve a huge problem. Data centres contain thousands upon thousands of tiny bottle necks; transceivers that transmit information via electrons (slow), rather than light (fast). Phoelex is bringing optical transceivers into the 21st century, by creating switches that use light, rather than electrons. The widening of these billions of tiny bottle necks has vast implications for the efficiencies, of time and energy, of data centres around the world, promising a 10x smaller and 3x more energy efficient product. This makes Amir a very particular breed of entrepreneur: not only a boundary-breaking scientist, but also the founder of a potentially world-beating company.
So how did this stellar academic develop the real world know-how needed to create a commercial company? The first answer is Samsung. Amir accepted an invitation to join the company in South Korea, at its mighty Hwaseong campus, just around the time (2012) that it was over-taking Intel to become the world’s largest semiconductor producer. The three years Amir and his wife spent here taught him that there were factors beyond speed and efficiency to take into consideration when producing a commercial product: reliability, quality assurance and costs of production to name just three. Then came Entrepreneur First (EF), here in London. Amir cites Chris Mairs, Alice Bentinck and Matt Clifford as the catalysts of his founding dream that resulted in Phoelex. EF usually insists that entrepreneurs pair up with a co-founder, but Amir is the rare exception. The combination of specialisms usually found in a group of people, Amir possesses. Likewise, Phoelex’s product is not a single innovation, but a convergence. Chris Mairs, having been Chair of Magic Pony, another Octopus portfolio company, was our link into investing in Phoelex.
“Being raised with a lack of resources, relative to the West, builds resilience. You grow a thicker skin.” Amir questions whether he might have founded a company sooner. But then, he says, he would have missed out on those years of experience in some of the world’s greatest research labs. The result is a unique company from a unique founder.