Aoi Senju, the co-founder and CEO of Colabra, is a leader in accelerating the pace of scientific research to help solve climate change and prevent future pandemics.
Who is Aoi Senju?
Aoi Senju is the co-founder & CEO of Colabra, a scientific software company whose mission is to increase the world’s research output. Senju studied Chemical Engineering at Princeton and has worked in batteries, solar, and fuel cells as a data scientist and chemical engineer. He enjoys writing extensively about clean energy (medium.com/@aoisenju) and he has been covered in Fast Company, TechCrunch, Startup Grind, etc.
Aoi, thank you for being here. Tell us a little bit about you and your background:
I’ve worked in the clean energy industry almost my entire life, and have experienced almost all parts of the energy sector. I’ve been on the business side at Bloom Energy (before it was a publicly traded company or a unicorn-valuation startup), I’ve worked on the systems engineering side at SunPower (a solar energy giant), I’ve built a machine learning solar analytics company that I bootstrapped to profitability, and I’ve led a $3.5M Department of Energy-funded battery project. I studied Chemical Engineering at Princeton, and have published scientific papers and hold several patents. What I realized during my years doing clean energy research is that the biggest problem in science — the reason why clean energy research takes such a long time to get to commercialization — is because of data loss. Everyone on my teams have had challenges staying on top of their data, because data in science is highly disaggregated, unsearchable, and inconsistent. I wanted to make it easy to find research that have been done in the past, search for conversations that have taken place about the experiments, and track the processes that went into every material. So I founded Colabra, a scientific software company with the mission to increase the world’s research output. We see Colabra as the platform that will accelerate the pace of scientific research and will enable the world to solve climate change, figure out human longevity, and prevent future pandemics.
What is a fun fact about you?
When I was a high school senior, I won 3rd place at the American Prodigy International Piano Competition with a tumor on my right wrist, with all of the pain and limited movement, by teaching myself to play without using my wrist. After the competition, I had surgery and recovered in time to play at the winner’s recital at Carnegie Hall.
Why do you think climate change and sustainability is such an important topic today?
I’ve written an entire series on climate change and sustainability, which I encourage you to read! https://medium.com/@aoisenju
The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report made it clear that by 2030, one of two things will have happened: either we will have reduced emissions by 45% (and continued to lower emissions to 0% by 2050), or we will have burned through the remaining carbon budget and be on track to hitting temperature increases above 1.5°C. Robert Watson, a former director of the IPCC, has said that 3°C warming is the realistic minimum we’ll hit. At 3°C, 275 million people worldwide will be affected by devastating floods, and hundreds of thousands of people will die annually from disease, malnutrition, heat exposure, and natural disasters. There will be economic consequences as well. By the end of the century, with the observation that US weekly auto plant production drops by 8% when average temperatures are above 90˚F, the costs of lower labor productivity under soaring temperatures could cost the US $221 billion a year. Globally, Stanford economist Marshall Burke says that global GDP will fall by about 23%. Our world is rapidly deteriorating, and if we don’t take decisive, dramatic, and innovative steps, there will be nothing left. This is going to be the legacy of our generation.
What do you envision your industry looking like 10 years from now?
We built Colabra because we see what is possible in scientific research with improvements to the software and infrastructure that scientists have available to them. What we’re building with Colabra is taking the best practices that have existed in software engineering for decades, and applying it to science. For example, better collaboration and data integrations. In the past 20 years, countries like the US, UK, France, and Germany have seen a 10x increase in internationally co-authored papers, and countries like Russia, India, and China have seen a 20x increase. Studies have also established that internationally coauthored publications result in greater impact, as measured by a higher number of citations, compared with domestic publications, due to more scholarly expertise, resources, and standards. We make these cross-border & cross-institution research easier. We believe that the future of scientific research is increasingly collaborative. Look at how the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine was developed — it was a global herculean effort between BioNTech, a German company, Pfizer, an American company, and Fosun, a Chinese company. This collaboration took a multi-year scientific effort and made it possible in several months. We see Colabra further enabling this kind of global collaboration for future scientific breakthroughs.
What can the average person do to make a difference?
It’s not enough to just install solar panels on your own roof, since carbon is a global budget. Many parts of the world are still industrializing with carbon-intensive technologies, and as a result, carbon emissions continue to increase today. This needs to be a larger global effort, and for this, you necessarily need to involve businesses and politicians. We need more money going into clean energy. Vote for politicians that support a carbon tax. Make sure that business leaders are being held accountable for their energy use. And encourage your friends to enter the sustainability industry.