Next Icons | Icon in the spotlight: Pavlina Nanou

Monday 01 July 2024
Next Icons | Icon in the spotlight: Pavlina Nanou

Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor are great things created suddenly. Especially not icons. But when they do emerge, the world soon knows about them. Pavlina Nanou is one of those icons and can now call herself Engineer of the Year 2024. What does her journey look like? And what can the Next Icons learn from her?

This story was previously published in the Next Icons Magazine. You can read the entire magazine here.

TORWASH develops processes that convert waste streams into fuel. How does that work?

Pavlina: “When it comes to water treatment, sewage sludge, which is dead bacterial mass, is a waste stream. Currently, it is being disposed of and burned. This waste stream consists of 80% water as sludge is difficult to dehydrate. The water will just evaporate when it is burned. So we got to thinking, what if we could use that water as fuel? To do so, we have developed a hydrothermal process. For this, we use a combination of water and heat. We heat the sludge up to 200 degrees Celsius. At this temperature it becomes hydrophobic, allowing you to squeeze the water out. What remains after this process is a dry substance which takes up only 15% of the original material. We then use this to make fuel pellets. We convert the squeezed water into biogas and nutrients. As a result, we have created a circular process. The pellets we make can be used as feed in a gasification processes, for example, to produce an alternative to natural gas. We're only just getting started but we definitely see a future for that."

So innovation is very important to you?

Pavlina: “Of course it's important. Coming up with solutions to big problems does not happen through business as usual. Unfortunately, us humans are used to continuing to do the same things over and over again. We see this in many conservative industries such as construction. There, you often hear “but that's how we've always done it”. However, that way of thinking won't solve existing problems. Innovation to me is exploring new territory and doing what no one else has done before. It requires a lot of out-of-the-box thinking and keeping an open mind. Not only on my part, but that of the entire team. Even when we have finally created a finished product, we have to keep asking ourselves: how can we make it even better? This is why I think every organization should have an R&D department. After all, innovation never stops."

Our Next Icons also value innovation and have made great strides over the past year. You have also had an extraordinary year.

Pavlina: “Yes, that’s right. An absolute highlight for me was when we first switched on our installation and the product that came out did what it was supposed to do. It was such a special feeling after having invested an enormous amount of time and money in it. Anyone’s biggest nightmare is that after all these months you finally start testing and then have to make adjustments because it doesn't work. Luckily, this is a nightmare we did not have to deal with. We were able to reach the right temperature and pressure. We then took a sample of the product and tested how fast it would filter. This all went as expected. We filmed the big moment and to an outsider it must look so funny. You just see some water flowing through a funnel and there we are standing around it incredibly happy. But for us, that was the moment we knew: this is going in the right direction." 

Another highlight for you was winning the Dutch Prins Friso Ingenieursprijs. Was that your crowning glory?

Pavlina: "Absolutely. The organization knew how to build up the tension. First, there are all the preliminaries. Then you eventually learn you have made it to the finals, and then the voting round begins. A week before the ceremony, there was a luncheon where I met the other finalists, Kim Ragaert and Christoff Heunis (Next Icon 2022, ed.). It was very interesting to see that they had struggled with similar challenges even though they are active in a completely different industry. The ceremony itself was truly a surreal moment. I received the award from Dutch Princess Mabel, and Princess Beatrix was there as well. It was incredible to be able to tell them something about my work. It wasn’t long before the media craze erupted and my LinkedIn exploded. This award increases the visibility of engineers' work and shows what is involved, how much time things take, but also what innovations we are working on. By doing so, we can show how important and cool our work is and I hope to inspire young girls to go into engineering. And for ourselves, of course, there are also benefits, because we now have an edge with investors."

Winning such a great prize naturally contributes to even greater success. Our Next Icons are also well on their way to becoming successful. Do you have any advice for them? 

Pavlina: "Try to connect with other entrepreneurs and learn from each other. An event like Next Icons is obviously great for that, and I wish we had more access to such a network when we started. Other entrepreneurs often struggle with the same problems and more experienced entrepreneurs may have already solved some of them. So you can learn a thing or two from them. My advice would be to build a network of inspiring entrepreneurs. Also, never give up. Even though there will be times when you think it will never work. After all, the life of an entrepreneur involves ups and downs. Gather all your strength, use your motivation as your inner compass and keep remembering what you are doing it for. Then, when you see the results, you will realize it was all worth it."


About Pavlina Nanou

Dr. Pavlina Nanou was born in Groningen, the Netherlands, but grew up in Greece. There, she pursued her first education in oil and natural gas technology. Through an exchange semester at the Fachhochschule in Emden, Pavlina discovered the world of bioenergy and decided to pursue a master's degree at the University of Twente within the Sustainable Process Technology department (then Thermo-Chemical Conversion of Biomass). In 2020, she founded TORWASH, a spin-off of TNO, together with Jan Pels and Levien de Legé. That same year, she received the Marina van Damme scholarship to further develop her business skills at Nyenrode Business University. Recently, Dr. Pavlina Nanou won the Dutch Prins Friso Ingenieursprijs which has allowed her to call herself Engineer of the Year 2024. Pavlina is committed to the VHTO expertise center, which aims to increase the number of women working in STEM and IT.


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