Dr. Zhongwei Chen – Professor & Canada Research Chair

It all starts by forming the right team, designing the solutions that use the latest technologies, and leveraging all industrial resources to enrich them.

Dr. Zhongwei Chen is Professor & Canada Research Chair in Advanced Materials for Clean Energy, Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering, Director of Collaborative Graduate Program in Nanotechnology, Director of Applied Nanomaterials & Clean Energy Laboratory at University of Waterloo and Associate Editor of ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces. His current research interests are in the development of advanced energy materials for metal-air batteries, lithium-ion batteries and fuel cells. He received his Ph.D. in Chemical and Environmental Engineering from the University of California – Riverside.

Prior to joining the faculty at Waterloo in 2008, he was focusing on the advanced catalysts research by the Chancellor’s Dissertation Fellowship in the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) at New Mexico, His current research is on advanced materials for fuel cells, batteries, and sensors. He has published 1 book, 6 book chapters and more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles including Nature Nanotechnology, Nature Communications, JACS, Angewandte Chemie, Advanced Materials, Advanced Energy Materials, Energy & Environmental Science, Nano Letters and ACS Nano. These publications have earned him to date over 12,000 citations with H-index 53 (Google Scholar).

He is also listed as inventor on 18 US/international patents, with three start-up companies in USA and Canada. Dr. Chen also serves as an editorial board member for peer-reviewed journals including Scientific Reports (Nature Publishing), and the Vice President of the International Academy of Electrochemical Energy Science (IAOEES). In 2017, he was elected to be a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering, recognizing his outstanding abilities. He was also recipient of the 2016 E.W.R Steacie Memorial Fellowship and the member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists in 2016, which followed shortly upon several other prestigious honors, including the Ontario Early Researcher Award, an NSERC Discovery Supplement Award, the Distinguished Performance and Research Excellence Awards from the University of Waterloo.

Where did the idea for your academic research come from?

In my work on academic research at the University of Waterloo, my most successful ideas have come from thinking creatively on how to resolve real-life problems associated with energy and environments. I have been able to do this through my knowledge in applied nanomaterials and application.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My work is both university-based and industry-based. For my day job, I am a professor. My mornings usually begin with a cup of black coffee and checking my emails and to-do list items to help me structure the day. After that, I spend a few hours thinking about creating new research programs and meeting with members of my laboratory, where we are developing novel nanomaterials for various energy conversion and storage devices.

By early afternoon on most days, my work is completed and the rest of the day I often focus on working on my business and other innovative industrial projects. These projects are primarily in the area of clean energy technologies. I typically spend five to seven days a month outside of Canada enmeshed in a company innovation project. I also serve on the advisory board of several interesting technology ventures. If you ask how I spend the time to balance works between a professor and an entrepreneur/consultant, I’ll say that I have great students and employees. I believe that it is the synergy between my research, consulting, and entrepreneurship that improves my productivity.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I am intellectually curious and like to connect real-life issues with ideas and solutions. It is my firm belief that ideas live because we pursue them, think about them, and make something of them. Whenever a good idea flies by, I try it. I don’t over think it or wait for perfection. Whether it’s doing my academic research or entrepreneurship, it all starts by forming the right team, designing the solutions that use the latest technologies, and leveraging all industrial resources to enrich them.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I’m really excited about the technology transfer in the university, which bridges the gap between technology innovation and business and commercialization.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I am and always have been a self-directed person and I stick with things to completion. It allows me to accomplish own tasks and goals in a shorter period of time than most people might be able to do. In addition, I struggle with time management and planning, doing everything required to make this happen. Maintaining focus is extremely important as well as saying “no” to maintain quality, being better able to focus on the endeavours one undertakes.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I don’t consider any of my previous jobs as terrible, however, I’ve had one as a process engineer in a concrete company that was not the most inspiring. What bugged me about this job was that it suffocated innovations, along with the problem of the organizational hierarchy. You weren’t supposed to question why things were done a certain way or, even worse, attempt to make things better or easier. This type of work experience motivated me to pursue a different career in a better decision-making position, being able to make any changes and pursue innovations. This is the reason I quit this job to pursue my academic career as a professor in which I have more personal power and voice.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I don’t think I would do anything differently. I believe that everything happens for a good reason. Successful entrepreneurs and innovators learn by making mistakes and then doing better the next time. Overall, I have been very pleased with my choice to become a professor and to work in academic research. My current job has been creative and rewarding, giving me the flexibility to pursue any innovative projects.

If I was to do anything differently, I would consider pursuing a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree. Very early on in my undergraduate studies, I realized I have a passion for helping other people and was very interested in internal medicine. Becoming a surgeon was something that really ignited the passion I have for medicine.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I hate to waste time. So, I always ask myself, “how will each of these activities further my short-term targets and long-term personal goals?” I would like to recommend the following; never feel weak to ask others for help. I believe strong people refine their business plan with outside help and continuous networking.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Hiring strong people, and, more importantly, putting the right people in place who are skilled at the key aspects of the research/business to facilitate what you are not good at.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I consider my academic work as entrepreneurial because being a professor essentially involves starting up new research projects and trying to get research funding. There have been a couple of times in my career where I found myself hitting the limits of what my current abilities can produce. I learned however that, when this happens, you must go back to square one and painstakingly learn new skills. It’s always painful each time I’ve done it but at the same time, it has always led to good results.

What I have since learned from these experiences is to take the biggest task, go hard at it, fail, get it over with. This is the only way to figure out what doesn’t work. It tells you something important about the world that really helps when a second attempt is made. However, you need to always keep an open mind and try to rationally figure out what went wrong to learn from it. In this sense, every failure is a win. What is requires, however, is a sense of maturity and autonomy that I certainly didn’t have when I was younger.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

There are lots of new and exciting technologies/IPs coming out among the universities in North America. Promoting and commercializing these techniques requires successful collaborations forming between university researchers and industrial partners. Coming up with a business that provides a technological transfer for business development and innovation is intriguing.

What is the best $100 you recently spent?

While it was slightly more than $100, the best recent purchase that I would definitely like to mention was buying two tickets for my daughter Anna and myself to watch VOLTA by Cirque du Soleil. It’s an interesting show about youth pursuing freedom. After that, I had great conversations with Anna about what she was doing in her school. It’s the greatest pleasure for me to watch her smile and hear her aspirations.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Google Scholar: I have found that this search tool provides me with an excellent overview of the research field. This service allows me to read peer-reviewed articles and journals.

WeChat: It’s a ubiquitous messaging app, most popular in China. It creeps into almost all aspects of my life from networking to receiving newsfeeds.

Outlook Calendar: Simply put, it helps me manage my time.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I would recommend The Myths of Innovation. I’m big on critical thinking and I’m also big on recognizing magical thinking. It is one of those books you can read repeatedly, learning new things each time. The book shows how important it is to identify problems rather than solutions on the road to innovation. It also delinks the success of an innovation from the intrinsic beauty of the innovation, illustrating that the best innovation need not be the one that succeeds in the real world.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Many people have influenced my thinking. Intellectually, I admire Steve Jobs for three very specific reasons: his radically out-of-the-box thinking, his philosophy on the simplicity of life, and his passion to change the world through technological innovations.
Steve Jobs:

Key Learnings:

  • Take the biggest task, go hard at it, fail, get it over with. This is the only way to figure out what doesn’t work.
  • Always ask, “how will each of these activities further my short-term targets and long-term personal goals??


Zhongwei Chen on Linkedin: