A View from the Top: Dr Kim Nilsson, Pivigo chief executive, on making the leap from academia to business
The Swedish scientist-turned-CEO tells Andy Martin about discovering her family's entrepreneurial streak and how she created her own job
There were two key turning points in Dr Kim Nilsson’s career: the first where she fell in love with the stars, and the second when she beamed herself back down to earth again. She is an astronomer turned CEO of Pivigo.
Born in Stockholm, she was living near Malmö at 13, when, on one particularly clear winter’s night, unable to sleep, she looked out of her bedroom window at the night sky and asked herself a fundamental question – I wonder why the stars twinkle? The next day she went to the library and took out a book on astronomy and made up her mind to become an astronomer.
“I was fascinated by these great balls of fire,” Nilsson says. We’re sitting in the downstairs café of the Pivigo offices on the banks of the Thames, hard by Blackfriars Bridge, but our heads are somewhere in deep space, roaming around the past and the future. The great thing about astronomy is that it gives you a “completely different perspective”.
For example, Nilsson is quite convinced the Earth is going to go up in smoke, but at the same time is reasonably relaxed about it. The end is not yet nigh, in all probability. “At any point a star in the vicinity of the sun could explode and we’ll all be wiped out,” she says - something to do with a gamma ray burst. “At least there’d be no need to worry about Brexit.”
And she adds that it probably won’t happen in the next billion years or so. By which time Earth will probably be negotiating to leave the Milky Way and seek a better deal trading with other galaxies.
Kim Nilsson studied at the university of Lund, then took her PhD jointly in Copenhagen and Munich, working with the European Southern Observatory, which runs the Very Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert. Her thesis was on “Lymen-alpha emissions galaxies as a cosmological tool”.
In her first post-doctoral post, in Heidelberg, she was elevated to “Hubble Astronomer”. She likes to say she was an “astronomical archaeologist”, because she was really only interested in events taking place a minimum of 12 billion years ago.
Her favourite film is Contact, in which aliens bounce old radio broadcasts back at the Earth from the Vega system – and send a blueprint for a faster-than-light vehicle. “I like the Jodie Foster character in that film because she’s a good scientist and she gets her way.”
When she was growing up her role model was Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager. Nilsson, 37 in November, looks as if she could captain a starship and out-general aliens.
But she ran into a simple fact. There are no starships – yet. She found she was mainly watching pixels go by on her screen rather than stars. If she wanted to boldly go anywhere, it would have to be somewhere other than outer space.
So, on the basis of prior experience setting up and managing big projects at her institute, she applied for a down-to-earth job as management consultant. She made a total of 40 applications, went to eight interviews, got zero offers. “There is a prejudice against academics,” she says. “They struggle to find a job outside of the academy. There has to be a career path.”
Nilsson’s next step was to sign up for an MBA at Cranfield School of Management. It was at this point that she realised that she was in fact a fourth-generation entrepreneur. Her great-grandmother had run a café and a laundry, her grandmother opened a toy shop and her mother had a small accountancy business. “They were all strong independent women who were creative about solving problems.”
As part of her coursework at Cranfield she joined forces with one of her fellow students, Jason Muller, to frame a business model drawing on her own experience transitioning from the dreaming spires to the satanic mills, from ET to the mean streets. That hypothetical plan became real in 2013 when they founded Pivigo, which trains up scientists to become useful and productive potential employees.
The reality is that only a small fraction of PhDs can become academics. So what is going to become of the others? Over-qualified candidates face many of the same hurdles as the under-qualified. Leaving university with a string of letters after your name after years of training is almost as off-putting to some employers as if you’ve done time inside. Pivigo gives post-docs the practical skills to become in-demand data scientists or cyber security experts (their main course is “S2DS” – Science to Data Science).
Pivigo is like a shop window for rebranded, upcycled PhDs. “My experience showed that there was a need to bridge that gap,” Nilsson says, “between academia and business.”
The name Pivigo comes from a finance acronym, PVGO, Present Value of Growth Opportunities, with the addition of two i’s. “It sounds fun and it fitted,” says Nilsson. “And I liked the ‘go’ at the end.”
The company recently opened an office in Berlin. “Now we have a foothold in Europe. I’ve always seen Pivigo as global. Every company needs to do something with data science. We have sixty nationalities on our course.”
Nilsson may have become a CEO in London, but she still has a cosmic outlook, and she has a broadly optimistic vision of the future. She agrees with Vernon Vinge and Ray Kurzweil that “we are approaching the technological singularity” – that point at which AI starts to teach itself and exceeds human brainpower. But she foresees a harmonious collaboration between man and machine rather than any Terminator-like apocalypse. “Why would they want to kill us? We don’t want to go out and kill every ant in the world.” She hasn’t completely given up on her old dream of the stars either. “If they [advanced AI entities] build spaceships, we can hitch a ride.”