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Working at Puraffinity

Dr Octavia Blackburn discusses her work as Head of Product Development at Puraffinity.

  • Name: Octavia Blackburn
  • Current position: Head of Product Development
  • Organisation: Puraffinity
  • Date of interview: January 2023

Give a brief overview of your organisation and role within it. 

I work for a company called Puraffinity as Head of Product Development. We are a start-up company based in London who are on a mission to provide people with clean water free from harmful chemicals. In particular we are focussed on a group of chemicals known as per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)- these are man-made chemicals which are both persistent in the environment and harmful to human health. My role is to lead the product development team in both optimising our current technology and staying ahead of the curve in terms of the development of new products to tackle these pollutants by removing them from water.  

Give a brief overview of your professional experience.  

I completed an MChem at Durham University, graduating in 2007. I then went on to do a PhD in chemistry at the University of Manchester - my work concerned the synthesis of metal complexes for use as dyes in electronic paper. After obtaining my PhD in 2011, I began a 5-year post-doc at the University of Oxford where my focus was on fundamental aspects of lanthanide coordination chemistry. I left academia in 2016 to pursue a career in industry. My first role was at Syngenta working in the process studies group - there I was involved in studying crystallisation processes of active ingredients used in the agrochemical industry. In early 2017 I started a role at BP in the enhanced oil recovery (EOR) group - I stayed there for two and a half years, working on technologies to maximise the yield of oil from existing oil fields. I went back to my coordination chemistry roots in 2019, taking on a research role at Johnson Matthey in the field of battery recycling. In 2020 I joined Puraffinity as product development team leader and have been with the company ever since. My personal career path has taken many twists and turns. Whilst the subject matter and environments have changed dramatically through my different roles, I like to think there is a common thread of doing interesting and robust research science. I believe that through taking on a variety of roles I’ve developed not only a broad understanding and exposure to different industries and subject areas, but also the values and behaviours it takes to be a strong technical leader. 

Why do you do your job?  

I applied for a role at Puraffinity for a number of reasons:

  1. I had never worked in a start up and was excited about the breadth of opportunity this would afford in contrast to a large well-established organisation (and this has certainly turned out to be true!)
  2. One of the reasons I decided to move to industry was to have the chance to use my knowledge and skills to make a tangible difference - Puraffinity’s mission around providing safe water really resonated with me. Working at Puraffinity is a real privilege and what makes it so special is the unique collaborative and supportive environment that we’ve built. I really enjoy watching my team flourish - they come up with new ideas, collaborate with each other and with other teams, and their enthusiasm is infectious. It’s a constant source of inspiration what a small but highly functioning and passionate team can achieve.

On the flip side, working for a start-up can be tough at times - the breadth and volume of work can sometimes feel like spinning plates, but that adds to the sense of achievement when good results come in. 

What is it about the industry that keeps you motivated?

Water purification is an extremely motivating area to work in - everyone needs clean water! It’s exciting to be tackling pollution that has only relatively recently been revealing itself as a threat to human health and as a company we need to keep pace with the ever-changing regulatory limits. This is a very real crisis for which the current solutions are inadequate so it’s a very timely issue to be working on. Puraffinity are very supportive in terms of career development and cultivating the next generation of leaders is something we’re all passionate about. As such there is ample opportunity to grow and progress in such an organisation and I myself can say I have grown a lot professionally since starting my Puraffinity journey, and I can see more opportunities coming in the future for both myself and all of my colleagues.   

Could you describe your recruitment process?  

We work with an external HR company who handle several aspects of the recruitment process. Candidates apply with their CV and cover letter. Our HR consultants do an initial screening and will conduct a brief call with candidates that fulfil the criteria of the role. They then compile a shortlist which is reviewed by the hiring manager (the future line manager of that role). The hiring manager selects candidates for the interview stage. It should be noted that we have recently installed a process whereby personal information (such as age, gender, nationality) is hidden from hiring managers which aims to reduce the effects of unconscious bias - this is just one of our D&I initiatives. In the next stage, the number and type of interviews conducted depend on the role. For technical roles, there are usually two - one will be more technical in nature and the other more behavioural. In between, there will be a questionnaire designed to understand your preferred ways of working. Candidates are scored independently by the interviewers and a candidate is chosen and offered the job! 

For me personally, I like to see a concise and clear CV, no longer than 2 pages, and a cover letter that makes it easy to see why that person fits the role and the benefits they could bring to the company. Managers are busy and a very lengthy or difficult to understand application is off-putting. In an interview, it’s great to see a relaxed (I know that’s hard) and natural candidate who is honest and open. The interviewers are looking for someone that they think they could work well with and would fit into the company culture. To showcase your skills and attributes, it’s good to think of some examples beforehand. Remember the interviewers are looking for evidence that you have a certain skill or quality - for example, think about a time you dealt with a tricky situation, a time you made an improvement that benefitted a group of people, a time you juggled multiple projects and still got stuff done. Some of the common pitfalls I see are - 1. Applying for roles that are not suited to their skillset, 2. Copying and pasting from other applications e.g wrong company name (you’d be surprised how often this happens!), 3. Saying either too much or too little in interviews - it’s a fine balance - one sentence answers are not ideal but neither is a long monologue that goes way off track, 4. Not really answering the question, instead choosing to talk about something else.

What type of job roles/titles would be appropriate at postdoc level in your organisation?  

I can only speak for the technical roles within my organisation. In my team, someone coming out of a post-doc role would be recruited at scientist level or equivalent. A person with industrial experience in addition to post-doc experience may be recruited at a higher level. However, there are no hard and fast rules and a lot will depend on the specific individual and their experience.  

What attributes would someone need to be successful in your organisation/function?

At Puraffinity we have a set of values and behaviours which underpin everything that we do. Living these values and displaying these behaviours are really the key to success at this organisation; a few examples are collaboration, resilience, proactivity, creativity and ambition. Working in the start-up world you need to be able to adapt quickly and remain focused on the goals most pertinent to the success of the business. At Puraffinity we have opportunities for people from a range of backgrounds- whilst the technical team is made up of chemists, materials scientists and engineers, the wider company needs people skilled in marketing, operations, business development…a whole range of skills. At Puraffinity, we are also very passionate about diversity and inclusion. We believe that fostering a welcoming and respectful working environment where every voice, perspective and idea is heard leads to more innovative and creative solutions - we all gain from the diversity of our workforce.

What skills (technical and transferable) do you think you brought with you and are valued in your current position?  

Working in industry is a very different experience to working in academia. While there are many differences, the most important one to me is around winning as a team. The team and the company are galvanised around collective goals rather than individual achievements. However, I believe I gained a lot from my time in academia – most notably in terms of soft skills. You learn the fundamentals of how to design, plan, execute and analyse experiments and those apply no matter what the subject or end goal. I think you also pick up a lot of resilience working in academia - learning not to be perturbed when your experiments fail and to take negative reviewer’s comments on the chin. In addition, there is a lot of experience and confidence gained through writing papers and giving presentations. The curiosity and desire for understanding which was honed in academia is still there - it is just that, I industry, it is more focused.

What would be your top tip for getting a role in your organisation/function? 

My top tips would be: 

  1. Make sure your application is clear - keep your CV and cover letter concise whilst making it easy for the recruiter to see why you would be a good fit for the role.  
  2. Make sure you apply for the roles that fit your skillset rather than blanket applying for all roles available. 
  3. Prepare well for interviews - ensure you’ve read a little bit about the company and that your enthusiasm comes through. Ensure your answers address what the questions are probing, avoid going too far off tangent. Make sure you’re in a quiet place for interviews where you will not be disturbed and there is no distracting noise in the background. Think of some questions to ask the interviewer at the end - this can really show that you’ve thought about the role and the company and are serious about the job. 
  4. If you know anyone in the company (or know someone who knows someone) it makes sense to reach out to them beforehand - we highly value internal referrals. Use your networks where you can - LinkedIn is useful for this.  
  5. If given questions before an interview make sure you do a thorough job and address the specifics of the questions. It can sometimes help to prepare some slides though this is not essential unless specifically asked for. 

It’s not necessary to do a lot of research before applying for a role - your CV should speak for itself. However, it’s important to emphasise your values and behaviours and let these shine through in your application and interview. Though technical skills are obviously valuable, it’s the stuff you can’t teach which will set a candidate apart from their peers.   

Any additional comments or tips for postdocs thinking of moving and working for an organisation beyond academia?

I wouldn’t be telling the whole story if I didn’t point out that the transition from academia to industry is not easy. A different way of thinking is required in industry compared with academia and it can be a difficult (and long) adjustment to make. For me, it was worth it, and I haven’t looked back since I left, but it isn’t for everyone. Concerning working for a start-up like Puraffinity - there are many upsides. There is certainly never a dull moment and you will have ample opportunity to be immersed not just in your own area, but also other aspects of the business. One of the great things is that you have the opportunity to make a real difference to a business - this is not always true with bigger companies. A start-up is also a challenging environment due to the pressure and the fast pace - you will either find this exciting or exhausting (or perhaps both). The culture at Puraffinity is great! We have a really cohesive team of people who support and care for one another like a family. However, I realise all start-ups are not made equal and I feel extremely lucky to work in a company with such a culture. Overall, my advice would be to have a long hard think about what you want from a job and a career - what matters most to you? Think realistically about the type of environment within which you will thrive - you know yourself best.  And finally, a careers advisor once told me (and I think it’s true now, though I was unconvinced at the time)- there are no wrong decisions - if you take a job and you hate it, that’s OK- you can find one that suits you better and you will have learnt more about what you do and don’t want in a job. As we always say in research - it’s all good learning!  


Puraffinity website

Contact Dr Octavia Blackburn


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