Colleen Legzdins is a metals and materials engineer who did not have role models of women in STEM growing up, but decided to pursue it anyways. Photo courtesy of Colleen Legzdins.

Colleen Legzdins has a background in metals and materials engineering and is a senior professional engineer with over fifteen years of experience in industrial wastewater treatment and fuel cells. She has eight granted or pending patents in the areas of water treatment, electrochemistry, catalysis, and materials. Based on her patented innovative technology, she founded the award-winning company Axine Water Technologies and served as its president from 2010 to 2012 and its chief technical officer from 2012 to 2015. She is currently the vice president of technical services at Refinery Water Engineering and Associates (RWE), a process engineering firm providing water and waste treatment technologies for the petrochemical industry. In 2015, Colleen was named one of Canada's top energy innovators by Alberta Oil Magazine

Colleen is an active member of the engineering community. She is a member of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia, The Water Environment Federation, and the British Columbia Water and Waste Association. SHe is the past chair, vice chair, and treasurer of the British Columbia chapter of the professional organization for materials scientists and engineers, ASM International. She also volunteers with programs such as Let's Talk Science Partnership Program, Destination Imagination, Doyssey of the Mind, and Girl Guides. 

What initially encouraged your interest in a STEM field? I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to go to university. But I had a math teacher in grade nine — I had kind of ‘putzed’ around in math — and he said to me, “You’re bright. You can do better than a B in math. Next year, I want you to take math ten and eleven at the same time.” I said, “Why would I do that?” He said, “Because one is algebra and one is geometry and then you’ll get ahead in your math and you can go into science.” I thought, “Really? Okay.” I signed up for both. I got A’s. It was a different teacher and for some reason her teaching style connected with me, and I found it really easy. I found other classes not so easy — I didn’t like physics and chemistry. There weren’t many girls in those classes, and the teachers didn’t understand why I was there.

Why did you decide to pursue engineering? I came into first-year science at UBC. What happens is in your second term you go through club days. That’s when the recruiting season started for students. I went to the recruiting for chemistry and physics and then the engineering club days came up. They were much more about having a good time and partying. So, to be honest, I did engineering because they looked like they were having a better time at school.

Did you have any difficulty obtaining work in your early career? I began as an engineering co-op student to look for work. I went for an interview with a company that did welding of pipelines in Alberta. When I walked in for the interview, the senior engineer said, “Oh my God, it’s a girl, I don’t work with girls.” That wasn’t the only interview like that. I had other interviews that were similar. My generation was the last of the women who had significant roadblocks because of our gender. But I always found a correlation between companies that had these discriminatory practices against women and their ability to be successful. They’re not as successful because they’re not progressive.

You stayed home for a number of years to raise your children. Was this a difficult decision? When I was growing up, because my mother never worked, I heard that a good mother doesn’t work. I had no role models of women who were working. The expectation was that you would not work. I took time out and thought I’d go crazy. After I had my second child and when she was three, I thought, “I can’t do this anymore. I need to get back to something.” I was taking courses here and there but I wasn’t engaged enough mentally. I decided I needed to get back in the engineering profession.

Can you talk about the circumstances leading to the founding of Axine Water Technologies? My kids were older, we were in a much better space financially, I could afford to not be working, and I was ready to put the time and energy into it. I thought, “Now is really the time to be a risk taker.” I had talked about doing a start-up with a colleague when I was a graduate student. At that time, I couldn’t, because I had little kids and I had debt. I went back to this colleague, but he had little kids and he was in a senior role at his company and didn’t want to leave his position. I thought, “Okay, I will just do it on my own.” I went looking for an environmental problem. When I was looking in energy, there were so many different alternatives; it’s not the huge problem. But when I came across water, there was nothing. We have to clean it otherwise we’re just going to completely pollute our environment. The more I learned about water, the more concerned I became. I knew this is where I needed to go. I focused on industries that were the most motivated to clean up wastewater. They had the most pressure in terms of compliance with regulations and could afford new technology. Then I found a common problem with toxic organics. I was looking at methods to treat them, and I thought, “I can do this electrochemically.” There had been quite a bit of research in electrochemistry done by chemists, so it was clear the approach works, but I needed to make it an industrial process and lower costs.

I wrote a proposal. I talked to a lot of people. Through the government’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), I picked an adviser who had a Ph.D. in electrochemistry. Then I went back to my former colleagues at Ballard in research and bounced ideas off them. I was able to get a small amount of money through IRAP for research, but I had to incorporate, so I incorporated Axine, took out a line of credit, and found a lab where I could do my work. I was sure it was going to work technically, but I wasn’t sure about the economics of it, whether the process was going to be too expensive. That was the big question. I was advised to do a proper business plan. I entered the New Ventures Business Competition in Vancouver. That gave me deadlines to submit various aspects of my plan. I was taking a course in marketing. Then the Federal Government offered a program on international marketing. I thought that I could learn more in that workshop particularly since it was becoming clear my market was in the U.S. There, I was connected to a water investor in Silicon Valley. He talked to me, gave me advice, said, “Make it cheap and make it work. That’s all that matters in water. Don’t worry about a management team at this early stage.” He gave me good advice more than once. I had to really understand what a VC [venture capitalist] was looking for and he was able to give me that perspective.

I kept beavering away in the lab. I filed the pioneering patent. In the meantime, I was still going through the business competition. When I got to level three, where you get mentors, I was getting exposure to investors in town. For the final round, you needed a management team, and I didn’t have one so my competition ended. But it gave me exposure to VCs in Vancouver and they asked me to come in for meetings. With the $1 million seed money from the first VC firm came one of their CEOs-in-residence who joined Axine as CEO, and I was named the CTO [chief technology officer].

How were you able to make your company so successful? I was very much an engineer and project manager. I really planned and studied the business — opex, capex, customer problem, market, and so on — because I really wanted to make sure it was going to work and was solving a big problem. I didn’t want to fail because I was older and thinking I probably wouldn’t have the energy to try again.

How do you define innovation? For me, it was solving a problem in a differentway. The innovative part is figuring out a solution to a problem that no one else has thought of.

How do you view yourself as an innovator? I don’t really think of myself as an innovator; I think of myself as a solid engineer. I find new ways to do something, for instance a new process. An undergraduate degree in materials engineering isn’t just one kind of engineering. We did a little hydrometallurgy, physical metallurgy, a bit of process modeling, and corrosion, and you got a chance to test all of these different fields. You could see where the knowledge from one area to the other was being used.

How have you been innovative in your work? I took something I learned in the fuel cell industry and applied it to wastewater treatment. It wasn’t apples to apples, but the underlying science is. I applied what made fuel cells efficient to the water treatment process. The reactants, catalysts, reactor designs, and the materials of construction are all different, but determining how to get the mass transfer improvements, reduce voltage losses, optimize reaction kinetics, and things like that were the same.

Why do you believe there aren’t more women innovators? They don’t have any role models. I didn’t have any women role models; I just decided I was going to do it. I remember going to one of these innovation evenings when I was younger, where you had the chance to talk to entrepreneurs about their companies. Every single one was a man. But it didn’t matter to me if you were a man or a woman, how old you were or how young; if you had knowledge or experience that I wanted to learn about, I would approach you. I talked to one entrepreneur who told me that once you had the idea and you proved it, then you’re just scaling it, and the challenge, the fun, and the excitement is over. He said he wanted to keep doing new and challenging things. I could relate to that.

What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering? I’d say do it. A couple of weeks ago, I went to network with undergraduate engineering students on careers. I think the women students get exposed to young engineers and not enough senior women engineers. I’d already raised children and had a successful career, so they wanted to know what my career path was, where I’m at now, how I got here, and what it was like over the years. When should they have children and what would be the impact on their career was a common question. When I was at Ballard, there were women having children, taking a year out, and coming back to work at all stages of their careers. The ones who wanted to progress into management did; a year out didn’t matter. That was something that was weighing on their minds and meeting someone like me who can share that having children and maternity leave is not a problem is important to encourage young women to pursue an engineering career. One of the things I also shared was that if you go to a company and there are no senior women engineers, think twice about working there if you don’t want to be a trailblazer. Unfortunately, it is still a tough road for the first woman engineer at a company. But if you see senior women engineers and managers, then that company likely respects women as leaders. You know you have the opportunity to progress in your career because other women have already done it.

To read more about Colleen and the other Women of Innovation, purchase the book here.

 

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