Sam Naef (Physics 2006) is a physicist currently working on laser satellites for Airbus alongside developing his own project, The Climate App.
After graduating in 2009, Sam travelled and worked as a private science tutor. He went on to create 8Billionminds, a worldwide live learning platform for people to teach and learn from each other online for free. He has studied at the International Space University in France and worked for NASA. Last year, he came up with an idea for making carbon-cutting fun, easy and social and founded The Climate App.
What attracted you to study at the University of Sussex?
Brighton is the most happening place in the UK, it’s where all the new ideas are coming from and it has a really nice international feel. If I feel lost in life I just go back to Brighton.
Are there any extra-curricular skills that you developed at Sussex that you feel have supported you since graduating?
I joined so many societies and they all contributed. For example, ‘Off the Cuff’ improv comedy trained me to be more confident in front of people.
What are you most proud of in your work so far?
Helping to design a mission for NASA to look for life on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. The initial concept was my supervisor's, who is the world-leading astrobiologist. I helped to take it forward, form a team at NASA and calculate how strong the laser would need to be to identify the amino acid which gives us a detection of life. I also got to choose the launch vehicle and trajectory. The mission was accepted onto phase A study.
Where did the idea to build an app for climate action come from?
I hosted monthly livestream discussions on climate awareness with a couple of my Brighton friends, inviting climate experts, which eventually lead me to realising that we needed a way to make taking climate action easy, sparking my idea for an app which helps people make carbon-cutting changes. Secondly, I had some time to devote to it, plus the experience from making 8Billionminds and building a team.
You can’t do things alone, I learned that at the beginning of being an entrepreneur when I thought I could do everything."samuel naef
The Climate App has a very diverse group of volunteers behind it, how did you build this team?
Initially, it was just messages on extinction rebellion Facebook groups and adverts in volunteering websites. People within the team introduce others they think should be part of it and some backers on the crowdfunding campaign also asked to join. From there I get to know people and invite them onto the team.
You have garnered plenty of supporters including Olympic swimmer Max Litchfield. What are the benefits of building your community?
At the heart of everything is power in numbers: some things can’t happen without a lot of great people moving in one direction together; caring about each other, the movement and the cause. You can’t do things alone, I learned that at the beginning of being an entrepreneur when I thought I could do everything. You need different people specialising in different areas to get anything done, especially nowadays when it can be difficult to be heard. You must stand out and be different. People want to know that they’re working with other people and not some kind of hollow brand.
Sussex Innovation has supported the project. How have they helped?
Hannah Fraser Howes (Law 2017) from the Catalyst team provided excellent support: contacting investors and product partners to gain support for the £20,000 crowdfunding campaign. She facilitated the partnership with Ancient + Brave, who we’ve teamed up with for the future and who contributed £1,000. I have also been offered more support from Sussex Innovation on The Climate App’s next steps.
How has the global pandemic affected your work and your daily life?
Interestingly, it was easier to get volunteers at the beginning of lockdown because a lot of people were out of work and just wanted to put their time and energy into cool and important things.
Who would be your ideal mentor (dead or alive) and why?
Elon Musk, as he’s got an amazing ability to work hard and very effectively. Barack Obama because he’s a smart guy while being a truly inspirational leader: it’s such a skill to keep your cool and humour whilst in a stressful position. Thirdly, Richard Feynman, an incredible physicist who had a great ability to turn a complex situation into visual imagery.
Who and what has influenced your life most, and why?
My parents allowed me to be very free, trusting me to make my own mistakes and go off into the world.
And Glastonbury festival – my auntie took me from the age of about 7. That place is magical, it’s how life could be on earth where everyone is happy and free, with great music and new ideas. It has given me a solid foundation for realising life could be a lot better for many more people.
What piece of advice would you like to give to yourself if you were still a student at Sussex?
Speak to all the professors every day to understand the subject matter. Don’t be scared of looking stupid and asking for more explanations. I spent a lot of time feeling intimidated, it would be good to have spent that time filling in all the gaps in my knowledge.
What is your hope for the future in relation to the Climate App and how it will help fight the climate crisis?
We’ve just done a crowdfunding campaign raising £20,000 from 400 backers. Hopefully, we will be doing another round soon and aim to launch the app in February. I hope it will be known as one of the big tools for changing society and helping it move towards a low carbon future. It has a lot of potential and I hope we can do the idea justice.
What’s the soundtrack to your time at Sussex?
Sandstorm by Darude
Where was your favourite place on campus?
East slope parties or the fields at the back of Northfield.
Where’s your favourite place in the world?
Hampi, India. It’s a world heritage site of rice fields and huge red mountains of boulders as far as the eye can see. At the top are monkey temples.
What are you currently reading?
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.