Saïf-Deen Akanni has an undergraduate degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in fluid dynamics from City University in London.
His work and interests have taken him back and forth between high-end motor sports and aerospace for 30 years. He’s worked for Airbus in Europe designing wing configurations and systems for landing or takeoff. He’s worked for several Formula 1 teams and was senior aerodynamicist for the Haas Ferrari Formula 1 team in Italy.
Now, he has put that education and experience to work as the founder, CEO, and chief technical officer of Sentient Blue Technologies. The company is developing hybrid power systems based on micro gas turbines to power unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones. He founded Sentient Blue in November 2018 after reading the Federal Aviation Administration’s new regulations allowing commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles.
“Eighty percent of the world’s UAV fleet are powered by lithium polymer batteries,” Akanni said. “These batteries have huge limitations in terms of the autonomy that they’re able to deliver to drones being used by commercial entities, by the military, or what have you.
“For example, a typical multi-copter has a useful flight time on the order of 20 minutes in fair weather and that goes down to as little as seven minutes in the winter simply because of the battery chemistry.
“We’re working on a system that will deliver two hours to two and a half hours consistently in one flight, regardless of the time of the year.”
Much of Sentient Blue’s work is being done in Syracuse as part of the region’s growing UAV industry. The company has 11 employees. Four are based in Syracuse. The rest are distributed in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Los Angeles. Eventually, Akanni said, the company will create production and maintenance facilities in the Syracuse area.
You’ve held positions of responsibility at Formula 1 and with Airbus and now you’re leading a growing company with a new product. What have you learned along the way? What advice would you give to be an effective leader?
Well, I never actually sought a position of leadership in and of itself. The informal or formal positions of leadership that I’ve assumed were incidental, to be honest.
I fell into these positions because I was actually chasing something that I loved, which at any given moment was some kind of engineering exercise.
The same is true of Sentient Blue. I was chasing a dream and managed to persuade or convince others to help me along the way. In doing so, I formed a team.
The way I try to provide leadership and guidance to that team is to first and foremost be honest and to listen. I did two university degrees and probably the most important thing that I took away from those two academic exercises is that I learned how to listen almost in a pathological way. I will sit for hours on end listening to someone talk and when they’re finished, when I think that they’re really truly finished and I have a chance to respond, I respond if I have something to say.
As I’ve grown older and my career or my goals have necessitated that I interact with people more and more on a daily basis, I realize that people are very bad listeners. Dare I say, most people are very bad listeners.
I absolutely hate when I’m in a room full of people or I’m in an exchange with someone that I can’t finish a sentence before I’m interrupted. And I hate it when I see other people doing it to people engaged in conversation or in a meeting. I just simply can’t stand it.
Me, on the other hand, I like to listen. I find I learn more that way.
So someone who wants to lead effectively should spend more time listening.
Yeah. Don’t talk. Listen.
It’s simple. You gain knowledge and insight.
It’s a rather large responsibility to be responsible for people’s livelihoods in terms of providing them with a reasonably safe, secure job. Some of them have families that they take care of and ultimately you’re responsible for their livelihood. That means that you obviously owe them a duty of care in many respects.
It is absolutely stupid to hire smart people and then order them about with all kinds of unreasonable constraints.
If you’re going to be a capable and effective leader, regardless of whether you sought the position or not, then the best thing you can do and the first thing you should do is inform yourself. You’re not going to inform yourself by talking.
What qualities do you see in effective leadership or in leaders you admire?
The first thing I see is honesty. You cannot be an effective leader unless you’re honest and you’re seen to be honest.
You need a critical level of knowledge about whatever it is you happen to be engaged in. You don’t necessarily need to broadcast that you have this knowledge. You don’t need to make a big song and dance about it. It will eventually come out.
By the same token, you also need to be equally honest about the limitations of your knowledge and your capabilities. So that means that you need to seek that knowledge and the expertise that you’re missing amongst the members of your team, the team that you happen to be leading.
When you do that, you find that you eventually encourage teamwork and you encourage communication. And when you encourage those two things, you find that the team becomes increasingly more effective over time.
When you see ineffective leadership, a poor leader, what attributes do you see?
First of all, they’re not honest.
Secondly, they’re not terribly interested in other people’s opinions. They will have some goal, whatever that might be. And the goal might not be beneficial to more than themselves.
They tend to be very selfish.
None of these attributes are conducive to running an effective team that can produce benefit or value for more than one person.
Poor leadership can reliably be found in large companies and in most politics around the world. The symptoms of poor leadership in these quarters are denial, procrastination, outright mistruths. None of these attributes help anyone.
Were you in leadership roles growing up?
No. I never gave it a second thought.
I was born in London – London, England. I grew up in Barbados. Then I was in New Mexico. Then New York City for a bit and Canada.
My parents (Ermine and Melvin) were in university when I was born in London, and then I went to Barbados as a baby of six months old and was raised by my maternal grandparents (Viola and Cuthbert Small).
I stayed there until I was 17. I left Barbados at the age of 17, because I won a scholarship from the royal family, Lord Mountbatten, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, to attend an international school in New Mexico. And from there I went to Cornell (class of 1990). And then from Cornell, I went to Montreal. I got involved in teaching and motor sports and learned French.
I was looking longingly across the Atlantic to try to get involved in Formula 1 and realized that I was on the wrong land mass. So I got a job in motor sports in the U.K.
I ended up being a head of the aerodynamics department for a company called March Cars, which unfortunately went bankrupt about a year and a half after I joined. Bad timing.
I went back to university and studied for my Ph.D. at City University in London. They had the distinction of having the oldest aerodynamics department in the United Kingdom.
I started off doing my research for Airbus on high lift systems. This is the configuration that the wing assumes either for landing or takeoff. When you see the leading edge devices deploy from the front of the wing, trailing edge devices deployed from the rear of the wing, they increase the lift coefficient of the wing, to allow you to have as low a takeoff speed as possible or as low an approach and landing speed as possible. If the wing is clean as it would be in cruise, you would need to fly at a significantly higher speed to keep the aircraft airborne and stable.
That’s an oversimplification of it, but I was working on novel high lift systems for Airbus.
I was such an avid motor sports fan it hit me quite hard when Ayrton Senna got killed in an accident on the 1st of May, 1994, in San Marino.
La Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile instituted a raft of changes aimed at slashing aerodynamics performance in the very next week. I saw this and the nature of an aerodynamicist in that kind of environment is that you’re always seeking to try to bend the rules, evade them, avoid them if you can, but all within the letter of the rules.
And while this rash of rule changes was going on, I saw a way to actually get the performance back.
So I picked the phone up and called Ferrari and told them this idea, met with them about five days later at Heathrow Airport, signed a contract with them two weeks after that, and completely changed the focus and scope of my research from aviation to motor sports.
Growing up in Barbados, what did your grandparents do?
Initially, they were laborers on a plantation. Later, my grandmother worked in the kitchen of the school I attended. Back then, when she was doing that, Barbados was very highly segregated. So the fact that her grandson, all three of us in fact, ended up going to that school was a huge source of pride for her.
My grandparents tried to instill in us that education was better than silver or gold.
What’s your advice for a leader to spark innovation in their team or their company?
First of all, I think you need to communicate to the team and your team members that you have confidence in their abilities to, for all intents and purposes, do the impossible when needed.
That’s something that needs continual reinforcement. Not any kind of sycophantry or anything like that, but you just need to communicate in sometimes subtle ways that I think you can do this. Well, I don’t think, I know you can.
You need to communicate that if it were easy, everybody would be doing it.
That’s the first thing.
On the heels of that, you also need to communicate that you think that the team is capable of doing the impossible on occasion, not every day because that’s not sustainable. But certainly you need to basically communicate your confidence and faith in your team to do whatever it is on the table that needs to be done.
You need to be comfortable with taking risks, especially in what is now an increasingly risk-averse society.
How do you go about hiring people?
I look at obviously what they’ve done with their education, their educational trajectory. I don’t care about GPA and these kinds of things because people who are smart on paper are not necessarily smart in reality. There are some people that simply are not able to take tests.
I look at how they conduct themselves in a conversation. When you sit them down and you ask them to help you solve a problem, they just soar to unbelievable heights.
I look at what people do for hobbies because the sad truth is that if you are in your first or second year of university, in the U.S. in particular, you generally don’t have much relevant job experience, certainly not in engineering. That’s simply because of your age.
The distinguishing factor in a student who is seeking his or her first job is, well, you say that you’re interested in getting a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering or chemistry or something like this. What do you do for your hobbies?
And what they do for their hobbies generally informs me about what practical experience they can bring even at that early stage of their career. That spells dividends. So those are the things that I look for, the ability to communicate, what they do for hobbies, and how they can communicate their drive and their interest and their career goals to me.
How did you pick the name Sentient Blue?
I’m a big Star Trek fan. Sentient beings are constantly referred to in various episodes of Star Trek, especially in connection with what is called the Prime Directive. The Prime Directive prescribes how you should deal with alien life forms, especially alien life forms that are not as technologically advanced as the Federation of Planets.
By definition, the human race are sentient beings. We’re not the only ones on the planet that are sentient, but that’s another story for another day.
Blue refers to the air and the water. When I was trying to think of a name for the company, there was this huge push to be environmentally friendly. Everybody was saying, go green, go green, go green. And I appreciate the message. Implicit in that go green was take care of the air and the water, but nobody was actually explicitly making any kind of reference to the air and the water.
So I chose blue. The whole meaning behind Sentient Blue is that as intelligent sentient beings, us humans, we have the capacity to be able to develop technologies in any discipline and still be financially viable, economically sound.
Economic prosperity is not inconsistent with being environmentally friendly.