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After a long career in theatre and illustration, Samantha Bunyan never thought she would be winning an award for climate change innovation. When the United Kingdom government recently announced the winners of a 58,000 euro grant targeted at female entrepreneurs, Bunyan was likely among the most surprised by the call.

“I would certainly never have thought that I’d be a women-in-innovation award winner,” says Bunyan. “I guess I’ve always just tried to – whatever I’m doing – be a part of a team that delivers as fantastic a product as they can whether it be a play, a film, or an aerospace seat back.”

Bunyan, 51, is the co-founder of Cecence (Salisbury, Hampshire) a designer and manufacturer of composites designed for mass-transportation. More specifically, they focus on rail and aerospace interiors where their materials are used to make ultra-thin furniture that dramatically reduce weight and fuel consumption.

“It’s about having a genuine focus on developing and building the sustainable products of tomorrow.”

Samantha Bunyan, co-founder of Cecence

Their seat backs can be seen on A320 ‘Airbus’ planes, and their latest iteration is set to save at least 500 kilograms per flight

Sustainability In, Sustainability Out

In 2014, Bunyan co-founded Cecence out of a love for lightweight materials and a desire to scale composite manufacture through rapid processing methodologies. But the focus of late, and where the grant will be put towards, is all about sustainability.

“That’s not about greenwashing [the company],” Bunyan clarifies. “It’s about having a genuine focus on developing and building the sustainable products of tomorrow.”

Cecence has managed to achieve a lot in that regard. Not only are their composites malleable and increasingly made from recycled carbon fibres as well as sustainable bio-resin, their method of production is also designed to be as environmentally friendly as possible. Rather than more traditional methods that create plastic waste, Cecence presses their thermoset and use a water-based and non-toxic release agent. “When you feed into that – the materials that we’re feeding into the manufacturing process being more sustainable – then you start to feel as if you’re doing it right,” explains Bunyan.

Thermoplastic Chips – Photograph by Samantha Bunyan

While her professional background seems a-typical for her line of work, her upbringing made it seem more inevitable than extemporaneous. Bunyan’s father was a surrealist artist, architect, and inventor. He started the magazine Easy in the 1960swhich was one of the first ‘do it yourself’ publications in England. “Everything was interesting, everything was potentially useful,” recounts Bunyan. “And it, I guess, sparked a curiosity in me that made me always interested in lots of stuff.” 

Creative Beginnings 

Fundamentally, Bunyan is interested in creativity. She is an actor and has produced plays and short films. She shares her love of creativity with her co-founder and partner, Humphrey Bunyan. He was a designer of materials for boat racing and F1 and pioneered the first ever composite cabling system within sailboats. Today, the majority of boats in major races around the world use his cable design. However, the innovations were difficult to scale in these fields. 

“So, the very obvious decision was to then focus on how to make composites possible in volume manufacturing,” explains Bunyan. They landed on aerospace as a target sector for its business and environmental potential.  

Air-travel is a difficult industry to break into. This meant success was slow – particularly in the flygscam (flight shame) era where people have begun to think twice before getting onto an airplane. Then the pandemic began and a once-booming mass-transportation sector was driven to a virtual stand-still. With difficult questions are being asked about the composites industry as a whole, Bunyan sees this as a chance for airlines to add better composites and demonstrate sustainability as a way to re-engage passengers. 

“Airline’s priorities have changed in relation to what the post-covid passenger will be looking for in terms of choice of airline that will go beyond advertising the cheapest and fastest option,” says Bunyan. “I think that this is a huge opportunity to drive forward some of the developments we’re doing.” 

Clear Skies Ahead

Today, Cecence is  a company of 30 staff competing with larger manufacturing companies for transportation-centric clients in the UK and internationally. For Bunyan, it is about creating opportunities in others who have the imagination to bring their ideas to life.

“You yourself have made worlds out of cardboard boxes when you were very little and the education system over the years as you grow up tends to strip away at your innate imagination and kind of send you on a track of agreed learning,” she says.

This means finding people like her – from different walks of life and a-typical backgrounds. For example, her team includes an ex-pro cyclist turned-product engineer who might not have been given the same latitude by a more traditional company looking only in universities for staff. And while she tries to stay behind the scenes, her success inevitably brings her back into the spotlight.   

“I’ve always been predominantly behind the camera, saying to the team: ‘go on, go on – you can dare, and this is how we can do it together’…so this will be an interesting year for me,” says Bunyan.  

Read more about thermoplastics and sustainable air-travel