How physics, materials, and tech connect: An interview with Zina Jarrahi Cinker

by Nicole Morgan and Henning Soller

Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker is a globally recognized graphene expert, R&D strategist, and condensed-matter physicist. She currently serves as the founder and director general of MATTER, an international, public-interest organization engaged in facilitating the global use of advanced materials to solve societal challenges. For the past decade, Cinker has worked tirelessly to enable the commercial use of graphene. She served as the executive director of the US National Graphene Association and helped propel ways to take this remarkably strong, flexible, and transparent material from breakthrough to industrialization. Now, Cinker is looking to do the same for other frontier materials. In 2021, she launched PUZZLE X, the world’s first hub for deep-tech science.

Cinker spoke with McKinsey’s Henning Soller and Nicole Morgan about how she got her start in frontier materials, how they shape society and emerging technologies, and where she thinks that future is headed. A condensed version of their conversation follows.

Henning Soller: What is the origin story behind MATTER and PUZZLE X?

Zina Jarrahi Cinker: It became clear during the pandemic that there is a need for us to consider how materials can be applied for the betterment of humanity. That’s why I decided to start an organization that would put societal benefits at the core but be run like an industry association. That organization is now called MATTER. Our aim is to facilitate applications that have value to society at a faster pace and develop commercial applications that can deliver real impact. PUZZLE X has grown out of this initiative. Physicists are one of the most creative breeds out there, and PUZZLE X brings them together. If you look at the wider tech landscape, everybody’s got a bit of the puzzle figured out in terms of advances that can be applied to help society. PUZZLE X was formed as a hub to connect those people and ideas. We launched our first PUZZLE X event in Barcelona in 2021, held our second in November 2022, and have our third one scheduled for this November. We also serve as a year-round venture builder.

Henning Soller: I’ve heard you say that society is constantly shaped by materials. Can you tell me a little more about that and your concept of the MATTERverse?

Zina Jarrahi Cinker: Think of the movie The Matrix. There was a world, and then behind that, you had zeros and ones. Now, if you keep going, behind the zeros and ones you’ll ultimately end up with atoms and molecules. And that’s what you’ll find behind biology, technology, everything. Matter is what gives us diversity. The Earth, mountains, clouds, our brains—all of these things are compositions of different atoms and molecules coming together. That’s the story of the MATTERverse. Every time humanity has mastered the art of a certain class of materials, there has been a leap in human civilization; this goes back to the Stone Age, when we started discovering that this lump could be used as a tool. And that tool, in time, allowed us to hunt. The ability to hunt made us carnivores. And a better diet shaped our brains and gave us the capacity to compute. So that stone tool was not just a stone tool—it set off a chain of events that changed what humanity became. From there we had the Age of Iron, then the Age of Steel, and so on. Every time we have mastered a new material, it has given us capabilities that redefined what humans are. Now we’re in the digital age, and this age was made possible by our mastery of silicon. We’ve become a different species because of it. Most of us can’t imagine work without a laptop or a smartphone. The birth of quantum computing can be traced back to an advance in material science.

In the next decade, we are going to be seeing a leap in the world of materials, or, as I call it, the MATTERverse. The digital world is a real world that we created because we mastered silicon and opened a door to a new reality. To truly realize the potential of a metaverse, our rudimentary tools for interfacing with the digital world won’t be enough. This will set off new rounds of materials innovation. What that frontier will look like is anyone’s guess, but it will again change us as we master it.

Henning Soller: Where do you hope MATTER and PUZZLE X will be in ten years?

Zina Jarrahi Cinker: I’m always asked this question. And the answer is, I have no idea where it’s going. I used to be very hesitant to say that, especially in the United States, where everyone needs to have a goal, and because venture capitalists will say that everybody needs to have a packaged plan. But innovation doesn’t conform to a packaged plan. If you know exactly where you’re going, you’re going to miss the twists and turns, and these may contain the most important opportunities. So the reality is, I don’t know where PUZZLE X and MATTER are going to go, but I do know that wherever that is, we’re going to get there with friends and collaborators. And it’s going to be a fantastic journey.

Henning Soller: You’ve been extraordinarily successful. But I can imagine that working on frontiers of science has not always been easy. Can you talk about your experience?

Zina Jarrahi Cinker: It’s easy to talk about successes, but we don’t often hear about the low points. And knowing how to confront those moments is almost more important. I’ve certainly had them. Not long ago, I was in a stretch where every single deal was falling through. People were saying, “Are you cursed?” I look back and think, “What if I had just shut things down when we were at that lowest of low moments and nothing was working?”

The learning that I want people to know is that behind every breakthrough are lots of moments of doubt, lots of moments when you really do not see a way out. And it’s those moments that define you. Because if you decide you are going to push through, you can’t just do so with a little bit of energy. You have to push through with everything you’ve got. You need to reconcile yourself to the fact that it might not work and have the conviction that it is still worth going for anyway.

Henning Soller: You told me once that earlier in your career, you weren’t always accepted for who you were. But you found a way to push through then as well.

Zina Jarrahi Cinker: Yes. When I was getting my PhD, the faculty had met and discussed me, and an adviser sat me down and said, “You have a bright future. But you might want to dress more like the others. Don’t wear high heels, etc.” And the advice came from a very good place. They were trying to help me. But it broke me inside and made me think, “Maybe I will never be a physicist. Maybe they are right.” And I went home and cried. And then I made a choice. I said to myself, “I guess I will never be a good physicist, but I still love doing physics, so I’ll keep doing it even if I never make it in this field.”

People point to these heroic figures who go and break boundaries, but it doesn’t feel heroic when you’re doing it. It’s not easy to stand out. We need to be careful when we counsel the younger generation. The words we use and what we say can have such an impact.

Nicole Morgan: You’ve been such a source of inspiration for many; who are your role models?

Zina Jarrahi Cinker: I don’t have a role model. My brain works differently. Everybody has an imprint on me. I see something in everybody. I don’t have to like everything about a person for them to have something worth emulating. What’s important for me is the imprints of their experience. Their knowledge, their wisdom gets added on, and this collective feeling gets grown. And then it ends up being translated into initiatives that I create. So the initiatives that I create are not me. They are imprints of other people that are translated through me.

Zina Jarrahi Cinker is founder and director general of MATTER and chief creator of PUZZLE X. Nicole Morgan is a consultant in McKinsey’s Prague office, and Henning Soller is a partner in the Frankfurt office.

Comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of McKinsey & Company or have its endorsement.