NEOL Interviews: Leyla Alieva

Author: NEOL

In a conservative and still male-dominated global lubricants sector that has seen little innovation in some of its key areas like wear protection, Leyla Alieva remains undeterred in her bid to disrupt the status quo. As CEO of the newly formed NEOL Copper Technologies Limited, she has uprooted her family from Singapore to London from where she plans to manufacture a new oil that promises not only to transform the fortunes of commercial fleet operators, but to help save the planet as well.

She comes armed with determination, and the proof that NEOL’s no-SAPS copper-based anti-wear technology radically reduces fuel consumption and practically eliminates wear in engine parts altogether. Over £2m of her family’s own money has gone into this. Now she is looking for funding to propel her innovation into production.

As part of a series of interviews with the key players at NEOL, Leyla shares her early career experiences, the origins of NEOL, and her insights into balancing a high-powered career with family life. Join us as we explore the fascinating story of Leyla and the beginnings of NEOL’s journey.

Q: Can you tell us about your journey before joining NEOL?

Leyla: My career started in the financial industry, working as a junior analyst for an investment bank. I stayed in the industry for a number of years, working in multiple roles for various different companies, including during the 2008 financial crisis. At that point, I was the fund manager of a pre-IPO fund – the youngest fund manager in the company – and through restructuring and renegotiating, we made it through the crisis with the fund intact. Of course, there were stressful moments during this time but, if I’m honest, I absolutely loved it. It was all about the people, and it taught me that no matter the situation, if your approach to people is right then you can get through it.

A few years after this, an exciting opportunity presented itself to lead an industrial redevelopment project. The initiative was funded by the Moscow City Government, and my role was to attract residents and investors. I stayed on the project for two and a half years, and established a building fully subscribed with residents, including various biotech and microelectronics companies.

It was exciting to be part of a project creating something from the ground up and, while there were similarities between this and private equity, the work ethic was completely different. I was managing my own team, dealing with new people, and it was the first time I was given a taste of the technology-driven entrepreneurial life.

Q: Is this what then set you on the path to create NEOL?

Leyla: I actually left the project in 2014 to focus on my family. At the time my husband was running a mining project in Indonesia and travelling between two different countries. We had two young children (now three, slightly older children) and the constant back and forth was quite disruptive, so we decided to move to Indonesia and allow them to settle into one location.

There was a large period of adjustment for our children, so I took a step back from working life to focus on my family, which was very difficult to begin with. I was about 35, and this was the first time since I was 19 that I wasn’t working. It was the right decision, of course, but it wasn’t one that I made easily.

Fortunately, we had moved to Bali, and the chilled-out approach to life helped me to settle in before moving again to Singapore a year later. Dmitri, my husband, was also studying for a master’s in philosophy and I started once again reading academic texts. I hadn’t noticed it, but up until this point I’d been focused on newspapers and headlines, and had kind of forgotten how to read academia. But I was hooked. It reinforced my enjoyment of learning and, as a family, instilled a lifetime-of-learning mentality in all of us.

Q: So, what led you from here to starting a sustainability-driven technical lubricants company?

Leyla: It was through a company called CUPPER. Before we’d left Russia in 2014, Dmitri had met with CUPPER’s owner, Sergei Mamykin, who was manufacturing engine oils using copper additives. Not only were these better for the environment, but they significantly improved the efficiency and longevity of machinery. Having seen the effects in action, Dmitri quickly became an angel investor.

This was initially a passive investment, but in 2020 the global pandemic and work commitments brought us back to Russia, and Dmitri took on a more active role in the company. I was once again pursuing my own interests, but hadn’t quite found the right project. Dmitri needed to bring someone in to help raise CUPPER to the next level, and asked me to join as joint-CEO. Interestingly, my doctor had also just informed me I was low on copper, and it seemed like a pretty strong nudge from the universe that my future lay in this technology.

At this point, CUPPER had been doing well, but hadn’t been growing as much as it needed to. We invested in a sales team, business development and a PR programme to educated people about our innovative product – and quickly grew the company’s revenue.

The next thing to do was to take it global.

Q: And this is when NEOL began?

Leyla: Absolutely. We had already decided that going global was the right thing to do, then at the start of 2022 the war began and provided another catalyst to take action. Nobody understood how long it would go on for to begin with, but by the summer it was clear that it wasn’t ending any time soon, and staying in Russia was no longer an option for us.

We initially moved back to Singapore and set up NEOL in Indonesia completely independently of CUPPER, with Sergei supporting and acting in the capacity as a scientific advisor. We then looked at where would be best to base our new company, and the UK came out as an early front runner. It had great access to venture capital, a strong entrepreneurial environment – including the innovation visa programme – and both myself and Dmitri had dreamed of living in the UK since we were kids.

We both believe completely in the potential of CuGlide technology, and establishing NEOL in the UK was the next step in that journey. Now we are working to expand its reach, focusing on testing to further prove its sustainability and efficiency impacts. The journey from CUPPER to NEOL is not just about business expansion; it’s about bringing a beneficial technology to a wider audience.

Q: Thanks Leyla. Final question, what advice (if any) would you give to other aspiring entrepreneurs?

Leyla: Embrace your own unique journey and skills, keep learning, and don’t waste energy on projects you know aren’t right for you. My career has seen a number of transitions, but each time I have been confident in my abilities and the professional relationships I’ve built with the people around me. At some points it may feel as though you are back to point zero, but it is not the same point zero as before, it is one ahead of a whole new road of exploration and learning.