Alistair Shepherd's final-year group project work on marine energy has led to an entrepreneurship scholarship that sees him jet off to the US for six months and return to uni as an 'entrepreneur in residence'.
Alistair Shepherd, 23, is studying for his EngD at the University of Southampton, having completed his Masters in Aerospace Engineering there. A final year group design project on marine energy with fellow students Martin Reader, Tommy Trybus, Jonathan Lilley and Douglas Reid has attracted attention from the commercial world and helped him earn the only UK scholarship on the Kauffman Global Scholars Program (the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is the world's largest foundation devoted to entrepreneurship). The scholarship was awarded by the SETsquared Partnership, an enterprise collaboration between five universities: Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey.
In January, he will spend six months in the US, which includes an internship at a US organisation, and returns to Southampton as an ‘entrepreneur in residence’. Here he speaks to the IET about the group’s plans to take the project forward, what he hopes to get from the programme and his love of kite-surfing.
Did you always want to be an engineer?
My parents always thought it would suit me but for a long time at school I thought an engineer was a mechanic. I went to some university open days and looked at everything from geology to psychology but was then really grabbed by engineering. Southampton was my first choice because it’s consistently one of the best for aerospace.
How did the marine energy project come about?
There were a number of suggested topics for our final year group design project and marine energy attracted all five of us. It might seem strange that studying aerospace I’ve ended up in the field of marine energy but there are many parallels. The challenge was ‘is it possible to generate energy from the rolling and pitching motion of a floating platform?’
How does your solution work?
By converting the wave induced rolling and pitching motion of any floating structure into usable energy via a device contained within the structure itself. Because the device does not need to be immersed in water, it negates the problem of survivability that plagues almost every other wave energy device. It is therefore particularly suited for energy harvesting aboard marine vessels. Such vessels do not need to be underway for this device to harvest energy. It is also not aimed at providing energy for propulsion but more for auxiliary power.
How did the scholarship come about?
I went to a talk organised by Fish on Toast, the University of Southampton’s entrepreneur’s society, which invites people from the world of business to speak to students. I was very motivated by a talk by Will King, the founder of King of Shaves. At the end of the evening a person from the SETsquared Partnership stood up and talked about the scholarship. He explained you needed to have a technical idea. I was starting my doctorate at Southampton so wasn’t going to apply but having heard about our idea, SETsquared recommended I did. I thought I had nothing to lose so applied and must have said something right.
What do you hope to get out of the programme?
At the moment I consider myself a complete novice in the world of business. We’ve started to talk to investors already and while I’m confident pitching our idea, I feel out of my depth commercially. I want to feel confident in the world of business and be able to answer an investor’s questions intelligently. I consider myself like a sponge – I don’t really know what I need to know but hopefully I can soak up everything I’m taught and will then know what further questions I need to ask.
How does the programme fit with the rest of the group’s plans?
Three of us from the initial group want to take the idea forward. We all bring different skillsets so my going away to learn about the world of business should tie in perfectly. There’s no rivalry between us and they all recognise that this is a great opportunity for us as a team and will help us take the project forward. We want our solution to become a world leader in marine energy.
What do you like to do outside of engineering?
I’m heavily involved in kite-surfing and while at university two of us launched the first ever Student Kite-Surfing Association and we now run three national competitions a year and have attracted sponsorship. Running an events organisation has taught me a lot about how you conduct yourself when dealing with people. Kite-surfing seems to attract a lot of engineers. I don’t envisage having time to do it in the US but I might take my kit with me.
What is your advice to other student engineers who aspire to come up with a ground-breaking product or idea?
Whole-heartedly go for it. If you have the confidence and passion and believe in what you are doing, others will believe in it too. Don’t be dissuaded from taking your own idea and trying to run your own business. Look at people like James Dyson – who’s to say you couldn’t be the next to do something like he did? My other advice would be to listen more than you talk and if you understand people and can work with them, you will be a success.