Engineering entrepreneur Sam Etherington.

Enterprising engineers

Young entrepreneur Sam Etherington is keen to show young people how their interest in engineering can be combined with starting a business.

It took only a handful of bruises whilst learning kitesurfing to realise the raw power of waves. But then it took me several years of painstaking work to transform this realisation into a viable business that could change the way we think about our most abundant resource – wave energy.

Although I watched my university friends head straight into high-paying jobs with motor manufacturers, I decided to take a different path. My kitesurfing endeavour inspired me to create Aqua Power Technologies – developing a system to harness wave energy from all directions. What initially was a major project for my final-year industrial design degree developed into a business plan that won a Shell LiveWIRE Future Impact start-up grant and a James Dyson scholarship.

Harnessing wave power from any direction

My design is unique as it can absorb wave energy from any axis, unlike the single-axis technologies currently on the market. This means it has an ability to harness wave power from any direction – not just the waves that come in towards the coast - and is projected to be cheaper than conventional wave power.

Despite Aqua Power Technologies’ current success, looking back at my entrepreneurial journey, it is clear to me that I had no idea what it means to start or run a business. And I am by no means an exception. 

What’s restricting the UK’s entrepreneurial spirit?

A recent report by Imperial College and Shell Springboard, a low-carbon enterprise support programme, suggests that a lack of business skills is one of the key reasons why entrepreneurial activity among young, well-educated individuals in the UK is only half that in the US (6 per cent versus 12 per cent). This restricts the UK’s ability to create and scale innovative companies, which are often the source of some of the most exciting new technologies.

I recently spoke on this subject to a room full of entrepreneurs and students studying STEM subjects at the Shell Enterprise Conference. The general feeling was clear – inventing new technology is just the first and for many, a very straightforward step. However, bringing this solution to the market embodies far bigger risks and uncertainties, and this giant leap often poses challenges that many are unable to overcome.

To address this, universities should do more to build business capabilities in students, regardless of what subject they study. This needs to go beyond the box-ticking exercises, but rather provide practical guidance on how to gain access to finance, navigate regulatory and legal hurdles, apply for patents, recruit the right people and market ideas in a targeted and compelling way.

Building business and management acumen

From personal experience, I firmly believe that building business and management acumen is particularly important for STEM students, especially those studying engineering, design and technology. Most of us finish our degrees with innovative dissertation projects, which in many cases could be transformed into thriving businesses if we only had the right support. In the end, I succeeded, but I am a minority and my journey was difficult. A more comprehensive and targeted business development curriculum for STEM students would significantly ease this process and help bring the next round of innovative, disruptive technologies onto the market.  
The UK economy needs the right combination of big and small businesses to help it flourish. And it requires a steady stream of students equipped with both STEM and entrepreneurial skills to do so. I am particularly convinced that there is a whole host of new inspiring technologies out there that could come to market more rapidly if engineers knew more about entrepreneurship. Only then will we be able to develop new feats of British engineering that can be exported around the globe. 

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