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Exclusive Interview: Dr. Gareth Stockman, Marine Power Systems

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Dr. Gareth Stockman

Dr. Gareth Stockman

Marine Power Systems (MPS) is Wales’ leading home-grown wave energy technology developer of the patented and award winning WaveSub Wave Energy Converter (WEC).

Dr Gareth Stockman, managing director of MPS, tells us more about the company and its future plans to provide marine (wave) energy as an affordable, secure and low impact renewable energy source to the UK.

 

Interview Questions:

  1. Tell us about your business?

Marine Power Systems (MPS) was established in 2008 by Dr Graham Foster and myself. We are both engineering graduates of Swansea University. The company is by no means an overnight success; the fantastic development trajectory we are currently going through is a culmination of many years of first understanding the fundamental challenges associated with harnessing wave energy, on a global scale. We have been through a rigorous development and research pathway, and have focused on innovating the WaveSub device over many years. Graham and I are both mechanical engineers with business experience in technology development. As keen surfers and enjoying all water sports, we have a passion for renewable energy and wanted to explore marine renewables, specifically wave.

From the research and development completed of our WaveSub WEC, we understand the challenges that faced developers and what’s preventing them from reaching commercialisation. As of today, we are operating with a highly credible, experienced internal team at our base in Swansea, who have expertise in many disciples, such as hydraulics, computer modelling, design engineering and electronics.

We are on track to bring our 1:4 scale WEC to fruition and plan for it to be deployed initially in Pembroke, prior to it being tested later in 2016 at the FaBTest facility in Falmouth.

Our project has been assisted with financial support from private investors and a significant grant from the European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government.

  1. What are your plans for the next five years, and where do you see your challenges and opportunities?

Our immediate plan is to complete sea testing of our 1:4 scale WEC. This fully functioning, scaled prototype is a Russian doll of the full scale device we look to develop in the future. All of the WaveSub’s unique innovations that solve the four key challenges, will be proved at this scale. These challenges revolve around energy capture; survivability; transportation, operation and maintenance; and ultimately ensuring that the device produces a low levelised cost of energy – to be competitive with other more established renewables and conventional generation forms.

Successful testing of our 1:4 scale WEC is the natural pathway, prior to embarking on its full scale phase. The full scale prototype will be tested with grid connection in the South Pembrokeshire Demonstration Zone. It’s fantastic that this infrastructure is being established in our back yard, which we never imagined would be the case when we started MPS.

Following the full scale demonstrator being deployed at sea, MPS will then look to cement its position further within the renewable energy sector by establishing its first small-scale wave farm array. This would look to accommodate 15 to 20 devices, again in the South Pembrokeshire Demonstration Zone.

MPS has recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Port of Milford Haven, which operates Pembroke Port, which will see deeper cooperation in the ongoing development of the WaveSub WEC in coming years.

  1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in business?

To never overlook the vast amount of experience and wealth that can be tapped into on your own doorstep. During the early days, MPS envisioned raising finance by going to London and further afield. Offers were received from along the M4 corridor, but the vast majority of financial and business support has come from within Wales. We have had the benefit of learning from a number of successful business people with valuable knowledge and experience, some from within the area of renewables. There really is so much Swansea has to offer; whilst I certainly do not rule out looking further afield, including the likes of London and Sillicon Valley for our next phase, I would say to do less travelling and look closer to home when it comes to initial smaller levels of finance.

  1. Looking back at your career, are there things you would have done differently? 

Fortunately, due to having much valued help and guidance from experienced mentors in the early days, plus a highly credible team of enthusiastic and highly skilled people to support MPS development as a start-up – I believe most things have been done well from the onset!  I don’t have a huge number of regrets. I’ve been lucky enough to have a strong support network from various levels along the way.

However, one thing I would have perhaps done differently is to have committed to MPS full time during its earlier stages. Once I had committed 100% to the company, development was expedited significantly. During the embryonic days of MPS, its founders were trying to establish the company and progress development amongst other prior commitments.

It’s only when you’re fully engaged you can see the real advances being made. By committing earlier and being willing to take a bit more of a risk, the dividends will hopefully be realised sooner.  

  1. What do you think are the most important qualities for success in business?

Whilst some of these are cliché, they are absolutely true. A strong team of A-players in different areas and disciplines, such as hydraulics, design and engineering in MPS’ case, is essential to achieving your aims.

Motivation and staying power are also qualities that are crucial for success, especially in our sector. Whilst the MPS team and its investors are well versed with our vision, and there are many who understand the requirements for renewable energy technology, there are still naysayers who will inevitably claim renewable energy isn’t needed. This ethos isn’t helped with the unfortunate loss of companies, such as Pelamis Wave Power and Aquamarine Power, momentarily quashing the sectors enthusiasm. MPS was approached by industry experts from these two companies and we now employ them to utilise their knowledge and valuable experience, so at least their specialised skills will not be lost.

Having motivation is so important, as wave energy is not an overnight .com industry. Having the staying power to keep going and reach the outcome a business desires, even if there are negative views to contend with, is paramount.

  1. What advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a business?

Make sure in the beginning you ask yourself hard questions and be honest with yourself. Is the business plan you have credible? Is your idea required? Is it innovative and competitive, or better than what already exists? You need to understand what you really have to offer. Also, seek experience from others who have started a company. They can provide pointers on structure and governance, which are key to have in place when planning to expand. Necessities for raising finance, such as having shareholder agreements in place, can all be planned for by seeking advice from those who have been through the process.

Being realistic can help to provide direction and avoid disappointment. You need to set yourself a plan and not be too over ambitious, accepting that some business technologies, such as a wave energy converter that is a first of its kind, takes time!

Something well worth considering and that has been important for MPS’ business model is intellectual property (IP) rights. IP is vital; it can be one of your main assets, it adds value to the company and provides the rights for freedom of operation. Get a good patent attorney to ensure your idea is unique and you’re not infringing on others’ concepts.

Finally, the unconditional support of family and friends is truly valued when you embark on such an ambitious venture as starting your own business. 

  1. What are your top three tips for success?

The success of MPS is borne out of incrementally proving a device at increasing scale (and cost), leading to an optimised device that we are confident in – the WaveSub device. This approach, as opposed to rushing ‘to go big quick’ like many others before and making costly mistakes in the early stages, has now paid dividends in our development.

The MPS founders have built a highly experienced, skilled and credible team to take the device from 1:4 scale and beyond, and we intend to continue to build our valued team as we move forward.

You must have belief and confidence in your product, and more importantly have the scientific data to back-up your innovation. The Holy Grail in renewables is a competitive levelised cost of energy (LCOE), which MPS continually evidences at successive stages.

Funding is obviously another central aspect to reaching success. Raising sufficient grant and private investment funding is crucial to support development. It should not be underestimated the cost of business development; raising sufficient funds to assist with a strong cash flow is good advice.

8. What do you think Wales’ strengths and weaknesses are as a place to do business?

Wales currently has a huge amount to offer. It’s a fantastic place to do business and is still improving year on year. The number of marine renewable initiatives that have come to Swansea and Wales as a whole, such as with the WaveSub and Tidal Energy Ltd, as well as barrage concepts, such as the tidal lagoon, are extremely encouraging and helps to attract further support, which will undoubtedly strengthen the Welsh economy. Having these initiatives based in Wales can attract grant funding, investment and supply chain industries to locate here, which will cement the need for test sites and demonstration zones.

Also, the announcement of the potential £1bn City Deal bid for the Swansea Bay City Region (SBCR) is another positive for the South Wales area and will bring so much more business and jobs to the region. This would attract more attention to Wales going forward and show the strength of the country as a place to do business.

We hope the SBCR will secure the City Deal and we will look forward to playing our part by helping to increase productivity and investment in skills, through the commercialisation of our WaveSub device.

9.What can Wales do to attract more inward investment?

What’s promising for us is that Wales and Swansea in particular is serious about developing marine renewables; in our case – wave. We have received support from MPs and AMs including the First Minister Carwyn Jones, Finance Minister Jane Hutt and Carl Sargeant, and have met with leading political figures at the Senedd in Cardiff, who strongly support our initiative. This is evidenced through MPS receiving a £2.1m European Regional Development Fund grant through the Welsh government to fund our project. Having support from the government can attract further investment to enterprises in Wales. The country is doing well and long may it continue to prosper.