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An entrepreneurial nation won’t just happen – we need to engineer it

Mon, 19 January 2015

Shell UK Chairman Erik Bonino discusses the role industry can play in helping young entrepreneurs address challenges, such as low carbon energy, through innovation.
Bringing about the transition to a lower carbon energy system is one of the most pressing societal challenges of our time. As the world’s population continues to grow rapidly – from roughly seven billion people today to nine billion by 2050 – so will the demand for energy. It will require a joint effort from policymakers, civil society, and industry alike if we are to build a sustainable energy future on a global scale.
 
There’s no doubt it’s a considerable challenge – but it’s also a huge opportunity for the next generation of UK entrepreneurs.
 
We know the low-carbon economy is already flourishing. Research from the Carbon Trust and Shell Springboard (Shell’s programme for low-carbon small businesses) found that the low-carbon export market alone could rise to £30 billion by 2020, while the global market is forecast to hit £4 trillion in 2015. Small to medium sized businesses in the low-carbon industry are already generating strong growth figures and job creation, making an impressive contribution to both the national skills base and GDP.
 
But there’s one problem that threatens to hold us back from unlocking this potential. It’s clear that the great technologists pioneering low-carbon businesses today are qualified experts in their fields. Yet beyond these specialists it’s worth pausing to consider where the next wave of young innovators will come from.
 
Raising awareness of engineering and technology roles
 
The UK faces a yearly shortfall of over 81,000 people with engineering skills in the workforce, a gap that could threaten the progress of this sector. It’s an issue that starts early, as young people don’t appreciate studying STEM subjects means more than just rote learning the periodic table – it could equip them with the tools to make a real difference to global engineering challenges.
 
Raising awareness of the range of jobs associated with these disciplines is one of the reasons we are collaborating with EngineeringUK. We recently announced an investment of £1 million in the Tomorrow’s Engineers programme, to help students connect what they learn in the classroom with the world around them and with the opportunities offered by a career in STEM.
 
Building links between education and enterprise
 
Initiatives like this are a vital part of the puzzle, but it’s crucial that we also develop stronger links between education and enterprise. Even when students do choose to pursue STEM subjects, a large proportion of graduates do not end up working in science, engineering and technology professions. And those who do end up developing cutting-edge technologies can often lack the business acumen to convert their IP into viable commercial ventures.
 
To better understand the dimensions of this challenge, we’re exploring the low-carbon skills ecosystem and university spin-outs in collaboration with Imperial College London. We’re planning to share our findings in a report later on this year, and hope to work with other organisations to help bolster this key area of the low-carbon economy.  
 
Industry’s role
 
Industry has a vital role to play in supporting young entrepreneurs with innovations addressing societal challenges. Shell has a long heritage of working with young entrepreneurs through the Shell LiveWIRE programme, and at the end of last year 24 year old Sam Etherington won the Shell LiveWIRE Future Impact Award of £5,000 with his renewable wave energy system. Shell Springboard is also supporting the next generation of low-carbon entrepreneurs to scale up their business ideas. Vantage Power, 2013 Shell Springboard national winner, is a great example, as a start-up founded by two 24 year olds that specialises in hybrid retrofit engines for buses.
 
We know that the low-carbon opportunity is there to be seized by our ambitious young entrepreneurs, and it’s imperative that they are able to do so. But we all have a role to play in giving the next generation the best possible chances for success, by ensuring that they are equipped with the right STEM skills and the right support to bring their big ideas to market.
 

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