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From Smoothies to Energy Storage Solutions – Celebrating 35 Years of Young UK Innovators

Wed, 12 April 2017

This year, Shell LiveWIRE celebrates 35 years of supporting bright, young, innovative businesses up and down the UK.
​A lot has changed in 35 years, but quite a bit has stayed the same.
 
Over the years, Shell LiveWIRE has grown and evolved to meet the needs of the businesses applying for its support, and there have been some interesting trends along the way. One thing that the programme has always largely focussed on, however, is supporting the development of young innovative entrepreneurs who are driving economic growth, and that is something that can be seen in some of the most profitable businesses that have come through the programme.
 
Let’s take a quick look back at what was happening in the UK in 1982, when Shell LiveWIRE first launched... Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, the first permanent artificial heart was implanted, ‘Come on Eileen’ was the year’s biggest selling single, the first CD player was sold in Japan, and unemployment had ballooned to a whopping 3 million. One in eight people were out of work. Nowhere was this felt more strongly than in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the North East of England . Shell responded by launching Shell LiveWIRE in Strathclyde with the aim of addressing growing levels of youth unemployment through entrepreneurship.
 
It worked rather well. 
 
The region’s interest in self-employment was staggering. In the first six weeks of launching, the programme had already received 139 entries – this would rise to 273 by the closing date. The initiative was so well received that it was soon rolled out across the rest of the UK. And it continued to open doors for what would become some of the UK’s most innovative businesses.
 
In the 1980s, the UK was reeling from a recession that would see unemployment levels exceed three million. It was around this time that Stewart Graham, founder of Gael Force Group, stopped repairing other people’s fishing creels and started making his own. At 18 years old, Stewart Graham was just at the beginning of his career with his business, which would eventually grow to the 200+ workforce that it is today. Like many of the young people who came through Shell LiveWIRE in the early days of the programme, he was keen to be his own boss.  A survey conducted with Shell LiveWIRE winners in 1991 revealed that this, and the desire to derive some personal, non-financial gain from starting-up, was the driving motivation for 79% of the entrepreneurs the programme supported. 
 
This desire resulted in a plethora of different types of businesses emerging from Shell LiveWIRE programmes all across the country, and a wave of entrepreneurialism surged through the UK, with the celebrity of people like Richard Branson also helping to show the nation’s young people that working for yourself is a viable career choice. 
 
(Richard Branson with Shell LiveWIRE winner Colin Rafferty, 1989)
 
This wave carried through to the early noughties when Shell LiveWIRE would award its Young Entrepreneur of the Year London Regional Award to three young entrepreneurs who wanted to make the world healthier with its smoothies. Innocent, and Fresh Minds, winners of the 2002 Shell LiveWIRE Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, exhibited two key traits that saw their businesses come through the Shell LiveWIRE programme and continue to grow and succeed: a refusal to bend on the principles the business believed in (Innocent would be turned down for investment time and again because fruit juice companies at the time simply didn’t use all natural ingredients) and an eye toward disruption of the norm (Freshminds pioneered a flexible working model which would see their consultancy grow and branch into an innovative approach to recruitment). 
 
The programme would support other pioneering businesses like Glasses Direct, and BrewDog to jumpstart their enterprises, and would follow the technology trend that would see ground-breaking app-based businesses like Grabble win the Shell LiveWIRE Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. But by this point another trend was already well underway – a shift toward sustainability. 
 
(Shell LiveWIRE Winners Martin Dickie and James Watt from BrewDog, 2007)
 
In the 80s and 90s the desire to be one’s own boss was a key motivator for entrepreneurship, but today, the motivation to start a business is largely social  – the desire to have a positive impact on society. With its focus on innovation, Shell LiveWIRE was a good avenue for businesses like Pavegen and bio-bean, growing clean-tech companies that are changing the way we view waste and use energy. Recognising this trend, the programme shifted with it, and in 2015 the Smarter Future Programme, a monthly award which provides £5,000 and support to businesses that will make the UK a smarter, more sustainable place to live, was launched.
 
Today we’re celebrating 35 years of supporting businesses that are on the cutting-edge of innovation, and we are delighted to add to our impressive alumni of winners, businesses like Adaptavate – a business that is disrupting the building trade with its sustainable alternatives to hazardous or wasteful building products; Design By Sol – a  business that is eliminating food waste with bio-reactive food labels that give a more accurate reading of freshness; Moya Power – a business that will see our cities act as energy-gathering hubs, and our most recent Shell LiveWIRE Young Entrepreneur of the Year winner, Carlton Cummins, founder of Aceleron, the business that is tackling battery waste by transforming end-of-life batteries into energy storage solutions.
 
 
(The 2016 Shell LiveWIRE Young Entrepreneur of the Year Finalists, with Sinead Lynch, Chair, Shell UK, 2017)
 
From its small beginnings in Strathclyde, the Shell LiveWIRE programme has expanded to 15 countries and is delivered in eight languages. Each programme tailors its support package to the needs of the local community, and in the UK, that means putting a focus on those businesses that are developing the breakthrough technologies that will help make the UK’s cities, and energy and natural resource use more sustainable. But always the programme is looking ahead to the game-changing innovations that will make our future.
 
So what’s your big idea?
 
 

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