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Aqua Power Technologies is April's Featured Business of the Month

Thu, 13 April 2017

Sam Etherington won the Shell LiveWIRE £5,000 Future Impact Award in 2014.
The development of the idea and the technology behind Aqua Power Technologies started whilst Sam was studying at Brunel University in 2012, before the business was officially founded in June 2014. 

Aqua Power Technologies designs, develops, and manufactures wave energy systems which convert the raw power of ocean waves into electricity. For the past three years, the company has solely focused on the development of the technology. The business is now on its sixth iteration and will have two fully operational units deployed off the coast of Shetland and the Orkney Isles later this year for pre-commercial trials. After the trials, Aqua Power Technologies will be gearing up for commercialisation late in 2018.

As 70% of the world is covered in oceans, the potential for wave energy systems, such as Aqua Power Technoligies, to provide power to the ever-increasing energy demand is a real opportunity. 

Shell LiveWIRE sat down with Sam to catch up with him and to see what’s next for his award-winning business Aqua Power Technologies.

What was the inspiration behind Aqua Power Technologies?
Initial inspiration came from learning to kite surf off the coast of Cumbria. Being a beginner and absolutely rubbish, I spent a lot of time being barrel rolled by the powerful waves – that got me thinking about how it could be harnessed.

How did you get into entrepreneurship? Did you always want to go into business for yourself?
I knew I would always have my own business, I just didn't know what type of business. My studies at university honed my skills and interest into design and engineering and from there the interest continued to exponentially grow. 

My initial entrepreneurship journey started when I was 16. I had the summer off and wanted to start a business advertising businesses in the Lake District using a Piaggio Ape. I did all the ground work, worked out my costs, and then approached local businesses to see whether the uptake could match the overheads. The idea was a big success, with a number of local businesses confirming their interest. However, I was about to learn that the idea could be copied, as one of the businesses I had visited bought their own Piaggio Ape and started advertising themselves. Although this was frustrating, it was also uplifting to know that the idea and my approach wasn't completely mad.

My next venture focussed on designing and manufacturing own brand chassis protection equipment for Land Rovers. Learning from my initial venture, the products I was now selling were unique and could not be easily copied. Due to the low cost that the components could be manufactured for I was able to undercut the established competition by a considerable margin. However, the venture could not be sustained as the contractor I was using to manufacture the components went into administration, and I could not find another contractor capable of matching the same part costs. I had just learnt another important lesson here – not to be reliant on one supplier for the success of a business.

What challenges did you face when setting up your business?
Aqua Power Technologies is a research and development company, so you have to be really careful where you spend as the outgoings are far higher than the incomings. Being a start-up company and a research and development company isn't a good combination, as developing technology consumes cash and until it's ready for commercialising, there is no sales income. There were a lot of challenges to setting up the business, which were all overcome, but the overriding challenge is running out of cash. No cash, no business.

What is your biggest (or proudest) achievement with the business?
My milestone moments are superseded quite quickly as there is a lot of new ground being covered and as an innovative research and development company you certainly cannot rest on your laurels, you have to keep pushing hard. So for instance getting sponsorship by some of the biggest names in the industry was a milestone, but that was quickly replaced by getting my IP filed. 

The technology being developed by Aqua Power Technologies has captured the attention of the industry, and the past month has delivered three milestone achievements: the completion of private investments of £300,000, an Innovate UK grant, and a European grant. Although this is fantastic news, the major landmark occasion will be the sale of Aqua Power Technologies’ first machines. I have the upmost respect for anyone who has taken a truly innovate idea to market and commercialised a product. So, maybe when I commercialise I will be proud, but I can guarantee you that there will be a new goal in my sights by the end of the day!

You won a Shell LiveWIRE Award in 2014, how have things changed for you since then?
Quite a lot has changed, but for the better. The design and the target market are the two main changes. I have shifted my attention to developing a system with a faster commercialisation, and this was quickly confirmed as the right decision by the change in investor and end user interest.

The business now has some brilliant advisors and investors, whose input is like gold dust. The company is more structured, more professional, and importantly, more investable. The technology has been tested and refined in a feedback loop on numerous occasions and is now getting ready for the final push towards commercialisation. 

What’s next for Aqua Power Technologies?
Ocean trials are taking place later this year to test the pre-commercial units one final time before we start to sell units later in 2018. This is essentially make or break time for the business and is a very important period. 

Entrepreneurs drive innovation. How do you think this can be used to help create a smarter future?
If the opportunities exist to create a smarter future, the entrepreneurs will be there. I may be biased, but one of the biggest imminent issue I foresee is the lack of energy to power our societies’ ever-increasing demand. 

What role do you think entrepreneurs will play in the transition to a low carbon society?
The low carbon society is ripe with opportunities for entrepreneurs. It is a transition that the market demands, and when the market leads the charge, the opportunities are immense as half the battle is already won. Entrepreneurs will develop and provide solutions, in a competitive sector, which will make low carbon transitional technologies affordable, desirable, and mainstream. It is just a matter of time.

What advice would you give to aspiring young entrepreneurs?
You can read as many books as you want and take on as much advice as you can, but I still maintain that the best way to understand something is to go out and do it yourself, then you know intimately what to do, what not to do, and how to do it better next time.
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