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UniGreenScheme is September's Featured Business of the Month

Fri, 09 September 2016

Michael McLeod won a Shell LiveWIRE Smarter Future Award in October 2015 and was a finalist for the 2015 Shell LiveWIRE Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
Michael McLeod started his award winning business, UniGreenScheme, whilst at university studying for a PhD. UniGreenScheme helps universities close the loop on waste by offering a unique service which helps resell unwanted lab equipment. The business collects, stores and sells surplus equipment from universities across the UK and returns a share of the profits to the university.

Although the business is now expanding rapidly across the UK, it took the business 18 months to get to the point that it was able to get the first university on board. But Michael found that after signing the initial universities, other universities were quick to follow. We caught up with Michael to see what else has been happening with the business in the last year.

Shell LiveWIRE sat down with Michael to catch up with him and to see what’s next for his award-winning business, UniGreenScheme.
What was the inspiration behind UniGreenScheme?
When I was studying as a student, I was asked to help with a laboratory clear-out, and I saw over £5,000 worth of perfectly good equipment being thrown into an electrical skip. I was determined to offer a better solution to universities, and I suspected that resale of this equipment was a viable option.

How did you get into entrepreneurship? Did you always want to go into business for yourself?
I started off in entrepreneurship purely by accident. I was selling Pokemon cards and PlayStation games at a car boot sale when I was about 13/14, and I had been selling them for far less than what they were worth online – which someone just so happened to mention to me. So I decided to buy PlayStation games and other items from other people at car boot sales and sell them online for a profit on my step dad’s eBay account. At first I had all my items on a bookcase in my bedroom, then I needed two bookcases, then three, and before I knew it I had to move into a separate storage space. Before I launched UniGreenScheme, I had nearly 2,000 items in stock, in 360sq ft. of storage space.

What challenges did you face when setting up your business?
The biggest technical challenge was convincing universities to give us their equipment to sell. That took a long time. But there were lots of other challenges as well – time in particular. I was working as a PhD student full-time, meaning 50 hour weeks, before I even had a chance to think about running a business, so that meant very long, difficult days. For months I used to go into the lab at 6am, do a double shift and finish around 10pm, so that I could take a day out during the week for meetings. That was a real drain. Financing the business was also an issue – it took nearly £10k in legal and procurement fees alone to get our first contract, but luckily I was able to get a Start Up Loan and win awards such as the Shell LiveWIRE Award, which made all the difference.

What is your proudest achievement with the business?
I have had so many proud moments so far – it has been a whirlwind since the start. Things like winning the Shell LiveWIRE Award was amazing. We also won the Santander Universities Entrepreneurship Award, that was great too. But for me my proudest moments are watching the business grow. A new client, a new staff member, bigger premises etc. We have gone from two staff to 10 in about four months and that is staggering. Every time we can afford a new person and this 'thing' that I have created grows, I feel overwhelmingly proud of it.

You won a Shell LiveWIRE Award back in 2015, how have things changed for you since then?
We have won quite a few awards now, but this was probably the most important to date. The main reason was that Shell picked up on us at a really critical point. We were just starting to get interest from universities, but couldn't actually run the service as we didn't have any money. The Shell award helped us get some warehouse space, and buy a range of collection equipment, as well as invest in an IT system – all of which were critical to our growth. Since then, we have grown dramatically. Our sales have gone from £1k a month in April 2016 through to a staggering £32.5k in August 2016. Very excited to see the future!

What’s next for UniGreenScheme?
Firstly, getting more universities onto the service – we are in contract processes with quite a few and all of these will be major clients to add to our list. But we also want to make better use of the universities we are already contracted with. So our focus is on continuing to grow and, in doing so, expand from our two operational sites to four stations across the UK.

Entrepreneurs drive innovation. How do you think this can be used to help create a smarter future?
In my mind, innovation is about doing things in a better way than they were previously done. A huge proportion of innovation will therefore contribute to a smarter future. But I think innovation must be used appropriately and I think innovation to solve problems is true innovation. I’m not really a huge fan of innovation for the sake of innovation as I personally believe that leads to waste (e.g. ever-increasing rate of innovation in the smartphone category now means that the average lifespan of a smartphone is something like 1-2 years). Innovation to solve problems such as crop security, healthcare, resource efficiency, carbon emissions, that’s what I believe will drive a smarter future.

What role do you think entrepreneurs will play in the transition to a low carbon society?
Entrepreneurs will undoubtedly play a critical role in the transition. Whether it’s a low-carbon business model like mine, or a technological innovation such as carbon capture or sustainable 3D printing. Entrepreneurs will provide possibilities that no one else thinks of and use their ambition and determination to bring the benefits to society.

What advice would you give to aspiring young entrepreneurs?
It sounds cheesy, but I would say 'do not give up'! I see being an entrepreneur as a mindset of being alert all the time, so you can spot problems in the world around you. After identifying problems, you then assess viable ways to solve these problems.

The chances of coming up with a solution to a problem that is technically valid, commercially viable, has limited competition, and which can be started with negligible capital are low. The only way to achieve success is to fully understand that every idea, no matter how good it seems, may fail for one reason or another. And that is absolutely fine! But keep trying again and again until you come across something that can actually run the distance. UniGreenScheme was at least my fifth business idea that I 'launched' and I spent months planning each one – the others all failed. And even this idea may fail too, but I will keep trying and so should you!

Got a Smart Idea for a Business?
Do you have a smart business idea that will provide a solution to the world’s future transport, food, energy, or natural resource challenges, or make our urban environments cleaner and more sustainable places to work and live in? If so you can apply online now for funding!

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