Richard Yemm, Ocean Power Delivery
Richard started at Edinburgh University in 1985 and in 1989 graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. In 1994 he completed his PhD. After this Richard worked as a self-employed design and development engineer on a wide range of projects with an emphasis on projects in the field of renewable energy.
Richard is the inventor of the Pelamis Wave Energy Converter and founder of Ocean Power Delivery Ltd, the Edinburgh based company set up to develop the concept. He has largely self-funded the Pelamis development programme through the sale of IPR and manufactured products to the wind-turbine industry. The School Of Mechanical Engineering incubated Ocean Power Delivery for its first 2 years and in February 2000 it was self-sufficient and moved into its own premises. Richard is recruiting staff for his company from the University and currently employs 6 people. Richardís main hobby is sailing.
Q - Why did you start a business instead of working for someone else?
A - Iíve never actually had a full time job from anybody. While doing my Ph.D. at Edinburgh University, I started working as a self-employed sub-contractor to some small companies in the area, and on finishing my Ph.D., I did that full time. I just went straight into a sort of self-employed domain rather than via another job. It was really the Ph.D. system that allowed me to do that, because I had to support myself through the final year of the Ph.D. through working on small contracts. It was just a natural progression from then to continue working for those same companies as a self employed engineer.
Q - What was the biggest challenge in the early days?
A - I donít really remember any significant problems. For example, Iíve never advertised for work, it was always just word of mouth, people talking to other people, meeting people through contracts who then offered me work, so there were no real specific problems.
Q - Was funding a problem in the beginning?
A - It didnít start out as a grandiose construct, it was really just me supporting myself, paying my rent and beer money, so it wasnít a great battle to secure funding, really. Just to keep a continuous stream of contracts rolling in didnít seem to be a problem.
Q - Did anyone help you in the early days?
A - The University of Edinburgh was very supportive, and now weíre moving on from the self employed stage to the wave energy development, which is what weíre working on now. In the early days, for the first eighteen months or so of that work the University provided accommodation for me. I used University facilities, I mean, I am an Honorary Fellow of the University, but I think I probably took that a stage further in that it was actually a business operating out of the University. That support through reducing the overheads of the business was invaluable - weíve got to the situation we are in now where weíve actually got significant external funds coming into the business.
Q - What is the most important resource you have?
A - Personnel has to be about people. What weíre doing at the moment is essentially paper Research & Development. Weíre obviously doing a lot of tank testing, as well as building some models, components and so on, but really the core of it is personnel. Its design is a numerical modelling, and really, what was absolutely vital to getting the project to this stage was to secure the involvement of good people and thatís what weíve done. Weíve got some of the brightest people, certainly in the industry, but also in the country working on it.
Q - How do you measure success?
A - Success is measured in many different ways. Clearly, the sort of traditional way is how much money do we make. So far, every single penny of money Iíve made has gone back into the business. Weíre looking at a longer-term return from it, and clearly I do want to make some money out of it, but I think we are dealing with a project here, the wave energy project, which has higher motives for doing it as well. Weíre not a bunch of tree huggers, but I think all of us who work here do believe that the way weíre living at the moment is not sustainable and we want to add another string to the bow, if you like, of the technologies available to address that problem. As yet, wave energy has not achieved the commercial success we believe is possible because itís been approached in the wrong way, with the wrong concepts. Weíre setting out now to fill that gap, and that in itself is a very big motivator. Thereís a feel about wave energy at the moment, which is itís the final frontier of renewable energy and itís out there to be done. Itís got a feel of the kind of Wright Brothers about it, so there are many different reasons for doing it. For me, I think the prime one is that itís there to be done and as an engineer primarily, not a business man, I want to see it achieved technically, but Iím a realist as well; obviously, weíve got to make some money out of it.
Q - Do you have plans for growth?
A - We were, and remain, if you like, a sort of design consultancy. The core intellectual property behind the idea of producing wave power devices is that itís going to be very much a sort of sub-contract business. Weíre in the business of providing the intellectual property to make that possible. In terms of expansion, itís about having the adequate personnel in order to meet that design requirement and that development requirement. So weíre looking to increase the number of personnel in order to meet that growing development requirement.
Q - What is the worst mistake you have made in business?
A - It was with one of our potential investors several months ago. I sent a whole load of figures that were completely wrong and made the system look incredibly good. I didnít spot it because it was late at night and as soon as you press that return on the email, you canít get it back. It wasnít really a major thing because they laughed as well, they said it was good to see that somebody else makes mistakes in Excel spreadsheets.
Q - How do you go about sales and marketing?
A - If you look at the renewable energy market, wind energy is now fully mainstream. Itís fully accepted that itís competitive. With conventional generation of wave energy, thereís no commercially available system. Weíre not thinking weíve got a better product in an existing market because there is no existing market. What we need to do is prove the technology before the powers that be, i.e. the politicians, will put in place a significant market within which we can operate. I have no doubt that that market will be created because of the obstacles facing wind energy in particular in this country in terms of planning permission and so on. Wave energy is seen politically as a more attractive route because of the avoidance of the kind of Ďnot-in-my-backyardí aspect of people not wanting wind farms near them. So, yes, Iíve put an enormous amount of effort into getting involved with all of the lobbying groups, for example the Scottish Renewables Forum, the Scottish Parliamentary Renewable Energy Group, the Scottish Wave Commission, and lobbying directly to DTI in Westminster. Also, Iím involved in lobbying the Scottish Executive up here to induce their putting in the preliminary steps that we need to make sure that there is a landing point for the technology once itís proven.
Q - How do you come up with new ideas and improvements?
A - Well, just like all engineering thereís an initial spark, this, ďEureka, this is how to do it!Ē and then a very long process of development from there. Really, what weíve done is weíve tried to attach a lot of rigour to the process that weíre going through, which is working towards getting the first full scale prototype in the water. Itís more rigorous than other device teams perhaps have to date, and therefore weíre progressively pushing back the obstacles, finding out more about the system so that when we make the move to the full scale model, weíve turned as many stones as possible in terms of coming up with ideas. That process is really only secured by getting the right personnel in place, and itís about pushing back the unknowns to reveal the core of the idea.
Q - How would you describe the way your business is run?
A - Having been self-employed and having worked with lots of companies, Iíve seen how different companies work and donít work. I think that gives me a tremendous advantage, and my conclusion is that I am the wrong person to be running this business. I think that from the examples that Iíve seen, if the original bright spark that came up with the concept tries to run the business, in the longer term itís almost always a shambles. At the moment, of course, Iím limited by resources but Iím still fulfilling all of the roles in terms of management of the company. However, I envisage a situation fairly soon whereby I will relinquish managing director status to somebody with more appropriate skills, but obviously I will retain control of the technical side of the development. Iíd imagine all small businesses have this phase of limited resources and limited personnel, so the originator, the inventor, whatever you want to call them, does actually fulfil that managing director role for some time. I think a lot of businesses continue doing that. For me, I see that as a mistake.
Q - What is it like to work for you?
A - I like to give people the kind of free reign I had. Certainly, my experience through the Ph.D. system was that I was allowed to grow intellectually and come up with good ideas. I didnít have people breathing down my neck all the time, demanding results today, tomorrow, whatever. Of course, there are times when it all gets a bit exciting, when weíve got to get reports out, or proposals or whatever, and, you know, we do long hours and so on. Generally I like to think that I give a kind of freedom to people. I donít over-supervise. I allow them to find answers for themselves because ultimately, as I said earlier, itís personnel who are going to make this thing go. With me trying to feed everything down from the top, itís not going to work. Lots of ideas have got to start coming up from below. I think because Iíve got a sort of pseudo academic background, although Iíve been a self employed businessman since doing my Ph.D., what the academic background gave me was learning the merit of allowing people a bit of slack to go off and explore an avenue. It might come to nothing nine times out of ten. But, for example, we have seen a lot of precedence in our programme to date, where that one time out of ten has led to a major improvement in the system, just because someone has had a bit more freedom to go off and explore these other avenues.
Q - How important to you is making money?
A - Clearly, for people to invest in this technology, weíve got to demonstrate that itís going to make lots of money. I personally donít have grand designs on yachts in the Canary Islands or anything, but of course I want to make some money out of it. Iím personally in debt quite significantly to date, Iíve put all of my resources into it and as a bare minimum would like to clear that up, but of course, we want to make some money.
Q - What are the best things about running your own business?
A - I think itís the ability to be in control of where youíre going and the excitement of the fact it could all end tomorrow. I mean, there is a thrill in what weíre trying to do. It is pioneering stuff and it could all go wrong tomorrow.
Q - What advice would you give to someone starting their own business?
A - Donít do it lightly because it is a twenty-four hour a day job. When you go on holiday, you wonder whatís going to happen while youíre away. It becomes a bit of a lifestyle. Youíve got to be very careful to separate work and life. The only thing I can say is, ďGo for it, just do it.Ē I think the mistake people make, and Iíve seen a lot of businesses doing this, is to try and maintain one job while dabbling in the other to try and get it moving. Youíre going to do it much better to say, ďRight, Iím going to give this a year or six weeks or two months,Ē or whatever the period required is. Do it full on, one hundred percent, and then get out if itís not working, rather than try and run something as a fringe operation. Until, hopefully, it gathers its own momentum, I think, ďGive it a go or donít bother.Ē
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Last Updated: 10 December, 2002