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Profiting from the windy Pampas

Pete Wilton

Last month young scientists and engineers from Oxford and Cambridge joined together in teams to learn how to pitch business ideas to a Dragon’s Den-style panel of judges.

The theme of the event - Oxbridge Connects - was renewable energy and the winner of the £1200 first prize was an Oxbridge team with an idea for setting up wind farms in rural Argentina.

I caught up with two members of the winning team, Claudio Silvestrin of Oxford University’s Department of Physics and Vihar Georgiev of Oxford’s Department of Chemistry, to ask them how they pitched a winner:

OxSciBlog: Why did you focus on wind power in Argentina?
Claudio Silvestrin: One of our team members, Julian Tuccillo, who became the project leader later on, is Argentine and he proposed a wind project for rural areas in his home country. He had a lot of background information on it and we all liked the idea of working on a project with an international context.

Looking back, it was a very good decision. In the process of developing our ideas we learned a lot about the challenges you face when setting up a business in an area like rural Argentina. For example, in a project set in the UK you most likely wouldn't need to think about people still living without electricity and how life-changing the installation of a small wind turbine might be for them.

Vihar Georgiev: Another reason was the fact that the project was supposed to be on a small scale and this particular topic made it realistic for us as students. The final reason behind choosing this topic was that it didn't touch upon the UK market, as we expected other teams to concentrate on this.

OSB: What did you learn about developing/presenting business ideas?
CS: We went through product and market research, financial modelling and risk analysis, all scheduled in a project plan. But we also learned how challenging it is to work together in a virtual team, since half of the team was in Cambridge and the other half in Oxford.

In terms of what to focus on and how to present your business plan in a very short time (presentations were 8 minutes + 4 minutes Q&A) we got a lot of help from our mentor, Professor David Upton of the Saïd Business School.

VG: Working on our business plan, I became familiar with business and technical terms and, thanks to this, was more confident in answering questions during the presentation. The bottom line is that I learned that before you do anything, you need to do your homework thoroughly. I also learned that to be successful you need to be able to explain your ideas clearly and with confidence.

OSB: What were the key points you stressed in your pitch?
CS: First of all we argued that our project provides social good to the local population. We also stressed that with it we are building capability (technical know-how, supply chain) in the communities. Other key points were the good wind resource in Argentina and the environmental benefit. But our project was also profitable and had a low risk for investors.

VG: Our calculations showed that the profit gained in a 20-year period would be 10 times the outlay. To compare, at the moment PV solar cells in the UK bring a profit of 3 times the outlay over 20 years. Our plan is very low-risk and I think, if implemented in real life, it could be even more profitable. It was also crucial for me to concentrate on an environmentally-friendly project.

OSB: How did having such an interdisciplinary (& inter-University!) team help you win?
CS: In some aspects the interdisciplinarity was vital for our success in terms of combining the technological component and the business side of the project. Also, having an interdisciplinary team made the work very interesting in terms of interacting with each other. But for some of us our individual backgrounds didn't play a large role. Most important was the dedication and effort everybody was willing to put in, in order to learn quickly how to produce good results in a field that you might be unfamiliar with.

VG: The biggest advantage was a chance to see many different points of view. Based on different cultures and education each of us had, everyone could see the project from a different angle. This way we had not only one way of thinking but five, which made the project more flexible and reduced the number of mistakes. Personally, if I work on a similar project in the future, I would like to work with such a diverse and interdisciplinary team.

OSB: How do you think this experience might prove useful in the future?
CS: I was amazed by what you can achieve in a team, which is put together almost randomly and works together through skype and email most of the time. Personally I believe that the experience is going to influence my future strongly since I developed an interest in building small businesses, which I knew very little about before. Bringing people from different backgrounds together in a workshop like this is a wonderful idea. 

VG: I'm sure this workshop will be very useful for me in the future because it only strengthens my interests in sustainable energy sources. Also, after researching the topic of wind power, I have a better idea of the key aspects in this new field of science and its importance for society. For me this workshop was a good way to motivate people engaged in science to think not only about the importance of a scientific breakthrough but also about the business and environmental aspects of their work.

Oxbridge Connects took place on 6 July 2010 at Kavli Royal Society International Centre, Chicheley Hall. It received support from Oxford’s MPLS Division and EPSRC.