Serial entrepreneur James Dyson knows a thing or two about innovation. And a lot about failure.
Inventor of the eponymous bagless vacuum cleaner and the airblade hand dryer, the 65 year old billionaire is the epitome of ‘thinking outside the box.’
Over the last three decades he has come up with some of the best known, and best designed, products in the marketplace.
But as most observers know, none of this success came easy. It is part of the Dyson mythology that it took years of fighting, failed business pitches and rejections from big-name multinationals before the inventor got one Japanese company to take on an early idea.
Whilst the idea of bagless vacuum cleaner, using a ‘cyclone’ to spin out dirt, was – as we all know – rejected by every major manufacturer.
Many innovators would have stopped then. So what distinguishes Dyson from the brilliant but failed inventors whose prototypes get swept beneath the carpet of history? And what lessons can he teach the UK’s wave and tidal sector?
Two things stand out – determination and a willingness to fail.
Determination with a capital ‘D’
When the big players told him his designs couldn’t work, Dyson kept pushing. When his invention failed to sell to major manufacturers, he metaphorically raised two fingers to the system and went away to establish his own manufacturing company. And when his initial prototype came up short of his lofty expectations, he spent 15 years trying to get it right.
“The cyclones for my vacuum cleaner took over 5000 prototypes to get it right – that’s 5000 failures before I cracked it,” he says in a recent interview. “There’s a myth about inventors that all you need is one good idea and you’ll make your fortune, but the fact of the matter is it doesn’t work like that. You start with a problem that you’re trying to solve and you build prototypes – hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of them. And very often the original idea or the original problem doesn’t look anything like the final problem or the final solution. The important thing is the journey from prototype to prototype.”
Which is all well and good when your prototypes are vacuum cleaner-sized. But what if your prototype is a second or third generation wave or tidal energy machine costing anywhere between £5 and 10 million?
Where is the scope, as Aquamarine Power CEO Martin McAdam puts it, for ‘destructive testing’ – where businesses have the freedom to put multiple iterations of new technologies in real conditions and try and try again?
How does the sector deploy multiple devices, both as individual companies and as an industry, and allow them to fail many times, when initial costs are so high? The investment ‘valley of death’ is a well-known phenomenon in business, as a route to the sunny uplands of profitability, but in marine energy the valley is deep, and it is wide.
The best estimate from the Carbon Trust in their report Accelerating Marine Energy says a business needs £80 million to commercialise a marine technology. It would certainly not be cheaper than this. And the cost of first arrays, say the first 10MW for each technology, will need some form of support too.
We are very fortunate that in the UK and Scotland we have extremely supportive governments, which have implemented major grant schemes to defray the high initial capital cost. And many developers have big backers, from ABB, SSE and Alstom to DCNS, Vattenfall and Siemens – all playing a major role.
But utilities and multinationals have many competing calls for their capital and must balance risk and reward in the medium term. Whilst UK and Scottish government grants, which are extremely generous, and are an absolute pre-requisite for early projects, only stretch to a handful of technologies. Given the current political cycle, there is no clear view of industry support in the years ahead.
Europe is the key
Unfortunately, a handful of technologies does not an industry make. An analysis of any thriving industry will show that one thing, above all, drives innovation – competition. Whether it is Dyson versus Hoover or Sony versus Phillips, a vibrant and innovative future marine energy industry will require a number of entrants.
This, in my view, means we need to look beyond our current funding horizons and develop a clear narrative on how our sector should develop, not just in the next decade, but up to 2030 and beyond.
The scale of funding required – to support multiple technologies through a number of product iterations will not be small, and will be beyond the reach of any single government. There is only one place this can be secured – Brussels.
In the spring, the influential SET Plan committee will meet to discuss their future priorities. SET stands for Strategic Energy Technology, and the next meeting will consider if marine energy can be considered a strategic energy technology, with the potential to contribute to the continent’s future energy needs.
This will be crucial. If the industry can give the European Commission a credible route map – how it will reduce costs, how it will become commercial, how it will make a major contribution to future energy needs – and achieve SET plan inclusion, then there’s the potential to unlock major funding streams in the years ahead.
Part of that narrative, I believe, is around iterative testing and, yes, failure. How do we support a number of technologies through multiple (costly) iterations so they can cross the ‘valley of death’?
Specific, long-term technology funding will, I believe, be key. We can of course make great strides through collaboration and R&D, but it only when developers get their feet wet, and get them wet again, will we see the next major strides.
Failure will be part of this. As James Dyson says, “Failure is the starting point – because when something fails you understand why it fails and then you start to think about ideas as to ways you can overcome that failure. So the moral of the tale is: carry on failing – it works!”