What Does It Take To Be A Wave Power Entrepreneur?
Brothers Glen (left in photo) and Shawn Ryan, both mechanical engineers, have spent more than seven years developing a novel wave energy converter (WEC), the Bombora. So what is it like to pursue the dream of bringing an idea for a way to harvest ocean energy to fruition? Shawn Ryan reveals all.
The idea of getting into wave power was Glen’s. He had been working on renewable energy projects for over a decade before this, particularly wind power, and watching surf pounding the beach one day got him thinking about a system that could harvest the untapped energy contained in ocean waves. He was short of time, so he convinced me to get involved.
For the first few years, developing the Bombora system was very much a hobby. We spent our weekends constructing some concept models that we “tank tested” in bathtubs and in my mother-in-law’s swimming pool. We also spent a lot of time researching the market and understanding the state of the art before turning it into a full time pursuit.
Glen was consulting to BHPB Nickel West on a range of energy-related projects, and I was consulting to Rio Tinto on their major iron ore port expansions. With the big dollars on offer from the mining sector during this once in a lifetime boom, it wasn’t an easy decision for us to pass them up. On the other hand, we were fortunate that these roles effectively financed our wave development, and we were also lucky to be able to consult for short spells when we needed to refill the piggy bank.
Even so, there have been some very trying times that have tested our resolve, mostly around finance, though if anything, they have strengthened our partnership. We experienced several cases of bad timing, where we had almost completed an application for a Government program, such as Clean Technology Innovation or Commercialisation Australia, only to have the program close. But being farmer’s sons we realise that Governments come and go like the seasons, and to survive the regulatory agenda you have to make your business resilient to whatever the political climate dishes up.
For large, multidiscipline, industrial engineering projects it is really important to have a staged, pragmatic approach to development that is linked to key milestones. Glen and I have had to become our own harshest critics and to submit ourselves to industry benchmarking at various stages. In early 2010 we undertook a desktop study to bring together everything we had learned and to plan a path for the next development phase.
This identified that we needed to:
- demonstrate proof of concept in tank tests (which involved building our own tank!);
- develop computer models of the system;
- further refine elements of the design, manufacture, transportation, installation, operation and maintenance;
- undertake a techno-economic assessment; and
- file provisional patents.
Review and Awards
This work was completed in early 2013 and formed the basis of our pre-feasibility report. The report was reviewed by eminent figures in the industry, Oxford Oceanics, Black & Veatch and AirgasCo. They all concluded there was merit in pursing development of the Bombora concept. We also received validation through winning the 2013 GE ANZ Ecomagination award, worth a handy $100,000, and by making it into the finals of several other competitions. These “highs”, which include filing our patent and receiving an Australian Research Council Linkage Program grant, have helped to offset the “lows” I mentioned earlier.
Other forms of third party validation have also been important. Academic collaboration has provided expertise as well as access to testing facilities and funding from the Australian Research Council. In return we’ve provided interesting, advanced research opportunities for both students and academics. We are actively supporting final year undergraduate projects at five Australian universities during 2014. We are actively seeking to expand this industry / university collaboration with a recent proposal submitted for a new Australian Research Council Linkage Project (2015 round) in conjunction with the Australian Maritime College, Curtin University and Edith Cowan University and to establish if there are collaboration opportunities with European researchers (we recently were a recipient of a CAESIE priming grant).
Observing the market
We have also benefited from the work of those who have gone before us. Other developers have had to clear the path on myriad issues such as land tenure, government engagement, mathematical modelling, physical testing techniques and key component development to name but a few. Observing other wave power companies also made us realise that diversification is a key survival attribute for a small company.
All of this groundwork made it possible for us to raise seed capital, in the form of private equity investment, which has funded the current phase of development.
Our seed capital was raised purely on the basis of exploiting an industrial scale renewable electricity market opportunity, but we have recently spent considerable time and effort on exploring other market applications. These range from stabilising offshore wind turbine platforms, through shoreline protection and aquaculture, to artificial reefs to promote fish biodiversity, and diving, surfing and other tourism opportunities. Considering what is currently happing both politically and economically to energy markets across Australia, this diversification could be our greatest advantage in the race to commercialise.
Many investors don’t like the long timeframes involved in developing devices like the Bombora. Others prefer to wait until we are in the growth phase – a bankable proposition. That said, people understand the vision and the need that is behind it. There has been a groundswell of investors who are interested in longer term, strategic financial support which is aided by finding ways to leverage both time and cost in developing the systems and project opportunities such as those mentioned above.
Which brings us to our present position. We expect to have a marketable product for use in marina and harbour wave and wake attenuation, with small scale power generation, or river edge shoreline protection, within two years. This will most likely be under license to an existing international pontoon manufacturer. An industrial scale renewable electricity project could be built within four to six years, depending on funding.
We still have those moments when we wonder what on earth we were thinking in taking on this project. Glen and I joke that we picked one of the hardest challenges and started chewing before we appreciated how big this elephant is. After all, we are a start-up trying to solve aspects of modern society’s needs around food, water, shelter and energy by creating an industrial scale solution.
The ups and downs certainly make for an exciting life, and the mining downturn has weakened our safety net, but truth be told Glen and I both really believe in and love what we are doing. When you see your idea turning into reality it makes for proud moments.
Ideally we would like to undertake large scale demonstration projects within Australia, but the regulatory environment and supporting financial instruments in other countries are considerably more appealing. The Bombora system, in all its applications, is a global commodity, and the country that supports that will reap the rewards.