Minding the generation gap

Minding the generation gap

Edinburgh-based NGenTec is just the kind of energy business the new Green Investment Bank must support. Kenny Kemp spoke to its chief executive Dr Makhlouf Benatmane.

Scotland has chosen its path as a “green” energy producer. The announcement by Vince Cable, the UK business secretary, that the £3bn Green Investment Bank will be based in Edinburgh is excellent news – welcomed by companies such as NGenTec, an Edinburgh University spin-out that has invented a novel wind turbine generator that is more environmentally efficient and easier to manufacture, assemble, operate and will contribute to the low cost of energy.

But there is another matter to deal with, whether Scotland becomes an independent nation or stays part of the United Kingdom.

It remains at the core of our economic life – how can we grow indigenous businesses, spun out from our universities and build them into large companies of international scale? For Scotland has failed to create more than a handful of medium-size global firms, in spite of the astonishing lineage of our engineering heritage, which includes Henry Bell’s Comet – the first steam ship – on the Clyde exactly 200 years ago.

If the Scottish Government is placing so much truck in the “renewables revolution” as the great green economic hope for Scotland, what kind of company should we be looking out for? NGenTec – or Novel Generator Technology – appears to fit the bill.

This is an exciting young firm which has already put in place many of the building blocks. BQ Scotland felt it was worth taking a closer look at NGenTec and seeing whether this company can stand the test of time.

There are several ticks in the box required for building a scalable large company. Firstly, an idea and a technology that is game-changing and original. NGenTec ticks this (read more about the technology in the sidebar).

Then you need staunch support from local enterprise and from seed funders, venture capitalists or angel investors.

Again NGenTec fills this, attracting a board with a great pedigree in this regard. Then you need to have a management team with massive industrial experience to take this to the next level.

This is in hand right now. And, finally, you need a global customer base clamouring for your products. This last bit is still to come for NGenTec.

However, the arrival of Dr Makhlouf Benatmane as chief executive officer has been a significant step for this fledgling Edinburgh company in heading towards full commercial sales and production.

Happy to be called “Ben”, this Berber-born, English-educated engineer has an impressive array of initials on his card: BSc (Hons) PhD CEng FIET FIMarEst.

But it’s not his initials that matter but his work on bringing massively complex projects, such as the Royal Navy’s Type 45 Destroyer built by BAE Systems on the Clyde.

He led the electric power and propulsion system through from initial concept design stage, introduction to the market, project execution, sea-trials and then hand-over.

Such electric propulsion contributing to low, through-life operating cost is also being used on the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier.

He joined from Converteam, a successor to ALSTOM Power Conversion, GEC, Associated Electrical Industries in UK, and many other large companies in other countries worldwide, where his last role was global leader of the renewables business of the group – now purchased by GE – which employs 5,500 people around the globe.

The nGenTec story so far

Ben's colleague is James Murray, who is NGenTec business development manager and an engineer with a business brain.

He obtained a masters degree in product design engineering at Strathclyde University and then worked in civil aircraft division of BAE Systems in Prestwick, starting as a design engineer.

His career took him to Mott MacDonald, the civil engineering consultancy, and then to the United States.

“There is a lot of innovation in Scotland,” says Murray. “There is a strong engineering base that is sometimes underappreciated. There are several people I worked with who had innovative engineering ideas beyond their own daily work. There were side projects in BAE Systems that were encouraged – for example there was a Bulldog plane project outwith our normal work – and this inspired me to think about early-stage companies.”

This led Murray to take part in the prestigious Saltire Fellowship with The Saltire Foundation.

The Saltire Fellowship is a world-class entrepreneurial leadership programme designed to create a global and entrepreneurial mindset in Scotland’s future business leaders.

The Fellowship was created by GlobalScots, in part, to fill a commercial talent gap particularly in early stage businesses, like NGenTec.

“Scotland has a pool of world-class technologies, which sometimes fail to take off or plateau out too early,” says Murray.

“The Saltire Fellowship was really about developing the mindset and ambition to take these technologies on to a global scale.”

James Murray went to work with Veoila Energy North America, the environmental French company with a Scottish chief executive, which was then expanding into the US.

Here he picked up the experience of working for an international energy conglomerate but Scotland called him back.

“Within a week of coming back from America I was introduced to NGenTec, so the timing was great for me,” he says.

Murray met Dr Markus Mueller and Dr Alasdair McDonald, the engineering founders of NGenTec, who needed help in growing the company.

They had invented the technology. The company’s roots were in 2004 when Markus Mueller had his “light-bulb moment” and came up with the patentable technology of the C-Generator.

Mueller had just arrived to Edinburgh University as a lecturer and is now a reader at the Institute of Energy Systems in the School of Engineering.

He was given a year off lectures to think about all the technology bounced his ideas of peers and other engineering contacts, and they felt it would work.

He was then able to go to Edinburgh Research and Innovation (ERI), the commercialisation arm of university, go through a patent disclosure and began building a research team within the university.

From this, there was four years of development time. “From 2004 until 2010 you have the maturing of a technology and the proving of the physics,” explains James Murray.

“Then, in the last year, we’ve grown from zero to a company of 15 people of mainly engineering pedigree and aiming for a megawatt-scale generator demonstrator. We are taking this to a market.”

The timeline involved Proof of Concept funding from Scottish Enterprise which allowed two prototypes; one 15W and the other 20kW to be constructed and tested, with the former actually installed in a wind turbine and connected to the grid.

This was all being incubated inside Edinburgh University and shielded from the risks of the market.

It was small-scale yet proved that Mueller and McDonald’s physics worked – now it had to be scalable for commercial turbines.

The proof was that the technology could produce electricity.

NGenTec was fully formed in late 2009 when Murray and McDonald established the company's first offices in the ETTC, the university’s incubation centre, in the King’s Buildings.

Now a larger scale prototype was needed which proved that the “multistage axial flux, air cored” system of mounting standard modules around the generator structure would prove all the advantages and unique selling points.

Two well-known Scottish business figures joined the board – Dr Derek Douglas CBE, the chairman of Adam Smith Limited, and Dr Derek Shepherd, who ran the international division of Aggreko, and had become chairman and acting CEO in 2009.

Dr Douglas has a track record of raising more than £100m for technology companies, while Dr Shepherd brought experience of operating a major Scottish firm around the globe.

Work, including design and testing, was progressing and NGenTec secured a grant of £800,000 from the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change in December 2010, and also raised £2m of Series A funding for the company through David Brown Gear Systems (DBGS), which is part of the Jim McColl’s Clyde Blowers group, Chrysalix SET Management BV; a Dutch venture capitalist group, and Scottish Enterprise Co-Investment Fund.

This took NGenTec to its present stage – with interest building – and it now owns all the intellectual property, including three patents, while Edinburgh University remains an arms-length shareholder through its new investment wing, Old College Capital, which invested £200,000 in February 2011.

The arrival of Dr Makhlouf Benatmane

The raising of a chunk of hefty capital allowed the prototype to be developed but also NGenTec to start recruiting industrial expertise and management that could take the company to the next level.

Dr Makhlouf Benatmane’ arrival in April 2011 is an indication of the company’s serious intent.

Weeks after the David Brown Gear Systems agreement was signed, Dr Benatmane arrived in Edinburgh, taking the baton from Derek Shepherd, who remains as chairman.

The partnership agreement with David Brown means that a great deal of attention is focused on the manufacturing and the testing of a 1MW generator in Huddersfield.

“We are now trying to generate orders to complement and increase our portfolio.,” says Benatmane.

“This is important for Scotland. All the major components of the machines, the assemblies and the testing can be done here. There is a lot of potential that this machine can create.”

For Benatmane it is about perfecting the process on an industrial scale, so that every component operates in its harshest environment.

“If you know the process and you have made it work well, then this is a very good starting point,” he says.

“Our product is unique in that you can check every component progressively and more easily for quality and functionality. High reliability is essential – if something is not right, or part of the system does not work well – it is simple to isolate it or even take it out and replace it without major implications and high costs.”

The NGenTec “Lego” parts – modules – are very easily arranged and bolted in around the generator, which will be better for offshore wind producers where the cost of maintenance is a significant cost factor.

Bentamane says: “NGenTec generator technology is a significant improvement over conventional machines and is designed to be simple from the outset with high reliability, use of standardised components, built-in redundancy and flexibility, high efficiency across full operating range, with zero cogging torque and having reduced weight.”

Wind strength has been a major topic of interest for the anti-wind power brigade, who have pointed to the low percentage of electricity produced so far.

The UK, and in particular, Scotland, is blessed with much more favourable wind speeds than mainland Europe, where wind energy makes a much larger contribution. Scotland could well generate 45% of UK electricity from its own resource.

This is a strong selling point. The present generation of onshore wind farms aren’t producing energy efficiently enough. According to Prof David MacKay of UIT Cambridge, Europe’s largest wind farm – at Whitelee on Eaglesham Moor, outside Glasgow – owned by Scottish Power Renewables, has 140 turbines with a combined “peak” capacity of 322MW over an area of 55km2. That’s six watts per square metre.

“The average power produced is smaller because the turbines don’t run at peak output all the time,” says Mackay. “The ratio of the average power to the peak power is called the ‘load factor’ or ‘capacity factor’ and it varies from site to site. A typical factor for a good site with modern turbines is 30%”

Despite being an advocate of renewables energy, Prof MacKay reckons this will never meet our present energy demand. Bigger turbines aren’t the answer; but more efficient ones are. Makhlouf Benatmane says NGenTec has the solution; it has designed machine concepts with low to large generation capabilities, allowing the turbine to operate with two or three extra rings of modules.

In a conventional turbine, it’s either working or it isn’t. Redundancy is a major factor, when conventional turbines are defective or being repaired.

“This means that we can make power from all kinds of wind conditions,” he says. “If the wind isn’t strong and have only a light wind, then the operators, rather than operate all the turbines, can easily disable two or three stacks and get reduced wattage. There is less wear and tear on some parts and less vibration. This gives the ability to operate more efficiently at partial loads.”

Bentamane says reducing the cost of renewable energy is paramount. There has been a widespread controversy over the use of rare Earth ores mined and processed in China to make green energy in the UK.

Neodymium is such a material mined in Inner Mongolia for much of the magnetic power and strength.

He says: “One of the benefits of our technology is that it can run at reasonably low temperatures, so you don’t need dysprosium.

We are using relatively cheap permanent magnets.” NGenTec C-Generator uses a lighter combination of epoxy resins and copper for its windings rather than hefty laminations lumps of steel.

“Try and take several tens of tonnes of steel out to sea, to an offshore wind turbine, it is very difficult indeed and requires heavy-lifting barges and expensive shipping time, assuming the weather is good too,” says Bentamane. James Murray says that ultimately, it was a solvable problem.

“It’s not complex; it is reasonably easy for people to grasp the benefits. Even if you are not a highly trained electrical engineer, you can get the concept of it.“

Benatmane is convinced that the industry will start to understand the benefits of NGenTec and is grateful to Scotland’s local authorities and Scottish Development International for all their support.

He also “welcomes the arrival of the Green Investment Bank to Edinburgh”. He says: “It does take time to change a mindset and introduce a new technology. Nothing will please me more than seeing a technology developed in Scotland, to be made in Scotland and be primarily used in Scotland."