TT Features: Michael McLeod, Founder of UniGreenScheme – Shell LiveWIRE Young Entrepreneur Finalist

In October 2015, Michael McLeod was awarded a Shell Smarter Future Award for his work in setting up his business UniGreenScheme. Besides the £5,000 in funding that came with the prize, he received expert help on business development, and ultimately was selected as one of six finalists in a very strong field competing for the Shell LiveWIRE Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.

Our founder Jurga Žilinskienė is a former award winner with Shell LiveWIRE, and worked closely with the organisation as a judge for this year’s competition. In support of this competitor, we spoke to Michael about UniGreenScheme, what it means, and where it could take him.

1.What is UniGreenScheme, and what problems does it address?

In university departments and facilities, surplus laboratory equipment is often put into waste skips even if it is potentially useable and valuable. This happens because staff often have short deadlines to clear space, aren’t aware of the potential resale value and/or lack access to the opportunities of resale. UniGreenScheme helps universities solve this problem. Its the easy way for universities to recoup space, generate revenue and prevent waste through the resale of surplus equipment.

UniGreenScheme is the asset resale service for universities. We collect, store and sell surplus equipment from universities, and return a share of the profits to the university after our direct costs (collection, distribution etc). In the last six months, we have prevented over 15 tonnes of equipment waste, and in the next three years aim to divert over 17,000 scientific instruments from disposal into re-use.

2.What inspired you to develop your service?

When I was a student I saw over £5,000 worth of valuable laboratory equipment being put into a skip. I had been running my own used goods business for a few years before that, so I immediately saw the potential value. At first, I just wanted to help my department reduce its waste – by selling some its unwanted items. But I soon realised that universities across the UK had the same problem. And so I set out back in 2013 developing UniGreenScheme. Through 2014-2015 I met with over 250 staff at the University of Birmingham and 100 staff in other universities to develop the scheme and it launched officially in september 2015. Im extremely proud to have taken the idea successfully to market and to really see the environmental benefits my idea is bringing to universities.

3.What traits do you think a successful entrepreneur needs to have?

Persistence and a relentless work-ethic are probably my main characteristics that make me successful in entrepreneurship. The reason that no-one has ever launched this service in universities is it takes so much time and patience to be able to convince a major organisation to make a strategic decision and influence change. There are so many people that need to be convinced in the complex hierarchy… I believe that others have tried what I am doing, but given up at the numerous barriers. As an individual with a start-up idea, I took on an organisation with over 10,000 staff, faced with numerous barriers everyday, and juggled questions and barriers thrown at me by procurement, legal, health and safety, waste regulations, operations, finance and other departments yet was still able to create change in that organisation. The way I got through this was every time I had a road block (which was at least once a day) I just told myself these were barriers to my competitors and being told its difficult or not doable is great motivation to work harder!

On a more general level, I think im just a passionate entrepreneur and committed to entrepreneurship. I first got into selling items when I was about 14 – I launched a pokemon card store online. Then when I was 16, I diversified to video games, tents, guitars, golf clubs and other products. At 17, I started selling mobility scooters and more complex equipment. At one point my bedroom, dinning room living room and garage had all become storage sites for parcels. By the time I was in my first year of university, I had over 2,000 products in my online shop that was running out of two 160 sq ft storage units.

I see entrepreneurship as a career in itself and a learning process and im always looking to improve my abilities and taking on opportunities. For example, when I was about 21, I saw an opportunity to repair playstation 3 console when mine broke… Two weeks later I had a PS3 chip reballing service running out of my bedroom using a £1,500 machine and advanced soldering techniques. I started off selling pokemon cards, but about a decade later im running UniGreenScheme – it was a learning process. I also love showing people that entrepreneurship can be really fun.

4.Is there enough of a focus on sustainability amongst British innovators?

I think the focus on sustainable innovations in the UK is fantastic and there is quite a lot of it especially when it comes to technologies. I think the incredible ideas at the Shell award showcases that! I do think however, that sometimes far too much attention is given to advanced technologies and not enough given to the fundamental obvious solutions to issues of sustainability. New fancy pieces of technology are really exciting and grab a lot of attention, but the simple solutions often get overlooked. For example, universities are incredible innovators in the research field of sustainability, yet there own facilities are consuming equipment unsustainably by throwing things away. My simple solution is to sell this equipment. Humans have been selling surplus items for over 150,000 years to make limited natural resources go further – yet this simple solution was overlooked in the university environment. I think people and organisations everywhere should think about the small and simple things they can do to promote sustainability.

5.What goals do you have for your firm following Shell LiveWIRE?

In terms of the UniGreenScheme service I want to increase the number of universities using the service and I also want to increase the level that the service operates within the universities. I hope to be in at least 16 universities in the next two years. The focus is on those really innovative universities who are really putting in strives to reduce their waste. The most important thing to me though, is that through UniGreenScheme, I want to create a culture shift away from the disposal of equipment in universities, towards reuse. If I can create that shift, ill be happy!

6.Where do you see yourself and your brand in five years’ time?

I see UniGreenScheme being firmly establishes as the go-to asset resale service for universities, not just in the UK, but also in a number of EU countries. I want an established global network of companies purchasing equipment as well as a large scale equipment repair and remanufacturing department allowing us to further increase equipment reuse. I also want to launch some of the additional services we are planning in the future – one addressing chemical waste in universities and another addressing plastic consumable waste in universities – both are in the early planning phase. Finally, I hope to have established a good research base on the benefits of reuse in the scientific industry – for example I want to publish carbon footprinting work on reusing used scientific instruments as this kind of research just doesn’t exist at the moment. Overall, I want to make the scientific industry as a whole more sustainable through better use of its available resources.

7. Does your idea have global potential. Do you envision launching it in foreign countries? If so, which ones would you prioritise?

I certainly think it has global potential from an export perspective. The USA is already exporting its scientific equipment all over the world and we want to do the same. Theres definitely a market for this equipment in Europe, but countries like China would also be superb for export. One of the ways we want to do this is by creating online catalogues in a range of countries for our products. Then of course there would be the issues of translating all of our content to different languages and dealing with different cultures and sales processes, but translational issues can be overcome and the market really is international. We have also considered the possibility of offering the same collection/resale services in countries like China which we could then export to other countries like Africa. Its a bit of a pipe-dream at the moment, but I would like UniGreenScheme to end up building a global network where equipment keeps getting passed through a long re-use chain moving from country to country so that when it finally does go to waste it really really is at its end of life.

8. What challenges do you think would come with launching in foreign markets?

Probably the biggest challenges would be establishing the customer base, overcoming language barriers, understanding different cultures, as well as negotiating the variety of waste legislations and export regulations. I have contacts in a few universities internationally and things can be often be done very differently to in the UK. For example, I have friends in China, who say that in their region, no business is done over the phone whatsoever, as phone calls are so common from cold-callers, sare many complexities associated with understanding the foreign language and different international laws, and entirely different marketing strategies may be needed.
In the next few months I would like to go on a few trade missions and speak with a few potential customers and show them our products and see what the market potential is. Then we can assess whether its worthwhile creating these translated catalogues and focus on the languages and regions that are most relevant. We would also need to look at our website and make sure that the content is translated and available for a variety of languages so that customers all around the world can buy our products with ease. There certainly are a few challenges but I think there is a lot of opportunities also.

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Keep up to date with Michael’s journey with UniGreenScheme at the website and at the twitter handle @UniGreenScheme