The Business School community were thrilled to receive the news that Lauren Dickerson, Full-Time MBA Alumna, has been shortlisted as a finalist in the 2016 Women of the Future Awards.
The awards celebrate the pipeline of female talent in the UK and foster a community of influential women who are determined not only to build fruitful professional and personal relationships with one another, but to be advocates for a new generation of business talent. Ahead of the awards evening on November 13, Lauren answered some of our questions on what it takes to be an innovative entrepreneur:
What does being shortlisted in the awards mean to you?
I was beyond honoured to be nominated by Imperial, and slightly incredulous to receive the notice that I was shortlisted. Having met many of the other women nominated in different categories for this award, I am not at all convinced that I belong in this group of esteemed women. That being said, I am incredibly inspired by these other women and want to take this amazing opportunity to benefit from their experience and drive.
Can you provide an update on your company, Lunagen?
For background, Lunagen is an energy technology company that has developed a hydropower turbine system optimised for slow-moving water resources. Our technology was initially conceived for tidal power applications, hence the name Lunagen, i.e. lunar generation. However, we have since determined that our fastest, least-cost route to market will be in hydropower applications.
Since joining Lunagen as a member of the founding team in 2015, Lunagen has made a lot of progress. We have completed a series of lab-based tests on small-scale turbine prototypes, which confirmed the results of our initial computational fluid dynamics (CFD) modelling. On the back of this testing, we are currently building a scaled prototype turbine system, which will be shortly followed by our first commercial product. We hope to deploy this system in a commercial trial in early 2017.
In addition to our product development work, we have spent the last year engaging with key stakeholder groups, i.e. prospective investors, customers and regulators. These consultations have helped us to decide how and where to position our turbine systems within the unconventional hydropower marketplace. They have also educated us on some of the institutional challenges facing the industry, and how these challenges impact upon new entrants to the market.
How did your collaboration with the other founders of Lunagen come about?
About halfway through the year, I started getting interested in working for or with start-ups. One day, the Director of InnovationRCA came to speak in our entrepreneurship class and talked about the amazing things that start-ups in her incubator were doing. I sent her my CV to see if there were any energy start-ups looking for a bit of policy/market analysis/general business help and, sure enough, Lunagen was. I ended up writing the company’s business plan for my final MBA project and subsequently was brought on board as a cofounder.
Did you enter your MBA year knowing you wanted to be an entrepreneur? If no – what changed during the year?
I grew up in an incredibly entrepreneurial household. My dad is a serial entrepreneur, having built and sold several successful businesses, so I thought maybe this might be in my genes. When I started the MBA, I intended to first go to work for a big corporate, benefit from as many training programs as possible, and then strike out on my own. However, several of my classmates challenged me on this idea, suggesting that I had what it takes now to do it. When I was introduced to Lunagen, I knew I had to give it a shot.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Professional achievement: Winning the I&E Start Competition last year at the Business School. The £10,000 prize came at a critical time in Lunagen’s development. Also, the support provided by Imperial’s communications and marketing teams has been essential to helping us elevate our profile.
Personal achievement: The ever-continuing process of developing my relationship with my husband, Tom. We met in 2008 while working in Cambodia and lived a transatlantic relationship for several years before getting to settle in the same country. Like any relationship, ours has required loads of time, attention, patience, commitment and, frankly, love. It’s been a great adventure so far, which I hope to continue for many years to come.
What were the biggest challenges encountered during the first years of the company?
Funding is by far the biggest challenge that we have and are currently facing. Early stage energy technology start-ups are inherently risky ventures for their entrepreneurs and the investors who back them. Government grants are one of the most common sources of seed-stage risk capital for energy technology ventures, and are widely seen as critical to enabling innovation in such capital-intensive sectors as the energy sector. In our case, Lunagen was started in 2013 with a 2-stage grant worth EUR45,000 from the EU Climate-KIC, housed at Imperial College.
How did you overcome this challenge?
In future, unless we are able to access new grant funding, we will almost certainly have to raise money through angel investors or other seed-stage funding organisations. Again, this has proven to be a challenge, as investors want to see proof of product and market traction before investing, but the challenge is not impossible. With such limited funding available, we have been investing our own funds and sweat equity in the development of our technology. We have had to be very creative with our construction techniques in order to keep our prototypes within budget, which we think will ultimately help us to maintain a leaner cost structure than our competition. Finally, we have been highly selective in targeting prospective investors.
What lessons from your MBA help you to run your business?
Pretty much everything! The most common ones stem from our entrepreneurship, VC, design thinking and managing people classes. Ultimately my work currently boils down to two core tasks: planning and communicating. On the planning side, we needed to understand everything about our market and how our product satisfies a need in the market. We also needed to understand the value chain surrounding our product in order to understand how we will manufacture and deliver our product and its promise. This is all about planning. To test these ideas, we needed to figure out a way to explain our product in such a way that our idea will resonate with various stakeholder groups (investors, customers, manufacturing partners, regulators, planning officials, journalists, etc.). Effectively we developed different design languages to communicate our ideas externally, as well as to translate feedback into useful information for our communications materials and product development. These are only a few ways that my MBA has been useful in guiding Lunagen’s development as a business.
Do you have any advice for current or aspiring female MBA students?
For current female MBAs, support and encourage one another. Learn how to give useful, constructive feedback to one another to help each other improve upon your strengths and weaknesses. Participate in class discussions. Take risks – you’ll learn 10x more by stepping out of your comfort zone than you will by focusing only on your strengths. Network as much as you can! Be ambitious, work hard (you’ll get out what you put in) and make sure to have fun.
For aspiring female MBAs, have a clear purpose for what you want to get out of your MBA. Talk to other people about their experience and do your homework on the schools that interest you. Look for scholarships and other sources of funding. Be ambitious, work hard and make sure to have fun.
What was it like to study in London?
It was great. London is a very diverse, international city with loads of activity and bustle. It is impossible to be bored here, which can be a problem when you have to choose between attending a concert on a school night and prepping for an early morning presentation the next day. Personally, I benefitted from the vast amount of entrepreneurial activity happening in London. I was inspired by seeing the amazing ideas coming out of institutions like Imperial and the Royal College of Art, as well as by the vast start-up funding scene here.
Who are your female business heroines – and why?
First, my mom. She was an instrumental part in growing my dad’s business and deserves more credit than she often gets. My mom is also incredibly entrepreneurial. When I was little, she guided our family into a few very smart real estate investments that earned my parents juicy returns and added to our very comfortable lifestyle. She is the kindest, most optimistic and fun loving person I know and has served as an incredible role model for me. My mom really is the best!
For someone more internationally recognisable than the one and only Cheryl Dickerson, I am a great admirer of Venus and Serena Williams. These two women are much more than amazing tennis players and decorated athletes. They are both successful businesswomen with burgeoning careers in fashion, interior design and sports management. They are determined, hard working, successful women who have fought for such causes as pay equity in professional tennis. I admire their grit, drive and endless desire to look for what’s next.