PhD graduate: Climate-KIC gave me my business skills

Alistair McVicar is a graduate of the 2010 Climate-KIC summer school and uses his Climate-KIC experiences regularly in his current job as an analyst in the resources and sustainability practices at Accenture, a global consulting firm.

Background: Alistair has been awarded a Ph.D. degree of Imperial College London in Fluid Dynamics and Climate Change from the Grantham Institute of Climate Change and a Masters of Oceanography from the University of Southampton.


Q: Why did you join the summer school?

A: I initially graduated in Physical Oceanography at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton and my parents own an organic herb nursery, so I always had a keen interest in climate change and entrepreneurship.

Later, whilst I was completing my Ph.D. at the Grantham Institute, I realised I was learning a lot about climate science, but not so much about business.

The summer school also came at that stage when I was contemplating what I really wanted to do with my career. Whether I wanted to advance into the academic world, or whether I wanted to get involved in projects that could really drive a transition in the climate change space.


I realised I was learning a lot about climate science, but not so much about business.


Q: You led one of the start-ups that were formed as part of a competition during the summer school. What was it like?

A: It was an excellent learning opportunity and a way to safely explore the business and innovation aspects of climate change.

During the summer school, I learnt a lot of new concepts such as understanding start-ups, business processes, supply chains and other ideas, including SWOT analyses.

When it came to leading a team it was a difficult challenge to apply these newly learnt skills and concepts and initially it was hard work to manage a team with people of different academic backgrounds, nationalities and ages.

Overall, I really enjoyed the challenge of innovating a new idea, building the business case around it and then presenting it in the final business competition to representatives from the business community.


Q: What did you do, besides learning about the business aspects of innovation?

A: Our six-week journey started in Paris, we then moved on to London before finishing in Zurich. I was exposed to a lot of ideas, and most importantly: their actual application.

I discussed the greenhouse effect at a leading science institute in France and worked out the appropriate sustainable water management systems to be used to maintain agriculture yields in Spain at a leading French consultancy.

I also had insights into the latest developments in climate science from Professor Hoskins at the Grantham Institute in London and spoke to Lord Stern, the renowned British economist and academic, about the political situation in Europe and the difficulties of achieving agreement.

We visited the financial heart of London, saw sustainable housing projects in Zurich, observed the birth of new commuter towns and discussed the changing face of big businesses.


The Climate-KIC summer school allowed me to hit the ground running 


Q: What effect has your experience had on your current job?

A: Because I come from a science background, the business tools and concepts I learnt on the Climate-KIC summer school allowed me to hit the ground running.

This is especially important as a lot of people I meet for my current job come from business schools, where they were exposed to certain terminologies and ways of working. Climate-KIC really reduced the learning curve in starting a career in consultancy.

The contacts I made and the innovative ideas I was exposed to are also invaluable. The other day, I was looking for innovative ideas in the heating space. I remembered one of the Climate-KIC start-ups, Tado, who are now selling a tool that allows you to control your thermostat at home through your smartphone.

This is the kind of innovation that large companies see as future technologies. I was able to use that in my project, gain recognition and expose the work of a Climate-KIC start-up to a wider audience. 


Q: Have you stayed in touch with your fellow summer school graduates?

A: Absolutely, I co-founded the Climate-KIC Alumni Association in 2011. I was secretary between 2011 and 2012 and prepared all the legal documents.

When we started we were a few dozen, now it is 500 and we’re going to be up to thousands in no time. The alumni association is a very interesting and exciting group of people.

They have a lot of ideas and are passionate about the work I am interested in: combating climate change. It allows me to be very cutting edge, I can always plug into a highly innovative and broad network.


The alumni network allows me to be very cutting edge, I can always plug into a highly innovative and broad network.


Q: What would you say to students who are currently doing their PhD?

A: A Ph.D. is an incredibly challenging experience and several students think at some point: ‘A career in academia is not for me, what should I be doing?’

I believe that the Climate-KIC summer school is a very good way to get exposure to different disciplines or areas within your subject.

Also, in the world of academia, a lot of people have ideas, but the transition to market is sometimes uncertain or difficult. The summer school gives people exposure to tools and a network to be able to do this.

A lot of people who were part of my summer school class are actually doing that now; they are active in start-up companies, such as Electric Feel and Deco.

But it is not just for entrepreneurs, it is for people who want to understand more about the business environment. Overall, it is an invaluable experience.


The summer school brings together participants from the Climate-KIC Masters and PhD education programmes as well as other highly motivated individuals on a tour around Europe, visiting the Climate-KIC partner institutions to discover the business and science aspects of climate change innovation.