Kero portfolio company, Power Roll Ltd, has been enjoying excellent traction and growth with their game changing solar film technology. The company had a successful year in 2021: raising more than £8m in funding, entering multiple collaboration agreements, winning a manufacturing innovation award, being named as a ’50 to Watch List’ innovator for green technology, and presenting at COP26 - to name a few.
In this interview we hear from Power Roll’s CEO, Neil Spann, about his experience as a leader and what it takes to run an early-stage company. Neil has over a decade of professional experience in the energy sector and has held key roles in large energy services businesses.
The company, which develops ultra-low-cost and lightweight flexible solar film for energy generation and storage, has another busy year ahead as they enter the next exciting phase of growth. One such exciting development is the opening of a new pilot plant in Durham’s Jade Business Park – a major milestone for the company as they plan to demonstrate the manufacturing process for their solar film.
Tell us a bit about your background and the roles that led you to your position at Power Roll
I graduated with a maths degree and then qualified as an accountant with Arthur Anderson. I moved to EY where I was able to advise a wide range of clients across many diverse sectors ranging from transport to energy to football! As well as having the chance to work in multiple countries.
I then joined Eaga, a company based in Newcastle, as part of their IPO team. This exciting project resulted in a successful floatation of Eaga on to the main London Stock Exchange in 2007. Eaga was a very interesting business managing large scale energy efficiency and renewable energy projects for the UK and overseas governments and had grown from 2 people to 5,000 with annual revenues approaching £750m. This was my first in depth experience of carbon reduction activities, and the combination of growing a business whilst also making a difference to people’s lives and the planet was compelling.
At Eaga I became Director of Investor Relations and worked closely with the CEO, Drew Johnson, and CFO Ian McLeod. During that time, we became one of the UK’s largest installers of solar pv panels which provided me with insight into the economics of solar pv.
We sold Eaga in 2011 and the management team went in separate directions. However, I was contacted by Drew in 2013, to ask me to work with him and Ian to set up, fund and commercialise an invention by a scientist called Dr John Topping, who had discovered a completely new way to make solar panels ‘like crisp packets’. I was fascinated and excited by the opportunity and this was the start of my journey at Power Roll.
The combination of growing a business whilst also making a difference to people’s lives and the planet was compelling
If you could go back to your younger self and learn one thing in business really well, what would it be?
The ability and skill of setting very clear objectives and to focus on executing them without distraction or getting diverted.
On a more personal note, I wished I had learned a language properly as this is very useful in the global world we live in.
What’s your ultimate goal for the company’s future?
I want to see our Solar Film and other applications deployed at mass-scale around the world, making a difference to peoples’ lives as well saving a significant amount of carbon and providing positive returns for our investors. I believe it is entirely possible to both do good and provide financial returns.
Overcoming unforeseen obstacles or challenges is a big part of developing new technology. What have you/the company learned from overcoming the obstacles you have faced?
Like any company developing new technologies there are technical challenges and issues, possibly even more than some because our technology is so unique. There have been many key learnings for both myself and the company along the journey, however I would highlight two:
Firstly, reaching outside the organisation to find expertise, skills, and experience to complement internal resources. It is a natural behaviour to try to solve every problem internally but opening up, whilst protecting our IP, has been critical.
Secondly, establishing realistic timelines – certainly in the early days we were too optimistic in relation to the time needed to solve problems and issues. Allow for some delays, they will most likely happen!
Other than capital, what were your main considerations when selecting investor partners?
It is investors who can bring additional skills and resources, whether that be access to commercial or technical know-how, business contacts and general business advice.
“I believe it is entirely possible to both do good and provide financial returns.”
As CEO, what has been the hardest decision you’ve had to make?
People decisions are never easy.
What have been the main highlights of running the business?
It’s been a great journey so far and we are entering the next exciting phase of scale up and commercialisation. Some highlights so far: building a team from scratch including employing lots of local talent and engaging with and seeing the excitement of potential commercial partners and users of our technology.
What advice would you give to new CEOs building a team?
Be brave on your decisions, don’t compromise and the old adage of recruiting people who are better than you!