In the global quest to cut the costs, and raise the volumes, of renewable energy, Sabrina Malpede — an Italian-born, Edinburgh-based aerospace engineer — believes she holds one potential key.
Next year, her start-up company, Act Blade, plans to start commercial production and sales of an ultra-lightweight wind turbine blade. It has the potential to speed up the expansion of wind power capacity in Europe, and beyond.
The blades — born out of Malpede’s doctoral research into the design of thin, ultralight flexible structures — are made of a fishbone-shaped composite frame covered by a high-tech textile. They are designed to be far easier to make, move and install than conventional blades, and can be longer — allowing more electricity generation.
Malpede hopes they will, one day, become the industry standard. “This is a very critical moment for us,” she says in a video call from Edinburgh. “We are looking forward to entering the market and making it real.”
Pivoting to science studies
Becoming a green energy entrepreneur was not an obvious career choice during Malpede’s youth in a small town outside Naples. She studied at a prestigious “classical high school” focused mainly on Latin, Ancient Greek and philosophy — with just two hours a week of maths.
But, after her 1991 high school graduation, she pivoted from humanities, spurred by a teacher’s counsel that studying maths, physics or engineering would offer the best job prospects and ensure her independence. “She told me, ‘I know you love philosophy, but just remember that every Greek philosopher has also been a mathematician’,” Malpede says.
So Malpede enrolled in a five-year aerospace engineering programme at the University of Naples Federico II — one of a handful of women on the course. After graduating, she entered Italy’s automotive industry. “I immediately found a job — that is the luxury of engineering.”
The switch to research
However, Malpede had also applied for a doctoral programme at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, and was accepted soon after starting work. A friendly human resources director offered some advice: “She was older and said, ‘you don’t want to become my age and look back and think, I regret that I didn’t do this’,’’ Malpede recalls. She did complete her employer’s three month training so she could easily return if needed: “I had my plan B,” she laughs.
Glasgow proved fertile ground. Her doctoral research had obvious potential applications for sail design. And, while writing her final thesis, she attended an evening course on entrepreneurship for PhD students at the University of Strathclyde, along with fellow Italian Alessandro Rosiello, who was studying economics.
The two began to develop a business plan to commercialise Malpede’s design insights, and continued to refine it when she took up a research fellowship at Imperial College London, in May 2001.
In 2003, Malpede won the prestigious Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellowship, with its prize of a year’s salary, plus training and mentorship, to put her business plan into action.
From research to entrepreneur
Although she had secured a permanent job at a respected Italian research institute in Naples, Malpede moved to Edinburgh, where she and Rosiello co-founded Smar Azure, whose main product was sail and rig design software. “I thought, ‘this is just one opportunity I have in my life to try’,” she says.
Today, Smar Azure is a small but profitable business in a niche competitive and luxury sailing market, with revenues of around €250,000 a year. “The business was good, but not enough,” she says. “The sailing industry is very small . . . the market is small.”
Malpede took a week-long course at London Business School, which helped her brainstorm the next step. “From being an engineer with a PhD to an entrepreneur was so quick, I [hadn’t had] a proper education,” she explains.
On a flight from a meeting with the British America’s Cup sailing team, Malpede and colleagues began to envision the use of their sail modelling tech for wind power. In 2014, they responded to a wind innovation challenge from the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, a UK research centre, with a promising proposal for a next generation wind turbine blade.
The team worked hand-in-hand with the ORE Catapult engineers at their lab facility to develop and test their wind turbine blade prototype. In 2015, Act Blade was set up to carry out further development and testing. Backers include Orienta Capital Partners and EIT InnoEnergy.
Tests proved the blades could generate electricity effectively and Malpede is gearing up for Act Blade to start production. Her biggest test now, she says, is to convince potential buyers the blades will have the same 20-year lifespan as conventional blades.
Reflecting on her entrepreneurial path, she says her experience highlights the benefits of scientists forging partnerships with larger institutions and companies to develop and test high-tech products based on their original ideas.
“When you have limited financial means, having those collaborations [is] very important,” she says. “You need to be clear about your needs, and see who can help you, and develop those relationships.
“There is a lot of opportunity — people like to help ‘the weaker’. They know that if you are successful, they are successful.”