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Researcher Profile: Mats Leijon

Mats LeijonMats Leijon is both researcher and entrepreneur and was recently awarded Uppsala University’s innovation award ‘Hjärnäpplet’. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

Mats Leijon’s vision: energy for all

New renewable energy sources from waves, wind and tidal currents. This is Mats Leijon’s speciality. The principle is simple: instead of seeking maximum output, it’s all about getting low cost energy hours.
‘That’s when renewable energy will become a possibility for everyone.’

The entrepreneur Mats Leijon is a well-known personality. He recently received ‘Hjärnäpplet’, Uppsala University’s innovation award, in the university hall. Today he is lecturing at the Ångström Laboratory to researchers and students making the move from research to entrepreneurship.

The screen shows a selection of images from the years that have passed since he came to Uppsala as a new professor of electrical science in 2000. He had already set his eyes on wave power which had the potential to become both a stable and efficient energy source.

The following year he created the company Seabased, which now has 10 employees at the office in Uppsala and 50 at the factory in Lysekil. Wave power stations are produced here to order, and the company recently received a large order from Ghana.

The road here has been long and arduous, Mats Leijon explains, before going on to thank his colleagues in the audience:

‘This isn’t something you can achieve on your own; it’s far too complicated. You really need a good team of colleagues.’

He has plenty of advice to give to research colleagues who want to start a company. For example, he warns against letting investors in too early. Another piece of advice is to secure the rights to the idea in good time.

‘Before starting you ought to have registered the patent. Don’t apply for money from Vinnova and the EU before you have patents, because then you've got no chance. It’s the patents we registered at the start that allow the company to continue to be competitive in the future.’

And last but not least: dare to make mistakes!

‘There are loads of mistakes to make along the way. Actually you should make a list of everything that can go wrong and then tick them off’, he says with a laugh.

Professor Mats Leijon has an office full of bookshelves, books and paper. He doesn’t use it very often. His 60% role as MD of Seabased takes up a great deal of his time and he is also involved in several companies within tidal current and wind power. At the same time he seems to be happiest here at the university.

Since he founded the Division of Electricity in 2000, the division has produced more than 200 scientific articles, 64 theses and a large number of patents.

The challenge is to find new renewable energy sources as sustainable alternatives to fossil energy sources such as oil and coal but also nuclear power. Then research is required to solve both technical and more practical problems. Engineering science, in other words.

The degree and PhD students who come here learn to see the overall issue but also to dig into the detail.

‘Here they have to calculate, measure and construct from the ground up. They must have their equations and processes in order. This is tough work and there are no shortcuts. You have to allow them to make mistakes, that way they learn more.’

When the wave power project became reality, many researchers, PhD and degree students travelled to the west coast of Sweden and the experimental facility near Lysekil. Thorough academic preparatory work was followed by the construction of an industrial unit at Lysekil harbour.

The construction of Sweden’s first commercial wave power park is currently under way near Smögen in collaboration with Fortum. In November, Mats Leijon travelled to Ghana to sign contracts with the Minister for Energy about the construction of a wave power park.

‘It’s a project which is both interesting and difficult. We have people there now with a container and everything is being assembled on site.’

The vision has always been to produce energy which is also sustainable from an economic perspective.

‘What we're looking for is renewable energy with a high utilisation rate. Solar and wind energy both come and go; so does wave power, but if we aim for the stars then renewable energy can become a possibility for everyone. In Sweden we can say that we have the means to subsidise, but in a country like Ghana it is very clear that this isn’t the case.’

He hopes that more researchers will take on this challenge so that genuine alternatives can be found to nuclear power, oil and coal.

‘In the 1950s and 1960s the best researchers wanted to work with nuclear power; that was the very peak of excellence within physics, technology and chemistry. For renewable energy sources to be competitive, the peak of excellence must be in this field.

As a visionary, Mats Leijon sees that this could be Sweden's next big industrial success. But it would require the same kind of political investment seen in other countries.

‘We have water power, which is an extremely important source and we can take this approach as a starting point. We saw that there was no technical solution for either wave or tidal current power, so that's why we became involved. We could see that wind power could be done more cheaply.’

Which do you believe most in for the future—wave, tidal current or wind power?

‘We probably need a combination, but that’s not really saying anything very useful. Whatever gives the most energy hours for the least money is what you will earn the most from, making the electricity as cheap as possible. Ultimately we simply want renewable energy for the lowest possible price. Then we can spend money on better child and elderly care instead of subsidising electricity.’

He doesn’t simply describe a success story when he lectures at the Ångström Laboratory. Making the move from researcher to entrepreneur hasn’t been painless, and Mats Leijon doesn’t try to conceal it. It has cost a great deal, both professionally and in his private life.

‘People often ask why research isn’t commercialised more often. The answer is that it’s terribly risky and requires enormous commitment from family and friends. There should be greater incentives for researchers to run companies.’

‘If I had known in 2001 what it would entail I’d probably still have been a regular professor. Living a more peaceful life with essays to correct and students to supervise.’

But then what would he have done with the strong motivation that he still has? The belief that it must be possible to change this, even if everyone around says the opposite.

‘That was why I started doing this. I was convinced that it could be done differently if we simply thought it through properly.’

Annica Hulth

Facts – Mats Leijon

Name: Mats Leijon
Title: Professor in electrical science
Currently: Recipient of the Hjärnäpplet award
Career: Studied at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, where he also took his PhD in the 1980s. Then he worked at ABB in Västerås until he was appointed professor of electrical science at Uppsala University in 2000.
Age: 57.
Currently reading: Theses.
Leisure pursuits: Newly appointed assistant inspector for Gothenburg student nation (club). Enjoys going to the gym.
Gives me energy: It’s great to see things going well for our degree and PhD students, that they get good results and do a great job.