Think HBR


Andrew Mears
In a few words tell us about your current role.
Chief Executive Officer of SwitchDin Pty Ltd – leading the company, building the team, maintaining vision, raising funds and doing deals.
How have you reached this point in your professional life?
I’ve always taken the alternative path and found myself at the leading edge of real world innovation.
I started as an apprentice fitter and turner at BHP, but left to do electrical engineering at Newcastle. I started my first start-up a couple of years out of uni with two mates as we commercialised a system for satellite communications.
My Masters degree, in process control and manufacturing addressed advance production systems for solar panels whilst my PhD was in biomedical engineering and developed new sensors and explored key questions on the electro-physiology of the heart.
The common thread here is the link between technology and real problems for society. I focussed on climate change and renewable
energy as a key issue for our future. I subsequently got involved in building micro-hydro and solar projects in Australia,
Africa and throughout the Pacific that led to all sorts
of work from projects to policy. I joined the World
Bank and United Nations and was fortunate to
become the United Nation’s Chief Technical Advisor
for renewable energy in Botswana Southern Africa
and then later for Climate Change in Cambodia SE Asia.
Through this work I learned a lot about renewable energy and the business models that are feasible when people no longer see the grid as their only electricity option.
We returned to Australia 4 years ago and in 2014 I started SwitchDin, which builds on these experiences to provide the sort of data platform that will enable new energy services for everyone.
When you’re not at work, where can we find you?
With my family. My 9-year-old daughter is my joy and I love the time we have together. I’m into sailing and anything outdoors although I don’t seem to get much of this at the moment … I’ll be back to it soon.
Where do you find inspiration?
My work in developing countries showed me the importance that access to clean energy can make to people’s lives. There are lessons here for every policy maker and entrepreneur either in emerging markets or developed countries. I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing people during this time who have innovated to solve the most profound problems.
I’m not just talking about the university researchers, or development workers from the UN, or the first world entrepreneurs I’ve met. In most cases the people who have inspired me most have been the farmers or local mechanics or teachers who innovated and came up with appropriate solutions for the problems faced by their communities.
For example, in rugged Bougainville in the late 90s I met a young electrician who fashioned a small home-made hydroelectric system using an electric motor and other parts he scrounged from a washing machine. This rudimentary generator made enough electricity for 2-3 lights. However, this guy didn’t stop there. He setup a workshop and trained others to build these things. Remember this was during a civil conflict and the whole island had been blockaded for 8 years with no supplies or modern services. There was no electricity except for the generators brought in by the PNG military and aid workers.
I remember being in the military camp in Arawa that was in darkness (they had run out of diesel) yet all around high in the surrounding hills you could see twinkling lights from many of these home-made hydro-electric systems. It was a flash bulb moment for me. That type of needs driven innovation is inspiring.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out in your field?
Think big and play the long game … with compassion and grace.
What'’s something most people don’'t know about you?
I wanted to make films or act. In fact I was the only engineer to also study drama when I was at uni. I almost dropped engineering for it in fact.
How would you like to see the Hunter evolve over the next decade?
I think the Hunter is well position to become a global centre for start-up led innovation in the clean technology sector. We have the skills and energy services knowhow, we’re used to delivering energy services to the global market, we have a great university, and both the national and state research centres for energy. Newcastle is a university town and shifting to a start-up driven economy will make the most of our young bright talent and at the same time provide a natural pivot for resource and energy sector grey-hairs and investors.
What's your favourite Hunter restaurant/cafeé/bar?
Subo, Hunter Street, Newcastle
Are you reading anything at the moment?
Classic Boat magazine
Do you have a favourite sport or team?
The Sydney Swans
What'’s the best line from a film you’ve ever heard?
The most recent is from Ex Machina (2015) - “If you’re going to exist, why not enjoy it?”