Tom Cleaver, co-founder of Cognition Energy

Tom Cleaver photo

Tom Cleaver is an accomplished entrepreneur who co-founded Cognition Energy, a cutting-edge company that specialises in providing high-quality battery testing services to various third-party customers. The company prides itself on offering in-depth analysis of battery performance, which helps its clients to develop better and longer-lasting batteries. Cognition Energy also manufactures CellPods, a state-of-the-art battery testing product that is designed to provide highly precise testing data. This innovative tool enables researchers and engineers to make more informed decisions and develop superior battery technology that is both efficient and reliable. With their commitment to quality and innovation, Cognition Energy is fast becoming a leader in the battery testing industry. 

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?

I hold a degree in Electronic Engineering from the University of Southampton. I have been working in the battery industry for the past 11 years, mainly as a project manager for research and development projects. Before that, I worked as a project manager for electronic warfare in a defence company. About five years ago, I decided to start my own business.  

I had the opportunity to speak with Leah Thompson, who is the head of EnSpire Oxford. During our conversation about the challenges facing the battery industry, she suggested that I consider starting my own company. This advice was simple yet powerful, and it inspired me to take the plunge, establish my own business, and bring my idea to fruition. 

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Cognition Energy logo, purple text on white background

Entrepreneurship is the art of identifying people's needs and finding a feasible way to deliver it to them successfully. This can be quite challenging because sometimes there might be a mismatch between what people want and what you can provide. The key is to determine what they want and how to fulfil their needs at a price they are willing to pay while covering your expenses and paying your staff. 

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?

During my employment at Oxis Energy, a start-up that eventually shut down after I left, I had a memorable experience. My role there was of a project manager, and I was working on a project with Ricardo, an automotive supplier. One day, I received a call from the chief engineer seeking my opinion on car battery development. We talked for a good 20 minutes discussing various aspects of battery technology. After the call ended, I was left wondering why the chief engineer had called me for advice. It then struck me that my knowledge and expertise on batteries were valuable enough to offer to the market. That call became a turning point in my career, and it made me realise that my skills could make a difference. 

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?

It's essential not to limit yourself to only three skills. While you don't have to be perfect in everything, you should be competent enough to handle various tasks. For instance, if you're an excellent scientist or engineer and want to sell something, you will also need to promote it, sell it, and manage your business. You need to be proficient in various areas, including being the CTO, CEO, chief operations officer, and chief salesperson. If there is a specific skill you lack, you should strive to improve it by researching, seeking advice from experts, or hiring someone to do it for you. 

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?

As an entrepreneur, you have the unique privilege of being able to focus on the things that truly matter to you. It's an incredibly fulfilling experience that allows you to work on projects that inspire and motivate you. When you work for yourself, you likely started your own business because you have a deep passion for a particular area of expertise or interest. I find the battery industry to be an intriguing field because of its ability to store energy and improve our daily lives. The potential for innovation in this technology is endless, and it's what drives me to wake up each morning and continue working towards its advancement. 

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?

One of the most awe-inspiring organisations that I hold in high regard is the NASA team that made history by successfully landing humans on the moon during the 1960s. Their incredible achievement is a testament to human ingenuity, perseverance, and the capacity to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It's truly remarkable how they accomplished what was once considered an impossible feat, and their ground-breaking mission continues to inspire generations to push the boundaries of what's possible. 

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?

I'm eager to learn more about how NASA was able to make such remarkable progress during the 1960s. How were they able to make such rapid advancements, going from virtually nothing to landing on the moon in just 10 years? While they certainly had a significant amount of funding, money alone can't account for their speed and efficiency. 

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?

As a small business, we've had our fair share of challenges, but we've persevered. Back in January, our primary client, Britishvolt, declared bankruptcy and left us with a massive debt of £250,000. It was a devastating blow, but we didn't give up. Instead, we focused on finding new clients and expanding our services. In just ten months, we managed to acquire ten new customers, which is a testament to our hard work and dedication. We invested in new equipment to enhance our testing facility, and we're in the process of moving to a bigger location to accommodate our growing business. Looking back, I am proud to say that last month was our most successful period to date. It's amazing to see how far we've come, and I'm excited about what the future holds for us. 

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?

Starting a business can be a difficult task and one can make many mistakes along the way. One of the most common mistakes that entrepreneurs make is trying to do everything alone. When I started my company, I made this mistake by working full-time while my co-founders could not. To avoid this mistake, I recommend finding a partner who shares your vision and work ethic. This will allow you to share the workload, take time off, and build a stronger business together. 

Another crucial lesson is to diversify your customer base. Relying on a single customer can make your business vulnerable, so it's essential to have multiple customers. This way, if one customer stops doing business with you, you will not miss out on all your income. 

Moreover, it's important to sell more products or services than you need to fill your capacity. This way, you can meet the demands of your customers and expand your business. Airlines are an excellent example of this strategy. They sell more seats than the plane can hold because they know some people won't show up. 

Lastly, understanding what your customers want and how to deliver it is a crucial aspect of running a successful business. 

How have you funded your ideas?

Our company has been fortunate enough to receive a number of government grants, which have certainly helped us get off the ground and pursue our goals. However, the majority of our funding has come from our loyal paying customers, who have shown immense support for our products and services. In addition, our board of directors has also invested a small sum of money into our company, further demonstrating their belief in our vision and mission. To supplement these sources of funding, we have also taken on some debt financing, which is comparable to paying for a car in monthly instalments. This approach has allowed us to maintain financial stability. We have not sought funding from investment angels or venture capitalists. 

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?

Our organisation was fortunate enough to receive grants from Innovate UK, the Faraday Institution, and the Energy Entrepreneurs Fund Grant. The latter grant was provided by the government department which is currently known as the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero. These grants have been instrumental in supporting our work and helping us to achieve our goals. 

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?

The knowledge and expertise generated by Oxford are truly remarkable, and the quality of the local population is second to none. Oxford is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding and vibrant intellectual hubs in the world. 

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?

If you're an entrepreneur living in Oxford and are looking for resources to help you succeed, there are several options available to you. One such option is Oxford Entrepreneurial Services, which offers various services to entrepreneurs, including mentorship, funding advice, and access to co-working spaces. Another option is Inspire Oxford, which provides a platform for entrepreneurs to network and attend helpful events. If you're working in a specific industry, you may also find it helpful to look for organisations that specialise in that area. For instance, if you're in the battery industry, the Faraday Institution is a great resource to tap into.  

While you can always do some research online, it's often more beneficial to attend local events and connect with other entrepreneurs. Many of these events are organised by Oxford University, which has a vibrant and supportive entrepreneurial community. By interacting with other entrepreneurs and professionals in the community, you'll be able to learn about even more resources that can help you grow your business and achieve success. 

Any last words of advice?

For those who aspire to become entrepreneurs, I strongly advise you to act quickly and with purpose. Time is a precious commodity, and speed is crucial. Prioritising execution over perfection is essential, aiming to be 80% correct rather than waiting for 100% accuracy. In this competitive field, it's important to move faster than your peers with similar aspirations. Therefore, don't hesitate to implement your plans and ideas.