Neil Jennings

Neil runs the Student Switch Off campaign. Whilst studying for his doctorate in environmental science, he was considering options for his future career. Climate change was getting a lot of coverage in the media, and he selected this to be his primary motivation for setting up his enterprise – namely a need to raise awareness of the issue.

"Following my undergraduate degree in geography at the University of Cambridge and the completion of my Masters at UCL, I knew I wanted to pursue a doctorate – but I wanted to be sure on the area for focus. To this end, I took a year out to consider my options, eventually deciding that I wanted to get involved in climate change research – specifically the potential for a collapse of the Gulf Stream, and the way the issue had emerged as a risk issue in the UK. Carrying out various searches on the Internet led me to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. The potential to meet such a large variety of researchers here from all kinds of disciplines convinced me that this was the best place to pursue my doctorate.

"My doctorate, while necessitating an investigation of the physical science behind the Gulf Stream, also required an analysis of representations of the issue in the media, and interviews with scientists, politicians and journalists to try and understand how the risk of a collapse had emerged as a risk issue in the UK. Thus, skills developed while undertaking the doctorate included numeric abilities to deal with complex scientific calculations. It also required cold-calling politicians and journalists to conduct interviews, which led to an increase in confidence and communication skills over and above the communication skills usually developed by doctoral researchers.

"During the time of my doctorate I was considering options for my future career. Climate change was getting a lot of coverage in the media and I decided that this was my primary motivation – namely a need to raise awareness of the issue. The interdisciplinary, vibrant research environment at the Tyndall Centre enabled me to share my thoughts and communicate with a large variety of people from a variety of backgrounds, and in October 2006 I decided to set up the Student Switch Off campaign as a pilot study. The campaign aimed to promote environmental awareness among students by getting university halls of residence to compete against each other to save energy – and providing students with prize incentives to do so.

"Now I run the campaign as a business. The cost for each student to take part is £1.50, but universities have saved an average of £7 per student in electricity expenditure. In promoting the campaign we visit universities, showing students the Age of Stupid film, and put on question and answer sessions related to the science of climate change. A number of students also agree to represent the campaign by becoming ‘Eco Power Rangers’ – there have been over 12,000 such students this academic year, equating to over 15% of those in halls. By 2007/08, seven universities were involved in the campaign, and currently 33 universities are taking part.

"Coming from a non-business related background, I found setting up the business quite challenging. I had no experience of VAT returns, customs and excise, or Companies House requirements. I had to do a lot of reading up around running a business. I received specific help from Ben and Jerry’s through their Climate Change College project, that provided mentoring for individuals starting their own climate change campaigns. I have also benefited from Carbon Leapfrog – an initiative in which city law and accountancy firms provide pro bono expertise to green start ups. I would recommend that universities pay more attention to assisting graduates and doctoral students with developing these skills by introducing a mentoring/business introduction service. This way individuals can get experience from some of the more hard-nosed people who are successful in business."