Seven Questions with... Tobi Ayeni

This week we meet Affiliate Civil Engineering student Tobi Ayeni, who is studying abroad at UCL from Princeton University. Tobi recently won UCL Innovation & Enterprise’s £10,000 prize for his renewable energy startup Reclaim Energies, which he chats to us about here.

What are you studying, why are you interested in this subject and what do you plan to do in the future?

I am currently studying abroad at UCL as an Affiliate Civil Engineering student, but back home I study Environmental Engineering and Sustainable Energy at Princeton University. I’ve always been very passionate about impact so pursuing a field that allows to me have environmental impact on the world is very appealing to me. In the future I plan to implement the wide-scale use of new kinds of renewable energy through companies that I build.

What is the most interesting thing you’ve done, seen or got involved with while at UCL?

The most interesting thing I got involved in was UCL Innovation & Enterprise’s business startup programme to develop my idea for a renewable energy startup called Reclaim Energies. I’d actually been working on the venture for well over a year when I arrived in the UK and I was hoping to further develop the idea but was unsure about how that might take shape given that I’d now be away from my team. On my second day at UCL, during a welcome fair for affiliate students I ran into Jerry Allen, the Director for Entrepreneurship, who invited me to check out the UCL Innovation & Enterprise website and apply to the launch programme. I applied with the idea of Reclaim Energies and was accepted. 

I’d only been in one entrepreneurship programme prior, so I was very excited to have the opportunity to not only develop the idea but have a chance to compete for £10,000. Regardless of the outcome, I knew that having participated in such an experience at one of the best universities in the UK would do great things for my track record. Additionally, the programme was extremely helpful in developing my idea, especially in terms of how I presented it.

As a novice entrepreneur and startup founder, it’s often easy to believe that every part of what I’m doing is important and warrants communication, and while that’s all good, it’s even more important to learn how to put my idea and story forward in a succinct and compelling fashion. The launch programme was instrumental in doing just that by offering sessions headed by mentors with a wealth of experience in branding and presentation. Additionally, getting to practice and receive feedback for my pitch and branding materials during the final ’showcase event’ was very impactful and ultimately played the biggest role in shaping what would become my final pitch.

Due to the Covid-19 outbreak and the closing of schools across the world, the programme transitioned to a virtual format and I returned home to New York. As soon as I arrived back in the US, I began the process of incorporating Reclaim Energies as a C-Corp as we awaited instructions for how the programme would continue. Fortunately, we were able to complete the programme virtually, with the final pitch via Microsoft Teams.

A couple of weeks later I was shocked to find out Reclaim Energies had won the first place prize! It’s the first major win for our startup and represents not only the cumulation of knowledge and feedback received during the launch programme, but also a significant boost to our confidence that we have an idea that people outside our team believe in. The skills and confidence acquired through the UCL programme will not only be relevant to Reclaim Energies’ development, but I’m confident they’ll stay with me as move through life as an entrepreneur and in whatever else I get involved in. 

Have you discovered any hidden gems during your time at UCL?

My time in London and at UCL was quite short due to the Covid-19 outbreak, but even in that short time I honestly felt like everything I was experiencing was new and special. Getting a taste of British culture in the middle of London was quite an unforgettable experience. At UCL specifically, I really enjoyed exploring the physical spaces and exploring all the different buildings. Every day I’d take a different path through the halls and sections of the main campus building because there was almost always something new to discover. The coolest thing I found was the 3D printing in the basement of the Bartlett School of Architecture building! I was able to print a miniature prototype of Reclaim Energies’ turbine, which I showed off at the launch showcase.

Additionally, the support made available by UCL Innovation & Enterprise was truly spectacular. Not only was everyone so approachable and committed to helping me succeed, but they were also flexible when it came to scheduling times to meet and chat - especially after the start of lockdown. I’d like to give a special thank you to Dr. Yuliana Topazly, Jerry Allen, Sharon Keya, and Misha Khan. You were all extremely helpful and represent an important step in the journey of my startup!

Give us your top three things to stay sane while in lockdown:

Definitely try to have a consistent physical exercise routine. I personally love to sit and work or play video games all day, but I know it’s not the healthiest! I try to start and/or end every day with a calisthenics workout. I actually have a workout programme that I’ve developed for myself over the last three years that has enabled me to stay in great shape without needing a gym - so even before the coro rus outbreak, most of my workouts were usually at home. There are plenty of resources online to help with building a routine and it’s certainly a good self-care habit to develop and carry beyond the end of lockdown.

It’s very easy for the days to start blending together and a week just feels like three or four long days put together. One good way to keep my energy up is by making sure I treat each day as if I wasn’t in lockdown. This means getting around eight hours of sleep each night, getting dressed as if it was a normal day, and most importantly getting up before noon. This helps me have the energy to stay productive and not watch Netflix in bed all day.

Trying new things! With all the time on my hands, I’ve made a list of new things that I’d like to give a shot at (or even old things I’d like to get back to). These include making time to read new books, gymnastics, and cooking to name a few. My most recent feat was learning how to do a handstand, and I plan on learning to hand springs next! It also feels really good to get lost in a book for the first time in many months, and I’m actually shocked about how many good books we have lying around in the house. I’m trying my hand at cooking, and all I can say is I’m better off doing handstands!

If you were Provost for the day what one thing would you do?

One of the things I’ve found most pleasant and intellectually stimulating, both at Princeton and at UCL, is exploring the independent work or capstone projects of other students. I’m not sure if this exists at UCL yet, but if I was Provost I would create a programme that allowed students to explore and exchange independent projects, final-year work, research projects in development, entrepreneurial ideas, etc. I’ve always found that my most interesting (and sometimes impactful) conversations tend to happen in these and not necessarily in the classroom, so I would definitely like to encourage that. 

Who inspires you and why?

My father and LeBron James. The reason is quite simple: hard work. The way I move through life is based on the belief that through hard work and effort I can become whoever and whatever I want to be. I look up to both of these people because when you look at where they started in life to where they are right now, not only is their story amazing because of how far they’ve come, but at every step of the way it’s clear how they had a vision for who they wanted to be and how much work they were ready to put in to get there. My father grew up the son of a farmer in Nigeria and faced many challenges in his young adult life as he set out to be an engineer. There were times when he was broke and stuck, but he never gave up, and never settled for the little victories he had. Today, he’s a Chief Engineer in United Nations Peacekeeping and has his two children enrolled at Princeton University. Lebron’s story arc isn’t all that different, growing up poor in a single parent home in one of the poorest cities in America and rising to be one of the greatest basketball players ever.

Every time I think about either of them, I’m reminded that the sky is the limit and that I too can become whoever I want to be.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

Certainly the one thing that gets the most reactions is when I tell people that I have my own company, especially since it’s not an app or digital platform but rather a hardware startup dealing with renewable energy. I think the expectation is that we, as students, don’t start our careers until we’ve graduated.

My thinking has always been that if it’s possible to start now, then why not. I also add that we’re only a startup and we’re certainly not generating any revenue yet! 

I’m also a really big Taylor Swift fan (but only the old stuff)! Me and most of my friends listen to rap and hip-hop so this one’s always a shock.


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