The Big Interview: Tim Cornelius, CEO of tidal power giant Atlantis Resources

Tim Cornelius says widespread job losses in the oil and gas sector have allowed Atlantis Resources to repurpose highly qualified staff with decades of experience. Photograph: Ian Georgeson
Tim Cornelius says widespread job losses in the oil and gas sector have allowed Atlantis Resources to repurpose highly qualified staff with decades of experience. Photograph: Ian Georgeson
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He says he’s had a lifelong affinity with the ocean and fascination with “what goes on under the surface”.

So it is fitting that Tim Cornelius should find himself at the helm of Atlantis Resources, which aims to be the world’s leading developer of tidal power projects and is behind the MeyGen project being built in the Pentland Firth.

“I just feel very comfortable in the water, on the water and under the water, which has really given me the inspiration to end up running the company that I do today,” says the chief executive.

Growing up near the beach in Adelaide, in South Australia, he studied marine biology at the city’s Flinders University and decided that he wanted to be a commercial diver, a move he says “really opened up a completely new life as opposed to an academic life”.

After training in Tasmania, he moved into submarine escape and rescue, sparking an interest in venturing into deeper waters, and he became a remotely operated vehicle pilot, which took him to Aberdeen, working in the North Sea oil and gas sector.

“That really gave me wings to start working all across the world… so there probably isn’t a place that you could name that I haven’t worked as a result of that,” with destinations including the Gulf of Mexico, Trinidad, the Philippines, Brazil and Norway.

Realising at this stage that he wanted to get more into the business side of things, he did an MBA at Australia’s Bond University, still “commuting” between Brisbane and Aberdeen.

During the course he was approached by what was then the Australian company Atlantis Energy Limited. The unlisted firm had come up with the idea of harnessing energy from ocean flow, and wondered if he wanted to help out.

As for perception at the time of tidal energy’s uncharted waters, he says: “I’d come from an oil and gas background so the concept of marine renewables was completely foreign.”

He initially agreed to help Atlantis for a couple of months, and says proudly that more than a decade later, “here we are today as the biggest marine power company in the world”.

His own move from oil and gas – a “very, very buoyant sector when I left it” – to renewables has mirrored their fortunes having reversed.

A recent study found that jobs supported by the UK’s offshore oil and gas industry will have dropped by an estimated 120,000 by the end of the year from the peak of more than 450,000 in 2014.

He says such widespread job losses have meant Atlantis is able to repurpose highly qualified staff with decades of experience, with the oil and gas sector’s downturn “perversely” working to the company’s advantage in several ways.

Consequently, “there’s never been a better time to have been developing tidal power projects in Europe”, he adds. “Really, our model is to set up and recreate Aberdeen all over again,” he continues, deeming the Granite City the “global hub” for the likes of knowledge and resource in the oil and gas sector. “That’s exactly what we’re doing in Scotland now with tidal power.”

On a personal level, Aberdeen was his “most formative” period and provided the kind of tenacious attitude evidently behind Atlantis’ ambitious growth.

This part of his career “gave me the confidence to know that small groups of people can do amazing things” as tasked with “incredibly complex tasks to try and achieve underwater… we always found a way”.

Cornelius says he enjoys having to navigate the financial and political environment, and while he misses being offshore, loves the opportunity provided by the capital markets for Atlantis to do “new and amazing and value-creating deals” that “continue to surprise the market and ourselves”.

In November 2013, the firm announced its acquisition of MeyGen, Europe’s largest tidal power project, with Cornelius asserting at the time that the project size, location and tidal resource made it “one of the most exciting marine energy projects under development anywhere in the world”.

By the early 2020s, MeyGen intends to deploy up to 398 megawatts of offshore tidal stream turbines to supply clean and renewable electricity to the National Grid. These are expected to generate enough predictable and emissions-free electricity to power 175,000 Scottish homes.

In July last year, the group completed its acquisition of Marine Current Turbines from Siemens, and in May this year concluded its purchase of Scottish tidal project assets from ScottishPower Renewable for its Scottish tidal-development company, Tidal Power Scotland (TPSL).

Cornelius says: “To go on an acquisition spree, when a lot of others were potentially struggling in the sector, I think was an incredibly savvy move and one that’s paid incredible dividends for us.”

In April Belgian offshore services company Deme said it had agreed to buy a 2 per cent stake in Atlantis’ TPSL arm in a £2 million deal valuing the business at £100m.

Atlantis itself moved to Singapore in 2005 to grow the business, and while it remains registered there, the head office moved to Edinburgh in 2014 after it was felt the UK was a better base.

“There are no current plans to re-register the company in the UK at present, but Scotland is our spiritual home,” Cornelius says.

In May Atlantis reported a maiden annual profit, which he says the group is “intensely proud of, and is looking to continue to build on year on year”, with revenue-generation expected to really take off once the first phase of the project goes live.

Cornelius acknowledges that the moment MeyGen starts delivering power will be “incredibly satisfying on a personal level”, but he is quick to add that while a figurehead often takes the accolades, broader credit is due for example to supportive public policy, backed by the Scottish and UK governments.

Cornelius is one of seven Scottish finalists in the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year 2016 and is heading to the UK final in October to vie for the title.

He stresses that the landmark moment of the project going live is also “due reward for an incredibly talented team more so than it is for any personal accolade.

“They chose this because there aren’t many opportunities in life to do something that is genuinely a world-first and there are even fewer opportunities in life to be credited with creating an industry, a whole new sector.”

Tidal energy is currently “at its most exciting point” with an unprecedented level of interest, and about to enter a high-growth phase, he adds.

Given MeyGen’s status as “the world’s flagship project” there is understandably a high level of scrutiny on its fortunes.

Atlantis is already receiving inquiries from around the globe on a daily basis, with companies and governments in Canada, France, South Korea, Japan and China and beyond “all looking to the Atlantis portfolio of projects and to MeyGen to be a success”.

As for Atlantis’ own global ambitions, he highlights that it is an international company, and “predicated on the success that we have enjoyed and hope to continue to enjoy in Scotland, it is very much our intent to export that knowledge, our hardware, our people and build a tidal power industry in each of the new countries that have both willing governments as well as abundant resource.

“Our only constraint at the moment really is people, time and resource.”

As well as an army of contractors, the firm currently has 60 full-time employees, with Cornelius expecting this to move into the hundreds “very rapidly” should MeyGen’s early phases prove successful.

He adds that the business would like to have a multi-billion-pound pipeline of projects under construction both in Scotland and across the UK, with a “strong international portfolio” including one large project up and running in Asia and another in North America.

Cornelius adds: “We keep saying as a result of what we’ve done, and the result of the pipeline that we’ve now set in play and with the energisation of MeyGen only months away, we are very much now setting about making Scotland to tidal power what Silicon Valley is to the tech industry.”