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Sabrina Malpede

  • Programme: Developing Strategy for Value Creation
  • Nationality: Italian
  • Job Post-programme: Executive Director, ACT Blade Ltd

How to put the wind back in your sails

Developing Strategy for Value Creation (DSVC) not only revitalised strategic thinking for Sabrina Malpede and her sail and rig design company SMAR Azure – it also inspired a new venture in wind turbine blades

The 2007 Sailing World Championships were the proving ground for Dr Sabrina Malpede’s extraordinary vision. Sails designed using software from the company she co-founded were on the boats of medal winners from multiple countries, across multiple sailing classes. This was just one year after the company, SMAR Azure, had sold its design software to its first clients.

“For us it was very important for building up our credibility,” she says. Not least because this Italian aeronautical engineer with a PhD in sail design was entering an industry full of people with professional racing experience while she had none.

But just as the early 2000s had seen money pouring into yachting, the financial crisis of 2007-08 saw it suddenly drain away. Major banks and corporations that had been eagerly sponsoring teams in races such as the America’s Cup (where entrants need budgets of $100 million-plus, or £77 million) took their money away. And Malpede’s emerging sail and rig design software company had to fight to survive.

Strategic advice

It was in this climate that Malpede sought out the Developing Strategy for Value Creation (DSVC) programme at London Business School (LBS) in March 2013 and she credits it with giving her venture a new lease of life.

“I felt I wasn’t able to think through in a strategic way what to do with the existing business in order to find another way of growth for the company,” she says. “The programme gave me the tools, the mindset and the thinking process I needed. When I came back I knew exactly what I had to do in terms of developing the discussion on strategic development.”

With co-founder and CFO Dr Alessandro Rosiello and CTO Dr Donald MacVicar, Malpede and the rest of the team came up with four strategic challenges. Two fell by the wayside but two are still underway. One is an application for reducing carbon emissions from major shipping such as oil tankers and is in the feasibility study stage. While the other is even further ahead – a plan to create a new type of lightweight blades for wind turbines under a new company, ACT Blade.

New venture

Wind turbine blades are currently made from moulds – an expensive process. Malpede believes that using technology and materials developed in the yachting industry, her company can develop blades that are cheaper, more resistant to rain erosion and, because they are lighter, longer and so able to produce more energy.

The blades will be made of a composite structure and covered by a laminated textile around one millimetre thick. ACT Blade will then sell them to wind turbine producers. The project has received several grants and won its first investment in November 2016, which meant it could enter the technological development phase with a proper team dedicated to designing and lab testing the blades.

Malpede has applied many of the tools she learned at LBS to address the firm’s various “strategic challenges”. They include the value curve, Professor Costas Markides’ ideas about disruptive products, and Professor Julian Birkinshaw’s tools for assessing products and competitive advantage. She also topped up her learning in 2015 by taking Professor Birkinshaw’s online course, Managing the Company of the Future, which looked at how the business world is evolving in the face of technology and demographic and social trends.

“I remember that at the end of the DSVC programme, Professor Yiorgos Mylonadis said there was no mark for the course but it was up to us to judge ourselves – it was up to us whether we pushed developments through,” says Malpede. “And I do feel that I have been able to create and drive these strategic challenges because of the energy and focus I had after that course – and, of course, the team has taken the process forward.”

Perks of the job

Malpede now devotes most of her time to ACT Blade while remaining managing director of SMAR Azure. The latter makes half its income from licensing its software to clients and the rest from providing services to clients who want advice on the design and optimisation of the sail and rig.

In 2014 the company achieved one of its founding goals of contributing to an America’s Cup when it was contracted by the Land Rover Ben Ainslie Racing team to develop the model and analytical tools for the wing-sail catamaran.

Malpede knows that she will do well to match the perks of her old role: “One of the best things about my job was that I travelled a lot to sell the software and wherever I went people would take me out sailing so I’ve sailed in places like Sydney, San Diego and Palma. It was wonderful,” she says. “But there’s no doubt our new venture is exciting too.”


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