Innovation: Trial by fire

Posted on 28 Aug 2012 by The Manufacturer

Ian Helmore braved the Dragon’s Den to find support for his water treatment innovation now being manufactured in the UK. Here he talks to Jane Gray about the arguments in favour of British-based production and the stresses UK innovators suffer in getting their products to market.

TM: How did you come to pitch for funding on Dragon’s Den?

IH: It was a last ditch attempt to get the support I needed for Steri-Spray.

I had tried everything. We had remortgaged the house twice, I had been to the banks for loans and approached government agencies. I spent a lot of time putting together an application for a grant from the East of England Development Agency but there was nothing.

We went to venture capitalists too but no one was interested – despite the fact that hospitals had a problem with legionella so there was definitely a demand for the product.

I asked for £145,000 when I presented on Dragon’s Den and the Dragons, Deborah Meaden and Theo Paphitis, took forty per cent of the company. By that stage I would have been willing to give up a bigger stake in the business just to keep the idea alive.

The sad thing is that inventors are not respected in the UK, they are considered to be crazy. My search for funding was made even more difficult due to investors being more interested in web-based products than in anything physical.

The Dragon’s were actually unusually supportive of the idea of manufacturing in the UK.

“I asked for £145,000 when I presented on Dragon’s Den and the Dragons, Deborah Meaden and Theo Paphitis, took forty per cent of the company”

TM: Why was it important to you that you manufactured in the UK?

IH: In part it was simply a personal feeling that it was important to keep making things here. But in fact it also proved to be the most cost effective route.

We looked at getting the product made in China but we were recommended to approach a company in Haverhill, Suffolk, for our injection moulding. I gave it a go and what they offered us was cheaper than in China, with the added benefit that we could see exactly what they were doing.

The speed with which we can adapt the product to market developments in the UK has really brought our UK location into its own. There have been opportunities we would not have been able to respond to if we had been manufacturing in China. For instance, we were able to react when the Belfast NHS Trust suffered the loss of three babies due to infection from pseudomonas bacteria in its taps.

We’d thought about producing a product for taps as well as showers but didn’t have anything working. Thanks to being close to our CNC suppliers and other UK manufacturing partners we were fitting taps in the hospital four days after the first enquiry.

The decision has been about control and opportunity as well as flag waving.

TM: What is business like now?

IH: The last twelve months have been huge for us. Last year we made no money and this year we will turn over in excess of £1 million.

We have bought more equipment and we are trying to find new premises so that we can expand and take on more people. It is very difficult to find anywhere in the local area though and I don’t want to move far in case I lose people. There are seven people working in the assembly plant now and they know exactly what they are doing.

We own the business unit we are in at the moment but will have to rent a new, larger premises when we can find some. That’s another area where there is no support for manufacturers looking to grow – there needs to be some support for dealing with the cost of rent when you’re expanding.

TM: Do you have any advice for other innovators trying to get a new product to market? IM: Make sure you have a working prototype that looks like the finished product. It’s relatively easy to do that now with technologies for 3D printing like laser sintering (see p60). Using these will make sure your idea doesn’t look shoddy.

Demonstrate that your product works with good lab results or other appropriate data and make sure you prove there is a market for your idea. I knew there was a market for Steri- Spray because I had previously worked in the water treatment business. But the easiest way to prove this to others is to go out and ask as many relevant people as you can whether they would buy your product if they were able to.

Finally, make sure you can sustain a positive attitude – and perhaps get a health check because trying to get an idea to market is massively stressful.