In this week’s SME Focus a man who built one of Scotland’s most successful medical technology businesses explains why he turned his talents to developing systems that store renewable energy as heat.
What is your business called?
Where is it based?
What does it produce, what services does it offer?
We offer a growing range of products (we call them Heat Batteries) that store energy as heat, which can be released on-demand to provide heat and hot water. They are super-compact because they contain an innovative material, developed with the University of Edinburgh, that stores four times more energy than hot water tanks.
SunampPV Heat Batteries store excess energy generated from Solar PV systems. These are very popular because they save a lot of space in people’s homes. More energy storage equals more opportunities to use free energy from the sun and low-cost/low-carbon heat from heat pumps.
SunampStack expands the range to do whole house central heating – running from a heat pump. We’ve shown it can save 40 to 60 per cent off annual heating bills.
We’re looking at container-scale and even mobile heat stores now – lots of people want to move heat from where it’s a waste product (like at a chemical plant) to where it can be useful (housing or the local swimming pool, for example).
Whom does it sell to?
Around 550 Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association tenants are among the first in the UK to benefit from lower fuel costs thanks to our technology. The homes are included in a trial backed by a £3.2m grant from the Local Energy Challenge Fund, running in tandem with a Solar PV programme, which is underway in 650 properties in central Scotland. The project covers a range of property types from sheltered housing complexes to individual homes for social rent and is set to deliver savings for residents estimated at between 19 per cent and 50 per cent, depending on the heating system being replaced. It is due to complete in March.
We sell to the general public, housebuilders, solar installers, housing associations and local councils.
What is its turnover?
Can we leave this one until we have over £1 million sales in 2016!
How many employees?
When was it formed?
2006, although the first years were spent planning and doing the foundational research and development. It wasn’t really until 2013 that we started commercialisation.
Why did you take the plunge?
I wanted to make a really significant difference to climate change, and I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a campaigner. I wanted to change the world through business.
I worked out that we needed a lot of energy storage to be able to attack climate change through renewable energy – and, while electricity gets the attention, far more heat energy would need to be stored. I also figured that we live in quite small homes in the UK so we needed a very small heat store with high capacity.
Back in the 1940s visionary scientist Maria Telkes made the first solar energy storage. It only worked for a couple of years, before the materials failed, but it started my quest to develop the modular, compact heat battery.
What were you doing before you took the plunge?
Previously I started and grew a 3D medical imaging software company, Voxar, based in Edinburgh. Voxar is now owned by Toshiba and is still based in Edinburgh employing over 120 staff. I feel proud that we created lasting value – and saved lives – through our work there.
How did you raise the start-up funding?
We started Voxar with nothing but a great idea, so we needed external seed investment, which came from one of Scotland’s key business figures, Ian Ritchie. This time, in Sunamp, we used our own capital (recycled from the Voxar exit) to start up – that sounds great but it is expensive! It does however help you get the next level of external investor funding, which is vital to the growth of the business beyond the very early stage.
What was your biggest break?
We work hard for our breaks but they are amazing when they happen.
Ours have included:
Meeting Professor Colin Pulham at University of Edinburgh School of Chemistry in 2010, which led to the most amazing academic-industry partnership and development of what we think is the world’s best, most stable, heat energy storage material.
Winning YIE funding from Scottish Enterprise in 2012 for commercialisation of the technology.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change providing funding to do our first field trial in 2013 and 2014.
Getting first investment support – Friends and Family – in 2012 and then funding from Equity Gap, PAR Equity, Highland Ventures, Old College Capital and the Scottish Investment Bank.
Being one of just five out of 114 applicants to win a project under the Local Energy Challenger Fund (LECF) with our partners Castle Rock Edinvar, East Lothian Housing Association and Edison Energy in 2015 and thereby launch our first product SunampPV and impact on reducing fuel poverty for over 1000 people.
What was your worst moment?
When I hurt my shoulder while helping in the workshop. I am not the handiest of people, and we’ve all agreed it’s best if I let experts do the practical R&D and production. I do, though, still contribute lots of ideas.
What do you most enjoy about running the business?
Lots of things: being creative and coming up with new ideas; following them through to bringing them to the market; then getting customer interest and closing sales.
One of my proudest moments was hearing that one of the original trial customers, who benefited from Sunamp heat and hot water in the DECC-funded housing association trials, is moving to her own house and wants a Sunamp system for her new home.
What do you least enjoy?
Any DIY or admin.
What are your ambitions for the firm?
To grow the company to exploit the technology to its full potential in lots of countries and industry sectors and ultimately build a thriving business that really makes a difference to climate change and fuel poverty.
What are your top priorities?
Making a difference to people in fuel poverty; making renewables work better via heat battery storage to impact climate change; creating a strong pipeline for sales for our products; keeping heat (and not just electricity) at the forefront of energy storage; making sure we get to cashflow positive to have a sustainable business.
What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?
Work with people you like and who like you. Focus on what you do best. Employ people who are better than you in the areas you are weakest. As a result the whole company grows stronger.
How do you relax?
I talk to my 20 year old son who gives me all the information on all the new technology that is happening in the world.