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'Stan & Bob pitch to the Dragons' at BRE

01 June 2015

'Stan & Bob pitch to the Dragons' at BRE

Stan and Bob got the opportunity to pitch Oxypod® to a panel of industry experts and advisers along with other inventors.

The scene is a seminar room at the BRE’s Watford campus, the atmosphere expectant and hopeful, the participants smiling through their pre-presentation nerves. At the CIOB and BRE’s “Innovators Meet Dragons” event, there is no money on the table or offer of a distribution deal. Instead, four fledgling businesses have the chance to pitch their ideas to a panel of construction experts whose combined wisdom – on intellectual property, conditions in the construction market and general business – could make the difference between taking the path to profit or a wrong commercial turn.

The four teams have arrived from across the country, from a broad spectrum of the industry, and are at different points on their journey as innovators and entrepreneurs. One highly promising innovation is still seeking its breakthrough moment after 12 years in development; another was only hatched in a university lab last summer. But all four have seen the possibilities their ideas represent – the carbon saved, the accidents avoided, the project efficiencies delivered – and desperately want to take them further.

Oxypod® - Stanley Whetstone and Bob Harris MCIOB
Since Stanley Whetstone first invested in the energy-saving device 12 years ago, it has made huge progress. But the duo still need to make the breakthrough to the mass market. 

The four contenders are also in competition – not for hard cash, but for the backing of the panel members. And there is also the potential value in PR, networking and brand building. Being on the cover of Construction Manager puts them in front of an audience of 32,000 decision makers in the industry. In the future, that awareness raising could open doors and mean calls are returned.

The dragons, too, have something to prove. For CIOB and BRE, it’s a chance to support promising ideas that could improve efficiencies or outcomes, and also to demonstrate an “open door” policy to the grassroots innovators the industry badly needs.

The location is also a reminder of the industry’s track record in supporting innovation: next door is the BRE’s Innovation Park, where manufacturers, researchers and designers have turned bright ideas into commercial products. It is overseen by Deborah Pullen, director of research at BRE and also a panellist. 

“Don’t tell the sector it’s not innovative, because it’s not true!” says the next dragon. University of Reading professor Stuart Green, chair of the CIOB’s Innovation and Research Panel, explains that the event also builds on the CIOB’s International Innovation and Research Awards: three of the four contenders were 2014 finalists.

Green says that the event is central to the panel’s mission: “We’re about making connections with other partners, building networks to support the cause of innovation for the benefit of the CIOB membership and the industry at large.”

The remaining panellist’s questions introduce themselves one by one. Chris Blythe, chief executive of the CIOB, explains that he has a track record in identifying and supporting promising businesses. In a former role as chief executive of the Training and Enterprise Council in Cheshire, he reviewed projects in a business angels programme called Tech Invest.

“Every month I used to sit down in a panel such as this and review proposals for angel funding,” he says. “So it’ll be interesting to listen to pitches again.”

Jim Asher, chief operating officer and head of valuation for Collier Intellectual Property, specialises in IP. “I’m not a specialist in the built environment,” he says, “but I live and work in it, and we have done quite a number of projects looking at building technologies.” As evidence, he mentions that he has been working with a cement company in South East Asia that wants to “move up the IP scale”.

But he also issues a warning: “If you think the management of IP is what we do well in the UK and that gives us an edge over overseas competitors, think again: South East Asia is moving ahead rapidly.”

Gill Kelleher, sustainable construction manager at BASF, says her company is “very focused on innovation and the journey that new products have to take in the construction industry that’s very slow to move and change”.

She cites the contrast between two current examples of construction technology: “We’re still putting washing up liquid in mortar to make it stick together with cement. And at BASF we’re actually working on a project to turn buildings into power stations, taking the traditional coatings for glass and steel and making them functional.”

Rennie Chadwick, head of design and innovation at contractor Osborne, says his perspective on the sector takes in civil engineering to new build to repair and maintenance. His 30-year career started in research and moved into practical implementation. “Most of my career has been spent on your side of the table: trying to convince my bosses that my good idea is the one they should back,” he says.

The final member of the panel is the BRE’s commercial director Steven Fox, who has more than 30 years’ experience in sales, marketing and business development roles for companies such as Marley and SIG. His LinkedIn profile reveals he “believes in setting stretching targets and then [applying] coaching/performance management as appropriate” – a “tough love” strategy that was evident in some of his comments and questions.

The four innovators pitched their ideas in turn, before fielding the dragons’ questions. First up was the Oxypod® team.

Oxypod®: product seeks oxygen of publicity

Regular readers may remember Oxypod®, winner of the CIOB’s 2014 International Innovation and Research Award. The hairdryer-shaped device can be fitted to any hot-water heating system to extract air from pipes and radiators – and hundreds of pounds from energy bills. The panel passes the Oxypod® around, weighing up the device and its chances of commercial success.  

The presentation by its inventor, Stanley Whetstone, and his business partner, Bob Harris MCIOB, is confident and backed by some impressive statistics. Since winning the award in October, further tests by Capita have shown a 29% drop in fuel consumption for a hard-to-heat brick-terraced house, and 28% from a one-bedroom flat.  

“To get the same fuel bill savings, to put the equivalent PV on the roof and insulation, you’d be spending thousands,” says Harris. In contrast, installing an Oxypod® costs £250-£300.

So how does it work? Water containing a typical 2.5% volume of dissolved air enters the top of the device. Inside, the water forms a vortex, forcing air bubbles out of solution. The pressure differential causes air to rise up the dip tube before it leaves the Oxypod’s® top valve. With less air in pipes and radiators, the water conducts heat better and is less likely to corrode pipes, resulting in increased efficiency and fuel savings.

At the end of the pitch, IP specialist Jim Asher is concerned about reverse-engineering: how much legal protection does Oxypod® have?

“The first thing we did was file a patent application in Europe and the US,” Whetstone says, although he admits that costs have prohibited a worldwide application. Asher is mollified, but urges them to seek further protection.

Stuart Green asks a key question: “I’m getting mixed messages here. There’s the support from the Goodwin Trust [the Hull-based charity that shares the patent and backs the scheme], links with universities and the patent is protected. So what is it that you need? Stronger verification of the proof of use and savings?”

This is indeed the case. “We are actually still testing with Leeds Beckett University to get an energy reduction linked to an SAP score, then we can get it accredited and onto the Green Deal,” says Whetstone. Harris adds that the duo have all the right connections, up to and including “MPs and ministers”. But he says: “We’ve been told it needs more data to make it into a national scheme. It’s taken 12 years for Stan, and seven years for me. We don’t want to wait any longer.”

Gill Kelleher sympathises: “I know that to get products recognised within energy efficiency schemes, there’s an awful lot of hoops to jump through.”

Asher suggests a commercial deal with a boiler manufacturer to help upscale. But although the duo say they have been in talks, other comments suggest they are uneasy with commercialising Oxypod®. As Harris says: “We come from a socialist background… the Goodwin Trust is a not-for-profit business so our dynamic is also along those lines.”

So how to launch the product to a mass market but not cash in? Harris’s preferred option is crowd-funding: “If 20,000 people put in £100, we’d get the investment to let us apply for more patents, manufacture in cheaper materials, or perhaps make a larger version for hospitals.”

There have been some interesting answers, but are the dragons convinced?

“What is it that you need? Stronger verification of the proof of use and savings?”

Stuart Green, CIOB

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