By Kim Thomas, theguardian.com
It was 2008, when the late inventor John Reid and entrepreneur Arpana Gandhi got talking at a fundraising event for landmine victims. In a long career, Reid had invented, among other things, the plastic security tag used to deter shoplifters.
Reid told Gandhi about the Dragon torch, a product he had developed to disable landmines.Despite its promise, problems such as a lack of raw materials meant it had never come to market. “I explained that I’ve got a good track record and a commercial background, and that was one of the things, unfortunately, that John was not very good at,” Gandhi says now. The two decided to combine their strengths – and that is how Disarmco was born.
There are 120m landmines worldwide, and the principal method of disposal is to blow them up. But that requires carrying explosives across borders, which naturally attracts suspicion. “Because of these conflicts in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, everybody is awfully twitchy,” says Gandhi.
Reid – who, sadly, died in 2014 – was very good, says Gandhi, at taking technology used in one area of life and applying it to another. The Dragon torch works like a firework: it directs a very hot flame at the munitions so that the landmine is burnt rather than exploded.
Both Gandhi and Reid had put money into the company but needed more funding to test the product. Attempts to attract venture capital failed, says Gandhi: “People are risk-averse, especially within a sector that they don’t understand, and nobody is prepared to do the due diligence to understand that we’re not going to be using this in a detrimental way, we’re using it for a humanitarian purpose.”
So Disarmco used a very modern method of raising funds: it put a request on crowdfunding platform Crowdcube and within six months had raised just under £150,000 (£30,000 more than the original target). The torch has been tested and should be commercially available later this year – though the company also has other products on the market.
Disarmco’s story demonstrates that the journey between having a good idea and creating a commercially viable product can be long, bumpy and costly: half of UK startups fail within five years, and that is partly down to the difficulty of attracting investment.
Turning an invention into a commercial product doesn’t always have to be expensive, however. Dr Martin Henery, an enterprise academic lecturer at Manchester Enterprise Centre says he admires the lean startup model, developed by entrepreneur Eric Ries, which involves bringing a new idea to market without incurring the usual hefty startup costs.
It’s a model that has been made possible by easy access to potential customers and investors on the web. “You research a problem, read around it, find where the demand might be and get out there as quickly as possible and test it with customers,” says Henery. That, he says, enables inventors to make the necessary adjustments and gain greater customer buy-in.
There are, for example, a group of people known as “presumers”: consumers who want to be early adopters and are willing to pay for a new gadget and try it out. “It’s a great way of testing your ideas and getting early funding,” says Henery. Once the inventor has established that consumers like the product, they are more likely to attract investment from more traditional sources.
As Disarmco found, crowdfunding platforms can be a good way of raising funds for an idea that is too complicated or risky for venture capitalists: they allow thousands of investors to make a small investment, either out of generosity, or for a percentage share in the business.
Some universities now offer help in testing a product or creating a prototype, while the Fab Labs, set up by the Manufacturing Institute in Manchester, London and elsewhere, provide digital manufacturing technology – such as 3D printers – to help inventors to develop and create prototypes at a low cost.
Sally Phillips’s invention was simple, yet ingenious. She had been thinking about insulating her own house in Cockermouth, Cumbria, and decided to tackle the common problem of heat disappearing up the chimney. After some trial-and-error, she made a draught excluder using a thick wad of felted Herdwick wool. “I then made my own handles from kitchen utensils and cobbled something together that I could put in my own chimney and that worked,” she says.
The next stage was to take the product – now going by the name Chimney sheep – to Lancaster University’s product development unit, which helped her develop a prototype. Phillips had to pay for the final design to be completed commercially, however. “That was the biggest step of all,” she says, because it was so expensive. “That was really a point of no return.”>>>