“It’s obvious that we have a disruptive technology,” says Nigel Saunders, CEO of Welsh cooling technology innovator Sure Chill. “But the real challenge is: how do we create an equally disruptive business model?”
Today, the winner of the 2017 Future Planet Award for Healthcare is diversifying beyond its undoubtedly successful roots – keeping life-saving vaccines cold “off the grid” in some of the world’s poorest countries – and looking to take on the $90 billion* global refrigeration industry. This means new partnerships, new prototypes and, importantly, new potential investors. FPB went to find out more.
Nigel Saunders, CEO, Sure Chill
Sure Chill has long been recognised and celebrated on the innovator circuit for their unique vaccine refrigerators, which can maintain temperatures of 4°C for more than ten days in hot climates without a power source and do not use a battery. Renamed and re-oriented in 2013, the firm formerly known as “True Energy” has since received a glittering array of start-up prizes and backing from the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The technology, invented by Chief Technology Officer Ian Tansley and inspired by fish swimming under the ice in a frozen lake, is evidently exciting. Yet the evolution of the business itself has been equally compelling.
“In 2013, when I joined, the firm was just starting to sell its first product,” recalls Saunders “It was a small order for Unicef. Those fridges were hand-assembled in Tywyn [a coastal town in Wales] and shipped out to Africa.” A mere four years later, the vaccine fridges are used in more than 40 countries around the world, manufactured by other firms under licensing agreements. Meanwhile “the Dyson of fridges,” to quote one investor, has constructed a wall of patents to protect its inventions, with an IP lawyer based in Silicon Valley exploiting the somewhat quicker US registration process.
For Saunders himself, the move to Sure Chill – a company where his father, serial entrepreneur Peter Saunders OBE, is the primary shareholder and Chairman, and where various family members own the majority of shares (over £3.5 million worth) – felt almost like a return to old times. “I grew up in our family businesses,” he says, with a touch of nostalgia. “I remember spending evenings packing chocolate bars in Tywyn at the age of 10 for the snack bar manufacturing business [sold in 2004]. I remember spending school holidays working hard and experiencing different aspects of that business.” The hire into Sure Chill proved to be a savvy step: this year, Saunders stepped up to the CEO role in a move that reinforced the firm’s family flavour.
Now he is spearheading a £5 million Series B financing round that will leave members of his family owning less of the firm, but remaining in overall control. “We could have taken the other path, growing organically instead of fundraising,” says Saunders. “But we have proven technology and clear demand. Expanding resources will mean we can grow quicker to meet that demand.”
Importantly, much of that demand comes from beyond the vaccine storage space, in the world of commercial refrigeration. “We’re in conversations with energy suppliers, supermarkets, drinks manufacturers and more. We’re building prototypes,” he explains.
Industry and government players have recognised the potential of Sure Chill’s technology to lower their own energy costs and environmental emissions, either through overall reduction in power consumption or through what is called “time-shifting” energy usage, drawing on the grid during less busy (cheaper) periods of the day. In late 2016, for instance, the firm hit the headlines for an MoU with the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority. Domestic refrigeration is also on the agenda, with a new grant from the Shell Foundation supporting the development of a household unit for the large parts of Africa that suffer frequent power outages.
Meanwhile, innovations in vaccine storage look set to continue. “The £1.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was for developing a new version of the vaccine refrigerator. This takes the technology to a new level and delivers steady 4°C cooling at an ambient 43°C for an amazing 35 days. And unlike other units in the range it has no refrigeration circuit at all; only the Sure Chill technology taking charge. We’ve partnered with a manufacturer and should launch this new unit in October.” Indeed, Saunders is determined to stay true to the firm’s healthcare roots, new diversification notwithstanding. “We’ve had to work really hard to prove our credibility in the medical field. It’s a difficult space to break into. That’s a real achievement.”
With such a wide range of potential markets and revenue streams, Saunders is keen to ensure that new investors strengthen rather than limit the firm’s development. “We’re not looking for investment from manufacturing companies, for instance,” he explains. “That sort of strategic investment might dictate the way in which the firm develops. What we are very excited about is involving investors that give us access to bright minds, expertise, useful relationships – that’s another kind of strategic investor, in our view.”
“…This was one of the reasons we entered the Future Planet Awards. We’re keen to build relationships with universities [and university venture funds]. We have some really useful relationships with academics; one of our advisors is actually a Professor at UC Berkeley. We gain a great deal from our relationship with Cardiff University: although the technology does not come from the university we have involvement with students as part of their programme.”
For the awards judges, Sure Chill was the clear winner of the “Healthcare” category, despite some strong contenders. This is clearly a company that can change the world for the better. The only question in their minds? Whether the firm may, in the end, create even more impact in “Sustainability” than in “Healthcare”. With the potential for energy saving and smart grid application, this firm’s growth phase could be as transformative as its start-up years.
*Global Market Insights 2015/16 reports valued the Commercial Refrigeration Equipment market at $31 billion and the Household Refrigerators and Freezers market at over $59 billion.