Solar thermal business Soltropy and Heriot-Watt University won the Sustained Partnership Award at the 2016 Scottish Knowledge Exchange Awards. The partnership, which started in 2013, has led to the development of a mass produced, easy to handle, modular solar thermal panel aimed at the UK and European markets.
Here, Soltropy founder Stuart Speake describes the journey from little acorns to mighty oaks.
What inspired you to set up your own business?
I have always looked for opportunities, whether it be a better way to provide a service or an improvement to a product or even a new product. At school I sold stuff; mistletoe at the school disco, Hubba Bubba from the cash and carry, paper rounds, fixing up bikes and selling them on. Later on, buying properties and doing them up and selling them on. I've also always been interested in "green" technology and when solar panels started becoming more main stream I fitted one on my own house. It was during this installation that I came up with an idea that would half the installed cost of this technology and I just couldn’t let the opportunity pass of increasing the take-up of this technology and fighting global warming.
Where do you want to take the business - regional, Scotland-wide or global?
I want to build Soltropy into a multimillion pound global enterprise and be innovation lead. The initial product offering will be further developed to reduce the cost of this technology and truly open up the huge potential market.
What was the issue/hurdle you wanted to overcome by working with academics?
Most solar thermal systems have a separate antifreeze filled loop for protection against freezing and require a new tank fitted with a heat exchanger. When retrofitting, a perfectly good tank (usually copper) needs to be replaced. We have developed an innovative solution that allows a domestic water supply to be heated directly without the secondary fluid cycle. When we first partnered with Heriot-Watt I had very little resource and had built a prototype myself. I needed Heriot-Watt’s expertise in fluid thermal dynamics to validate and improve on the design.
What benefits did the collaboration bring to your business?
It built credibility and outside validation and lead eventually to larger funded projects. These projects allowed us to improve the design and actually start work on our innovation pipeline. The test facilities at Heriot-Watt are excellent and that coupled with the expertise and enthusiasm of Associate Professor Tadhg O’Donovan meant that we could move quickly on the projects.
What impact has it had in terms of growth/jobs/new products/financial savings?
We are in process of certifying our product and plan to launch late next year. We are already working on product number 2 and 3 and along with our partners (one of which is Heriot-Watt) have won further funding for these projects of nearly £400K. We also won the Scottish Higgs technology award worth £100K. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow and our collaboration with Heriot-Watt certainly was the fertiliser for that acorn.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
World peace of course!
What did winning an award at The Scottish Knowledge Exchange Awards mean to you?
It was a great acknowledgement for us and Heriot-Watt that partnering with academia works.