Wanted - an angel flush with money

May 26, 2000

The path from scientist to entrepreneur rarely runs smooth, according to David Hall, director of the Thames Gateway Technology Centre at the University of East London's Docklands site.

"A scientist or a technologist may have great ideas, but it's very difficult to get an investor interested," Dr Hall said.

Part of the reason is because academics do not understand business activities such as marketing, product launch, the consumer and after-sales service.

"I think there's no way, as an academic, that one can develop that (understanding) without having operated in the business community," Dr Hall said.

Technology-based businesses in particular tend to make potential investors more nervous because they are often developing new products and trying to define new markets simultaneously.

Sue Birley, director of the Science Enterprise Centre at Imperial College, London, said that often a number of people are involved in creating a new technology. Entrepreneurs need to identify the owners of the intellectual property and negotiate an agreement with them.

"Establishing a clean intellectual property portfolio is key," she said. "Without that, they will have problems raising funds."

Garry Moore, an independent electrical engineer from Essex, has been finding out just how hard obtaining funding can be.

Mr Moore founded his company, Phoenix Product Development Limited, to develop and market his air-displacement toilet 16 months ago and is keen to expand with the centre's help.

The toilet uses air pressure to flush instead of water, but unlike existing pressure-assisted toilets, it plumbs into standard pipework, requires little maintenance and is lighter in weight.

Moore's toilet does use some water - 1.5 litres per flush - but this is a substantial water saving compared with the six to seven litres used by standard toilets.

"I have been talking to the United Nations about the technology and they see great potential for the new toilet alleviating the problems of the limited availability of fresh water and the need to produce less waste water in many of the world's arid and semi-arid regions," he said.

But there is a catch.

"The UN wants to arrange field trials of the new toilet as soon as demonstration prototypes are available. However, I cannot produce the required prototypes for field trials until I have the development funds that I need," he said.

"As a start-up company I have no collateral to secure a bank loan. The Small Firms Loan Guarantee Scheme can provide loans of up to Pounds 100,000 with 70 per cent underwritten by the Department of Trade and Industry, but it requires advanced orders or other serious commitment from customers. Obviously this cannot be obtained until the invention has been developed into a product."

For the same reason, Mr Moore has found it difficult to attract venture capitalists or business angels. Ideally, he would like to set up in a business incubation unit at the centre.

There he would get help in developing prototypes, access to equipment, workshops and students, and academic expertise from the University of East London and its other academic partners.

The centre also offers access to potential sources of finance, such as Business Angel Networks, Enterprise agencies and Business Link networks. Bringing in a business angel certainly made all the difference to a centre-based start-up founded by two of UEL's academics when they applied for a Smart award.

"We were explicitly told that without that business angel in place and without that business balance there, there was no way the investment would have been made," Dr Hall said.

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