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D3O: The Queen-honoured business exporting to over 40 countries

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Impact protection specialist D3O sounds like it has it all – located in the seaside town of Brighton and newly flushed with millions of pounds of funding to keep powering its domestic and international expansion in the fields of sport, oil and gas, defence, industrial workwear and motorcycle gear. 

But in June, revealed chief executive and former professional windsurfer Stuart Sawyer. it plans to leave the sunny beaches behind and up sticks to open a new innovation and development centre in the rather less sparkling environs of East Croydon. It is all about, explained Sawyer, finding a “broader, wider and bigger talent pool” to join its existing team of highly-skilled chemists, engineers and product designers. 

“There is real creativity in this nation and this re-location moves us closer to the talent. We have a nice, cosy office here in Brighton but it’s all become a bit of squeeze as we look for more people,” he added.

D3O has a unique patented technology that’s used to make a soft, flexible and distinctive orange-coloured smart material with high shock absorbing properties. Its now 17 materials provide impact protection for clients including American football helmet manufacturer Schutt Sports, French motorcycle brand Furygan and Dr. Martens footwear. It also makes protective gloves for the oil and gas industry, shock absorption covers for mobile phones and product such as helmets to reduce bullet trauma for US special forces. 

It wants more expertise throughout its business to further enhance already “top-notch” product design and quality. 

“Previously we would have one designer working on metatarsal protection one day and then an elbow guard the next,” Sawyer commented. “Now we are moving to verticals, dedicated teams who we want waking up thinking only about our helmet liners and keeping on thinking about them till last thing at night; technical experts in their sector constantly improving ways to implement D3O into that environment to improve performance.” 

D3O has taken on 21 new staff in the last six month, moving its total employee count to 75. “We have a great innovation department. We don’t just use a block of foam and a cookie cutter,” Sawyer laughed. “We work closely with our partners to get the right geometry and shape for their products using our materials to deliver the best possible protective performance.” 

The growth is part of the group’s aims to ramp up revenues from its 2014 level of £10m, up 50 per cent on 2013, to £50m in three years time. “We’ve shared that headline figure internally. We have no direct competition for our unique and patented material. There are people in the same space but not with our depth and breadth,” Sawyer states. 

Intriguingly for a growing British firm most of its revenues, 90 per cent, come from exports – with 40 per cent of those going to the US. 

In total it exports to over 40 nations including Asia, Australia and Central Europe, which is particularly eager for footwear and motorcycle helmet protection.

“We’ve got stronger and stronger over the last few years with exports going up steadily every year by about 10 per cent and annual growth over 50 per cent,” Sawyer explained. “We went through international trade shows and also worked with UKTI who have been invaluable in helping us raise awareness.” 

The group recently secured £13m in new funding from existing investor Entrepreneurs Fund and a new investor Beringea to support further international growth, including a new sales and marketing office in the US and a dedicated testing and production facility in Asia. 

Sawyer joined the firm in 2009 initially with a marketing brief and when the group had only one product. He eventually replaced founder Richard Palmer in 2011 when he went on a sabbatical and never came back. “The company got under my skin,” Sawyer said. 

It is an apt phrase giving his hopes for the company’s future products. “We are starting to generate new branded technology such as D3O Smart Skin, where our technology can be heat-bonded directly on to fabric rather than by sewing. We are also getting more partners putting swing tabs on their garments with the D3O name. We want it to be clearly marked,” he commented.

“A small company asking a global player to use our mark was initially very challenging but we are now starting to see it happen the other way round.” 

Consumers becoming more aware of the need for high performance protection is also helping. “The accidents involving Michael Schumacher and cricketer Phil Hughes have raised the awareness of helmet protection, but we are only really scratching the surface in consumer demand. We want them to demand that manufacturers put higher performance materials in their motorbike, sporting helmet or industrial footwear. Certainly in the motorcycle market we are becoming the default name for protection. Now we need to get that same awareness in the defence, electronics and sporting sectors, ” Sawyer explained.  

It is already starting. “We’ve seen it in the National Football League in the US where there have been a number of lawsuits involving ex-American footballers and brain damage from too many head to head hits. Innovation had stalled in the sector and Schutt turned to us to provide both comfort and energy management to help reduce brain trauma with our helmet liners. We protect people and want to be the number one shock absorption company in the world,” Sawyer states. 

He praises the UK’s innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) for helping to stimulate and support its innovation and awards such as the Queen’s Award for Enterprise for International Trade which the group won last April. 

“It really helped us with colleagues and clients, particularly in the US that we were nominated and also had met the Queen,” Sawyer said. “It gave real credibility to our technology.” 

Read more about the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise:

Intellectual property protection is a constant area of focus for the group. “We have had a few IP challenges with companies trying to copy our designs, but they are not fit for purpose and used inferior materials. We are constantly looking to create new IP for extra surety and we have put in three new patent applications in the last year,” he explained.

He ends where we started – the need for innovative expertise and talent to drive product quality and win export orders. 

“People talk about the need for government support to boost exports but it is not all about them,” he says. “As companies you have to make time for innovation and invest in it. You have to give team members the time and space to really innovate. For me if it takes nine failures to get one great product, that’s a result.” 

D3O is certainly making quite an impact.

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