Founded by Neill Ricketts and current CTO Will Battrick, Versarien built its technology around research carried out by the University of Liverpool: researchers there created a porous copper material for more efficient heat transfer.
This idea came courtesy of mother nature, who creates porous materials to increase efficiency in the natural world – including in our own bodies, from our stomachs to our lungs – we’re basically giant sieves.
Ricketts saw the possibility of a business which could market this technology to manufacturers. Launched four years ago, he slowly built a team and a few investors before sweeping a set of awards for innovation – including our own GBA awards, last year.
We caught up with them again as we look forward to another award ceremony, and see what an amazing year it has been for them.
What’s the history of Versarien and how was the product developed?
I was a POC director for a large engineering group – I came across the technology in the summer of 2010, built up a small team and developed the technology out of a patent from the University of Liverpool. I was joined by my co-founder and technical, Will [Battrick], about that time. We left our jobs at Christmas 2010 and started Versarien, working out of my garage for the first year. Over a period of about 2 years we built the company up to about 70 employees now and we’ve floated the company on the stock-exchange last June and we’ve done 2 acquisitions over the last 12 months. Quite an busy time!
Could you explain the product a bit?
We came across a professor at the University of Liverpool who had come up with a process for making a material with the same sort of structure you find in nature if you were to cut into bone or lungs – or into coral, a sponge – those things [which have] a very, very high-surface area material structure. And he came up with a very cost-effective way of being able to produce those structures in a variety of different materials.
The one we’ve focused on most is copper because it has very good thermal conductivity. And therefore, when you couple that structure with the properties of copper you come up with a very, very high efficiency heat-exchanger. It’s able to transfer heat from hot to cold, from cold to hot probably 3 to 10 times more effectively than what we could do using more artificial techniques. Nature has been evolving for millions of years and as engineers we’re just learning to use it.
If you’re a technology company, presumably you have to keep up with all the latest research: how do you do that?
I’m a bit of a geek so I enjoy all that – as does Will. So: lots of reading in our spare time, lots of conferences trying to keep up to date with our university partners (we’re currently working with about 8 or 9 universities in the UK and they keep us busy) and we’ve got a great team below us who know their stuff.
How did you discover this technology – and how did that convert itself in your mind to a business idea?
I guess I’ve always had a bit of a entrepreneurial spirit – I had my first business when I was 13 and was always quite good at being able to seize a opportunity. And I always had a very corporate structure, you know, I was looking for ways to be able to develop the division that I was running and did my homework, looked for the process, very cost-effective, very reliable, predictable – all the things you look for when you’re a manufacturing engineer and looked through the test results – did more testing and sort of almost fell in love with it really.
How did you think that that would convert itself into a business model?
Because the test results were so good and it was such a scalable, simple process that really – all of the major obstacles that you would find in this type of business were already mitigated by the fact that we could scale it up pretty quickly. There’s no doubt that there’s lots of these types of businesses, but with this one we were able to get quite good results very, very quickly. And that really appealed to me.
The other thing is the addressable market is huge you know, if you think that our market is anything that can get hot and cold – and you think of it as a pyramid and at the moment we’re at the very top of the pyramid, but you know more consumer-related stuff is at the bottom of the pyramid – then you can see how big the market is. Even in computers – the market for cooling computers is billions of dollars. And so that gives you something to shoot at, that you really only need that sort of small bit of the market to make a successful business. That had all the DNA that we we’re looking for to make a successful business.
It sounds great, but did you encounter any difficulties in pitching that idea to investors?
I think only the first year was tough – it was in the middle of the recession so you know, 2010-2011 things: were still quite grim. A lot of the investors were quite biased towards software and that had a whole different background to our business, we’re very capital-intensive, we’re a slow burner next to maybe a software company. It was difficult to get investors interested, but once they saw our later results they came much easier.
Was there a moment where things suddenly changed and they got it?
Yeah, absolutely. So we sort of started the business over Christmas 2010 and through 2011 I took the business through its initial stages with Will. And it was quite tough, we were just coming up to September 2011 and starting to run out of cash – not really making that much progress with the investors – it was still difficult to get people to invest.
We won a couple of competitions – from the government and the GBA competition. That was really the trigger for a lot of the really, really good stuff which has happened, because we were able to create a profile when we really needed it.
I think competition wins are really very important, it’s a way of being able to get small companies that are financially challenged on the big stage. That’s what we found. But you have to be very tactical about what which awards you enter – but we won about 20 awards, and now we hardly ever enter.
Does winning an award give you credibility?
It’s credibility, it’s profile – in that particular case I was able to spend a period of time with the project and that’s when we got sophisticated, went worldwide which made our levels of credibility that much higher – it’s not always about the cash or the prize that you get, sometimes it’s about the experience or about the intangible credit that you get from some of these awards. We’ve been very lucky and it’s been good for us.
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