Based on research at University of Bristol, Albotherm’s technology could revolutionise how greenhouses and buildings are cooled.
Did you know that glass panels on greenhouses are covered in shading agents and diffuse coatings when farmers need to prevent too much heat building up inside and destroying the crops? If you did, you probably have not given it another thought because it clearly makes sense. But there is a problem with this approach: what do farmers do on a colder or cloudy day when it would be beneficial to let more sunlight through?
Molly Allington and Sian Fussell, chief executive and chief technology officer, respectively, of University of Bristol spinout Albotherm, have the solution.Based on research by Fussell, who has just completed a PhD at the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials, Albotherm is developing temperature-responsive coatings that reversibly turn white when they hit a trigger temperature.
“You can tune the trigger temperature of the material,” Fussell explained. “In the lab, we can get it between 18 and 45 degrees, and we have fine control within that temperature range.”
While Fussell has been focusing on the research into the material – work that began around five years ago – Allington, who gained a BSc in Chemistry at Bristol, first joined the project to conduct market research, looking for opportunities and an initial target sector.
Agriculture turned out to be a winner. “It is a large market, even if it is not as large as others that we would hope to aim for later,” Allington suggested. The main reason why Albotherm is focusing on agriculture first is those shading agents and diffuse coatings: they are an analogous, and more cumbersome, product.
Some farms, Allington noted, “have big robots that roll along the greenhouses to spray the shade paints, or they have people who have to climb up and do it by hand. It is a lot of unnecessary labour. We felt that our technology was a clear improvement on this, and it would be easy to prove and sell it to the greenhouse growers.”
While greenhouses are the focus for now, Albotherm is already thinking further ahead. Another application of the technology, Allington explained, could be coatings for concrete.
“We would love to be able to use our technology, for example, on the roofs of buildings, particularly high-rise tower blocks,” Allington pondered. “A lot of people are painting their buildings’ roofs white to keep them cool, which is good in summer, but if you are somewhere like the UK with a temperate climate – that is cold winters, hot summers – you do not necessarily want to be reflecting the heat all year round.
“We would also want to incorporate these into other buildings, for example large atriums and constructions with glass facades, which have problems with excess solar gains. There is also the potential of developing our product for polytunnels, which are a type of greenhouse used widely across Africa and Asia, but less so in Europe,” she elaborated.
The need for the technology is acute: by 2050, the resources required to cool agricultural, domestic and commercial buildings is expected to account for 13% of global energy.
The challenge remains significant, but Albotherm is not looking to do it all alone. “Our main focus is going to be on conducting cutting-edge research and on continually developing new, exciting products,” Allington said.
“It does not make sense for us to go into large-scale production, especially being in chemicals where there are a lot of regulations. We would ultimately like to partner with a big corporation for manufacturing and distribution.”
And Allington and Fussell are no strangers to tackling challenges: Albotherm was born during the pandemic. It was officially incorporated in September 2020, after the pair had started to formalise the project a few months earlier.
“I would say that the fundraising and the last year has been one huge challenge. It was full of really unexpected things going wrong and it took us so much longer than we thought,” Allington recollected.
Innovate UK, the country’s innovation agency, awarded Albotherm a grant in June 2020, but the pair then had to secure match funding. It was an arduous process, Allington recalled. “It took us nine months or so. We were turned away by a lot of people and it was quite demoralising.”
The tenaciousness paid off: Albotherm found Sustainable Ventures to lead its £370,000 ($515,000) seed round, completing the deal in April this year.
Sustainable Ventures was a good fit, Allington revealed, because “they support a lot of similar companies. including tech companies, businesses in construction, materials and so on.
“When we started out, we wanted to create a business that was going to do good and help the environment. Finding an investor that was tied to that view as well and that was not going to just push us to make maximum profit at the detriment of the environment was important to us.”
Fussell added: “They also run a 12-month accelerator programme as part of the investment. This is the first time running a company for both of us and the accelerator helps with all the early-stage problems that you run into. It also helps generate ideas and meet people.”
And that Innovate UK grant turned out to be “essential”, Allington said. “It is the moment that we felt like a real company. We had been thinking about starting Albotherm for a while, we had the name and a rough business plan, but we did not really have anything concrete until that point.
“Without the grant, we would not have been able to raise the funding that we did. Even the amount that we did raise is nowhere near enough, without the additional grant support, to do all of the research. The sheer amount of materials and lab space means the costs are very high for a small company.”
While Albotherm managed to secure the grant, Allington lamented that there was not enough support for companies who do not necessarily know how to go about applying for these awards. “We were lucky in that one of our advisers at the university had worked before as an Innovate UK assessor, who gave us a lot of support on what things they would be looking for,” she explained.
“Also, because we took part in SETsquared’s ICURe programme, we were in a closed round which meant fewer people applying. Overall, there is a lot of grant funding about, but it is really competitive and hard to get.”
Apart from helping them secure funding, the ICURe programme also taught Allington how to sell a product to prospective clients, she revealed. “The technology might be of a real use to someone, but if you do not frame it in the right way, they are not even going to open the email. Being able to learn those networking skills was really important. We are still in touch with some of the companies that we spoke to on that course, and they may be our first customers.”
While raising capital during a pandemic turned out to be challenging, there was however no other support missing that the pair wished they had had.
Allington explained: “We were lucky and we signed on quite early, in August 2020, to Spin Up Science’s ventures programme. It was a new programme for them but Spin Up Science was built to support spinouts and they have been the single most helpful support we had in the last year.
“Every question we had, they were there to answer and explain to us how the business part works and help us with financial models – the whole package.”
One aspect that stuck out to the pair while pitching to investors was the lack of women sitting across the table. “We did not meet any women who were angel investors at all,” Allington noted. “When we did get funded by Sustainable Ventures, their investment director is a woman, and they have a lot of women on their team. They told us that since they hired more women, they have tended to fund more women. It is interesting that they can already see that impacting their portfolio.”
Considering the passion with which both now speak about their company, it is surprising that neither set out to be an entrepreneur. “I do not think that was always the goal,” Fussell stated. “It became apparent that we had something that people were interested in and it came about that spinning out a company would be a really good way forward.”
Allington echoed those thoughts: “I was never really interested in business. I did chemistry at university because I really loved doing chemistry, but I realised I did not want to go into a lab job and do the same thing every day. That seemed a little boring to me. When the opportunity came to get involved in a project with real-world applications, that seemed way more interesting than any other job I could have imagined at the time.”
So, what advice would the pair give to someone looking to launch their own spinout? Fussell declared: “Have a network of people to help you. That is probably what made us get to where we are today. People like those at Spin Up Science and at the university who can help, and people who have already started companies and can give you advice on the little things that, if you do not notice them early enough, can become massive challenges.
“We have been fortunate that we met a lot of people even considering we were working from home for most of the year.”
Allington added: “Even if you do not already have the contacts, you can always make them. There are so many networking and support groups, if you are honest about wanting advice then people are quite willing to give their time. I have been surprised by how many important people are willing to talk to us.”
It certainly helps that the pair is located in Bristol, a city that has made huge strides in recent years to support startups. Fussell observed: “There is access to really good facilities for science-based companies. We are based at Future Space; they have shared labs, so we do not have to invest time and money into setting up a lab ourselves. It lowers the barrier to entry so much and it creates an environment where people are very supportive and there is actually space where you can work as a company.”
It also means that those students who are not interested in launching their own ventures are much more open to working for them, rather than going into an established corporation. Fussell noted: “A lot of graduates are interested. Students are much more aware of startup culture than they would have been even a few years ago.”
That does not always make it easy to find the right candidate, of course, as Allington stressed: “We recently hired a research assistant, and it took us a long time to find the right candidate but we needed someone a bit more niche than some other companies.”
Yet, when they did find the ideal candidate, they were based in Bristol. That is a promising sign for the city and for Albotherm as it continues to grow. And with the potentially catastrophic impact of the climate crisis on food security, that growth arguably cannot come soon enough.
It is a good thing then that Allington and Fussell come across in every way as a pair that will not give up no matter how big the challenge. We should all be excited about the things they will undoubtedly achieve.