What is your business?
AEROPOWDER aims to create useful materials from everyday waste. I started the company with a friend, Ryan Robinson, in December 2015 as a student project we took part in at Imperial College London. As part of the project we had to consider what feathers are good for, which is mainly protecting chickens and birds from water and the cold. In the same way, we realised we could use the properties of feathers to insulate our homes. Nature had already designed the perfect solution for sustainable insulation.
Most feathers end up in landfill or go through an energy intensive process to be made into animal feed. We wanted to find out whether feathers could be used more sustainably – and the answer was yes! Our company is creating a cheaper and more environmentally-friendly insulation for homes, made up almost entirely of waste feathers. The product is a sustainable alternative to polyurethane foam in boards that are commonly used for home insulation. AEROPOWDER not only has similar heat retention qualities to current insulation materials, but its cost is 14 times lower.
Our business progressed significantly after applying for and winning the Mayor of London’s Low Carbon Entrepreneur Award. This allowed us to turn our business from just an idea into a fully limited company. This was a real turning point for us. In addition to winning £20,000, it was excellent for us to be able to say we were supported by the Mayor of London.
How did you find out about the grant? What did you need it for?
The Mayor of London’s Low Carbon Entrepreneur Award is primarily aimed at students and was the perfect opportunity for us. I was a Masters student at Imperial College London when I applied. The programme was really well advertised within the university and they try their best to incorporate the competition into the college’s various programmes. Fortunately, the programme does not require applicants to have a prototype. This was crucial for us as we were in the concept stage of our business. What you must have however, is a strong drive to make your idea work. You have to show the judges your desire to make a success of your business!
What was the application process like? What did you have to do?
The application process, like a lot of programmes out there, required quite a bit of work. Following the initial process of explaining your business idea, we had to attend a workshop to learn about pitching and then put our new skills into practice. The workshop was aimed at refining AEROPOWDER’s business pitch and was attended by over 200 entrepreneurs. We presented our idea in front of everyone (which was terrifying!) and, unexpectedly, were shortlisted to the final ten competitors. We then went on to pitch our idea in front of the final judging panel and won!
How much money did you seek? What were the conditions of the grant?
The Mayor of London Low Carbon Entrepreneur Award offers winners £20,000 in award money. Typically a key condition associated with grants like this (like Shell LiveWIRE) is that the money must be invested directly in the business i.e. it cannot be used to supplement your salary. Innovate UK, unlike others, allows you to decide at an early stage of the application process what you would use the money for.
When you got the money, what did you do with it?
The money was pumped directly into the business. It was essential for product development, sourcing materials, carrying out official testing and finding manufacturing partners but also for marketing purposes, travel expenses and visiting trade shows. I think the money has been spent very wisely and we are really feeling the benefit as a result. Most notably, since winning the award, we have been approached by people looking to invest in our company.
What advice would you give to other companies seeking grants?
In my experience, a lot of students and young entrepreneurs don’t apply for all the programmes out there because they don’t think they will win. You need to be courageous enough to apply for these grants otherwise your idea is unlikely to go anywhere. For small companies the application process can be extremely tedious and long winded – but you need the money. One of the problems that we faced applying for grants was a lack of time. As full-time students, the time required to complete applications for specific grants was a problem. I’m sure this problem is relevant to most companies starting off. I have found that entrepreneurs often have full-time jobs and then work on their business part-time which makes lengthy applications very difficult to complete.
Elena Dieckmann is director of AEROPOWDER.