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Rights: University of Waikato. All rights reserved.
Published 3 December 2013
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In this video, Revolution Fibres founders Iain Hosie and Simon Feasey describe how they found a gap in the market for the commercial production of nanofibres.

They explain how they set up their business, upscaled electrospinning technology and successfully commercialised three new products in a short space of time. Along with Albert McGhee, they discuss how creativity, problem-solving and an emphasis on evolving their business strategy have all been important in their success.

Jargon alert

  • Hi-tech start-up company: a newly created company working in a high-tech industry. These companies are usually in a phase of research and development.
  • Electrospinning: a technique used to make nanofibres.
  • Nanofibre: nanofibres are one example of a nanoscale material. They are very thin, long fibres. Their diameter is in the nanoscale while their length can range from nanometres to metres, depending on how the nanofibre is made and its end application.

Transcript

Voiceover

Revolution Fibres is a high-tech business that uses electrospinning to create custom-made nanofibres for a variety of applications in a broad range of industries worldwide. The Revolution Fibres story has its beginnings in the local air-filtration industry.

Iain Hosie

We were working with HRV, the ventilation company in New Zealand, and one of our briefs was to make the best filter in the world. We saw nanofibre on TV being created in Christchurch, so we went down and had a look. We became very excited about the potential for the technology.

Voiceover

During their visit, Iain and Simon were introduced to a lab-scale electrospinning production technique.

Simon Feasey

We watched nanofibre being created. It was 5 minutes before we could see a patch the size of a 10 cent piece. And then we quite quickly said, “Well, how long is it going to take to make 80 000 square metres of this product?” Straight away, it was like, well, this is poles apart in scale from what we needed. So we sat down and we thought, “OK, well, is there a need for something that could utilise that technique?”, and we came up with the SetaTM diffuser filter.

Voiceover

They purchased a machine – the ES1a – from the scientists they met. This became Revolution Fibres’ first machine and was used to make nanofibre air filters for their first customer, HRV.

Iain Hosie

The ES1a was where we started, and it’s the machine that we developed the concepts and the principles around our science.

Interesting enough, we created a product within the first 6 months of our company coming into being, so we’ve been developing products using this lab-scale machine for HRV right from the get go. We’ve always been trying to get a product out the door as soon as possible.

Voiceover

As they delved deeper into the technology, Iain and Simon realised how many applications electrospun nanofibres could have.

Iain Hosie

We discovered nanofibre at very much a lab scale, and I guess we thought what we were seeing was quite unique in the world, but there’s hundreds if not thousands of researchers looking at electrospinning creating nanofibres in the lab. We were quite inspired by all the possibilities. We wondered why none of these products or this research was actually hitting the market, and so we talked to a lot of researchers and companies as well, and we discovered that production of nanofibre is the big hurdle – so taking products out of the lab and into the marketplace, there was not a lot of service to do such a thing.

Voiceover

With a clear idea that they’d like to produce commercial quantities of nanofibre material, they started to design and build the machines that could do this.

Iain Hosie

We set some pretty lofty goals in the very beginning, and it was a little bit of entrepreneurial spirit and naivety perhaps to think, well, how hard could this be to create machines of the scale needed?

Voiceover

With a clear idea that they’d like to produce commercial quantities of nanofibre material, they started to design and build the machines that could do this.

Simon Feasey

Within that period of time, it was all in-house. We employed graduate engineers and chemists, and we developed our own techniques of electrospinning. So we had our own machine and our own system.

Iain Hosie

We’ve put a lot of effort into getting from lab scale to industrial scale in a very, very short timeframe. Along the way, we’ve tried to create products based on our production capability at that time, but really we weren’t a proper electrospinning business in my mind until we had the Komodo running.

Simon Feasey

The Komodo is our first large-scale production machine. It’s enabled us to launch products in big markets. For example, one of the contracts that we’re doing at the moment requires 80 000 square metres a year of material, and that represents about 8% of the capacity of the Komodo. So we’re in a position now to go out and get some more business. And this is our mark 1 mass production machine, it’s also well designed so we can learn and we can make lots of adjustments to it, and down the track, what would probably happen is we’d have specific manufacturing contracts that we’d make machines for.

Voiceover

Initially, Revolution Fibres simply concentrated on producing nanofibre products. However, there were so many opportunities that they had to be strategic in deciding what nanofibre products to focus on.

Iain Hosie

We were certainly very product focused in the beginning, and we were quite conscious that, if we made machines at the scale that we did, that if we set up an 0800 number for nanofibre, the phone wouldn’t ring. So we came up with our three products – Seta™, actiVLayr™ and Xantu.Layr™.

Simon Feasey

We just used quite a simple matrix to determine which ones would have the best benefits from the nanofibre production and that weren’t currently being explored or there weren’t products already around so that we knew that we had something fairly novel that we could take to the market and give us our best chance of success.

Voiceover

A change in Revolution Fibres’ business model happened when their new General Manager, Albert McGhee, came on board

Albert McGhee

When I started, the company was very embryonic. It essentially had the idea, it had the vision, it had foundational technology, it had its first product, it had its first customer, and the shareholders realised that they really had something here that was worth growing and really investing in.

Voiceover

Iain, Simon and Albert describe Revolution Fibres’ skill as working with other businesses to create innovative solutions and products using electrospun nanofibre technology.

Iain Hosie

We’ve realised perhaps through the hard way that we can’t develop these ideas ourselves, we can’t develop the products, because then we’re responsible for the marketing and the sales of that product from that point onwards. Our skills, we’ve realised, are in the manufacture and the science, and so we’re actually taking the approach to working with companies very early on in the process to try and take them on the same journey that we’ve been on and creating products which are very specific to them.

Voiceover

Starting up a high-tech business has its challenges.

Iain Hosie

The key challenges along the way have been very, very diverse. To create fibres through electrospinning, there’s actually 26 different parameters which affect the ability to create a fibre. It’s a bit of a dark art to try and marry all those parameters up, so there’s been a lot of trial and error and a lot of discovery along the way. We rely a lot on published academic literature to try and further our knowledge and apply our different take on electrospinning. And of course being a start-up high-tech business has it’s challenges in pure finance – it’s not a cheap thing to set up these types of businesses, and you really need that passion and belief in the market and passion and belief in your technology to actually get there.

Voiceover

In a short space of time, Revolution Fibres has established itself as a commercial producer of electrospun nanofibre. They attribute their success to the people and the innovative culture in their business.

Iain Hosie

We’ve created a culture in our business where innovation is key and people are allowed to push their ideas forwards, and we’ve ended up with some fantastic ideas, and some of the opportunities of this business have really come straight from our discussions and working together as a team to bring ideas to reality.

I think also there’s a little bit of a marketer in every one of us, we’re not just scientists and engineers, we do truly believe in the technology and we’re not afraid to get out there and talk about it and try and promote it in any way we can. So we’re trying to make the invisible visible here, and that’s a key driver, and I believe that’s making people sit up and take notice.

Albert McGhee

One of the exciting things about Revolution Fibres is that we don’t see any limit to what the technology can achieve. We have lists of categories, let alone defined applications, for when nanofibres can add real advantage, so we’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of applications.

Iain Hosie

The nanofibres have limitless potential and almost unknown properties still that we believe we can continue to exploit for a lot of time, so I think we’re very fortunate to have a technology which still hasn’t even discovered what its potential for yet. I believe the killer application where we will see nanofibre in full major production has not been discovered yet, I firmly believe that.

Acknowledgements
Revolution Fibres:
Iain Hosie, Simon Feasey, Albert McGhee
Cody McClure, Hansol Cha, Gareth Beckermann

Kilwell Sports www.kilwell.co.nz
The Royal Society of New Zealand, TVNZ 7 in partnership with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment
Plant & Food Research