As the Federal Opposition grapples with the business and cost challenges of a greener future powered by an emissions trading scheme, an Australian entrepreneurial couple are showing us the innovative potential – both revenue- and cost-wise – of alternative thinking.
The ‘power’ couple are Sylvia and Gavin Tulloch, founders of the Australian listed company Dyesol. This is a company with a genuine outside-the-square product, which is attracting the attention of foreign companies looking to tap into the world’s growing appetite for alternative forms of energy.
The company, with a market cap of around $100 million, has 70 staff with 50 in Australia, 15 in Wales (UK) and others in Italy, Switzerland, Japan and USA. Not bad for an operation headquartered in Queanbeyan, in country New South Wales, but which is only a stone’s throw from the very tech-savvy Canberra.
So, what exactly does this award-winning business do?
“The Dyesol group is the world leader in development and commercialisation of third generation photovoltaics – solar cells that mimic nature – based on the principles of photosynthesis and nanotechnology,” Sylvia explains. “These third generation devices are called dye solar cells (DSC).”
Dyesol develops, manufactures and supplies a range of dye solar cell products comprising equipment, chemicals, materials, components and related services to researchers and manufacturers of DSC, and works with partners and customers to integrate DSC technology into their products.
This is a really ‘out there’ business, in the right place at the right time as the world is turning green and alternative. This follows the price of oil hitting nearly $US150 a barrel a couple of years back and devotees of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, suspecting climate change can be put down to man’s power-generating habits.
And while the world is sitting up and taking notice of this unique company, there’s particularly strong support shown from the old mother country. This might sound surprising considering our recent experience with cricket against England, which reminded us that sunlight has a real battle with clouds and rain over there.
“We have a subsidiary in the UK, with 15 staff, most of whom work on our project with Corus – the company which used to be called British Steel,” Sylvia says. “We have smaller subsidiaries in Italy, Switzerland and US.”
Corus is developing solar steel roofing and cladding. The pilot plant was commissioned in June, and the plan, all going well, is to have a volume manufacturing plant operating in 2011. Corus manufacture 100 million square metres of steel cladding a year, and they intend for 20 million square metres to be solar steel by 2016.
But is it a good idea to try to create energy through the interaction of the Dyesol product coated on roof cladding in a country not renown for sunny days?
“Dyesol’s solar technology works well in all light conditions – it doesn’t need bright sunlight,” Sylvia points out. “The layers of a DSC can be deposited on a range of products – such as façade glass and steel roofing.”
In a nutshell, the technology mimics the photosynthesis process of trees and plants, and it can be used in many applications that would be impossible for conventional photovoltaic technology meaning the voltage is virtually independent of light levels.
And the energy created can more than power a house and the surplus can be pumped into the grid. As I have already said – this is an ‘out there’ business. So, how did it happen?
“Both Gavin and I are scientists, whose earlier careers were in the Australian subsidiaries of multinational advanced technology businesses, and decided to set up our own business around 20 years ago,” Sylvia says. “In those businesses, we learned business management at a fairly sophisticated level, which we combined with our interest in innovation and commercialisation.”
Finding or creating a product with potential is one thing but successfully commercialising it and launching an ASX-listed company is another.
“Commercialising DSC has been a team effort,” Sylvia says. “When we set up Dyesol, I was the founding managing director and developed the business strategy, and was responsible for corporate positioning, investor relationships, and the Australian operations. Gavin was responsible for developing the international business, international subsidiaries and relationships.”
But how does an Aussie company take up the running on such a product?
“As scientists, we fell in love with the technology – it is fascinating science,” she points out. “Then, in 1998 we learnt about global warming and decided that commercialising this technology was important to the future — where we lived really didn’t play a role.”
Scientists they might be and it helped them see the opportunity but it was another quality they both shared that explains why their dream has become a commercial reality.
“We are both entrepreneurial, and over the years we have both ‘picked up’ pretty sound financial skill-sets,” Sylvia reveals.
In fact, their scientific and research background partly explains the Tullochs’ success because R&D companies need to know of and how to play the grants game.
“A company such as Dyesol brings both private and national benefits,” Sylvia says. “To maximise the national benefits it requires public co-investment.
“What we learnt is that grants and subsidies tend to wax and wane, especially in Australia, so it was important for us to have a global focus, rather than be dependent on grants in Australia.”
Wherever grants are given, there are requirements for local content, so the decision to work in overseas subsidiaries enabled them to take advantage of grants available overseas.
And the work has been nationally and internationally recognised.
“Dyesol was included in the Top 100 Low Carbon Pioneers on CNBC Europe in 2008,” Sylvia points out. “And recently we won the ACT Chief Minister’s 2009 Export Award for Small-Medium Manufacturer Expert.”
And what about the experience taking their ‘baby’ to the hard, cold world of being a public company in a GFC world?
“We listed in Aug 05,” Sylvia says. “Prior to that, the DSC project had been in a small public company called Sustainable Technologies, of which Gavin and I were also among the founders. When the board of Sustainable Technologies decided to close the project, we did an MBO of the solar operations, and then operated as a private company from 2000 to 2005.”
On the impact of the GFC, Sylvia recounts how the share prices of all solar companies were negatively impacted. But of the 70 solar companies listed on exchanges internationally, Dyesol’s market performed sixth best out of their 70 rivals.
And with the GFC fading from view, what’s the future hold?
“For Dyesol, the future is a rapid expansion of demand and building new relationships with large corporations who have registered interest in incorporating DSC into their product ranges,” Sylvia predicts. “For me, I am broadening my interest in commercialisation and am now also on the Boards of EcoQuest Limited (ECQ), a company which is developing biodegradable products, and Sensol Pty Ltd, a private company development acoustic sensors, and am a member of the Future Manufacturing Industries Innovation Council, which advises the Australian Minister for Industry.”
On the challenges ahead, Sylvia singles out dealing with very large corporations.
“It is something like dancing with dinosaurs,” she admits.
On how Sylvia copes with the growth challenge and keeps motivated, her answers are both typically entrepreneurial and scientific.
“I’m a glass half-full person. I soon move past frustrations — and I love feeling I’m making a useful contribution,” she says.