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Steri-Spray finds way to the top

Too often we hear of these innovations being sold on or lost altogether through a lack of support and funding. The example of Ian Helmore and the Steri-Spray product is therefore all the more encouraging.

Mr Helmore, a qualified plumber, has been involved in water treatment for more than 20 years, including the running of his own business.

During the course of his operations, he spoke to a hospital that had discovered Legionnaire’s Disease in shower heads, resulting in the majority of its showers being taken offline.

“I just thought it wasn’t acceptable, really,” says Mr Helmore. “I thought there must be an answer. Why not UV?”

Having seen ultra violet technology used in water applications previously, he then created a prototype consisting of “a UV lamp in a huge chamber”.

“It seemed to work,” he recalls. “So then we made prototype after prototype, then looked to a patent attorney and progressed on from there really. Unfortunately they see an inventor in this country and they think: ‘crazy’.”

The first of many trials and tribulations began with discussions with patent attorneys. Mr Helmore remembers one who failed to see the merits of the technology and passed the project onto a junior colleague.

“That was the best thing that’s ever happened to us and he’s proved to be an excellent patent attorney and has ended up getting our patents granted worldwide.”

Financial strain

This was the start of an expensive period as the patent process progressed, resulting in costs of around £100,000 being accrued.

Mr Helmore was continuing to run his business and support his family and is grateful to the support and understanding received from his wife Jill.

The next step was to try to find more support, resulting in discussions with invention promotion companies and an attempt to licence the product with a major corporation.

These attempts proved fruitless and Mr Helmore says the situation was becoming worse, bringing him ever closer to bankruptcy.

There then followed two events which proved particularly poignant. The first was an argument with his teenage son, who complained about the amount of time the project was taking up.

The second was a report of a young man who had died of Legionnaire’s Disease after taking a shower at Bath Hospital.

“It was a very sad case, he had been cured of leukaemia and then died of Legionnaire’s Disease. He was a relatively young man with two kids and it was shocking. That’s what pushed me in the direction of Dragons’ Den, because we had no more money.”

His appearance on the TV show involved standing before the Dragons for two-and-a-half hours, receiving a particularly tough grilling from Duncan Bannatyne.

But the end result was investment from Deborah Meaden and Theo Paphitis and Mr Helmore jokingly states that Mr Bannatyne will soon be eating his words - and will not be offered any discounts on orders for Steri-Spray for his health clubs.

Strong arrangement

The Dragons took 40 per cent of the Steri-Spray business, but Mr Helmore says that being left with 60 per cent was better than being left with 100 per cent of nothing.

He also believes this has proved to be a highly beneficial arrangement, as he has been left to arrange the manufacturing of the product.

Following further developmental work with a CAD designer, the first Steri-Spray shower was produced, quickly followed by more products. The question to be answered at that point was where these would be manufactured.

“Initially we were following the standard route of UK manufacturing, and a little bug bear of mine: going off to China,” says Mr Helmore.

Having found a company in China that showed potential for making the injection moulds required, a chance meeting with another contact resulted in a recommendation being made for a company based in Haverhill.

Mr and Mrs Helmore met the owners of the company - “I always take Jill along because she’s a good judge of character!” - resulting in a deal being struck.

“They did the panel shower and all our other products for the same price as China,” he says. “They wanted the business and they were good. I can get to their place quicker than I can drive to the airport.

“If we get a good margin, why should we take it elsewhere? We’ll always keep [our manufacturing] in the UK.” The result has been the creation of a shower that removes legionella, which can be purchased for the same price as a standard unit.

Mr Helmore makes the point that all components of his products are made in the UK and that the costs involved are less than if he had taken the business to China.

If more companies thought this way, he continues, UK manufacturing would be in a much better position and this would have a positive impact on the country’s economy as well.

At the time of the meeting with H&V News, the company was seeing some particularly positive developments.

Tests had been taken with NHS trusts, resulting in George McCracken of Belfast NHS Trust speaking about the proven benefits at the Combating Legionella conference in London in September.

Celebrity backing

Alongside their financial investment, the additional value of the two Dragons is now being realised in terms of the publicity and contacts that they bring to the table.

“We’re very grateful for their investment, but some people buy a share in a business and do nothing,” says Mr Helmore.

“But Deborah and Theo are also bringing their high profiles so we’re getting high levels of publicity and getting access to people we wouldn’t otherwise see.”

There are a considerable number of opportunities to explore for the company, but it remains focused on building on its initial success. As this progresses, funds will be set aside to explore new areas.

One possible area for further development is the hotel and leisure sector, says Mr Helmore. The product is not considered to be sufficiently aesthetically suitable at present, so further investment in design will be needed to realise this potential.

Two further manufacturing facilities have been added to the initial Haverhill operation and the company has plans to develop further UK sites if demand exceeds its current capacity.

With cases of Legionnaire’s Disease continuing to occur in a range of settings, the company has the potential to explore new areas in various sectors around the world, building on its UK success with NHS trusts in both new build and retrofit.

Enquiries are increasing, both from the UK market and other countries, ranging from mining operations in Canada and to off-shore oil rigs, which bodes well for Steri-Spray as it enters 2012.