What is your elevator pitch?
We are an advanced materials start-up, and our mission is to bring insulation products to market that are affordable, scalable and that can help us on the Net Zero journey without compromising on fire safety. The materials we’re working with are silica-based aerogels – mineral-based super insulation. These aerogels are the most insulating material available because of their highly porous structure with a composition of 95-98% air. It is thanks to their inherent chemical structure that they minimise the transfer of heat through the material backbone because there is so little of it. They also minimise the convection and conduction of heat through tiny microscopic pores.
Aerogels have been around for a long time but have never been deployed at scale because they are expensive to make. Thermulon has developed a novel chemical engineering and manufacturing process that makes the production of aerogel cheaper, more scalable and (we estimate) with lower embodied carbon.
Our own product is a raw aerogel powder that can be more easily scaled thanks to a continuous chemical that runs at lower temperature and ambient pressure. Therefore, we do not suffer from the constraints of scalability experienced by the traditional batch-based process for producing aerogels. We provide the powder to manufacturers who then integrate it into their insulation products to improve their thermal performance. The thermal conductivity of the end-product (e.g. insulation panel) is therefore product dependent, but we are aiming for figures comparable to Phenolics or PIR/PR boards, or even lower.
It’s important to note we are in the early stage of product development. Our target is to produce a low embodied carbon aerogel that we can use as a starting material. Aerogels have their place especially in applications where organic materials that are active carbon sinks (e.g. hemp) are not an option due to the wall thickness required to meet thermal performance targets as well as the fire safety element. This is often an issue in tall buildings and dense urban areas.
How did you get to where you are today?
The company was founded by my co-founder and CEO, Dr Sam Cryer who was on a mission to put his chemistry and materials knowledge into the services of the climate. We spun out of a venture incubator called Deep Science Ventures which Sam joined after his PhD in chemistry at Imperial College London. Sam’s research started a year after the Grenfell Tower fire so fire safety is always at the forefront of our minds. That is why we are working with a silica-based material. We’re aiming to deliver a material that can deliver on the insulation properties but that doesn’t compromise on fire safety, though we’re very transparent about the fact that we have not yet done non-combustibility testing for the products as we’re still producing at small scales.
We have had great support from institutes like Sustainable Ventures, Sky Ocean Ventures, many private individuals who believed in us, and with the support of InnovateUK, we managed to scale this process up and build up operations. We also raised funding through crowdfunding, (you can find our pitch on Crowdcube). We are proud to be backed by a large number of small investors believing in our idea.
The journey started with an idea and went onto a piece of paper, to building a lab, increasing our production capacity and implementing two pilot projects. Now, we are actively looking for manufacturing partners who believe their portfolio of insulation products could benefit from the addition of aerogels and are open to testing with our materials.
What does innovation mean to you?
It can mean two things. It can be finding a significantly better solution to an existing problem that already has a solution that is lacking in some way (e.g. the lack of affordable fire-safe building insulators). It can also be a complete step change, where there is a problem that you don’t know how to solve, and that requires something completely new to help (e.g. how do we insulate the UK’s 7.7m solid wall homes?). Our innovation is a bit of both.
How hungry is the built environment for innovation?
It’s very hungry but it does not yet know how to eat [laughs]. Many of our collaborators, whether already familiar with aerogels or not, find them extremely attractive. The challenge lies in execution; introducing innovation into construction projects comes with a risk. The exciting part is that in just the three years that we’ve been running Thermulon we have seen a huge shift from sustainability being a conversation on the edge to being a conversation that is very much in the spotlight. Even though there’s still a long way to go for the industry in general – I don’t think we should underestimate how far the industry has come in such a short space of time. I hope that this pace of change continues.
What needs to change to help encourage more innovation?
There is not just one single thing or person that needs to change. There’s no innovative silver bullet in construction, and when I do hear about one, I get a bit sceptical. What we need is a complete structural shift in the industry to an innovative mindset. Innovation is, by its own definition, risky and unless we are prepared to take a measured approach to financial risk in construction there will not be innovation (to be clear, I’m talking about elevated financial risks, innovation should of course never come with elevated safety risks!). There is no universe in which we undertake ten innovative projects and all of them succeed. Innovation comes with risk and failure, and if there isn’t a portfolio of failures that accompany the successes, we are not innovating. The challenge in construction is how to build sandbox environments, test cases where we can afford to fail in a safe and managed way so that we can enable the industry to innovate.
Another challenge for physical innovation is scale. Our first use case was supposed to be tall buildings, and finding a good, safe insulation product for them. However, we have a stepping-stone strategy to tall buildings through entering the retrofit market where you can work with much smaller quantities.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced as a start-up?
The biggest challenge is a strong demand for tried-and-tested and proven solutions. Big shifts in climate, sustainability and fire policies have meant in our case that the industry is looking for solutions faster than they might usually. An early-stage start-up needs a partner who is ready and who has the capacity to go through the trials. This can take many forms: a test house in collaboration with a university, a test project, or a small-scale time limited pilot. While it is possible to test products without customer engagement, it is not the best way to innovate.
I believe the best way to innovate is through strong engagement with customers.
Once you have a bank of data and certification in your pocket, you can scale up, and it’s amazing that the next step is there, but there is that significant gap. Research parks may be part of the solution, and we need more of those.
What’s your advice for new innovators and start-ups in the built environment?
Patient and persistent optimism.
What’s next for your company?
Our next steps are to scale up production, to make more aerogels, and engage with customers and manufacturers of insulating products who are interested in working with us at this innovative stage. We are increasing the scale to a bigger lab scale and our aim is to deliver a pilot plant that can insulate thousands of homes over the next 2-3 years. When we can produce at industrial scale, we’ll be targeting a 6x price reduction compared to commercially available aerogels.