Flushed with success
For such a high-use product, your average loo hasn’t changed much since Victorian times. In 2017, the efficient toilet company Propelair was flushed with an £8m Investec-led investment. Here, Propelair’s Garry Moore and Investec’s David Phillips talk about the investment, and the aim of saving water, cash and Cape Town.
Beating the cistern
Water is a valuable resource, which is pretty much going down the toilet. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population could be facing water shortages, while water demand is growing rapidly. The UK alone flushes 740 billion litres of perfectly clean water down the loo every year, which is the equivalent of more than 300,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. One of the main culprits, according to Garry Moore, is the outdated design of our toilets.
“The toilet hasn’t fundamentally changed since the late 1800s”, says Garry, the inventor and founder of Propelair, a super-efficient toilet company. With UK toilets averaging 9 litres per flush and accounting for up to 90% of commercial water use in buildings, it’s not hard to see why the traditional toilet system has become inefficient.
So in 2001 Garry, who has a background in engineering, set off to reinvent the toilet from his home workshop in Essex. It took 12 years for it to come to market, and another four for it to get the investment it needed to grow at scale. For David Phillips, of Investec’s Emerging Companies business, as investment opportunities go, it was love at first sight.
The ‘Elon Musk of toilets’
David is based in Sydney, and was in London working on another transaction when he first heard about Propelair. “I was fascinated by the technology and had to find out more, but had to race to get my flight back home”, he says. So he had a team member stay behind for another week to do some more digging. After finding out more about the product, the business and the investment opportunity, he decided to return to London to do his own due diligence.
David then spent a week on the road with Garry, meeting and speaking with their existing customers, seeing the product in situ, visiting the contract manufacturers and hearing about all of the product’s benefits, some of which, he says, would never have occurred to him. For example, not only does Propelair use 84% less water and 80% less energy than conventional toilets, it’s also a lot more hygienic, reducing the spread of germs by 95% and removing 99.9% of waterborne contaminants. It also gives a fast, powerful flush, which reduces queueing in busy public areas, and the design is leak-proof. For commercial buildings, this means huge savings in water, electricity and maintenance bills, as well as a healthier, safer and more productive workforce. Who’d have known that this was all down to the toilet!
SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk once said that great companies are built on great products. David Phillips doesn’t hesitate to make the comparison: “The best way I can describe Garry, which I did to my Investment Committee, was he is the Elon Musk of toilets!”
It wasn’t just putting the investment in. Investec was very supportive to get the right management team, and the right strategy in place as well
When the investor is also a client
One of the key differences of Investec as an investor, according to Garry, is that it goes above and beyond to support the business with the right contacts, strategy and expertise, and not just the investment. The other main difference is that Investec will now also be a client.
At the same time, Propelair was pitching for investment, its product was being trialled at Investec’s UK headquarters at 2 Gresham Street. Steve Hurley, head of transaction management at Investec, was the one who made the introduction to Investec’s sustainability, facilities and investment teams.
Steve had known Garry personally since 2006. “My dad’s a plumber, and I’ve followed the whole journey of Propelair since it was a concept”, says Steve. In 2016, Steve and a colleague were working with another client on a waste management project. As he knew about Propelair, he also started calculating how much water – and millions of pounds – high-traffic buildings such as airports were wasting with conventional toilets. They then worked out a ‘toilet leasing’ business model, in which Investec could potentially provide the investment, clients would have Propelair toilets installed for free, and only pay after the savings were made. The definition of a positive-sum game. From this, the idea of a more significant investment in Propelair flourished – hence the introduction to David in the Emerging Companies team.
They worked out a ‘toilet leasing’ model - Investec could provide the investment, clients would have Propelair toilets installed for free, and only pay after the savings were made. The definition of a positive-sum game.
As Investec was in the process of moving their UK headquarters down the road to 30 Gresham Street, it was the right time to trial Propelair, too.
Teresa O’Brien, who heads the environment side of Investec’s corporate responsibility efforts, was very interested in the product from a sustainability perspective. And as the high-use first-floor toilets of 2 Gresham Street were frequently blocked, the facilities team decided to give Propelair a go. Both teams were delighted – since the four Propelair toilets were installed in March 2017, no maintenance was needed, and in the first year they saved nearly 300,000 litres of water, without compromising efficiency.
“The statistics from that exercise were excellent,” says Garry. Because of the water tracking device that Propelair installs in toilet cisterns before and after installation, they were able to demonstrate that in the first 25 days, the four toilets at Investec’s office had saved 31,000 litres of water, which is about the capacity of a road tanker. On top of that, the soft feedback given by Investec was also invaluable. “What was useful from Investec is that the sustainability team was capturing feedback and questions from colleagues about the technology and letting us know, and we don’t normally get that type of insight.”
What also helped Propelair is that the feedback from installing the four toilets at 2 Gresham Street eventually filtered down to Investec’s Investment Committee. “Having the installation and investment processes running at the same time really worked well for us”, Garry says. It was certainly helpful to have a tangible product for the committee to verify from an end user's point of view. All it would take was a trip to the first floor.
Sealing the deal
Once Investec was assured that Propelair was the sort of investment opportunity they’re always on the lookout for, it was time to convince the other party to tie the knot. This meant one-on-one meetings with all key investors and investor representatives of Propelair, so they would let Investec restructure and recapitalise their business. It turned out that the love was mutual: “We held the extraordinary shareholders meeting, at which we needed at least 85% shareholder approval. We got 100%!”, says David.
Garry explains that for Propelair’s shareholders, it was clear that Investec was willing to give support and not just cash. “It wasn’t just putting the investment in, which other investors would do, but Investec was very supportive to get the right management team, and the right strategy in place as well.”
Indeed, according to David, one of the challenges with frontier technology firms like Propelair is adopting the right go-to-market strategy. So Investec quickly worked with the Propelair team and the board to make a number of senior hires, and help Garry as the founder to focus on his strengths of product development and being the face of the company. “When you’re managing a business, there are lots of distractions”, says Garry. “Now that there’s more help, I can really focus on things that add real value to the investors, and we can really take the business where we’ve always wanted it to go.”
It’s very rare to be part of such game-changing technology that also provides enormous social and health benefits while helping preserve one of the world’s most vital commodities, being water.
Saving water, money and Cape Town
After the investment, the clear new focus of Propelair is to accelerate business growth, at home and beyond. One of their new target markets is South Africa. With Cape Town going through the worst water crisis that a modern city has faced, their aim goes beyond following a great business opportunity – it’s almost a duty of care.
Investec’s Emerging Companies team works with other like-minded investors as well as businesses, helping to match them with the right opportunities. For Propelair, Investec brought Universal Partners (UP) into the investment. Between the two firms, they’re using their local and global presence, and huge footprint in South Africa, to increase Propelair’s potential scale.
“Investec and UP are really helping on the ground in South Africa with contacts, knowledge and expertise. All that has been really useful, so we can enter this new market in the right way”, says Garry. Propelair is in the process of installing units at an Investec-owned building in Cape Town, to start with. They’re also tracking the water and energy usage of toilets there, before and after installation, to demonstrate savings and the product’s efficiency. This data will be shared with the local mayor’s office.
Garry is excited that his invention can help minimise the serious water supply issue in the region. “We really want to take the technology and knowledge we spent years developing to South Africa and help Cape Town”, he says. “We can genuinely go to a typical office and halve their water use just by changing their toilets, so it really is a big and quick win for everyone”, he adds.
‘We really want to take the technology and knowledge we spent years developing to South Africa and help minimise the serious water supply issue in Cape Town’
At home in the UK, Propelair also continues to expand, having for example been awarded the contract for all Moto service stations in the UK, and installations in the Thames Water offices, several McDonald’s stores, Barclays’s Churchill Place headquarters, as well as, of course, Investec’s new UK headquarters, saving millions of litres of water in the process.
“With Investec’s support, we now have the resources to really hit the market faster, which is a much better position to be in”, says Garry. As of Investec, the returns from their investment go way beyond the money put in the business. “It’s very rare to be part of such game-changing technology that also provides enormous social and health benefits while helping preserve one of the world’s most vital commodities, being water.”, said David Phillips.
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