Tuesday 10 May 2011

Cairns Company makes a splash through Innovation Coaching Program


Cairns Company makes a splash through Innovation Coaching Program

When Joe Spelta first had the idea, his dream of the world’s first truly chemical-free freshwater swimming pool designed specifically for a tropical climate had been laughed off as undoable within the industry. 

Less than five years later he his team patented the invention, launched it to market as the EcoSplash™ System ‘living water’ pool, formed two new companies, secured sales, identified additional applications for the ‘green’ technology and started talks with potential investors.

He has done this with the help of the AIC’s Innovation Coaching program - a joint initiative between the Australian Institute for Commercialisation (AIC) and the Queensland Government Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation (DEEDI). Innovation Coaching is a key element of the Queensland Wide Innovation Network (QWIN) and the program has been designed to assist companies in Queensland to become more innovative and develop sustainable competitive advantages.

Innovation Coaches assist companies who have been invited into the program with strategic innovation and commercialisation assistance to maximise the chances for success. AIC’s Innovation Coaches work very closely with CEO’s, business owners, general managers and marketing executives to help them achieve results such as launching new products or forming spin-off enterprises.

The potential of EcoSplash™ was identified in 2009 when AIC Innovation Coach Robert Buhrke first visited the Cairns showroom of Joe Spelta’s family business – Placid Pools - and noticed a swimming pool with abundant wildlife alongside the more conventional and chemical-based pools.

When he asked about the experimental fresh water pools, he realised the company could be eligible for a research and development (R&D) tax concession, and could also qualify for Queensland Government funded Innovation Coaching program.

Placid Pools had been experimenting with using aquatic plants as water filters to decrease salinity, energy and water use, at their showroom since 2005.

In 2007, Mr Spelta visited a trade show in Barcelona and discovered that more than 60,000 freshwater swimming ponds were installed and working perfectly in colder climate areas in Europe, where there is a huge market for green products.

“But no-one, not even the Europeans, thought we could make it work in the tropics,” he said.

Undeterred, Placid Pools continued the research, but had not reached a final prototype design or even started to think about how to take the new product to market.

Following a thorough evaluation of the business, the AIC created a roadmap for the new EcoSplash™ product development, starting with applying for all the relevant government grants and tax concessions, testing the prototype and ensuring all legal issues were addressed.

Robert Buhrke introduced Placid Pools to scientists at James Cook University and the Australian Centre for Tropical Freshwater Research to accelerate the experiments, make them more accurate [rigorous] and minimise the costs of specialised water analysis tests.

Through the AIC, Placid Pools identified all unprotected intellectual property, filed and fast-tracked a patent application, and registered trademarks and domain names.

“Robert helped us fast track the patent to ensure we hit our deadlines, and the government assistance we secured with his guidance allowed us to keep the main business running while dedicating resources to the new invention,” Joe Spelta said.

The next steps involved business structuring and marketing. Wherever there were gaps in the team’s knowledge, the AIC was able to introduce them to the best professional advisors.

By the end of 2010, two spin-off companies were launched; EcoSplash™ Living Waters Pty Ltd, which installs the new ‘living water’ pools, and Natural Water Technologies Pty Ltd, which holds the Intellectual Property.

“It made sense to form new companies and launch a new brand as there was a different target market, since we didn’t want to compromise Placid Pools’ core business and we needed different shareholder agreements,” said Joe Spelta.

“We really see this as just the start - EcoSplash™ System pools are similar to the European ones in that they use biomimicry to clean the water naturally without chemicals, but we have gone further to offer a tropical water filtration system and a natural swimming environment.

“The EcoSplash™ System also increases a pool’s biodiversity, fish can swim in it and the fresh water and aquatic plants attract butterflies and dragonflies. Customers who want the eco-credentials without the wildlife, can have a separate natural filter using aquatic plants, for example as a separate, good looking water feature near their house or office building.

“There are also much wider applications for the invention, such as the rejuvenation of wetlands and the remote monitoring of water quality on outback stations.

“We are continuing to work with the AIC and its networks to source partners for these future applications and stages of commercialisation - this journey is a long way from over.”

Joe Spelta said working with the AIC was an eye-opening experience.

“It feels daring and at times chaotic enough to make a leap of faith with any new invention, but even more daunting to figure out how to take it to market and make it a success.”

“The AIC opened so many doors for us, identified and helped to fill the gaps in our knowledge and guided us efficiently through the maze, I believe they saved us years of frustration, wasted resources, potential mistakes and substandard business advisors.

“I just wish we had met Robert five years earlier.”

At present, only Queensland companies are eligible for the Government-sponsored Innovation Coaching program, but the AIC is a national, independent body and offers similar expertise to any business, almost regardless of the clients industry.

There are around 70 companies currently in the pipeline, some of which are undertaking other AIC programs to prepare for coaching.

Businesses identified as suitable for innovation coaching have to go through an ‘audit’ to establish if the AIC can help and if the company is prepared to make the most of that help.

Of all the companies that the Coaches meet with, approximately only 10% are accepted into the AIC program and about 50% are referred on to other programs or organisations which better suit the clients’ needs. The remainder of companies receive assistance through other channels and associated service providers.

The Innovation Audit process also identifies where the company needs helps. For example its product might benefit from adopting a new technology, some intellectual property may not be used or commercially exploited, or there may be a lack of strategic planning.

AIC Chief Executive Officer Dr Rowan Gilmore said the audit is crucial as the onus is on the client to act on the advice and contacts.

“The program has a flexible framework so we can tailor the timeframe and methods to the individual company’s needs, and of course not every piece of advice we give has to be followed to the letter,” Dr Gilmore explained.

“But the companies we take on have to really commit to the program to succeed or everyone is wasting their time.”

“EcoSplash™ is a great success story for us, they now speak at our events, the new product recently won Tropical Innovation of the Year, the main prize and award for best innovation at the Tropical Innovation Awards 2010. Placid Pools and Eco-Spash has the potential to be a key player in establishing Cairns as a global hotspot for tropical innovation.”

“The team is already looking at how it can start exporting to other countries and develop its technology to meet other market and environmental needs. Our Innovation Coach has recently introduced the client to overseas Ambassadors, General Consuls and other diplomats from several overseas target markets and we are confident that the bridges we have helped to build will be beneficial bridges to successful relationships in other countries”

“We foresee a long relationship as they continue to innovate, make the most of their invention and reap the rewards of a strategic approach to commercialisation.”

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