Paul Gullett, Wave International
“Don’t go reinventing the wheel... there’s a lot of wheels out there already,” said Paul Gullett of Wave International. “Instead of trying to create something from scratch, first have a look at other sectors. It helps to be open minded.”
However, spotting the potential is obviously more than a knack and takes some serious lateral thinking. For example, Gullett’s well-known Wavestream bilge water filters has its feet in an unlikely crossover.
After a spell working for the offshore oil majors he’d set up his own marine technology company “but by sheer coincidence, my business partner was working on cattle bedding”, he said. “We managed to modify the fibres, reversing what you normally do and actually giving them an affinity with oil.” The first idea was to use it to mop up spills, but testing showed they had a real breakthrough on their hands.
“A colleague from my days in the oil industry came back saying, ‘you realise this takes out not just the dispersed oil droplets, but the dissolved fraction?” He added: “At that moment, everything changed.”
What they’d discovered were fibres that could remove the BTEX group, benzene and other aromatics from water: “Nasty, really carcinogenic stuff,” he explained. “So, suddenly instead of oil spills, we were looking at a filtration product for processing produced water, real time.” Ups and downs inevitably followed, being bought out by a large US company and then deciding to take back the marine bilge water segment himself “as they considered it too small to bother with”.
This return to his roots left him holding a marine filtration system “that was over engineered for its purpose”. As issues go, this isn’t a bad one to have: “Although it’s still very cost competitive for the smaller workboats, it’s far more capable than anything that the present rules demand with effectiveness down to and below 5ppm... so there’s a lot of room to stay ahead of the regulation”.
Several products have followed in just the last couple of years, most recently the Wave MiniBOSS Oil Water Separator. “Being the size we are has helped a lot,” he said, “It means the negatives really jump out at you,” he said. In a big company, it’s possible to just keep working inside your own silo “but in a small company there are things you are forced to deal with up front - not right at the end... you avoid wasting time and money chasing an idea down the wrong path”.
But while Gullett has a string of patents and several start-ups behind him, his next big message to innovators might be hard on the ear.
“You get so involved, and it’s very easy to base a new business around a product... but I always have to pull myself back from getting carried away with the technology. There are basic questions, such as ‘Is there a need? Will it be commercial? And last, ‘Can I sell it? You can be looking at it all the right ways, apart from the most important one.”
By Stevie Knight
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