As someone who sold his IT distribution business to explore the potential offered by a completely different sector, Andy Harris admits he has always been driven by the excitement of trying something new. His very attitude is innovative, as is the patented, disruptive technology that will help him “take on the world”.
"I like change,” he says simply. "I like coming up with disruptive technology which I can patent and which will take on the world, I don't want to do the same thing forever, like everyone else. I want to be better or faster, so I looked around for something different and I found something that has fantastic potential. You could argue that I am completely out of my depth, but I'm a fast learner and challenges drives me.”
Harris started the Craley Group in 2012 after his work selling IT products brought him into contact with a specialist technology business which had a basic concept for delivering cable to domestic properties without having to dig up the garden. Harris saw that the product had potential to be developed further and bought the patents. After running Craley in tandem with his IT business for eighteen months he sold the latter so he could focus on the new business and proceeded to “waste my hard-earned cash” - as he puts it jokingly – on something “far more exciting”.
"I like coming up with disruptive technology which I can patent and which will take on the world, I don't want to do the same thing forever, like everyone else. I want to be better or faster, so I looked around for something different and I found something that has fantastic potential"
A few million pounds later, the result has been two core product offerings. Atlantis Hydrotec is a fibre to the home (FTTH) solution that works by inserting a pipe into the existing freshwater plumbing pipes and then blowing fibre optic cable through it, meaning there is no need to dig up the roads or driveways. Because installation is quick and simple the cost is about a fifth of traditional cable laying methods and there is no obvious competition because the regulation involved in putting things into fresh water pipes deters other companies from doing it.
The other product, BreezeLiner, also provides the fibre cable but into sewer pipes (the other route of choice), while at the same time re-lining them. This, says Harris, is a pioneering approach that addresses the ongoing need to repair and maintain the pipes, and again is quicker and cheaper than current techniques. It’s also more environmentally friendly as it uses non-toxic technology to weld the layers together, unlike the harsh chemicals that are used by competitors. Being able to refurbish sewers in this way is the jewel in the crown, says Harris, given that 70% of the world's sewer infrastructure could need replacing in the next twenty years.
"There are farmers in Spain who have one gigabyte upload and download speeds as a result of our work. Nobody in the UK has got that yet."
The procedure is able to provide the latest fibre technology at a much more cost-effective price. Harris comments: "There are farmers in Spain who have one gigabyte upload and download speeds as a result of our work. Nobody in the UK has got that yet."
Not that the old technique of digging up fields has had its day, he adds. "There might be cases, for example if the cable has to go across a field, where it's cheaper just to dig it up. But we can do something in hours that it would take weeks to do."
Harris says the technologies are generating interest on a global basis, as home owners, infrastructure developers and communities realise the benefits and cost savings.
He describes the concept for both products as being fundamentally simple. "The pipes are already there so what is needed is a safe way to transport cables through them. But like all simple things, the challenge is in taking it to the next stage. There will come a point where I will hold back the development of the business.”
The options for an innovative company? They include finding technology partner, who the products can be licensed to, taking investment to fund further development, or even the sale of the business. “But there is a need to move quickly,” says Harris, “not least because rivals could emerge offering the same sort of technology and basically circumventing your intellectual property. Patents are only as strong as the cash you have to defend them.”
Harris believes innovative products will prove to be “either hero or zero.” He doesn’t envisage anyone wanting to order a couple of dozen kilometres of tube.
The business is so far what Harris smilingly and euphemistically calls “pre profit”. He admits: “After all, these are new products that no-one has heard of. The sales guys would say that we need to get this out there as much as possible, but I think we would fail if we did that as we would then over trade. I'm a very practical person, very measured and considered. I like to go step by step and not run before I can walk. Slowly slowly, catchy monkey. We do have site installations going on but I'm not shouting about them. It’s more important to get all the ducks in a row before going out there all guns blazing."
"The pipes are already there, so what is needed is a safe way to transport cables through them. But like all simple things, the challenge is in taking it to the next stage."
Assuming the current outsourced manufacturers can handle the potential higher volumes, Harris would ideally like to continue producing the products in the UK – he uses sites in London, Wales, Northern Ireland and the north east – believing that the made in Britain ‘brand’ has value to overseas buyers in particular. However, he has a back-up plan of relocating manufacture to Spain, where the company has a test site to show potential customers what can be achieved, and to further develop and re-engineer and simplify the technology.
Harris says the Spanish government – among others – gives much more help to businesses than the UK government. “The incentive schemes and assistance for British business are all too long winded. The help that's available abroad is unbelievable. In the EU and US, almost without exception, when you have a meeting in a town, the mayor will come along and ask you to consider moving your business there and I would be lying if I said I had not thought about leaving the UK. Barcelona for example, have offered us anything we need.
“Meanwhile, I spoke to our government's export innovation people and I said look we are floundering here, I need some assistance. They assume that it’s money you want but I don't want cash: I want guidance, someone to talk to when I’m banging my head against a brick wall.”
“The length of time it takes in the UK to get a decision is also an obstacle, he adds. “Everyone has hoops to jump through but it's all about how keen the authorities are for you to get through them. In Spain or the US, if the town mayor wants something to happen, the water and telecom companies have to comply. The Romanians are very serious about doing pilot schemes and they made it happen very quickly. And in California, if the environmental protection people say they will do something, they do it. Here in the UK, you meet an official and then three weeks later they pass it to their boss, then you have to get the water and telecoms companies to agree to it but they won’t talk to each other, and then you need regulatory approval. We're going through that process at the moment.”
Harris muses that there is truth in the old saying about it being lonely at the top. "But in a strange way, when you're at your lowest, that's when you feel most driven and think ‘I'm not going to be beaten by this’,” he adds. “Four years ago I thought that by now I would either have sold the business or have realised it wasn't going to work, but it has taken a lot longer than I thought it would. For the past eighteen months, I have felt I've been so close that I can touch it, then somebody moves the goal posts. I accept the highs and lows are all part of the journey. The next day I'm all fired up again. This is such an exciting time."
He admits that the business has become totally absorbing. "I can't do anything else. People say to me ‘Andy, you should take up golf’, but this is my sport. My plan was to sell my other business before I was fifty and I did that with a month to spare, and now my plan is to make this business work, to prove it works, and then sell it."
If he were to to do that, would that be his cue to retire? "I would like to think I could, but I'm not so sure,” he reflects. “I think I would get involved with something else. I love making things happen. I'm not money driven at all; if you do the right things, the money comes.”