Fun fact, despite incredible advances in sanitation and associated facility infrastructure, a toilet today looks exactly the same as it did in the late 1800s.
So Propelair built a new toilet – one that’s engineered for a modern world and a greener future. Using patented technology, Propelair has developed what they believe to be the world’s lowest water-flush toilet system, supporting commercial customers to reduce costs, improve hygiene and save the planet, one flush at a time.
We sat down with ex-Dyson Managing Director, and current CEO of Propelair to find out more about the business on a mission to revamp sanitation technology – for good.
What is Propelair all about?
Our mission is to save the planet… one flush at a time! Our vision is to be the sanitaryware business with the greatest impact on water saving. Let’s take Roca, an amazing firm that sells around 35 million units a year. When we reach that scale our owners will be saving c17 trillion litres of water annually! That’s more than all of the South Africa’s annual freshwater withdrawal*.
We believe we can do this through innovation. We are at the bleeding edge of sanitaryware technology and we’re looking forward to all the other revolutionary changes we can make to the washrooms that will improve user experience and environmental impact.
*Aquastat, South Africa 2013
How is Propelair disrupting the market?
Most installed commercial toilets still use 9 litres of water per flush on average. Propelair’s innovative solution uses 120 litres of air to propel just 1.5 litres of water per flush into existing drains, in just two seconds! This facilitates massive water savings without compromising, in fact improving on, performance – frankly there ain’t much that 60 litres of air a second can’t shift! This saves our customers money and reduces water processing, thereby reducing carbon use. With its sealed lid, our product is more hygienic than a conventional toilet, reducing aerosolised germs, including Covid-19 by up to 95%.
You may have heard of Peter Thiel’s 10x rule, whereby a product must be 10x better than current offerings to be a good disruptor, for which people will be willing to change their behaviour. The combined benefits of the Propelair system puts us well above 10x.
We’ve now sold nearly 4,000 units across the UK and South Africa and have signed on 6 sales partners, 11 sales Affiliates, and 9 installation partners.
How did your previous career experience prepare you for this venture?
Immediately prior to joining Propelair, I spent 12 years at Dyson and Aqualisa, both innovators in their respective fields. My time at Dyson not only gave me the opportunity to see some of the smartest innovators, it gave me tangible experience in the commercial washroom market.
How does Propelair stand out among its competition?
The primary water saving technologies are compost, maceration, and vacuum. Composting is not practical in most commercial settings and macerators are inherently temperamental and costly to maintain. Vacuum is prohibitively expensive, having to replace a building’s infrastructure. The Propelair system connects to existing drains.
Therefore, our real competition is the standard dual flush toilet, which have poorer flush performance because of the reduced water. So, we stand out by saving water, saving owners money, and improving hygiene. Have I said that before?
What changes have you seen since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis and how have you tackled them?
The Covid crisis has been challenging for many and we’re no exception. Lockdown has meant pressing pause as our customers went home too! We had to react quickly to reduce short-term costs whilst still providing service to existing customers: Some staff were placed on furlough; we applied for government support; and found creative ways to improve cash outflow.
On a personal level, we focused on the welfare of the team – to create a safe working environment for those carrying out the core functions, but also making sure those at home and on furlough feel connected and motivated. One of the things we look forward to are the weekly company video calls. It’s not just quizzes, games and goofing around! It’s been a great chance to learn about colleagues; their lockdown habits; and hobbies. This has been fun and rewarding to me and I hope enjoyable and interesting for everyone.
On a strategic level, management has had time to review focus areas and tailor our strategy to a post Covid-19 world. For example, we’re fast-tracking the innovation of an auto open/close lid to cater to the need for better hygiene and also, we’re trialing a low-capex solution; a payment plan that aligns with the cost saving profile of the product. We know most businesses will have less cash and this makes the cost-saving benefit of the product even more compelling.
What will be the greatest challenge going forward?
One of our greatest challenges will be balancing the desire to scale quickly and efficiently, with maintenance of quality and service. Our partner model is engineered to scale, but we’ll need to avoid temptation to rush expansion into new markets at the cost of our brand. We will continue to be selective about our partners, and a lot of focus will go into training, monitoring and supporting them to ensure quality and service is up to the Propelair standard, even if that means moderate delays to our expansion plans.
Good firms focus. We plan to grow our footprint in South Africa and launch into the Middle East, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore. Here, we will bolster our sales, marketing, and service teams modestly, as we leverage our partnership model to achieve growth. Longer term, we have our sights set on larger water-stressed markets such as the US, India, and China.
How has the technology developed and improved over time?
Today’s solution is the result of nearly two decades of trial and error – working with various universities and customers to perfect the technology, usability and aesthetics. We always look for ways to improve the product and recently we redesigned the lid to be a transparent ABS plastic, not only giving the product an eye-catching recognisable design but also giving users confidence in the effectiveness of the flush action. This month we have updated our control unit to provide feedback to services engineers and is the first part of the smart connectivity.
What new features/plans do you have in the pipeline?
Building a smart, IOT connected system is the project, about which I’m most excited. It will allow real-time monitoring of usage, water savings, diagnostics, some block detection and more. It will also allow us to launch a “savings-as-a-service” solution, whereby customers can pay little capex upfront, and pay a monthly fee to access a full services and maintenance program.
This will be great for the customer, allowing them to pay for installation through water savings over time, not all upfront. It will also give them access to greater data and reporting, reduced down-times and a hassle-free maintenance program. It will also enable us to unlock new long-term contracted revenue streams and improve our connection with owners and the product.
What gets you up in the morning?
I share this answer with everyone at Propelair. As Simon Sinek says, “the best companies start with why”. Why does everyone in the team get out of bed in the morning? It’s to help (owners and users) save water, improve hygiene and help save the planet… one flush at a time!
To find out more about Propelair, visit the pitch.