P | P | P – our chat with Albotherm
We caught up with Molly Allington, CEO and a Co-Founder of Albotherm as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. Air conditioning is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 10% of global electricity consumption which is set to triple by 2050. Albotherm are working to eliminate air conditioning as well as protecting greenhouse crops using their glass coatings which reduce solar gain in hot weather.
The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.
Imogen @ ADLIB: Hi Molly, nice to meet you! Please could you introduce yourself, what Albotherm do, the stage you are currently at, and what makes Albotherm unique?
Molly: I am the CEO and Co-Founder of Albotherm. We make passive, cooling coatings that are mainly aimed at buildings and greenhouses. Our technology is a coating that is fully transparent when it’s cold and when it heats up, it turns white. This reflects away the heat and stops any overheating, reducing the carbon emissions from, say, air conditioning use in a building, and also in greenhouses it helps to promote a good environment for the crops to grow in and increase yields. We are at quite an early stage at the moment, we have only been incorporated for about 18 months and right now we have a working prototype, which we are still building out into a product which we will be trialling this summer.
What makes our offering unique is that our technology can be applied to a lot of different industries, the ones we are currently focused on are greenhouses and buildings, but we also are still exploring a lot of potential future applications. One of them is for solar panels, which actually are most efficient in spring due to them overheating in summer.
Imogen @ ADLIB: That is great, so many useful applications! Could you please share a little background on the origin story of your product?
Molly: Absolutely, my co-founder and I met when we were both studying at the University of Bristol. She was doing her PhD at the time and I was doing my undergrad and we were both in the same research group. Sian had been working on this technology for a while before I joined, but the idea for the application came originally from our research supervisor. He had a conservatory in his house and found that it was a nightmare to keep it cool in the summer. The blind systems you can buy for conservatories are so expensive as you have to get them bespoke because of the awkward shape. Our supervisor had been working with the materials we use at Albotherm now and he thought why you can’t just use these instead. At the time, the technology was not in a form where you could just spray the coating on and leave so that was the work we had to do. My co-founder Sian worked to develop that while I started doing the market research which then led us from conservatories to greenhouses and on from there.
Imogen @ ADLIB: Speaking of people, could you share some challenges around scaling your team, and do you have any tips for businesses you think may share the same issues?
Molly: In the early stages, hiring is so, so important. When we started we had two founders and we hired our first employee last Spring. This person was so crucial to our success as they’d make up a third of our total team.
We really struggled to find someone for a long time as we needed someone with a research background as well as experience in the coatings industry, and in fact after rounds of interview we hired the very last person who applied right on the day of the deadline. She ended up being the perfect candidate, so I think we were just really lucky to have found her.
In regard to my general advice for hiring, I think it’s important to be really self-aware as founders as you need to know what your shortcomings are, and then you can try and find people with the right skillsets that you’re lacking. I would also say as an early-stage start-up, you don’t really have a very wide audience yet and so you want to cast your net as wide as possible so use whatever connections you have, put the job advert up in as many different places as you can find and try to cover all bases!
Imogen @ ADLIB: It is fate that she applied on the final day! Moving to product, what has been your approach to understanding product market fit or sales cycles?
Molly: That is definitely something that we are still trying to find, we are still quite early stage, particularly with the product market fit. I think one of the things that actually helped me was a great book. I had been doing market research and speaking to customers for two years now for Albotherm and I feel like the first year or, so I was just doing it completely wrong! I read a book called ‘The Mom Test’ by Robert Fitzpatrick and that was so, so helpful. The central idea of the book is that if you ask your mum if she likes your business idea then of course she’s going to say yes, and most customers are the same because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, but good market research is about asking the right questions that get to the truth of the problem customers actually have. Since changing my methods, I feel like the message we have been able to craft has gotten better and better and has really started to resonate with the customers and you do find that as more people are willing to speak to you, you get better feedback again
Imogen @ ADLIB: For potential, could you share some challenges and barriers you have had to overcome when creating your product?
Molly: Yeah, definitely. With creating the product, the access to lab space was really hard to find. There are only a couple of places in Bristol, which is where we knew we wanted to be based, that have lab space for start-ups.
Availability is always a trouble in these labs as start-ups are constantly in flux, but particularly for us. We were also looking for labs during the first COVID lockdown, so space was limited. It took us a long time but we ended up finding labs at Future Space which is a great space for a small team as the labs come fitted so you don’t have to buy a lot of equipment, and you share the labs with other start-ups which helps build a community.
Imogen @ ADLIB: For investment, do you have any advice that you could give for start-ups and scale-ups approaching investment?
Molly: We closed our first fundraising round last year which included some Innovate UK grant funding as well as some private investment. Most of the investment was from a group called Sustainable Ventures and we had a couple of Angel investors as well. This came with an accelerator program as well, which has been really, really helpful and I would definitely recommend to any early stage start ups
My advice would be to always start fundraising before you think you’ll need it and give yourself plenty of time. We were running close to a deadline and needed investment in to avoid losing our grant funding and it is a really stressful place to be which can lead to you making poor decisions. The other thing is to raise a little bit more than you think you will need. Since our last fundraising closed, we have had so many little opportunities that we would have liked to have taken advantage of and there are always unexpected costs. .
Imogen @ ADLIB: What are Albotherm hoping to achieve this year, what are your aims?
Molly: We are still developing the product, at the moment we have a working prototype, but we still need to improve certain aspects of it. We are going to be doing product trials using greenhouses at Rothamsted Research this summer which we are really excited about. We also have a number of commercial growers that want to trial with us in 2023. This year will mostly be focused on optimising our product as well as scaling up our production, so we are ready for these commercial trials in 2023. Scaling up the technology is a huge challenge; even a small-scale greenhouse trial still has to cover a square kilometre of space meaning we need to go from producing 5 litres of paint to 500 litres.
Thank you for your time, Molly!