As far as entrepreneurial goals go, helping to prevent two million deaths a year is a pretty noble cause.
And this is exactly what 24-year-old Lewis Bowen has tasked himself with through his flourishing fuels business Geco Industries.
The Sheffield firm, which employs nine and is expected to surpass £1m turnover next year and £3m by 2017, has developed a smokeless, non-toxic, non-explosive alternative to cooking and heating fuel.
The Bioethanol gel product Fuel4 has, in three years, cracked the UK camping market. A deal with retail giant Go Outdoors, was followed last year by a £250,000 per year, six-year contract with European camping distributor AMG Ltd.
This took the brand into 1000 new stores including Blacks, Millets and Cotswolds Outdoor, and Fuel4 even counts the Scouting Association as an ambassador. It is also recommended by three of the UK’s largest music festivals; Leeds, Redding and Latitude.
At the time of writing Bowen says the business is on the verge of securing a new round of investment that will help power it onto the shelves of the UK’s supermarket giants. Exports are also on the radar, with interest from Scandinavia, France and Germany arising in recent weeks following attendances at trade shows on the Continent.
But it is Fuel4’s potential to save lives in areas of humanitarian crisis or poverty that could truly accelerate its global growth. An estimated 2 million people die every year in lesser developed parts of Africa from indoor air pollution, while 3 billion people around the world are exposed to harmful cooking and heating fuels. Fuel4, says Bowen, could be a game changer for humanitarian charities and military organisations in providing vital fuel safely to people who need it most.
“I started the business on the same day as my last university exam,” he says from his Sheffield manufacturing plant. “The aim was to eradicate harmful fuels around the world, which is a small ask. “I had been working on a placement at GlaxoSmithKline where I came across a company called TerraCycle. They take toothpaste tubes, break them down and recycle them into something else. They do that in 23 countries as a commercial entity. It’s a brilliant business and it really got me thinking that I wanted to start something that could be socially responsible, make an environmental impact but also be commercially viable.”
His chances of start-up success were bolstered by a level of entrepreneurial experience far beyond that of most twenty somethings.
“Everyone’s got a story about selling cans of drink and the school yard, but I did that when I was 12 and made £40 a week. It maybe helped that my dad runs a successful alcoholic beverages company which sells to the likes of Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s. When I was about 15, I sold hooded sweatshirts and T-shirts to my school and local clubs. Then in university, I ran a telemarketing campaign where I give a lot of friends Skype credit and a list of numbers to ring.”
His desire to develop a social and environmentally aware business needed a spark of inspiration. This came from his dad, in the unlikely setting of a shark dive off the South African coast.
“Like any business owner or entrepreneur starting a business, you don’t always need the experience you just need to find someone who has the experience. My dad knew what I was looking for in a business, and I told him to keep his eyes open. He met a lady called Mariette Hopley who had developed a gel fuel made of bioethanol which I thought I could develop further. Her fuel as it was wouldn’t have been able to sell in this country because of legal restrictions, so we looked to take it to a different level. She subsequently became my business partner, although she has since exited the business amicably.”
Having come out of university in May 2011, by August he had secured a factory in Sheffield and was underway with the testing process, with the support of Sheffield Hallam and the University of Sheffield.
“There are some amazing minds at the universities so we did some testing there to make sure the products complied to UK regulations.”
Then a chance meeting with John Graham, founder and CEO of Go Outdoors while undergoing some leadership training at university, opened doors into an hour-long meeting with the retailer’s top brass.
Bowen and his small team quickly set about designing a product range and developing the tooling and machinery to manufacture them.
“The product needed more development,” says Bowen. “So we met Go Outdoors for a second time in November 2011, developed a stove to go with the gel and by January had secured an initial order for about 2000 units. We got local suppliers to make the stoves and all sorts of other bits and bobs like pots and pans, cups and sporks.”
Further success followed with Go Outdoors attracting interest from other retailers. Then came a deal with AGM, which multiplied Geco’s presence on UK high streets. The festivals markets also opened up, with Fuel4’s launch proving timely, given that the Leeds and Reading Festival’s had both begun to ban the use of gas during events.
Schools, scouts and Duke of Edinburgh Award activities have also proven fertile ground for Bowen’s firm
As well as export markets, the next frontier for the business is to work with humanitarian aid organisations.
The product was developed specifically to address the problem of indoor air pollution in Africa. And, given the ease at which it can be transported safely, and its safe-burning qualities, Bowen believes it could be an ideal solution in times of crisis which require people to survive in make shift shelters.
“We’ve had discussions with the Ministry of Defence but things take a bit longer than retail with this type of organisation because of various processes involved.
“But Fuel4 is safer to use than the hexamine blocks currently used by many humanitarian organisations. These are toxic to burn, omitting cyanide and notions gases, which our products don’t do.”
With the UN currently providing aid to around 34 million refugees and the Red Cross reaching 950,000 vulnerable people in 20 countries each year, humanitarian aid-driven demand could clearly be vast for Geco in the future.
But while the firm aims to reach people in crisis by distributing through larger organisations, Bowen would also like to “set up sites around the world that would produce fuels to help as many people as possible”.
In the meantime, with investors circling, he is focused on servicing new areas of the buoyant UK market and harnessing any export opportunities that arise.