Product designer Kevin Jabou spent nearly a decade perfecting the ‘iceless ice bucket’. The result is Kaelo, which is winning fans around the globe, as Peter Ranscombe reports.
It’s a situation that will be familiar to so many entrepreneurs: you’re out celebrating a big deal or a big sale or a successful takeover and you decide to splash out on a bottle of Champagne. Your fizz duly arrives and, after the first round of glasses has been poured, the bottle is inserted into an ice bucket to keep it cool.
But then, when the time comes for the next glass, the bottle is already soaking with water from the ice bucket and it dribbles and dribbles and dribbles, across the table and your guests and your knees. A first world problem to be sure, but one that has annoyed generations of diners in high-end restaurants.
Kevin Jabou was one such diner. Going out for meals in his early twenties, he was frustrated by the old-fashioned approach to keeping wine cool. While most of us would simply shrug our shoulders and move on, Jabou decided to do something about it. And, as a product designer, he had the skills to put his idea into practice too.
Having graduated with a degree in product design from the University of Sussex in Brighton, the idea of solving the ice bucket problem captured Jabou’s imagination. It was the start of a near decade-long journey, which has led to the creation of Kaelo, an “iceless ice bucket” that’s proving to be a hit not only with interior designers for private homes, but also in top restaurants, hotels and yachts. And, like all the best inventions, it started in a garden shed. Or his Mum’s outhouse in East London to be precise.
“She had some very basic power tools, I borrowed some from a friend and I bought some more,” Jabou remembers. “I made my prototypes and did my tests and it became my inventor’s den.
“I often joke that if anyone saw it then they must have thought I was up to something devious because the place was full or wires and chemicals and looked proper suspicious, like I was creating something dodgy.”
In the early days, Jabou funded the project out of his own pocket, taking a weird and wonderful array of part-time jobs to finance his endeavours. “I’ve literally done absolutely everything,” he laughs. “From bar work to carpentry to labouring to becoming first aid trained so I could pick up evening jobs at night clubs. I could work from 10pm to 6am and then go and work on Kaelo.
“I started working at a deli and became a cheese specialist. I sold trainers. I did a lot of reception work as a temp. Catering. I tried my hand at pretty much everything that would pay me an hourly wage to get some money in.
“When I started working on Kaelo, I needed to shift my working hours. I needed to talk to manufacturers and potential clients and showrooms during working hours, so I had to start finding part-time jobs in the mornings or evenings to still make a living.”
The name, perhaps, was one of the easier steps. Pronounced “Kay-lo”, the moniker is a fusion of “Kaizen”, the Japanese method for continuous improvement, and “halo” after the circle of light at the top of the device’s chamber, in which the bottle of still or sparkling wine sits.
The technology itself was more complex to develop. Yet the “Kaizen” development technique was at the heart of the process.
“I tried a whole bunch of things to begin with, buying different things on eBay,” Jabou says. “I went to manufacturers and asked them to make me prototypes based on different shapes.
“I taught myself different techniques for how to weld and sand and shape metal. I was buying different grades of metal and it was literally a case of trial and error and error and error.
“In my Mum’s house today, you’ve literally got 100 different prototypes, with different finishes and materials and welding and gluing and epoxying. It was a super-iterative process.”
Jabou experimented with different techniques for keeping a bottle of wine cool, but quickly settled on an existing piece of technology that has been used in the military and medical industries. He adapted the components and was able to register a patent, demonstrating the novelty of his design.
“The easiest way to describe the Kaelo is that it sucks heat from its chamber really, really quickly,” he explains. “The manufacturers have been using this technology for about 40 years to keep transplant organs cool during transportation and tiny versions to calibrate the infra-red sensors on helicopters.
“At first, the manufacturer was apprehensive because other people had approached them with the concept of using their technology to cool a bottle, but they’d turned them all away. When they saw Kaelo, they realised I’d reengineered the whole solution to a really high degree and that’s why they were happy to work with me.
“It uses electricity to take heat in one direction. It sucks heat away from the chamber to make the chamber really cold and disperses it at the bottom.”
The first prototypes were tested on the market in 2012, after which Jabou continued to refine his product. The next step was to get it ready for mass manufacturing.
“All the components in the Kaelo are bespoke,” he says. “They’ve never been made before and they’re hard to make.
“Some of the components have secondary or additional processes that take place after they’re manufactured. Those processes are like an art – sometimes it’s not as easy as following a recipe, depending on the shape of a part or the structure of a part, it can be trial and error.
“For each part, I was having to speak to lots of different manufacturers in the UK. It was unfeasible to even explore manufacturing overseas because I’d have to go and visit each manufacture and see how successful they were in achieving the finishes or the quality that I wanted and which were necessary for the Kaelo to work as it does.
“The polishing, for example, took me two years of meetings with manufacturers to find one that could work to the calibre that I wanted. They also polish parts for Rolls-Royce and Range Rover, so they are the crème-de-la-crème of polishing.
“To know what I wanted, I had to learn how to polish. I bought a grinding machine, took it to my Mum’s shed and set it up. I polished the top of the Kaelo to the standard that I wanted and that was what I took round all the manufacturers I visited.
“Some of these component manufacturers have been with us since we started making prototypes. These manufacturers normally get contracts worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, but then they’ve got this crazy guy coming in and asking for a piece of metal to be polished in a specific way.
“They took a real leap of faith to believe in what I was trying to do. It’s a beautiful thing to have those guys still on board because they’ve been part of the whole story and they’ve seen everything grow.”
Initially, Jabou raised investment from Gordon Stein, the chief financial officer at one of the companies for which he’d been temping as an administrator. Stein then invested a second time alongside one of his former business partners. Kaelo raised £250,000 through their existing investors’ contacts and Jabou’s friends. A further fundraising round brought in £350,000, with other investors wanting to become involved.
“One of the interior designers who ordered a bespoke Kaelo got in touch with us and explained that his client, who was buying three Kaelos, wanted to invest in the company,” Jabou remembers. “He’s one of our major investors now.”
Despite raising significant amounts of money and winning the backing of professional investors, Jabou hasn’t forgotten that the journey began with funding from a little closer to home.
“To make those first Kaelo that we tested the market with, I had to raise about £4,000 to buy the parts,” he explains. “We did that through a Just Giving page and all my family and friends donated.
“Now, when we hold investors’ evenings, they all get invited. We call them the ‘donators’ and they were the key instigators of getting Kaelo manufactured.”
Kaelo launched its first product – which is integrated into bars, countertops and other surfaces – at the end of 2016, with a free-standing version unveiled this September at a lunch held at the Michelin-starred Restaurant Story in Bermondsey, across the River Thames from where Kaelo’s ten staff are based at its office in Shoreditch; its manufacturing partner is located in Oxfordshire.
The free-standing model, which is only available through the company’s website with prices starting at £1,295, is the first product aimed directly at consumers, with the integrated version having been sold through interior designers and kitchen designers for homes, yachts and commercial premises. As well as black and white, the company has introduced a range of real wood finishes for the product and offers a full bespoke service.