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Innovation support creates sales and new jobs for clean-tech start-up

Our Innovation Specialists helped a Greater Manchester SME to create forecasted Y1 sales of £80,000 and two new jobs as it embarks on a groundbreaking revolution in sustainable housing.

Adopted Mancunian Dr Liam Britnell is on a mission to deliver sustainable, smart and affordable homes across the country.

With a small team at clean-tech start-up Vector Homes, Liam is developing an entirely new approach to housing construction and has his sights set on producing 5,000 innovative new homes per year, sold as easy-to-assemble flatpacks.

From a venture that started out a few years ago as something that was fitted in around the day job, Vector unveiled its prototype eco home – built using sustainable and advanced materials – to an audience of potential industry clients, partners and investors in September 2023.

It’s been quite a journey, so what have been the main factors behind this dazzling progress?

“Perseverance and getting the right support have been critical,” says Liam. “As a start-up, there's a lot of work to be done across a broad range of activities, and as well as the accomplishments we've had a lot of knockbacks too.”

“One of the things that's enabled us to keep going is that we simply haven’t been prepared to give up. And, alongside this, we’ve really put ourselves out there in terms of accessing business support services, which I think is something every SME should do.”

“Whether it's grant funding, advice or mentorship, there are a lot of things out there which you sometimes need to go and look for. This can be make or break for early-stage businesses, where you have a finite time to become profitable before you run out of cash.”

“Without the external support we’ve received, we wouldn’t be here today – it’s  been vital in helping our innovation.”

“There are a lots of places where you can find very generic business support, but if it's with the wrong people it can definitely end up being a bit of a time-waster.”

Dr Liam Britnell, CTO and founder, Vector Homes

Disruptive innovation in the construction sector

Vector Homes’ innovation has focused on technological advances to directly address the construction sector's inefficiencies and environmental shortcomings.

“Not only does it typically take six to nine months to build and fit a standard brick house, but housing is over three times more expensive than it was 25 years ago,” says Liam. “Then there’s the environmental impact of the construction sector, which accounts for a third of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

“What we currently have are unsustainable systems and unsustainable materials. There are so many parts in the chain, in going from the decision to build a house to that house actually becoming a reality – planners, architects, designers, material suppliers, land owners and so on – which contributes to the carbon footprint and rising costs.”

“What we're trying to do is take a broader view that cuts out the inefficiencies. We design the materials and the building system, acting as a one-stop supply of all the things that you need to build the house, as well as working with clients on the adaptable design.”

“The homes can be produced and assembled quickly. They can be extended flexibly within days and are future-proofed to allow for new types of heating systems or cooling systems to be integrated.”

“We’re using recycled materials in our units, from detergent bottles and fizzy drink bottle capsules to steel, along with advanced materials such as graphene. The result is strong, impact and fire resistance, sound proof and thermally insulated homes that contribute 80% fewer carbon emissions during the building process than a bricks-and-mortar house.”

The combination of cutting-edge technology and entrepreneurial spirit could only take Liam and the team so far, however…

The importance of getting the right business support

To achieve market acceptance and drive sales it was essential to have third-party independent verification of the performance of Vector’s modular houses. This would be the first step towards regulatory approval for sales into the affordable home sector.

“We knew we needed to bring in expertise from outside,” says Liam. “There are lots of places you can find very generic business support, but if it's with the wrong people it can definitely end up being a bit of a time waster.”

“Fortunately, I'd heard positive feedback from other companies about the value that GM Business Growth Hub can add, so when we approached them we were confident that we’d get something useful out of it. And that really has been the case.”

“They carried out an audit on the business to identify where we most needed support, and one of the areas was around accessing testing for the panelling we were developing.”

“While we’re able to run small tests at our premises, house-building requires testing on the scale of the products themselves, which might be a 3x2 metre wall, so the Innovation team highlighted the need for a collaboration project to validate the new material.”

The company was introduced to the University of Salford’s Thermal Measurement Laboratory and Acoustic Testing Laboratory, and awarded an Innovation Voucher to half-fund the cost of accessing this expert technical support. And the activities led to the building of the prototype house at the University’s world leading energy performance test facility, Energy House 2.0.

“The Energy House 2.0 team have been incredible to work with, and in a few months’ time our housing system will have more empirical data than any other in the world,” Liam told the University. “This will enable us to continue our iteration cycles to take Vector to the next level.”

How it began and where it’s going

Liam met Vector’s co-founders Nathan Feddy and Jonas Singer while working at the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre

“Nathan, who has a young family, was saying too many young people are locked out from home ownership. That’s how it all began. It got us thinking, and we started looking from a personal level at why housing is so expensive.”

“It’s not an easy question to answer, but there was – and is – clearly a great need for sustainable construction and the construction of affordable houses, so we started working on the idea on weekday evenings and weekends. Then we took a week off and built a wall from some materials we’d developed, and everything snowballed from there.”

As for the future, Vector Homes has recently taken on two new full-time members of staff and is gearing up to bringing more funding into the business to support the move into commercialisation.

“We've identified a few pilot sites for the homes and are looking at bringing in private investment to fund these, with a plan to reach a production capacity of around 200 homes initially per year, expanding to around 5,000 annually. We’re forecasting significant sales in the first year and our laser focus now is on delivering on the promise of these innovative materials and the system we've developed.”

“We’re also looking at how we can more efficiently use materials that are already within the UK, to break the reliance on supply chains that get impacted by global events, such as the war in Ukraine and COVID.”

“We’ve been able to access Innovate UK funding to help us develop future product lines using recycled and eco-efficient materials. So, for example, we’re looking at using wool from Welsh mountain sheep and converting it into a rigid insulation product that can be used in our buildings, or sold through wholesalers.”

Thanks to introductions from the GM Business Growth Hub, the company has also formed partnerships with F&T Terrix, which produces mould-resistant plaster and render, and HAHN Plastics, whose product lines include outdoor furniture made from recycled plastic.

“Everything started very small, but has grown and grown,” says Liam. “That’s down in no small part to the Growth Hub, the support given by innovation specialists Stephen Slater and Russell Mansfield, and the introductions they’ve made.” 

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