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It may be an accepted fact that the Age of Steam is long over but Dan Wright has other ideas.
Heliex Power, the East Kilbride-based company he co-founded, has developed a method of using steam that is hugely more energy efficient and could transform the economics of running many different types of factories.
The company designs, manufactures and supplies patented Steam Expander Systems that generate electricity using waste heat and steam from industrial processes.
Heliex systems will work where traditional technology won’t and so what they have is a disruptive, transformative process.
Heliex’s machines are already being used in biomass systems, dairies, food factories, distilleries and incinerators.
Wright says: “We’ve got a plant running in Milan for example which is collecting heat from the glass furnaces in a bottle factory.
“They make half a million bottles a day and we’re generating about 380 kilowatts of energy from the waste.
“We’ve got about three and a half mega watts of heat left over and that’s being sold for district central heating in houses that surround the factory and there is a school there too and a swimming pool.”
Wright says that their systems will change the financial basis of running many different types of plant.
“The customer isn’t interested in the thermodynamics and all the smart stuff – it’s just a blue box as far as he’s concerned and the blue box does a trick but if it doesn’t make money for him, it doesn’t make money for us and there’s no point in doing it.”
But Heliex machines will save businesses really significant amounts of money.
“Typically we would expect our kit to pay back its cost on anything between two and four years depending on the application.
“And you’re talking about kit when it’s fully installed costing anything between £150,000 to £350,000-£400,000 depending on the size of the plant.”
Wright says: “We reckon if the customer is getting his money back in two to four years he’s getting a good deal and thereafter there is profit. The life of a plant is typically 15 years.”
There is certainly enough of a belief that such savings can be made for the Heliex kit to have already been sold to plants in the UK, Holland, Italy, France, India, Israel and Ireland.
“The customer isn’t interested in the thermodynamics and all the smart stuff – it’s just a blue box as far as he’s concerned ... if it doesn’t make money for him, it doesn’t make money for us and there’s no point in doing it”
With the many countries that are interested and the range of plants that it would mean big savings for the potential for Heliex Power’s business could be genuinely huge.
Wright says: “Every time I did the business plan in the early days I looked at the numbers and I thought, ‘No this can’t be right.
“These numbers are so bloody big they can’t be right’. But then as we got further into it we find they were right.
“Now hopefully we’ll be successful in the exploitation of those markets but normally, when you’ve got huge markets like that, unless you’re in to some consumer gizmo like an iPhone it takes time and time allows competitors to come along.
“So far we’re okay we haven’t seen anyone who’s up to the mark where we are but we’ll get that, that’ll come.
“So you’re on a treadmill that happens to one that engineers like which is continuous development, continuous improvement of the product.”
The remarkable story that is Heliex Power began seven years ago when on a “grey, rainy horrible day” when Wright was visiting a plant in Middlesbrough that he was thinking about acquiring.
As he was driving he received a call from Ian Smith, an academic at City University in London that Wright had collaborated many times with over the years.
Smith had had an enquiry from a company in Australia about setting up a geothermal power station and using what are called screw compressors instead of turbines – an application of a technology that Smith and Wright had long talked about.
Wright says: “The university authorities said to him ‘is this time to do a spinout?’
He said ‘could be but I don’t know how to do it but I know a man who does’ and phoned me.”
Instead of returning to Scotland, Wright headed to London and the project that would become Heliex Power was born.
In the early days the project was supported by the Carbon Trust as a potential major energy saver, a link that led to an approach from energy giant BP.
Wright says: “Without going looking I got a phone call from BP’s alternative investment divisions saying ‘We like what you’re doing, we don’t actually have any investments in the UK would you like BP as a shareholder?’
I said: ‘Well, possibly’, he jokes. ‘Let me think about it for about three milliseconds’.”
Through that contact came one with Green Code Capital, the investment division of Ireland’s electricity supply board, which became Heliex’s second investor.
Both have followed their money with subsequent rounds of investment.
By March 2016 the company had taken in £14m from the two investors, with Scottish Investment Bank adding in a further £2m.
'Without going looking I got a phone call from BP’s alternative investment divisions saying ‘We like what you’re doing, we don’t actually have any investments in the UK would you like BP as a shareholder?’
But with the investment in place the big question was how the market would react to what Heliex was offering.
Wright says: “We’re getting sales, we’ve got machines out in the marketplace, we’re starting to develop some new applications for the technology in the form of steam recompression, using the machines to drive air compressors instead of generators.
“So we’re beginning to spread the portfolio and we’ve got machines in countries around Europe.”
Despite the success, Wright is keeping his feet firmly on the ground.
“What you have to watch though is that just because you can do a clever trick doesn’t mean that the world wants to buy it.
“You have to be very thorough about how you go about that, make sure that what you’re doing is actually what the world wants.
“Lots of academics come unstuck because they can do very clever things but they’re still in the science base, they’ve not got them to the point – if they can ever be got to the point – where the world will want to buy the thing they’re doing.”
Heliex’s ‘clever trick’ is doing something that has not really been done before on any major kind of commercial basis using wet steam – what Wright refers to as ‘the grey stuff’ – rather than dry steam that is normally used.
Wright explains: “There have been attempts to use wet steam in the past but they’ve not been terribly successful or they’re done using equipment that requires to be changed regularly, that has a very short service interval because it wears it out and you have to change the bits.
“What we have is a machine that doesn’t require that.”
This technological development has attracted the interest of other major players in the energy industry such as EDF and Siemens, which led to a recent trip by Wright to Germany.
It is all a remarkably far way from the beginnings of the business.
As Wright puts it: “Starting from a clean sheet in December 2010, three of us in an office and not even an engineering drawing, to develop a whole new technology and start exploiting a totally new market with a completely new company you’ve got all the recipes for the wheels coming off.
“Fortunately I’ve managed to do that trick once or twice in the past and it looks like we’ve managed that now but you can never be complacent you never know what’s coming round the corner and going to bite you on the bum.”
It is not the first time that Wright has been one of a team of three people starting a business.
This takes me back to the first time I met him, when there were also three of them starting a business on a business park in Clydebank.
Wright formed Fleming Thermodynamics along with Allan Riach and Gordon Hastie.
“Gordon and Allan have both retired, I’m still flogging on.”
What Fleming Thermodynamics developed was a real breakthrough in engine technology: the Sprintex Supercharger, a mechanically driven rotary compressor, which increased the power of auto engines significantly but without sacrificing the life of the engine.
All these years later the current employees of Heliex Power include some former employees of Fleming Thermodynamics – colleagues Wright jokingly describes as “gluttons for punishment”.
Wright says of Fleming: “We didn’t just develop the Sprintex Supercharger but we did a lot of consultancy work, developing new products and sorting out other companies.”
One of the most significant cases that Wright handled as a turnaround specialist was when he was brought in to take over the failed Leyland DAF truck business at Scotstoun, Glasgow in the early 1990s.
Wright was, at the time, working as a member of the Prime Minister’s Deregulation Taskforce at the Cabinet Office and agreed to take up a task that he said no-one else wanted.
From the remains of Leyland Wright created Albion Automotive Industries which he grew into a business with a turnover of more than £70m and which was subsequently sold to the American Axle & Manufacturing Company (AAM) of Detroit in 1998, a business spun out of General Motors.
By that time Wright had left the business having fallen out with the rest of the board over how to take the business forward, a view that he still insists was right.
“There’s no point in hanging on if you’re not going to get the board to do what you want.
“Some of the old Leyland attitudes were still there,” he claims.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of that, as he says now: “We rescued a few thousand jobs between Scotland and the North of England.”
The Scotstoun plant they rescued is still going under AAM.
Wright’s reputation as a turnaround specialist led to him getting offers further and further afield.
He was called in to Johnston Sweepers, a task that led to him commuting to Surrey for three years.
“I had thought I had an agreement with the people that owned the company that the division I’d sorted out they’d give me the opportunity to buy.
“But it was sold to a German competitor and I thought ‘Right, now’s the time to get back into running your own company and not be doing stuff for folk that’s not entirely within your own control’.
“It was not long after that the opportunity to do what became Heliex Power arose.”
The other notable episode in Dan Wright’s distinguished career came in 1998 when he was appointed as a director of Semple Cochrane, the engineering support services business which worked in a range of fields from ship refitting to railways work.
Wright was a non-executive director and was later appointed as managing director, a post he departed only three weeks in to the job, at the time blaming “irreconcilable differences in style” between himself and other directors in the business.
The sudden departure cast a shadow over Wright’s reputation but increasing questions began to emerge over what really happened at Semple Cochrane amid clients making major claims against the company including one from Babcock’s in a ship refit that Semple Cochrane was working on.
The business would go on to feature in an investigation by the Department of Trade, the report of which was never published, and one by the then Inland Revenue.
Wright says now: “It was a very, very difficult time but you learn who your pals are very quickly.
“All the phone calls stopped, nobody invites you to dinner, nobody invites you shooting, it all goes quiet.”
But then an article was published with a ‘Wright was right’ headline.
“And then all the phone calls started again and I said ‘I don’t think so’.
“The guys that stick with you when you’re in the shit big time…I learned a lot there.”
And Wright has used that experience to his advantage.
“I’ve got it on my CV that I did it. I use it as an example of a learning process.
“I was subjected to this, I was in the middle of this, this was the outcome. Like Reagan said always be the guy with the white hat not the guy with the black hat.
“I had the white hat on.”
He adds: “I don’t think I’ll run into one of those again. I would see it coming, I would call the cops first.”
At age 67 Wright is now beginning to run down the level of his involvement with Heliex Power.
“I will stay as an employee of the company but by the time we get to September I will have run down my involvement.
“At my instigation we appointed a new CEO, a guy called Chris Armitage. In April I’ll start to wind my involvement down.”
He is in discussion with a number of universities about other potential spinouts.
He is talking with three universities about joining boards to help with spinout companies and developing their strategies.
“I’ve got the engineer’s disease: I cannot stop my brain: I can’t retire.
“It just doesn’t work for people like me.
“So I’m starting look at some kinds of work I’ve done before: non-execs and chairmanships.
“I’m starting to see if we can put some things together on that.
“Some folks still think that geriatric engineers are worth having around. That’s the plan at the minute.”
Wright has had a remarkable career.
There are few careers that span such innovative engineering projects and corporate turnarounds, never mind getting embroiled in such a distinctively unsavoury episode at a publicly listed company.
I am certain it is far from over yet.
Read the full article at the Insider here.