SME Stories: Mark Buchanan, Co-Founder of Extreme Low Energy
Solar panels produce direct current (DC) electricity, which is used to power everyday electronics like computers and lights. Yet most homes and offices today waste energy converting alternating current (AC) from the grid, even if they have solar panels.
Former IT engineer Mark Buchanan explains how this inefficient, yet common system set-up became the springboard for setting up his business, and how the Innovator Support Platform revealed an entirely new market for them to explore.
Business name: Extreme Low Energy
Founder: Mark Buchanan
Location: Skelmersdale, North West England
Year established: 2014
Number of employees: 10
What is the elevator pitch for your business?
We are a low voltage infrastructure specialist. Where products don’t exist to deliver what customers need, we will actually innovate, design and manufacture products to deliver those solutions. We work with global partners – including the likes of Intel and Phillips – and build their products and devices into our solutions.
We’ve got a really simple plug-and-play system which allows you to power things like lights in houses and offices just using computer cables without any need for electricians. The system also allows you to monitor the power levels of individual devices, and send email or text alerts if a device isn’t functioning as usual.
How did you come up with the idea?
The business is based on a number of my skills. I started out in the IT industry in the early 90s, in the days where computer engineers had to go out into the field with soldering irons and circuit boards.
Since 2010, I was involved with renewables projects; seeing solar panels getting installed in buildings. These need boxes put on to the system to convert the DC, which the solar panels were making, into AC to run it round the building. Yet I knew from my background and experience with low voltage electronics like computers and telecoms that all those devices need DC to be powered, but we have to put transformers onto them to make the work off AC grid supply.
Extreme Low Energy (ELE) was born out of the challenge: could we use renewable power from solar panels directly in electronic devices, such as an LED light or a computer, without ever needing to take it through any AC/DC conversions?
What is the advantage of not converting AC into DC?
Conversion results in some energy losses. These generally show up in the form of heat, and heat is wasted energy. Heat sometimes also needs to be moved away through cooling systems or fans, which themselves require more energy to run. ELE is all about finding the most efficient infrastructure to drive electronics and low energy devices.
What made you confident that the idea could be translated into a successful business?
Using low voltage in buildings has been talked about for years, but no one has figured out how to use or deploy it properly in the building – that’s where our efforts and attention were spent.
The first three years of ELE were pretty much all about research and development, building the technology set, and registering the IP and patents which have since been granted in Europe, Australia, Africa and the US. Through the research process, we knew we were on to something, but we couldn’t figure out why it hadn’t been done before.
What excites you about the ongoing transformation of the energy system?
The strange thing with our technology is: yes, we deliver efficiencies, we can use renewable power on-site or locally without conversion losses, but it’s the other things that the system brings to new-build construction and office development that excites us, which is less about energy.
Even though we are called Extreme Low Energy, the Catapult’s Innovator Support Platform (ISP) has shown how our solution is actually being seen as a plug-and-play installation system or lighting infrastructure. We’ve now become way more than a business that is solely about energy – it’s some of these other areas which are getting us out into the marketplace quicker.
What was the drive for you to take part in the Innovator Support Platform?
As is the case with many tech start-ups, we were really in the guts of the technology after building and developing it from scratch. As engineers, you often don’t see what customers might think of the tech. We did build the technology based on validation and customer feedback, but you still don’t always know what the true value is or whether you’re even pitching to the right marketplace.
The ISP team looked at what we developed and weren’t afraid to be critical and scrutinise the technology. Consultants were put on to the team and picked it apart to figure out what we actually had. Then they went out into the marketplace and spoke to multiple companies who they thought the value proposition would be right for, to test the messaging and gauge what the market for our technology was and whether we were pitching in the right place.
It was a very interesting exercise. It is hard when you’re having your baby picked apart, but getting to the end of it and having that independent validation reassures you that you do have something that is right for the marketplace.
It’s been a very valuable process – I’d recommend it to anyone.
What has changed as a result of going through the ISP?
The plan has not changed – but it has been verified and strengthened, giving us more confidence that we are going in the right direction.
The next stage is now a full product launch in the housing sector and taking it out to market, targeting social housing in particular. But without that first phase of insight and intelligence, you’re just going out there in the dark.
What are the key takeaways from the ISP?
We were originally pitching this to installers, but the ISP has shown us that it’s the ability to reduce maintenance costs that is what we should be pitching. Our system can predict if a component – such as a ventilation fan – is using more power than usual which can indicate that it has a problem or is on its way out. The system can then send an email or text to facilities teams, enabling them to schedule maintenance visits in advance. This helps them cut costs by being more proactive and arranging multiple site visits for a single trip.
What are your hopes for the future?
We want the ELE system to become a default standard for how you install lights and low voltage technology in properties – either houses or office blocks. We see it as a global power standard that could be installed anywhere on the planet.
Having on-site renewables feeding into that system, ensuring the power is used as efficiently as possible, has to be the ultimate goal not just for ELE but for the way we build and operate buildings. That’s a personal goal for me and sums up the ethos of the business.
Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs that want to set up in the energy sector?
Find people who can mentor you through the process. It’s one thing to have a great idea or product, but without the help or advice of people that have been there and done it before, it is not enough to grow a business.
It is easy for entrepreneurs to go off on so many different tangents, and be led and steered by different needs, but having someone there helping you strategically is one of the most important things I could stress.
Don’t just go it alone – even when you have other founders with you it is good to have some expertise around the table who have been there and done it before.
Find out how the Innovator Support Platform could help your business here.