In 2019, the UK Government passed legislation committing it to bringing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. The first major economy in the world to do so, the UK increased its target from the original 80% reduction on the recommendation of the Committee on Climate Change, the UK’s independent climate advisory board. The net zero target has been embraced by many companies in response to their stakeholders’ increased focus on tackling climate change.
One company helping to make this target a reality is Aerofoil Energy, whose technology has proven to be a game-changer for supermarkets and their refrigeration assets. We spoke with the company’s Commercial Director, Nicholas Burke, to find out more about Aerofoils and understand the impact they are having on the grocery retail sector.
Open-fronted multi-deck fridges – those typically seen in supermarkets – employ a curtain of refrigerated air blown down across the open front of the shelves in order to maintain the contents at a consistent target temperature. However, much of this cold ‘air curtain’ spills out of the front of the cabinet and into the store aisles. Not only is this wasteful from an energy perspective, but it also causes ‘cold-aisle syndrome’ with a consequent negative impact on the customer.
“In simple terms, we deploy Aerofoils on the edge of each shelf in this moving current of cold air, and instead of creating lift or downforce as they would on an aeroplane or racing car, they have the effect of drawing the cold air stream back into the fridge” says Nicholas. “About 70% of the energy consumed by open-fronted fridges is for generating and maintaining the air curtain, and so by controlling it with Aerofoil technology and preventing it from spilling from the cabinet, we can significantly improve energy efficiency, at the same time creating warmer aisle temperatures.”
The concept of using Aerofoils in this way was invented by Paul McAndrew, Aerofoil Energy’s founder and CEO. Coming from a background in engineering and refrigeration, Paul realized that the problem with open-fronted fridges was aerodynamic in nature. Shortly after setting up the company in 2013, he started a collaboration with Williams Advanced Engineering (WAE), which was then part of the Williams Formula 1 Group. Nicholas explains the rationale:
“My brother Matthew, a member of WAE’s leadership team, was scouting for early-stage ventures in the technology space that Williams could partner with, bringing to bear its expertise in areas such as computation fluid dynamics, materials fabrication, prototyping and testing. Matthew set up a partnership with Aerofoil Energy in 2014 with the objective of modelling and refining the profile of the Aerofoil blade and enhancing its performance in readiness for testing in a store environment. At that point, I joined in to source funding.”
Nicholas’ original role was as lead angel and between 2015 and 2018 he arranged four rounds of funding for Aerofoil Energy. Previously working with the investment banking arm of the World Bank Group, Nicholas had a wealth of experience evaluating early-stage ventures, which helped the company prepare for new investment and speeded up the process of raising money. Recalling the early rounds, Nicholas says:
“Our first challenge was to raise enough money to finance the early prototyping and testing, but also to establish a suitable corporate structure that could support further investment and an ongoing research and development programme. We only raised a modest amount of equity capital in the first instance, sourced from just four of us; my brother, myself and two friends.”
“The company’s rapid transition from technology development to full commercialization enabled us to reach profitability quickly.”
Utilizing his own experience and the resources available online, including those provided by UKBAA, Nicholas maintained his lead role in subsequent rounds, building on the success of the first round and funding key stages in the development and commercialization of the company’s technology.
“The purpose of the second round in 2016 was to fund the cost of prosecuting our primary patents, and to support our business development efforts within the UK. By that time the Aerofoil story had captured the imagination of friends so there was no shortage of interest when we solicited new investment. This enabled us to broaden our investor base in the second round, albeit still from individual contacts.”
Subsequent rounds were all about building up company resources to manage the manufacturing and operational logistics for delivering the Aerofoil product at commercial volumes. The company won its first major contract with Sainsbury’s towards the end of 2017 and proceeded to roll out Aerofoil technology to around 1,400 stores. Following close behind were contracts to retrofit the estates of Asda, Marks & Spencer, WH Smiths, Boots and SSP, as well as ongoing work with the Cooperative Group for their new stores. Tesco is the latest grocer to have rolled out Aerofoils across its stores in the UK, Ireland and Asia.
“The company’s rapid transition from technology development to full commercialization enabled us to reach profitability quickly. Consequently, we haven’t needed to raise a significant amount of capital overall and have not tapped the institutional market. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t have benefitted from the extra discipline that an institutional investor could have brought to the table, though we’re fortunate to have built an excellent management team through our own network. We’ve also established a very proficient operations team, which handles all the manufacture, supply and installation through sub-contracting. Although we are a technology company at heart, we’ve become rather good at logistics too.”
As Aerofoil Energy’s Commercial Director, Nicholas is responsible for guiding the company’s growth strategy and overseeing the commercial partnerships being put together for their overseas operations. Thankfully for Aerofoil Energy, the global pandemic hasn’t caused too much of a headache given that supermarkets are one industry that has been able to stay open and operate throughout. Discussing the year, Nicholas comments:
“I wouldn’t say the pandemic has had a significant impact on us. However, we have had to work around the challenges that the virus has presented, for example our need to write a completely new set of Risk Assessment and Method Statements for any work we conduct in stores, not to mention coordinating Aerofoil installations at night-time, when many of our clients were busy re-stocking depleted shelves following the initial bout of panic-buying. But overall we’ve had another profitable year and we’re enormously thankful for that.”
With the company having installed its technology in around 80% of the addressable market in the UK, it now has its sights set on international opportunities as well as commercializing further energy-saving technology coming out of its R&D programme. Nicholas shares:
“We’re progressing our business in the US and are in advanced trials with major grocery chains there including Walmart. Asia, Australia and Europe are also target markets for us, and Aerofoil technology is in the trial phase with retailers in these territories. Importantly, our profitability has also given us the flexibility to accelerate our ongoing development efforts. In 2017, we set ourselves the objective of making an open-fronted multi-deck fridge perform as well as one with a glass door. Impossible as this might seem, we’ve actually achieved it through several aerodynamic design modifications that manufacturers can apply to new cabinets. We expect these super-efficient fridges to start appearing in supermarkets in the near future.”
Reproduced from UKBAA blog 21st December 2020 - see https://www.ukbaa.org.uk