Engineering Startups vs Covid-19: how our Hub Members are stepping up to the challenge - Part 1

20 Apr 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on every aspect of our lives, from our ability to step outside and walk down the street, up to the immense pressure on our healthcare system. However, we’ve also seen businesses pivot rapidly and the impressive wave of technological change as a reaction to the crisis, with engineering and technology entrepreneurs playing a vital role. In this blog series, we will showcase how the uncertainty caused by Covid-19 is spurring a range of innovative and positive responses by our Hub Members.

Hexigone Inhibitors

Hexigone image banner

Who are they?

Until 2019, when its use was banned by the EU, hexavalent chromate was the leading anti-corrosion inhibitor. As it was the most widely used corrosion inhibitor worldwide, a new effective, safe alternative was needed for the $500 billion protective coating industry. Dr Patrick Dodds at Swansea University found a chrome-free solution and formed the spinout company Hexigone Inhibitors to develop it. He is now working with coatings companies and other international partners to commercially validate his innovation.

How did they react to Covid-19?

When the Covid-19 epidemic hit the UK, Patrick decided to help tackle one of the nation’s most urgent shortages. He offered Hexigone’s chemical knowledge to Swansea University and SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre. A brewery based in his village switched its rum production to ethanol and together, within a week, they had produced 2,000 litres of hand sanitiser for the NHS. Now the university has 30 volunteers helping produce 5,000 litres a week.

Patrick was then approached by local councils to supply sanitiser for their offices when they re-opened and for the care homes that they run. Hexigone is still a small startup and needed to make its coronavirus input financially sustainable, so offered to charge only cost price for its production. This price was less than half being charged by others and so councils agreed to voluntarily donate 10% of production to the NHS. Now 100 litres out of every 1,000 litres are given free to the NHS.

Impact on business

What the company has learnt from this emergency is that sanitiser could become another Hexigone product line. Instead of using petrochemicals, Hexigone would distil its alcohol from natural products like apple or beer. Patrick thinks that this additional revenue stream could help while the company’s main product, Intelli-ion technology, undergoes its commercial validation.

LettUs Grow

Lett Us Grow image banner

Who are they?

Agritech startup LettUs Grow is a Bristol company that has developed advanced modular aeroponic farming systems for indoor farms. Instead of growing plants in soil, its technology covers plant roots in a mist thus using less water than traditional farming and no pesticides. The vertical farming systems can be installed anywhere enabling fresh produce to be grown near its point of consumption.

How did they react to Covid-19?

When the Covid-19 epidemic spread to the UK, the LettUs Grow decided to help ensure produce could reach those who needed it most – to do this, the food produced in their farm modules will be donated locally. Co-founder and CTO Ben Crowther and his team fast-tracked plans to convert a couple of warehouses in a nearby business park, originally intended for use as research and development sites, for its software and hardware. These buildings are now home to indoor farms using four-week cycles to produce micro greens such as pea shoots, baby kale and watercress.

Social distancing is less of a problem for LettUs Grow as a lot of the work can be done remotely. Controlling lighting, irrigation, fertigation and environment can be automated reducing the need for multiple growers to be on-site. The sowing, harvesting and packaging can be organised so that appropriate distances can be maintained.

Impact on business

The amount of pivoting needed for the business model has been minimal. The premises were always going to be developed - though not for producing food for one particular client, and not in such quantities. The team has learnt to tie in the speed of production with the potential people-contacts on-site. This work has enabled it to keep growers busy while helping out a local population in need during a national emergency.


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