Julia Glenn, Extremis Technology

30 November 2014

An initial concept for a portable post-disaster shelter is now the foundation of Extremis Technology, a company worth £1.5m, with ambitions for further growth. But securing finance has been a challenge.

In 2012, Extremis Technology was an idea, an invention – not a company. Now, after two rounds of funding it’s valued at £1.5m, with its sights set on becoming a £40m business within the next five years. How? By choosing the right partners, attracting the relevant funding and, of course, having a product that’s clever and unique.

In fact Extremis has three related products, all from the same IP. Two – the Hush1 and the Hush2 – are robust, portable shelters, designed to be repairable and recyclable, for those displaced by environmental disasters or war. They can be constructed from flatpacks into homes in less than two hours – and the walls of the Hush2 can be quickly reconfigured to withstand hurricanes (the name of the product has its origin in “hurricane shelter”).

The third – the Push (or push-up shelter) – is a more commercial product, which helps make Extremis a more viable business. These can be used as temporary accommodation for workers, for example. 

And even before the Lowestoft-based company’s first order is complete, Extremis is continuing to focus on research and development, looking at ways to add on cooking facilities, water purification and waste disposal technologies, among others.

The speed of growth has been something of a surprise for the company’s chief executive Julia Glenn, who joined the company from a job in the city in 2012. But it’s been helped along by the fact the humanitarian aid market is “incredibly welcoming”. “It’s not the easiest market to sell to because of the decision-making process involved, but there’s a lot of good will,” she says.

That was proved by a visit from chancellor George Osborne early on. Now, she adds, “there are new opportunities presented to us almost on a daily basis”.

Funding struggle

But finding the finance to support growth has been a different story. “Raising money is incredibly difficult. There are always fashions linked to the general stock market and you can see a craze for apps and technology start-ups,” Glenn explains. “But when you have a really solid product, based on UK engineering, pretty much 100 per cent in the export market, [access to finance] is something that needs to be improved.”

Extremis was jump-started by a Smart Award from the Technology Strategy Board, and it has since secured funds from the Low Carbon Innovation Fund and the EU. 

But Glenn is critical of the fact that it’s too onerous to access the public funds set up to help small businesses. “You need to have three members of staff working on it for a month,” she says – and that’s a resource that this business (and others like it) doesn’t have. 

But the public funds that Extremis Technology has won have also attracted a small number of private investors and Glenn applauds their loyalty. “Those investors have strapped themselves in for the ride,” she says. 

Extremis has also called on the support of UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) and the Manufacturing Advisory Service – which is helping to identify the best place to manufacture the product, and advising on a possible licensing model overseas, so that the units can be built closer to deployment.

Progress through partnerships

Reaching out and working with others has been central to getting the company up and running, says Glenn. She talks of attitudes at a recent trade and export course where many of the other participants said business “is just about who you can make the most money from”. But her belief is that you make progress by building relationships. “And that’s certainly what we’ve tried to do.”

Extremis has a joint project agreement with ShelterBox, for example, which helps with product testing. The two companies are also complementary when it comes to disaster response, with ShelterBox offering an immediate humanitarian solution, and Extremis focusing on the subsequent transition period before victims return home or find a permanent new home.  

Glenn is on the steering committee of AidEx, a conference for the international aid and development community, where Hush prototypes have been exhibited. The design of the units has been adapted by working with international disability charity Motivation. The company has partnered with local builders RG Carter and Ridgeons timber and builders merchants on materials, and with Cranfield, Hertfordshire, East Anglia and Cambridge universities on research and development. It’s a member of Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Industrial Sustainability, alongside industry heavyweights such as Airbus and Toyota. And Glenn also has the support of Adnams’ chief executive Andy Wood, who is a non-executive director at Extremis.

“By standing on the shoulders of giants you get to be taller,” she says. 

The company’s first order is from a US logistics firm, FMN International, which wants to act as a value-added reseller. “That’s another example of how to grow when you’re small – by finding others who you trust to give you a voice in other geographies,” says Glenn. 

It’s a demonstration of the flexible approach that has helped Extremis Technology to grow. But Glenn also highlights the value of perseverance. Working in investment banking in the City while she had young children prepared her for the necessary hard work and determination, she says. “You bang on the doors until your knuckles hurt and you don’t ever take no for an answer.”