Andrew Thomas and Alison Durham develop unique bushfire shelters

Andrew Thomas and Alison Durham develop unique bushfire shelters

03 July 2010

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Australia — While Victoria awaits the findings of the 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission into the tragic Black Saturday bushfires, two people studying entrepreneurship at Melbourne’s Swinburne University have been working on an innovative solution.

Andrew Thomas and Alison Durham, the team behind Encase, have, in their view, developed a unique series of bushfire shelters, perhaps offering a solution for vulnerable communities. A challenge for any entrepreneur is to get their product to market.

Andrew and Alison face even bigger hurdles, including unknown regulatory outcomes arising from the commission.

Despite having an award-winning business plan and an obvious high latent level of interest, they have some major milestones ahead of them for a market that does not exist yet. They do, however, have passion and motivation. “We’ve personal and professional reasons for doing this, not the least of which is that we have family living in fire-affected towns,” Thomas says.

As graduate entrepreneurship students from Swinburne University of Technology, the pair has developed a business plan for a series of above-ground bushfire shelters under the brand Encase.

The partners have attracted international recognition, winning the global, prestigious International Graduate Student Business Plan competition from the Licensing Executives Society (US & Canada), the pre-eminent professional organisation in the field of commercialisation in the US and Canada.

With Thomas as CEO and Durham as marketing and sales director, the business partners claim their designs offer unique features and benefits, including a free-standing, above-ground shelter which offers maximum accessibility. Each shelter has a smoke lobby, dual exit/entry, observation window and the option for a drenching system.

The technology was developed in

response to the deadly bushfires that swept through Victoria on February 7 last year, killing 200 people. Since then there has been growing concern over the nature, risk and severity of bushfires.

Thomas says: “We designed the shelter to have a range of models to address the home market for households and a secondary market in community shelters where there may, for example, be a responsibility in the future for local government to provide community points of refuge. We’re trying to cover all bases.”

A full-time architect, Thomas believes his professional experience in design and project management has brought some of the necessary skills into the equation, although he admits the motivations run much deeper.

“I lived in country Victoria and I’m motivated by an intellectual challenge to solve a problem like that. Alison (too) has family in Macedon.

“It’s challenging because I’m working for a firm. I’m not ready to resign and focus 100 per cent, although it may well become the day job. At the moment it’s late nights and weekends.”

He says apart from their university planning they conducted market research both here and in the US. “This is a market that doesn’t exist yet. We did a survey of 100 people across the affected area to test what people are prepared to pay and Alison did some research on the market in California, which presents as a great business opportunity. But at some point you need to validate the research through actual sales.”

Thomas says the challenges yet to be surmounted are capital, product testing for destructibility and certification. “We’re a modest startup as far as capital; about $250,000, which we plan to raise from a combination of our own money, government grants and private investors. We’re yet to build a prototype and see it, for example, on a YouTube clip. And we still need to go back and validate the market demand. The immediate anguish post-February 7 has calmed down. Everyone was desperate last year . . . As yet we haven’t had the arm-wrestle with investors. This is not like explaining a biotech project; everyone is familiar with the problem and would like to see a solution.”

For Encase the path to market also requires building. “Encase would handle sales, marketing, project management; these are our chief skills. We see expansion nationally and internationally coming from licensing into other geographic locations — for example, into the US, where we see us offering licensing of designs and marketing collateral.”

Seth Jones from the faculty of Business and Enterprise at Swinburne says Thomas and Durham have developed a model that hinges on some innovative technology and he is of the view that the business has a “hard road” ahead but is doable. “We look for a team that’s doing its best to make it happen rather than a theoretical exercise. If you want to be an entrepreneur, there is nothing better than to go out and do it.”

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