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Investing in New Light


The press pack for First Light's first product launch has a cover sheet emblazoned with the words, "discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought." Even if it's not completely original (it was coined by Nobel prize-winning biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi in the 60s) it is an apt motto for a company that describes itself as "dedicated to delivering technology solutions and integrated design thinking."

What that means for First Light is that they develop both hardware and software; but also have expertise in design and marketing, logistical and financial services. As Managing Director Matthew Hazell explains, "when a client comes to us, they won't necessarily need all of our skills to create a product. So we structure our project teams to meet the needs of each particular situation. We can develop a product from scratch, contribute towards design or simply help manage production."

If you think you've heard the name First Light before, then you probably have. On a recent edition of Dragon's Den MD Matthew successfully pitched the company's first product.

Matthew pitched Mermaid id, a personal man-overboard alarm, to one of the dragons, Australian multi-millionaire Richard Farleigh, and secured £100,000 of funding. "But at that time," says Matthew, "we already had offers of another £300,000 from banks and private equity investors. Dragon's Den was useful not just because of the investment from Richard, fantastic though that was, but also because it gave us so much exposure, for the company and for our first product."

The idea for that first product is tied up with the formation of First Light, and its choice of name.

A few years ago, Adam Lifland, First Light's co-founder, was asked to help sell a sportfishing boat. After enquiring why the owner wanted to sell, he was told that last year when out on an overnight trip, the owner had lost one of his crew overboard. He couldn't face continuing to work in an industry where he had been part of someone losing their life.

Adam saw the opportunity to develop a system that could raise the alarm in a man-overboard (MOB) situation, and took the name of the boat - First Light - as the company name.

First Light's solution to the MOB problem is the Mermaid id - a sonar-based life saving device. Matthew explains, "the Mermaid id is the only system in the world that uses sonar to detect a man-overboard situation. It's small, unobtrusive, it allows you to walk anywhere on the boat or even leave the boat at a marina, and yet it will trigger immediately you fall into the water. And," he adds, "it will be significantly cheaper than any of its competitors."

The alarm is a three-piece integrated system, comprised of 'id-pods(tm)', which are worn by crew members, pets, or even attached to valuable items on the boat; a 'through hull hydrophone' that listens for a unique signal produced by the id-pods; and a 'helm' unit that is attached to the dashboard of the boat.

The id-pods(tm) transmit a unique digital coded signal the instant they're submerged in water. This signal is picked up by the hydrophone and relayed to the 'helm', triggering five critical actions:
1. the MOB is identified - (id), a crucial point, as the crew know who's on board to help with the rescue;
2. the MOB's impact point is electronically tagged and stored via the internal GPS;
3. two visual alarms are raised via the seven high brightness LEDs on the helm display;
4. an audible alarm is raised;
5. using the LEDs, the system helps the search to track back to the original impact point.

It's a potentially life-saving idea, and one that obviously convinced Dragon Richard Farleigh, but is it good business? "We've always believed in the product," says Matthew. "As well as the money invested in the initial stages of the company, we've put in thousands of hours of unpaid work - what I call 'sweat equity' - and I think it's that commitment a lot of investors look for, on top of a good business plan.

"When you are looking for money it's so much easier to be persuasive if you know your business well and can talk passionately about it. The Canterbury Hub holds a "schmooze" event, which put us in touch with a lot of potential investors. The investment courtship period can be very drawn out, but we had a very positive reception straight away, because we had a sound business plan, knew our business and could talk about it authoritatively.

Having said that, I'd say that attitude is just as important. That's what Richard said when he invested in us: he told me he was interested in the management team and the product, rather than in how good we were at writing business plans! It's not that the business plan is unimportant, but that the people and the passion are equally important. On top of that I am a huge advocate of all the support networks available to small companies.

"In our case, we couldn't have done what we've done without help from the Canterbury Enterprise Hub, Business Link and the Investment Readiness Program from Finance South East.

"Jonathan Cronk, our Merlin Mentor, was inspirational, Simon Plummer from Finance South East gave us invaluable advice and Lesley-Anne Rubenstein from the Canterbury Hub has been a fantastic sounding board throughout. For a small company to be able to tap into this amazing resource of skills and experience has been fantastic."

For the future, First Light is planning that Mermaid id will be ready for market next year. The company currently has eight companies that are interested in either buying it outright or licensing rights to its technology. "In fact," says Matthew, "we might not actually need all the money we've raised; now we have the luxury of being cash rich."

The other thing Szent-Gyorgi said of discovery was that it was an "accident meeting a prepared mind", and this is something that strikes a chord with Hazell too, "preparation is the key," he agrees, "and with the experience we've gained we're planning to start looking for companies or individuals with great ideas who need, not just capital, but relevant experience too: we'll invest in them, but as well as our money they get the benefit of our experience."

There'll be a few entrepreneurs hoping for the happy accident of meeting prepared minds like these.


Contact: Ally Charles


Published: 07th November 2006

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