A Sydney-based startup is hoping its invention will become the “gold standard” for marine safety after landing its third business award in less than two years.
The product is Life Cell — an all-in-one storage and life-saving floatation device inspired by creator Scott Smiles’ own horrifying experience at sea.
Smiles told StartupSmart that in 2011, he and three others were forced to abandon a sinking ship due to an onboard fire destroying part of the boat. In the seconds before the boat went under, Smiles only had time to grab a lifejacket and an esky floating in the water before jumping overboard.
It was this experience that alerted Smiles to how many lives were being put at risk because of the way safety equipment was being stored on boats; it’s usually “tucked away because it’s a pain, and people think they won’t need it”, he says.
“Currently safety gear is either stored in a screw-top drum or in a bag, and that’s the standard for the majority of commercial or recreational boats. When was the last time you tried jumping into the water with a bag?” Smiles said.
“I didn’t have time to get flares from the boat before it went under, and within the first hour we could have alerted three other nearby vessels if we had our flares.”
Just days after they were rescued, Smiles began putting together the concept for the Life Cell — a brightly coloured rectangular box with internal storage to hold equipment such as flares, whistles, or even a handheld radio. It is equipped with float-free technology, which allows it to auto-detach if it is submerged.
The product is designed to let troubled seafarers access life-saving equipment “within seconds”, and the smallest model provides enough buoyancy to keep four people afloat.
The design of the product was partially inspired by the esky Smiles grabbed from his sinking boat, which kept him and three others afloat for hours until help arrived.
Working as an electrician prior to creating Life Cell, Smiles says he never really thought he’d be “thrust into” a semi-corporate life, and has been working on Life Cell for the past five years.
“I think I’ve been to America seven times over the past six months,” he laughs.
Investment needed for international push
The Life Cell has secured regulatory approval from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and is in the process of gaining similar regulatory approval from authorities in the US and Europe.
Smiles’ sister Jenny Aiken has taken the reigns as the chief executive of the company, and says the business is looking for a $3 million investment to help grow the company internationally.
“If we penetrated just 1% of the US’ registered boat market, we could be seeing revenue of $50 million,” she says.
Currently, the business turns over around $400,000 and has seen an eight-fold increase in export revenue since last financial year.
The business was recently named the small exporter of the year at the 2017 Australian International Marine Export Awards, and has previously won an Australian Marine Industry Export Award and the New South Wales Premier’s Export Scholarship Award. These multiple accolades caught the attention of the federal government and landed the business a $370,000 Accelerating Commercialisation grant, which Smiles says was exciting, but a “big commitment”.
“They’ve been a really good thing for our business, and it’s great awareness. Being a startup, these awards are something you need to help get yourself out there,” he says.
“Within a few years we’re hoping to be in 15 major distributors around the world. We have taken it global pretty quickly, and to do it properly we need significant funding,” Smiles says.
“We need to do it to 100% of our capability, as that’s what it deserves and that’s what it takes to create a new standard.”