Earlier this month we sat down (virtually) with our founder, Dr Stephen Coulson to talk all things P2i.
What inspired you to start P2i?
SC: It goes back to my time at university when I was working on the project for my PhD. The technology was so visual, with droplets of liquid beading up and rolling off different materials, such as fabrics or tissues. This astounded the people we showed it to, who would always come up with five or six commercial applications for the technology. So I think right from the start we wanted to spin out the company, but it was about finding the right time and that didn’t come until after leaving university and moving into the UK Ministry of Defence with Dstl, and then raising the finance to create the spin out.
What was it like becoming a commercial company?
SC: The first highlight for me was actually spinning out the company. We were the first company to spin out of Dstl back in 2004 and the journey to spin out was very up and down.
After that we had to get the first range of application patents drafted and filed. We were in a unique area and pioneered the whole pulsed plasma deposition for protecting things from water and liquid damage, so we got there early, but that was another step to get through.
And then the next highlight was really signing the first customers. We were approached by people from the bio-consumables, filtration, footwear and electronics industries and I remember working with them to commercialise and productise the offering and then deploying it into their factories to show that it works there. They were really the hardest things to get done, because when you start with a new technology everybody wants to know who else has signed up and why, and if no one else has done, it makes the selling exercise so much more difficult.
Can you tell us how the P2i solutions range of today compares to the original product used by the Ministry of Defence?
SC: The UK Ministry of Defence were looking at repelling chemical agents, so it was all about liquid repellency of difficult to repel liquids. For my PhD we focused on a very academic way of looking at liquid repellency, with regards to putting very specific chemistry down on the surface to achieve the desired effect.
Then as we moved into the UK Ministry of Defence it became more application based, with regards the specific performance on military fabrics and clothing. In addition we commenced the business development activities to see who else valued the performance we could achieve and quickly realised from working with customers for electronics applications, maximising repelling liquids as we’d previously understood it, was not the right focus. So although the customers would come to us saying “can you resist these liquids?”, we would explain that we can protect the electronic device from being damaged by liquid by preventing the liquids going in. However, what it wouldn’t do is protect it should liquid be forced into the device. We realised very quickly that the full range of liquid protection needs to be against splashes and spills, short immersions and then longer immersions underwater – that is the range of environments electronics come into contact with.
So we developed a product offering to address all of those liquid and environmental challenges: Today we can protect against all possible spills, short immersions and then deeper and longer submersions under water and other liquids.
What has been the most important thing you’ve learnt along the way?
SC: I think when looking back now, it’s essential that when you develop something, you’re doing it alongside your customer as much as you can, because what you output from it has got to be industry relevant. It is not about the technology, it’s about the benefit it gives the customer and how easily it can fit into their supply chain and into their manufacturing process. I think that’s one key element.
At this point in 2020 we’re in a global pandemic: How is that impacting what we’ve done this year?
SC: We get asked this question a lot. Really there’s certain things we have succeeded well on and other things we’ve improved our resilience to. So I think from a company perspective we very much moved forward with some of our key clients and customers in the electronics sector, where we’ve proved out the technical function of our coating technology against the critical customer requirements. Although I can’t go into any more detail at this stage, we’ve also hit some very key milestones with certain technologies and that’s a huge step forward.
But there’s obviously been a lot of challenges, as there have been for everybody, and so there’s some key resilience things we’ve improved on as a company. We’ve managed to set ourselves up to be able to work remotely in a secure fashion so people can all work from home or from wherever they need to work from to get their job done successfully. This was something that our IT systems were actually set up to do before the pandemic, so we were in a fortunate position. Of course there were certain tweaks we needed to make, but our IT team managed to deploy those very quickly.
And then from a customer service and support perspective, with all the quarantines in our different global locations, that was very problematic and challenging at the time. So our operations team have worked very hard to successfully deploy the right people in the right locations, providing the right training and to have gotten all the necessary spares and kits they need to operate within the territory to deliver what the customer needs to be successful.
What’s it like being the founder of P2i today?
SC: It’s great to be a part of P2i, to see it grow over the years and to see our teams building in all the territories.
We’ve obviously got a lot of challenges yet to go, however protecting electronics from water and corrosion damage is not a fad. It’s something that will be around forever, especially with the growth of 5G and the Internet of Things. There are going to be more electronics out there and the correct functioning and longevity of those is essential, and our technology is there to protect it. We look forward to working with our partners to roll out our full product portfolio across their complete range of electronic devices.
It is a sustainable solution, so it is providing the correct chemistries and the correct protection, whilst allowing rework and repair and reducing landfill and waste. So it is the must have technology for electronic devices.
SC: Thank you to everyone who has been part of the journey over the last nearly 17 years. There have been many, many people and, although I am referenced as the founder of the company, it has always been a ‘we’ when it comes to the successes of P2i. That’s because there’s always been other people there to help to get us to where we are today. It’s down to all those people that we’ve achieved the things we have achieved over the years and long may it continue!