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Innovation Stories: Chimney Sheep

19 Feb 2019

Innovation Stories: Chimney Sheep

Sally Phillips, business’ founder and owner

Cumbria-based Chimney Sheep has developed a chimney draught excluder that is breathable and sustainable, while also blocking 93% of airflow up a chimney – keeping warm air in, cold air out, reducing CO2 emissions and cutting energy bills.

Founded in 2012, the company received funding from BEIS’s Energy Entrepreneur Fund (EEF) in 2014, which has enabled it to put its innovative products through rigorous testing to expand its market. The funding support allowed Chimney Sheep to achieve invaluable certification as well as test and define a solid formula for calculating the potential energy savings it can provide for buildings of any shape or size.  

Here, we speak to the business’ founder and owner, Sally Phillips, to learn more about the invention, how BEIS funding has supported the development of the product and the business’ growth, and what’s next for Chimney Sheep.

Chimney Sheep can make some impressive improvements in terms of warm air retention and thus energy savings. What inspired you to invent such a valuable solution? 

I’m a former ecologist and used to volunteer for Natural England, operating their bat helpline. I’d get calls about bats falling down chimneys on a regular basis and it just highlighted to me how many open chimneys there were in the UK. Something about this fascinated me, and I looked into it further and realised that chimneys are designed to work as a vent at all times – drawing air out of a building constantly, even when there’s no fire going. With chimneys taking out all of the warm air, cold air is pulled through from our windows and doors, which is why we feel draughts even when everything is closed.

So, I thought, if chimneys are constantly working to undo the work of our heating systems, having an open chimney is quite a strain in terms of our energy use – creating more emissions as we keep heating a draughty home, and inflating our energy bills.

I hadn’t done anything like this before, but I found there was a real demand for a solution to losing heat through chimneys that would help to save energy and retain heat (and also work as a stop-gap for any falling bats so they can crawl back out).

How did you turn your idea into a tangible product?

I started doing research, and through the process of measuring every chimney I could find, I realised that there are no standard chimney sizes in the UK, so the solution would need to be suitable for all shapes and sizes.

It took me a little while to think of what materials could allow for this. I needed something that would be breathable, sustainable, compressible and malleable, and then I found the answer was all around me in my own county of Cumbria – sheep, or more specifically, wool. Near my home there was a manufacturer of wool insulation and that’s how I found exactly the right material for the job.

I developed a prototype and worked with Lancaster University to get it ready for market. It was well received, with customers saying they noticed an immediate effect on the warmth of their property when they plugged the chimney with their Chimney Sheep.

Given the success and great feedback we had, I wanted to expand our reach and take Chimney Sheep to bigger businesses, but this was where we encountered a few hurdles as a small start-up, in terms of necessary testing and certification.

Did the BEIS Energy Entrepreneur Fund enable you to overcome those hurdles?

Yes, we needed BBA certification and to get that we needed really rigorous testing of the product to prove it works. This mounted to a fairly significant cost that was far more than we could afford as a start-up. We were only two years into trading and footing that bill ourselves would have been such a huge risk because it would have been so difficult to recoup if anything didn’t go to plan.

When we applied for the BEIS funding from the EEF we had a few representatives of the fund visit the business so they could see the products and find out what Chimney Sheep is all about, and from there we had their support. We were able to get the funds to complete the testing we needed for certification required for working with and selling to much bigger businesses.

Supported by additional funding, we worked with a great team at the University of Liverpool and BSRIA (the Building Services Research and Information Association) to put Chimney Sheep through its paces. The testing was complex, air flow rates are very complicated and we had a lot of variables to work through such as chimney size and height as well as the permeability of the building.

As well as certification of the product, if we wanted the support of Ofgem, we needed a method for calculating the carbon saving we could provide a property owner through using Chimney Sheep. This was even more complex – fortunately we didn’t just receive funding from BEIS, we received so much practical support as well.

BEIS set up with a business mentor in the form of Mott MacDonald, and with their help we were able to really interrogate the formula. It was a two-year process to refine the calculations but we now have a formula for calculating the energy savings in different properties so we can prove what a good investment Chimney Sheep is to any customer. BEIS and Mott MacDonald have helped us find a housing association to test out the formula, and we’ve since gathered so much evidence and clear results to help us towards the BBA certification – which we have just received and will be celebrating at Futurebuild. The BBA certification means everyone can see Chimney Sheep is trustable, it works, it’s real, and that is so great for us to be able to show our potential customers.

How are things going for Chimney Sheep now, and what does the future look like for the business?

We’re expanding – we’re still small but I’m no longer working alone, I have a team of four and we’re selling more and more every year. We’re now selling in the US and have a few sales in Europe, and now we’re looking at expanding into Australia and New Zealand.

We’ve evolved as a business and we’re now also broadening our product portfolio with other environmentally friendly products. It’s great to be able to say we’re not just a one-product business anymore.

Without the support and funding from BEIS we wouldn’t be where we are now, we would’ve managed to get the testing done eventually, but we certainly wouldn’t be as far ahead as we are today. We also wouldn’t have made the connections we have that have helped us grow and develop the business enormously.

The future looks great and we are in a really strong position because of the BEIS EEF grant.

How did you find working with BEIS? And would you recommend it to other innovative start-ups?

We’ve received a small grant previously from other funders, but what made BEIS so different was the continual support. With BEIS it wasn’t just ‘here’s a pot of money, good luck’, it was all about providing us with the right connections to help us realise our vision for the business.

Even now, we’re still benefitting from the BEIS connection. Recently, BEIS asked us to join one of their ECO Innovation Showcase events with Ofgem, where we were able to pitch to representatives from leading energy businesses and renowned entrepreneurs. It’s helped to put us in such a great position to work with Ofgem in providing innovative products to fulfil their energy goals.

I’d absolutely recommend working with BEIS to any business in a similar position to where we were in 2014 – without hesitation. What we achieved through the grant was so helpful and we have received so much more than funding, and we still continue to receive support. We are invited to events for entrepreneurs which is so nice for us because we get to come to London and make connections with like-minded businesses, and the value of that is something you can’t quantify.

Chimney Sheep will be exhibiting as part of the Innovation Zone at Futurebuild 2019. Visitors to the Innovation Zone can learn more about the company and similar innovators, as well as how they can benefit from the funding and support on offer from BEIS, Innovate UK and the wider innovation family.

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