A leading US entrepreneur has said Scotland provides good support for the kind of technology companies that could become global successes after taking on a key role at a firm he thinks has massive potential.
Hank Torbert became chairman of the East Lothian-based Sunamp heat battery business in May after helping to develop successful US businesses in sectors ranging from technology to manufacturing.
His first few months on the board have been complicated by the fallout from the coronavirus crisis. However, Mr Torbert said he has been very impressed by the progress achieved by the Sunamp team in that time and what he has learned about the technology ecosystem in Scotland.
Sunamp has developed batteries that use phase-change materials similar to the gel in hand warmers to store energy so that it can be released when needed, for heating, cooling and for hot water. The batteries could help maximise the potential of renewable energy sources that depend on the weather, such as solar.
Mr Torbert noted the batteries could help ease the strain on power grids and lead to a big reduction in the amount of heat that gets wasted. Supporters reckon they could render gas boilers redundant.
Mr Torbert appears confident Sunamp is a big international success story in the making.
“The space we’re in is in hundreds of billions in my opinion and I think we can become a notable player in that market place and a global player,” said Mr Torbert.
He added: “It’s a rare opportunity to see a business that’s had an mazing journey but really is in the right place at the right time in terms of the commitment to net zero, in terms of the readiness of its technology, in terms of a global focus and a need for its technology and products.”
Noting that Sunamp already has a presence in 17 countries, the former investment banker said his role will be to support the management team as Sunamp expands in markets such as China and the US. This could involve helping it to raise money on capital markets.
The business is led by Andrew Bissell, who has shown an entrepreneur’s ability to see the commercial potential in technology developed in Scotland. Mr Bissell started developing Sunamp in 2005, a year after the Voxar medical imaging business he span out of the University of Edinburgh was sold to Belgium’s Barco for £23m.
After posting £5m sales last year, Sunamp has grown staff numbers to 55 and is currently recruiting.
In August last year Sunamp raised around £5m in a funding round led by Chilean investor Aurus Capital. The round was supported by Scottish Investment Bank and existing private investors.
Mr Torbert thinks Sunamp provides a great example of how the private and public sectors can work in partnership to help Scotland make the most of technologies developed in the country.
Mr Bissell has worked closely with University of Edinburgh chemistry professor Colin Pulham and other experts at the institution in the development process.
Sunamp has won support from private sector investors and public sector bodies.
Regarding the technology scene in Scotland, Mr Torbert noted: “What I’m impressed with is the true commitment to building and supporting technology, commercialising technologies and building companies, which ultimately leads to creating jobs and that is ultimately the goal here.”
He continued: “Quite frankly not every city, certainly not in the United States, not every country, whichever, is really good at building an ecosystem that is as supportive of companies as what I’ve seen in Scotland.”
Mr Torbert is based in New Orleans but has been providing regular input by phone and on Zoom from the US amid the restrictions on travel imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
He hopes to be able to be in Scotland when the COP26 environmental summit is held in Glasgow. This is scheduled for November.
The plan is to visit Scotland at least once a quarter when conditions allow.
Mr Torbert looks forward to exploring the golf coast of East Lothian and a stay in Edinburgh has been on his wish list for some time.
The role at Sunamp allows Mr Torbert to pursue a longstanding interest in how technology can be used to improve the performance of industries such as power and transportation.
He was alerted to the opportunity through his involvement with the Frontier Conference, which aims to promote links between business leaders from the worlds of industry and technology.
The son of an academic, Mr Torbert grew up in the industrial city of Ohio. He was educated at Ivy League Colombia University and Taft boarding school in Connecticut.Mr Torbert’s LinkedIn profile notes that he was the first African American head monitor (student body president) at Taft.
He spent five years advising firms as an investment banker at JP Morgan Securities before he started running companies himself. His current business responsibilities include leading the New Orleans-based Alta Max group, which supplies specialised packaging and security seals to defence.
In addition, Mr Torbert says that he acts as a strong advocate and thought leader for innovation across industrial sectors through the Frontier Conference, which he founded.
As Entrepreneur in Residence at Georgetown University’s McDonough school of business, Mr Torbert has had opportunities to think hard about the secret of business success.
He reckons this boils down to showing a willingness to take calculated risks and being multi-faceted.
“What I mean by that is having the key understanding of your business and how to operate it as well as understanding the other aspects of the business meaning finance, strategy, innovation etcetera. Very few people understand all the different aspects that impact their businesses; they’re either very technical or very financial.
“There are a lot of very brilliant people who know how to finance a company but if you ask them to run it they have no idea.”