Light-Bulb Moment

The Evolve Group

There is no shortage of innovation in Australia, only a lack of the right business environment to enable innovative ideas to come to fruition.

That is the clear message emanating from the Evolve Group, a strikingly unusual “strategic collective” of several key business units, which form a true end-to-end product innovation and commercialisation solutions provider.

Evolve’s Managing Director Ty Hermans began his career of innovation when he came up with Polyslab, an alternative solution to using heavy, bulky, and often fragile pre-cast concrete slabs for a variety of applications, notably mining, HVAC, refrigeration, electrical, plumbing, construction and rural. Polymer-based Polyslab, launched in 2005, has become a standard installation component throughout Australia and other international markets.

Ty took the range to the US in 2008 and spent three years not only developing the Evolve brand there but also establishing a head office in Los Angeles and three large-scale lightweight concrete production facilities along the East Coast of the USA.

He brought this back to Australia under the Evo-Crete brand – these products are made domestically. Widely used as decking foundations, they are three times lighter than standard concrete with a proprietary blend of fibre reinforcing adding strength and durability. Today, Evolve’s product range is vast including some 500+ SKUs available through over 10,000 outlets both in Australia and abroad.

“The capabilities that we now have in-house have come through necessity,” says Ty. “We evolved into what we are because we went through the process of innovating our own products and then struggled continually to find service providers that would support us bringing products to market as rapidly as we do. Going through the process of outsourcing everything was really difficult and far from seamless.”

Busy inventing things that had commercial potential, Ty had to go through the process of finding product designers or engineers, and lawyers to get patent work done, then find appropriate manufacturing expertise. Having come up with that light-bulb moment where you solve a problem, or just invent a better widget, it’s no easy task to realise that item and see it in-store on the high street, no matter how good it is. Ty believes there should be fewer hurdles to jump for Australia’s many inventive and innovative individuals and companies to be heard and have their ideas – as long as they are practical propositions – encouraged rather than wrapped in red tape.

So Evolve evolved. Now, the company takes ideas from their back-of-the-envelope stage right through to commercialisation of a finished product. The team’s in-house capabilities include consultative product design and development, prototyping, tool fabrication, manufacturing, sourcing, sales, marketing and distribution. “We are massive supporters of Australian manufacturing. Almost everything Evolve produces is manufactured domestically,” says Ty, “which a lot of people don’t believe. In fact we can make things in many instances in Australia far more affordably than importing them, and we are consistently winning work back that went to China many years ago.” This implies a criticism of the domestic manufacturing sector, in that it itself has been under attack for so long as no longer viable. If it is after all viable, surely it should have been shouting so from the rooftops?

Ty says he understands that argument. Evolve has customers who believe in his premise of making things here with added value and adding value to the supply chain. But “it is a massive frustration for us that we continually go to [new] customers whose purchasing or procurement departments have an embedded belief that they need to automatically [go overseas]” for whatever widget they need. “That is just not the case. We can actually do a lot of things very well here. Rather than focus on what we can’t do” – the news of the day was still full of ‘should-we-shouldn’t-we’ pieces about making cars in Australia – “the way forward is focusing on what we can do very well. Australia is a very innovative country. We have come up with some great products, great inventions over the years that the world has benefited greatly from.”

Evolve is based in Clontarf, Brisbane. Ty recently hosted the local MP, who asked him directly his views on the car industry. “Goodbye,” he says. “We held on to it too long and it has been an extremely expensive exercise, just to say we make cars here.” Why not take the car business to somewhere it makes sense (and money) and pour the funds instead “into promoting innovations within the Australian manufacturing sector which in turn will provide a solid, long-term and viable future for Australian manufactures and consistent job growth?”

Evolve is in the final stages of establishing a product development centre of its own to foster such innovation. Ty believes the whole procedure for obtaining any of the many government grants and aid available for small start-ups is just far too complicated, strangling the life out of many potentially good ideas before they ever get to the light of day. “By the time you get a grant approved it might be years before you actually get some money. That’s too long.” Times change, and product development is a competitive process that takes far less time than was previously allowed. The two-year development cycle “is a thing of the past. In two years’ time everything has changed and someone else has taken your market.”

Ty’s idea is for a kind of ‘mini-grant’, perhaps a public-private partnership where Evolve and the state each put up, say, $5,000, in a sort of fast-track process with frequent panel meetings to select worthwhile ventures and vet their viability (the idea has already been televised in panel-show format in a number of countries). For $10,000, he says, Evolve could take an idea to proof of concept stage, which would include items such as 3D design, rapid prototyping, a business marketing plan, pricing and sales strategy, and essentially provide the tools required to pitch the product to major retailers, “all of which we do on a daily basis. Most of the ideas we see are readily exportable, too,” says Ty. Indeed, there is a constant queue of inventors outside Ty’s door (not to mention a number of well-established companies asking for innovation input). “You don’t need too many of those to create serious jobs and create a busy economy.”

It is important for Evolve (or whoever – Ty envisages more than one such partnership across Australia) to avoid structuring things too rigidly and to be able to look at each project individually. Similarly, the company is very flexible with its thoughts on the development process. “We have to be a very dynamic service provider, giving them whatever they need to be successful – it might be simply design work, marketing or sales assistance or just manufacturing work. Others come to us wanting us to take on their entire project. Our strength is our ability to very quickly access the overall process of bringing any one product to life; it cuts development time, capital expenses and risk, allowing us to bring more products to life more often.”

The Evolve team will listen to ideas at widely varying stages of development: it could be sketched on a napkin or it might already be in production but not made or marketed correctly. In the latter case, Evolve often is engaged to redesign either the product or its manufacturing process and increase its saleability and export potential. The group enjoys enviable relationships with several major Australian retail chains and is able to bounce ideas off them so while an idea is being realised, it can also be ‘pre-sold’ – or at least its in-store potential can be assessed by experts.

Ty is particularly sceptical of the current system people go through to bring a new product to market. Too often someone will come in having spent tens of thousands of dollars on getting a design made and idea patented; whilst the designer is mainly focused on design rather than production method and retail price point, and the patent lawyer is interested in writing a patent for it, neither have any real vested interest in making sure it’s 100 per cent commercially viable. “It happens to us every week. Unfortunately we see many service providers simply wanting to quickly get the design brief, produce something and close the file as fast as they can and shoot out an invoice.” The inventor then arrives at Evolve (or another manufacturer) with what is often the wrong product. “So many times we have to say it can’t be manufactured. Either it is not feasible to make it in its current form, or it is not commercially viable, meaning it won’t sell on the shelves due to price point or it is vulnerable to attack from overseas copy cat products.”

Because the company is able to wear so many hats, Evolve can bring to the party not only product design or marketing expertise, but the whole gamut of skills needed to ensure a good idea can be realised to its full potential. Ty knows of few companies anywhere in the world who do what this one does. But he also knows there is plenty of potential in Australia’s backyard.

For more information about The Evolve Group, please visit http://www.evolvegrp.com/.

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June 21, 2018, 6:40 AM AEST