How prototyping with a university got my product to market

Roofer-turned-inventor Trevor Wakefield on getting his lightweight eco-tiles to market via collaboration with Wolverhampton University

After 35 years running up and down ladders, Trevor Wakefield saw the light.

The Shropshire tiler was on holiday with his grandchildren in north Wales. Sitting on the sofa, he happened to see a programme about the disposal of polymer waste. He was appalled to see how much was washing up on a beach as beautiful as Rhyl.

To the frustration of his family, he felt compelled to do something about it and spent the rest of the holiday making sketches. In outline, his plan was simple and bold.

Stop using heavy clays for roof tiles, relying on their weight to keep them in place. Instead of throwing polymers away, recycle them to create a lightweight tile which could slot together, rather than overlap.

At the start of a roofing job, you could then forget about having to order an articulated lorry to make the delivery. You could just put a pallet on the back of your van.

Once he was home, Wakefield spent three months of late nights working up his plans to create the perfect roof tile. “After 35 years in the trade, I knew all about different products and their shortcomings, but checked all the intellectual property to make sure I was creating something new.”

As well as being lighter and greener, Wakefield’s tiles promised to make life easier for builders. They were easier to handle and would take less time to fit. But would they actually work technically and commercially?

A friend suggested he try the University of Wolverhampton and its innovation centre, Caparo. He had heard it was a good place for checking an idea’s feasibility and raising early-stage funds.

After arriving with two carrier bags full of his workings and explaining the potential of his new tile, Professor Andrew Pollard at Caparo agreed to take on Wakefield and his idea. Through the university, an initial grant of £2,000 was used to assess whether the concept had any chance of making it into the market. A further £5,000 was then awarded to develop a more detailed specification.

“Caparo bent over backwards for me,” says Wakefield. “No-one else was helping me. They were the only window open to me. Without them, I would never have progressed any further.”

Armed with all the data on performance that Caparo had produced, Wakefield took his prototype for testing by the national inspector for buildings. “When I arrived on a cold February morning two years ago, I was told plastic tiles never work. The US and Canada had been sending them for years. After two days of testing, I was told it was the best system for roof tiles ever tested in the wind tunnel.”

Trading as the Green Roof Tile Company, Wakefield was free to launch. Up until last summer, he was selling 40,000 tiles a month through the web.

After finalising a deal with a major distributor, he is expecting that figure to rise to 100,000. Within the next three years, his aim is for his sales to reach £8m in the UK.

Internationally, he is looking to start selling licences. In Europe, the university is making him part of a bid for a 10m programme, which will open up sources of matched funding to support sales. Wakefield freely admits he would never have known how to set up such arrangements without Caparo.

Wakefield might now be 58, but he is so enthusiastic about his experience at Wolverhampton that he is having a second go. “I want to carry on inventing,” he says. “My latest idea is how to regenerate the millions of square metres of asbestos roofing and reprocess it into a solar roof tile, which you can just slot together, so cutting out all those big panels on your roof. We have worked with Caparo again on the technical design and will be ready to launch in January.”

Working with universities, 2nd edition, published by Crimson Publishing, is available to buy now.


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