Disruptive technology for rural villages: The case of Sure Chill solar refrigerators

Interview with Ian Tansley

Chief Technical Officer, Sure Chill, a Cardiff-based tech company

Location: UK

“The single biggest challenge we have is people grasping the scale of what we can do: reaching billions”

Tansley has spent over thirty years working in Africa, in Nigeria in particular. Remote solar-powered systems were failing; for example, conventional refrigerators had the capacity to freeze, and very often did freeze vaccines. To start at the beginning: “A refrigerator can be a fridge, which sits in the kitchen, a white box with a door on the front,” he says wryly, “but it can also mean a cold room, or a cooling facility, or a device making something specific and controlled – like a bottle cooler, or something to cool electronics.”

So whilst a refrigerator can be many things, the technology means much more than that, says Tansley. When a fridge didn’t work, then it was ‘broken’. “The batteries let the whole thing down. They are unsuitable, dirty, polluting, and bad value for money. I was lying awake in a sweaty place in the middle of Africa somewhere, for another night of tormented sleep because it was so hot. Every time I came home to my nice comfortable living, I realised how many people I was leaving behind, who had to carry on. That has provided my ongoing motivation; inventing a piece of work which can do so much good for so many people.”

Back in Wales, a sceptical Tansley thought about using ice to keep the fridge working; it is cheap, clean, and has energy density, but its temperature cannot be controlled, because it works at freezing point. Phase-changing materials were another, albeit more expensive option. He eventually discovered that the physics of water could keep a refrigerator working, by circulating water around a compartment in the refrigerator. “Water always gives you 4 degrees centigrade (39 degree fahrenheit),” explains Tansley. “You still get energy density, you’re using a cheap raw material, and you have energy distribution and control over how it moves. It meters out energy carefully.” The innovation, based on solar and hydro power, marked the growth of Sure Chill, which Tansley created in 2003. Within a few years, he was registering patents.

Innovator in the vaccine market

Today, Sure Chill has excellent links with people in the vaccine market, precisely because with this new refrigerating system, a vaccine will never be frozen; the fridge can only deliver four degrees centigrade, the ideal temperature to store food and vaccines. Sure Chill’s innovative cooling system, which works via solar when off-grid, has reached customers in 38 countries. In South Sudan, the NGO Cress emphasises that there is just one doctor per 100,000 people, with no state care provisions. This year the NGO, which set up a health clinic in Liwolo, ordered a small solar vaccine refrigerator from Sure Chill, and have been treating anything from Malaria and Typhoid, to ulcers, urinary infections, and septicaemia in a village of 400,00 people.

In 2015, a Sure Chill vaccine refrigerator acquired by the American Foundation for Children with AIDS helped 20 families in Gemena, DRC, who stored veterinary vaccines “against avian plague in chickens, and Pest-Vac against plague in goats and sheep.” NGOs are a huge part of the healthcare provisions in these countries, but in East Kerema in Papua New Guinea, oil and gas company InterOil bought a solar-powered refrigerator for locals as part of a community outreach project this summer.

The fridges are usually made to order; they can take months to be built, shipped, and to arrive at location, let alone to be allowed through customs. Staff at Cress described what an effort that can be in a blog post.

Sure Chill has had a high-level impact. It counts Nobel Prize winner Sir John Houghton and director of the Global Health Group Sir Richard Feachem as backers. The World Health Organisation and UNICEF came on board to work with the technology, excited at how it could solve so many problems in one go. The Gates Foundation helped push funding for the project to $1.5 million. For now this governmental and institutional process makes it a little harder to access data showing what impact the technology has had on people’s lives.

Tansley is confident that it has benefitted millions, from the over 2000 units sent out, and the cycles of vaccines going through them. Sure Chill is also working with donors to implement programmes with local partners, and hopes that their manufacturing involvement will change. There is a chance, he says, that Sure Chill could become responsible for importation, delivery and installation on site soon.

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Leaving comfort zones

Teaming up with entrepreneur Peter Saunders in 2013 was a key part of the development of the company. “It’s important to work with people who can help you and get you out of a situation where you’re surrounded by too many like minds,” says Tansley. “I took myself out of my comfort zone and into a more commercial environment.” Two main goals ensued after they realised their internal resources were scant: firstly, developing a model of working with partners.

Secondly, a licensing model for the technology, with the capacity for its applications to develop. Now, Sure Chill is reaching inter-markets who have the manufacturing capability and ability to commercially exploit the technology in a number of fields. Sure Chill is moving beyond the world of vaccines and is in conversations with major organisations in food and beverage, as well as domestic sectors for comfort and well-being. Prototype products will be revealed later this year and early next year.

The key takeaways are to look at the big picture, and meet people who take you out of your comfort zone. “My training in engineering design helped me, but there are times when you need to be braver or foolish to take a bigger leap,” he says. An even greater challenge, Tansley reflects, is getting people to realise how big this is. “People see things in an incremental way; but we’re not talking about millions or tens of millions people, but billions of people who could benefit from this technology. People grasping scale of that is single biggest challenge we have, stepping up to that level of thinking.”

What Tansley hopes to continue working on, is working with the idea that technologies are disruptive.”This is my main goal,” he admits. “Mass manufacture would mean that people with low incomes and poor electricity supply could afford this, which does this trick. That brings the costs right down, and makes the technology accessible, useable, even for medical refrigeration (via specialised bits of kits).” The obvious human benefit of manufacturing Sure Chill and other such products more widely means that they would be more accessible. Tansley repeats that it is important to get everyone else to leap on board with that, as he did with his venture and his invention.

So what’s the answer? “We need someone who is prepared to enter the market, be disruptive, and say they have something way better. For a mass manufacturer to do that now, would be admitting that own equipment is not very good!” Tansley’s conversations with people, whether on the streets of India or in aeroplanes, will continue around raising awareness of this. There is a real market, and he wants everyone to fight the risk.

As for the future for Sure Chill, Tansley has been registering more patents. “It’s a static technology, and vaccine/ pharmaceutical culture has to go mobile, so that’s very important to us.” There are around 15 or 16 patent families now, he says, “which goes to show the width and breadth of the thinking now. This is not just one idea – a lot of thinking is going on in a lot of different sectors.”

—Nabeelah Shabbir

Revolutionary cooling technology: The Sure Chill Company from The Sure Chill Company on Vimeo.

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