Based in Cornwall, Gecko Headgear Ltd is a designer and manufacturer of marine safety helmets. Founded in 1993 by Jeff Sacree, the company employs seven people and started out as a surfboard business. Jeff explains how he spotted a gap in the niche watersports market, for which he developed an innovative heat-retaining helmet.
"As a surfer, I could see the potential for a helmet that was both lightweight and heat-retaining. I was also looking for ways to diversify my product offering, since selling surfboards is highly seasonal. I designed and made the first helmet for myself but the idea soon caught on with other surfers.
"However, surfing is a relatively small market and I began wondering if I could base the whole business on my helmet design. I researched other potential users and a conversation with a lifeboatman led me to approach the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), who were immediately interested in using a version of the helmet."
"Although I was already making helmets, working with the RNLI was a different ballgame. The helmet they wanted had to be adapted, tested and certified before I could start selling it. I also needed to take on staff, which meant the company needed investment. I got a bank loan on the back of the RNLI's involvement, which was then topped up at various stages.
"A good relationship with the bank is crucial when you're trying to bring an innovative product to market. In our case the product development process took three years - far longer than we initially expected."
"When the RNLI contract finally brought us success, we were careful not to rest on our laurels.
"To date, we've gone through ten different versions of the safety helmet, refining it in line with customer feedback each time. The helmet can now accept a range of add-ons, such as cameras, torches and communications equipment, according to customer requirements. We've also developed a new full-face helmet for watercraft racing and a range designed to capitalise on the current boom in extreme sports.
"Partnerships with suppliers have been another key to success. For example, we've worked with a manufacturer to develop a new adhesive that can withstand saltwater use. We've also partnered with The Welding Institute to find better ways of welding sections of the helmet together. This has helped us innovate and keep ahead of competitors."
"Approaching the RNLI was quite a bold move for a one-man band. I had no experience of dealing with large organisations and, with hindsight, I could easily have come unstuck in the early stages. Getting advice from Venture Labs at an earlier stage would have helped me approach such sales conversations better prepared."