With the increased use of chargers and other electronic devices, there has been a significant rise in fires in homes and businesses caused by faulty, ageing or counterfeit devices.

Fires in the home increased by a staggering 35%

A recent report by Electrical Safety First claimed that fires in the home increased by a staggering 35 per cent and, only recently, Amazon had to recall a quarter of a million powerbanks which were at risk of overheating. It was a near miss that inspired electrician Sean O'Tuama to develop the 'Firemole' when his own home had a close call with a fire. The main switch gave way and the fuseboard leading to a mains cable became loose thus generating a lot of heat. When O'Tuama went to investigate, the front of the fuseboard was melting and the switches were inoperable. Luckily, he knew to run outside and pull the ESB fuse which stopped the heat from generating and the fire from igniting. He scoured electrical shops and the internet for a simple device that could warn you of overheating, but there were none available. Not resting on his laurels, he decided to invent one on a Friday, worked on a design over the weekend and by Monday he was talking to engineers. The engineers in question were Genesis Circuits in Cork and he soon realised he had gone to the right people as they were able to streamline the design and electronics. Determined to keep it local, his next port of call was another Cork firm, MAAS Engineering, which made a tool for the plastic housing and metal base.

Prototype soon developed

Thus, a prototype was soon developed and, in addition, O'Tuama got a crash course in the manufacturing process from these companies; in his words, it was “a very steep but enjoyable learning curve”. Convinced he had the basis for a startup business, he contacted Enterprise Ireland and it told him about its New Frontiers programme. It liked his idea and gave him an office in the Rubicon Business Innovation Centre together with some seed money. In addition, Cork City Local Enterprise Office gave him a feasibility study grant which helped him develop the product. Six months later, the 'Firemole' was market ready and O'Tuama began working on his marketing strategy. After winning the New Frontiers programme's ‘Most Innovative Product’ award, he decided to send out his first press release hoping that the local newspaper might pick up on it. It didn’t, but various national news media and radio stations did and by that evening he was giving an interview to TV3. This, in turn, caused the 'Firemole' to go viral on Twitter when it received almost two million impressions over a 24-hour period. Luckily, the night before, O'Tuama was told a major news outlet was going to publish a story about his invention and working quickly he set up the www.firemole.com website. He was in the nick of time as the pre-orders that rolled in blasted through his first month’s sales projections in less than 24 hours with close to 3,000 orders. Purchasing the components from manufacturers in Cork and Prague, he assembled the product himself in his garage, filled the orders and sent them to the customers.

Studying customer data

Studying his customer data, he soon realised that his device was not only attractive to homeowners but to businesses as well. Workspaces use a significant number of electrical devices and in some companies these devices might not be regularly checked on a daily basis. A fire can have a devastating effect on hardware, critical information and inventory and can potentially shut a business down. The size of a large stamp, the Firemole uses an adhesive sticker that can be attached to various electrical/electronic devices such as a phone charger, baby monitor, powerbank, wifi router or multi-socket adapter. Running off a replaceable coin battery, the Firemole monitors the temperature of the device and then sounds a high pitched 50dB alarm when high temperatures are detected. The battery has an approximate life of 18 months and similarly to a fire alarm, it will emit a beep every five minutes when it begins to run low. Also, similarly, it has a test a silence button which means it can be incorporated seamlessly into a regular fire prevention testing regime. The Firemole has subsequently won further awards including a €50,000 investment from Enterprise Ireland and a silver medal at the 2018 National Start-Up Awards. His product is selling well in the Irish market and in Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Looking to raise a seed round of investment

O'Tuama is looking to raise a seed round of investment as there will be a significant marketing campaign needed to sell the Firemole, as it is not a product people will be specifically looking for. As sales increase through the website and distributors he intends to scale up proportionately and is aware that this will be his biggest challenge in 2019. Another major challenge is to expand his product line and O'Tuama is currently developing a 'smart' version of the Firemole capable of alerting a Firemole owner of a device overheating via an app and also enable power to be shut off automatically to areas where high temperatures are detected. With these innovations, it is his ambition to make the Firemole the ‘go-to’ brand for fire prevention in the home. The Firemole is on sale through www.firemole.com. Author: Kenneth Mitchell, BEng, HDip, MSc CEng, MIEI, is a chartered engineer in the fields of chemical and environmental engineering