Founder/s: Kate Bromfield & Richard Coomber

HQ: Rothesay Bay, Auckland

website: www.chemhazel.com

What products, services, solutions or technology have you developed? 

HazEL is a SaaS (Software as a Service) based hazard evaluation tool that enables direct chemical comparisons using select human health (toxicity) and environmental (ecotoxicity) parameters. It allows users to narrow down a subset of chemicals for further research, or identify less harmful chemical substitutes for use in their programmes. 

Richard Coomber, cofounder & CTO of HazEL.

The tool may be accessed directly by the user/s, or through consultancy services offered by our company. 

Sophisticated (complex) versions of chemical comparative tools already exist. One of our key differences is that we have stripped the methodology down to the simplest, most accessible and applicable parameters – you don’t need a PhD to drive HazEL. It is important to us that HazEL is easy to use, and yet scientifically robust. 

We’ve kept the rigour by sourcing data only from world renowned and respected sources like the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and ECHA (European Chemicals Agency), and pared down the amount of material so that core health – both human and environmental – indices remain true. Chemical comparison needs to be simple and transparent.

What key customer problems do your products solve, or what customer “wants” do they fulfill? What is the impact or consequences of those problems or unfulfilled “wants”?

We want to make it easy and cost efficient for our customers to find environmental and human health friendly substitutes for the chemicals they currently use, so the applications are really broad. In fact as we progress, we keep finding more companies who can benefit from HazEL.

Take for example the NZ wine industry. Growers have a spray regime to protect the fruit in order to make our excellent wine. With HazEL, they are able to fully understand the ecosystem impacts – how the sprays move through waterways for example – and ensure that they are using products that have the least possible affect, but are still effective. And NZ wineries are leading the world in this! Over 96% of NZ’s wine growing area is certified sustainable.

PyperVision is another of our clients. They needed to demonstrate to their insurance company that the product they were using in their pioneering fog repellent (to clear airports) is environmentally safe. They used our consultancy service to put their product into a context of chemical risk management and on the strength of our report, they were able to attain the environmental liability insurance they needed to continue their launch of a great kiwi product.

The consequences of NOT being able to define and understand our chemical footprint varies from the pragmatic – a company struggles to launch an innovative product, to much bigger tragedies – like finding endocrine disruptors in our waterways. 

Who and where are your target customers?

HazEL was actually the brainchild of frustrated chemical regulators who were struggling to cope with the staggering amount of information that’s scattered far and wide across the internet, and use it to make sound decisions about their chemical management programmes. 

As you can imagine, the regulatory budget doesn’t always easily flex to resource chemical management very well. So, they were our first port of call, and our first question was, “How to sort through masses of chemical information and come up with a short-list to which those precious resources could then be designated?” But it just took off from that! 

Farmers, golf-course managers, those using agricultural sprays, soap and cosmetic manufacturers, all the way up to the big chemical producers and distributors, can all benefit from HazEL. If they’re interested in promoting transparency in the chemical supply chain and proving that their products are the safest on the market, they’re our customers. We just keep finding new applications.

At the moment, we are working with a number of agricultural associations, as that’s both an area with great need, and one to which HazEL is very well suited. A shift toward reduction in toxicity is very much on-point right now. The push is coming from both governments and from the public, who these days are far more educated in the issues around poorly controlled chemical use. Reducing chemicals in our food chain, and in all consumables, is a growing area of social awareness. 

We are also working closely with the insurance sector, as they are keenly aware of the inherent risks of chemical use and need a way to ensure best practise for those they are, or are intending, to cover. 

How and when did you first come up with the idea for your business?

The idea first originated in 2018, but it took two years of bootstrapping followed by some great assistance from Callaghan Innovation, Venture Taranaki and NZTE before we got to the point of incorporating Hazard Evaluation as a company.

And as an aside, my Mum coined the name HazEL in 2020 when I was telling her about the new chemical Hazard Evaluation company I was developing! 

HazEL clarifies chemical data to simplify decision making for manufacturers and regulators.

What are three things about your business that you are proud of?

The first time we received a financial grant (from Callaghan Innovation) was a really proud moment. I remember hearing a comment along the lines of, “You have no idea how big this could be!” It was the moment when what was just an idea was affirmed with actual investment – from people with way more business insight than me.

We are doing really good work. I know that sounds naff, but it is good to wake up each morning and know that we are helping rid the world of the chemicals that are doing so much damage. Did you know that the UN has declared chemical pollution the third planetary emergency of our time? At HazEL, we’re all motivated to empower people to reduce chemical harm, and we encourage complete transparency in the chemical supply chain. It feels good. 

Three of our team were fully sponsored by Bridgewest Finance, to go through the Stanford Entrepreneur training programme. It’s a year-long (online) course designed to establish solid business infrastructure within select start-ups. Our team are mostly scientists/technical experts, so getting those business tools and skill sets was crucial. Further, the recognition from such a renowned investment company that we had a great idea, and a capable team in place, was a real morale booster.

How do you market your business and what advice do you have for others around marketing?

At the moment we are mostly reliant on word of mouth. We are still in the early stages, and testing and refining our product. We have some early adopters who are doing their level best to ‘break’ the programme, so we can build on the initial good idea and keep getting better. 

They are also helping us to develop and refine other areas that are useful to them in their specific niche. For example, understanding the impacts of chemical mixtures is a really challenging arena, as there are no straightforward ways of knowing what you mixed and how much. Yet using mixes of chemicals is really common, especially in agriculture, and we need to know what that’s doing to us and to the environment. We’ve heard our customers say it’s important to solve this, and when we do solve that problem, we can expand into entirely new sectors.

It is crucial that we listen to our customers, and deliver a tool that is almost purpose built for them. They need to determine what’s valuable, and we need to build it. Once we have solved an existing problem, other companies with the same challenges tend to find us.

Advice? Listen to your customers. As entrepreneurs, we all think our idea is amazing. But if it isn’t solving your customer’s problems, it has no worth to them. We have frequently found ourselves reshaping our ‘amazing idea’ to work for our highly varied customer base, and it has opened so many doors. 

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in building your business so far?

Time. But I imagine that is the case for most entrepreneurs. You may have a great idea, but it takes time to develop, and meanwhile someone has to keep putting food on the table.

But in a business sense, the technology challenge was very real. As an ex-regulator, I knew what science was required, but how to transpose that into an actual SaaS tool was out of my zone. 

My co-founder has the technical expertise, yet finding a common language was harder than we thought – we needed someone who could speak both ‘technology’ and ‘chemistry’. We’ve been fortunate to land a number of grants that have enabled us to work through some of the really tough nuts. Thanks to these grants we’ve been able to bring in specialists (like chemical engineers) to help problem-solve highly technical areas, which has been a game changer. 

What is the biggest entrepreneur lesson you would like to share with other Kiwis thinking of starting their own business?

There are three things I want to share:

1) Build a solid team. It is the people, the people, the people that make the business work. You need folks who can roll up their sleeves and do the gritty stuff, as well as help solve the analytical problems as they arise. And they do keep arising. 

2) As I said earlier, in our case, most of us are scientists or technically inclined. Yet writing copy, finding work-arounds for non-technical issues, and being able to really listen to our client’s needs are equally, if not more important. It’s one thing to have a great idea, but something else altogether to make that idea a valuable commodity for paying customers. 

3) Finally, you need to be tenacious and thick skinned. Your team’s amazing, they’ll do whatever you ask. But when you take the hits and face the set-backs, it’s you who keeps them moving forwards and reminds them of the vision!

Story created in partnership with GridAKL.

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