A Coventry-based company that has developed miniature jet engines to power mobile phone towers plans to raise £80m to expand its workforce in the Midlands and open a factory in Dubai.
Bladon Micro Turbine was initially established to adapt its lightweight generators for use in the car industry. The design was developed by motorcycle enthusiasts Paul and Chris Bladon and was hoped to eventually help gas turbines replace the piston engine in the automotive sector.
But Bladon Jets, as it was originally called, instead found demand for its generators in the telecoms industry, which has long struggled with the issue of how to maintain power supplies to towers in rural locations.
Networks in countries including Norway and Australia have to regularly replace diesel fuel in very remote towers by using helicopters, while African companies have faced problems linked to fuel theft and staff security when servicing towers.
Bladon Micro Turbines delivered its first commercial “micro turbine gensets” for use on African towers in 2018.
It has now kicked off a roadshow to raise about £80m. The company has raised £60m to date, according to Paul Barrett, chief executive, from individual investors and Tata, the Indian owner of Jaguar Land Rover, which has worked with Bladon on electric vehicles. Dubai’s sovereign wealth fund ICD is also an existing investor.
Mr Barrett said investors in China, Hong Kong and the Middle East had shown interest in the fundraising but UK institutional investors had been more reticent. “The UK is preoccupied with a word beginning with ‘B’,” he said, referring to the Brexit malaise.
The funds will be used to increase capacity at the company’s Coventry headquarters from 135 to 200 staff by the end of the year.
The West Midlands factory has the potential to make a maximum of 8,000 engines a year. Bladon worked with JLR to identify an overseas location for a second factory to add capacity. It considered Morocco and eastern Europe before settling on Dubai.
Mr Barrett said the use of its gas turbine technology had an opportunity outside telecoms towers in the broader distributed power market. He said China had almost 2m towers but investors from Asia were more interested in partnering the longer term development of the technology in the energy market.
The gas turbine engine was invented in Britain by Frank Whittle in 1937. Although it has replaced the piston engine in aircraft and for large-scale power generation, it has never been commercialised for small engines. The Bladon brothers invented a system to miniaturise gas turbine technology. The company has further developed the Bladon engine, as well as developing air bearings, heat exchangers and high-speed electrical machines, into a 12kW micro turbine generator spinning at up to 140,000 revs per minute and suitable for low-cost mass production.