Dragons’ Den aficionados might recognise the scene. It was just before Israeli entrepreneurs Yosi Romano and Ziv Leinwand received a six-figure sum of investment from multimillionaire retail entrepreneur Touker Suleyman following a gripping encounter on the hit BBC show in 2018.
In possibly one of the biggest turnarounds in the history of the programme, the Israelis secured offers from all five dragons for a stake in their start-up, Brizi – established to protect babies and young children from air pollution – despite an earlier tense exchange between Leinwand and long-standing dragon Peter Jones (more on this later).
Suleyman, who owns UK shirt maker Hawes & Curtis, invested £125,000 for a 30 percent stake in the company. He has since upped his investment and money available for the company to £1 million and now owns 50 percent of the firm.
The Brizi Baby device is a portable cushion-shaped air filter made to fit any pushchair, cutting pollution by up to 80 percent around a baby’s head. It creates a protective air shield around the baby’s breathing perimeter by circulating a continuous flow of clean air, simultaneously preventing polluted air from entering the breathing zone.
Fast forward two years, and the company was just about to start manufacturing with John Lewis lined up among the stockists, until Covid-19 halted business for many across the globe. But Romano, 46, says that as soon as the factories in China open their doors again, the company is “ready and plans to start manufacturing”. Never has the need been greater, and the coronavirus, he says, has made people more aware of what they are breathing in, both in terms of pollution and viral germs and particles.
“Now, when we go out for our walk [during lockdown], it feels like the air is cleaner as there are fewer cars and traffic around. When things go back to ‘normal’, and even once the virus is hopefully under control, people will continue to be cautious about what they are breathing in.”
According to reports, the nationwide shutdown has led to big drops in air pollution across the UK, with levels of toxic pollutants due to fall even further. But the downswing might not last once the global economy ramps back up after the crisis.
Romano says: “Protecting as many kids as we can is the dream. Research has proven that exposure to pollution in the early years can limit lung and even brain development and cause allergies. We all want to make a successful business, but imagine if Brizi could help protect kids for a lifetime, and prevent asthma or respiratory diseases.”
A former TV cameraman for Associated Press, Romano came up with the idea for Brizi while pushing his then two-year-old daughter in her buggy along Finchley Road, north London, close
to where they live.
“I realised all the bus fumes were blowing straight in her face.” Pollution and the health implications of what we breathe in wasn’t discussed as much in the public domain as it is now, so he talked it over with his brother, who has a degree in biochemistry. “He helped me to understand what’s in the air we breathe. The most dangerous pollution particles lie low next to the ground, so kids are more exposed than adults.” According to a recent study by the University of Surrey, babies in pushchairs could be exposed to close to 45 percent more air pollutants than the adult pushing them.
Romano teamed up with the Map Project Office, a design company based in Old Street, which is now an equity partner in the company, and developed the Brizi filter system.
Tel Aviv based Leinwand then joined “to help turn the product into a business”. Leinwand had held marketing and management roles at Haier, Saatchi & Saatchi and Israeli food giant Strauss, where he was based in China working on an air purification project.
So how did they end up on the BBC show? “Four years ago, a gentleman who wanted to work as a producer on Dragons’ Den asked if he could do a mock-up application using Brizi,” recalls Romano, who moved to the UK in 2002 after finishing a geography and history degree from Tel Aviv University.
“I was very busy, but wanted to help as he was a young guy starting out. He got the job and a year later called to ask if we wanted to apply for real.”
During the pitch, there was an uncomfortable exchange between Peter Jones and Leinwand, when the Israeli refused to disclose some information, stating it was confidential. Jones also criticised Leinwand for standing with his hands in his pockets.
“They need a bit of drama because it’s TV after all,” notes Romano. “Something that didn’t make the final edit was when I told Peter Jones that if he knew Ziv, he wouldn’t think him rude but a very kind man and that there was no reason to be harsh. In the end Peter Jones apologised.”
Romano says they went on the show knowing they “wanted Touker” because of his route to market and distribution expertise. What is he like to work with? “Wonderful. He’s surrounded by a dynamic team of very talented people. His office is always open and he is hands-on with everything we do.”
What advice would he give to other start-ups when pitching for investment? “Believe in yourself and the project 100 percent; show you are ready for a long-term commitment.”