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Bespoke markets

Particular know-how or expertise may open up business opportunities that can be the basis for future SME growth.
BRUCE BILLSON: We’re about to introduce you to Matthew Brown. Now, Matthew is an engineer with much experience in food processing and handling. You’ll see lots of stainless steel, lots of activity going on in his northern Tasmanian factory. He’s also an extraordinary innovator, a problem solver, an engineer. When northern Tasmanian oyster growers came to him with a real problem for their business, he made it his business to solve that problem for them. He’s come up with world-leading technology. He’s truly an innovator.
But we’ll hear his story about the seven years it took and how it almost bankrupted his business to find a solution that now sees him recognised as a global expert in a niche market sought after by people wanting the world’s best technology, technology that Matthew Brown created. Matthew Brown, thank you for having us in your northern Tasmanian factory, managing director of SED, creator of shellfish technology systems. Tell us a little bit about your invention.
MATTHEW BROWN: Well, one of the inventions, the main one that we sell now, is the SED vision grader for processing oysters, which we’re now selling around the world. Sold about 160 of them. Value ranges around between about $100,000 and $200,000 each.
BRUCE BILLSON: And it uses a combination of leading-edge technologies to go through large volumes of oysters to grade them, to categorise them.
MATTHEW BROWN: That’s right.
BRUCE BILLSON: Where did you learn about this problem that needed to be solved?
MATTHEW BROWN: Yeah. We actually got approached by the industry. They had a problem because it’s all, had been and still is in many places, done by hand. So they needed a machine that would do the job. And they needed it desperately because of the costs of labour were too high for them to be profitable.
BRUCE BILLSON: So it was a break point on their scaling–
BRUCE BILLSON: –being able to handle and grade reliably. You’ve come up with a technology that sights the oyster, grades it, pushes it into different areas. And that can go through large production runs and–
MATTHEW BROWN: That’s right.
BRUCE BILLSON: –support growth.
MATTHEW BROWN: Yes. Our machines are the fastest in the world. It’ll do up to about eight a second. It sizes them by length and width and height. We’ve also got an invention to go with it. It’s not quite finished yet, in which we’ll detect whether the oyster is alive or dead. And that will be a first in the world as well.
BRUCE BILLSON: So here the oyster producers knew of your capability in food processing.
BRUCE BILLSON: You’re a problem solver and an engineer, an innovator, an inventor and thought, well, what can we do to fix this problem? Was that the way the relationship started?
MATTHEW BROWN: Yes. It started like that. And we thought, well, wonderful. We’ve got some money from the industry. We can do this. And we didn’t normally get money up front. Unfortunately, it was a really difficult problem. And it took us seven years and nearly broke the company.
BRUCE BILLSON: And through that journey, perseverance or the collaboration with the client? What got you through it because that’s a long build and commercialisation window, seven years?
MATTHEW BROWN: Yeah. Actually remember being at an oyster farm with our prototype 2 o’clock in the morning and it not working the way we needed it to. I was the only one there. And then I just had an idea, thought, shall I try this? So I did. Taped the door together with bits of tape and so on. And it worked. And that was the breakthrough I needed. Oyster farmers are quite conservative. So what I did is I produced another prototype, which is more commercial and shipped it over to South Australia and hired a truck. And I took it around different farms and displayed it, what it could do.
BRUCE BILLSON: So a road show.
MATTHEW BROWN: A road show.
BRUCE BILLSON: A road show. And that was your channel to the market?
MATTHEW BROWN: That’s right. That’s how we got started.
BRUCE BILLSON: Now a road show’s tough. Your international now. How’s that come about?
MATTHEW BROWN: Now, internationally, we sell by the internet and reputation and so on. So usually when we get a machine into an area, the neighbours will start looking at it and buying machines, so.
BRUCE BILLSON: So your online presence, is that usually the first point of contact or does someone hear through word of mouth what’s possible and then chases you and sees your online presentation?
MATTHEW BROWN: In Australia, it’s word of mouth because the industry’s quite small. And, of course, we go to trade shows and so on and demonstrate and show videos. But overseas, it’s primarily our website.
BRUCE BILLSON: And the trade shows get you into the niche market because there’s oyster productions.
MATTHEW BROWN: That’s right.
BRUCE BILLSON: A very succulent field of endeavour. But it’s not everywhere. I mean, you–
BRUCE BILLSON: –must have those secrets about how you find your prospects?
MATTHEW BROWN: Yes. Well, definitely trade shows which are specific to that industry. There’s plenty of trade shows around, which cover a lot of different topics, like finfish, for example. They have no use for us. So we target the trade shows that are specifically for shellfish.
BRUCE BILLSON: So those new markets, you’ve got those channels sorted out, lots of perseverance. But you’re still inventing new systems, new solutions.
BRUCE BILLSON: How are you finding those new markets? Is there similar pathway as what’s happened with the oyster grading technology?
MATTHEW BROWN: What’s happening is we’re really building on what we’ve got. So what happened in Australia is that, yes, we came up with a grader. But then the farmers said, oh, well, now we need something to wash our oysters because we can’t do it by hand as fast as the machine can go. And it’s built up from that. We’ve got inspection conveyors. We’ve got water recycled, for example, because they haven’t got much water in South Australia. So it’s gradually, over the years, we just kept adding more pieces or options for farmers.
BRUCE BILLSON: So what have you learned? What can you share with people thinking about going into new markets, niche markets like you’ve done? What great lessons have you gained out of it?
MATTHEW BROWN: Well, the way we got started was to actually go to farms and announce that we were going to demonstrate a machine and take it to them and show them. And then trade shows have been very valuable and make sure that every client is happy because they’re the best advertising you’ll get.
BRUCE BILLSON: Matthew Brown, thank you for your time today. And we love what you’re doing at SED engineering. Congratulations.
Particular know-how or expertise may open up business opportunities that can be the basis for future SME growth.
Bespoke is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘made for a particular customer or user’.
This fits the work of SED Engineering in Tasmania very well. Matthew Brown, CEO of SED Engineering, and his team create custom-made products for those in the shellfish industry. He sells these products domestically and around the world.
Operating from a nondescript workshop on the side of a busy highway, Matthew and his team design and manufacture engineering solutions to specific problems. They work through an iterative prototyping process to ensure their machinery meets the specific needs of their clients, as well as through design challenges to ensure the manufacturing process allows them to produce equipment that is of the highest quality.
This kind of bespoke equipment that solves very specific issues creates a range of challenges, but it shows that there are opportunities for those with skills and capabilities to create and access previously untapped markets.

Your task

Reflecting on the video, share other applications for the know-how and expertise demonstrated by SED Engineering.
Thinking about your SME, or one with which you’re familiar, identify its specialist skills and capacity and possible new markets for this this know-how that might represent a new business opportunity.
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