An engineer who devised a clever way of looking after his pet snakes in his spare time has created a global business with thousands of customers from as far afield as South Africa, Australia and the US.
In the two years since its launch, Newcastle-based Geko Electronics has built up an international following for its environmental control systems, used to care for exotic pets like lizards, spiders and snakes.
The company was set up by Chris Eagleton, who initially combined his passions of electronics and reptile-keeping to develop products for his 50+ pet snakes.
When not working at his day job as an engineer in the car manufacturing sector, he worked on inventing a thermostat that improved on what was already available to reptile owners.
The result was a climate monitoring and control system that ensures vivariums have the correct temperature and humidity for their often-sensitive inhabitants.
Word of the products quickly spread via forums and social media, and retailers were soon in touch with the former Nissan worker about selling to them directly.
Geko’s growth has been supported by Innovate2Succeed, a programme of business support which helps SMEs to capitalise on new ideas. Innovate2Succeed is delivered by RTC North and funded by Innovate UK and the European Regional Development Fund as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme.
David Boath, innovation specialist at RTC North, said: “Chris and Adele have shown great determination and creativity in building up a company which has disrupted a market dominated by much larger manufacturers. The new app and cloud-enabled vivarium has the potential to revolutionise the exotic animal care market on a global scale.”
The scheme has enabled the company to access grant funding and is supporting it in integrating its products with a mobile app. Geko aims to launch the app – which will allow users to control its products remotely – next spring.
The company was officially formed in 2015, with Chris and his partner Adele, a salesperson, both quitting their jobs to work on the business full time.
It opened a manufacturing plant in Killingworth, Newcastle, and has since shipped close to 10,000 units around the world.
Currently less than 50% of sales are UK-based, with Europe, the US and Australia making up the rest – alongside its most recently-cracked market, South Africa.
Chris Eagleton said: “The technology available to reptile owners had not moved on for years before we launched Geko. Temperature monitoring was often sloppy and inaccurate and customers had very little choice.
“Our success has come from bringing together a simple, user-friendly interface with over-engineered technology that ensures reliability and accuracy. The app will be a further development of this, while we are also exploring other potential opportunities for our products.”
Other such opportunities potentially include controlling the temperature of drugs within the NHS; with early discussions underway between Geko and healthcare bosses with a view to developing a bespoke product. In the meantime, Geko sees plenty of room for growth in the reptile and other exotic pet markets, and expects to increase its headcount from four to eight in the next 12 months accordingly.
Estimates of the size of the UK reptiles market vary wildly. The British Federation of Herpetologists said in 2008 that reptile pets in the UK numbered as many as eight million – compared to 7.5 million dogs.
This year, a survey by The Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association put the figure considerably lower at an estimated 700,000. The general consensus, however, is that demand for reptiles is growing as pet lovers seek increasingly exotic pets.