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Hot Platinum: Ali Brey & Irshad Khan

Two engineers revolutionise the platinum industry with a world-first innovation

Juliet Pitman

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Ali Brey & Irshad Khan of Hot Platinum

In 2003 parliament commissioned a new mace to be made to celebrate the country’s ten years of democracy. Forged from indigenous wood, precious metals and stones, the mace is a symbol of power and authority. Without it Parliament is not considered properly constituted.

But while it may represent freedom and democracy to most people, to two Cape Town based entrepreneurs, the mace is a physical manifestation of their years of research, technological innovation and hard-won business success.

Ali Brey and Irshad Khan are partners in Hot Platinum, a start-up that has developed unique and highly efficient technology to melt and cast platinum. “The technology allows you to utilise normal single phase power and use as much energy as you would to boil an urn, to melt and cast one kilogram of platinum at 2000°C in under four minutes,” explains Khan.

But that’s not all. The induction casting machine Hot Platinum has developed is compact, easy-to-use, provides a fully integrated system that can be used on gold, silver and stainless steel. It also removes much of the danger usually associated with melting and casting platinum.

It has been marketed to small and medium jewellers but can be used in any application that requires the melting and casting of small to medium-sized pieces of metal. The business started out as an academic research project as Khan, a former academic at UCT and an engineer by training, explains:

“We were researching two different types of technology – the induction casting machine, which is the commercialised product we are currently manufacturing, and alloy technology for harder platinum alloys.” Realising that both projects had commercial legs, they applied to the Department of Science and Technology’s Innovation Fund, which finances early-stage research projects with commercial potential, and received R5,6 million to get the machine to prototype phase.

Ali Brey, an engineer with an MBA, joined the team when the research project received its funding grant and the Hot Platinum commercial entity was created. “We went overseas to research the technology that was available and realised that the real opportunity for commercialisation lay in the small to medium jewellers market because all other technology, for melting and casting platinum, was aimed at the bigger manufacturers.

We could fill a gap if the product we offered was small, efficient, safe and easy to use,” explains Brey. But their market research also indicated that the three years they had budgeted to develop the product and get it to market was too long.

“We realised we’d miss the opportunity if we stuck to that timeline so we shortened it by a year,” he says. Time wasn’t the only challenge the team had to deal with. Once the prototype was developed, it needed to be tested. “This required a lot of platinum that we simply hadn’t budgeted for,” says Khan.

Fortunately their luck was in. “We’d heard about the contract to develop the new parliamentary mace but we couldn’t find out who it had been awarded to. Then one day a guy walked into Irshad’s brother’s take-away shop and started talking about the difficulty his company was having finding someone who could cast the platinum rings needed for the mace.

He happened to work for OroAfrica and they had the contract for the mace,” explains Brey of the serendipitous turn of events.

Needless to say, securing the contract to cast the mace’s platinum pieces was a huge windfall for Hot Platinum. “The fantastic thing about it was that it not only gave us the chance we’d been looking for to test the prototype using platinum, but it also afforded us the opportunity to create a lasting reference and showcase of the highest standard for what our technology could do,” says Khan.

Khan and Brey accessed further finance from the Brimstone Investment Corporation in 2006. “Our investors have played a crucial role in getting us to where we are today. Not only did they give us funding that allowed us to set up operations and expand into international markets, but they also provided us with access to their business expertise and network, which has opened more doors,” says Khan.

But in spite of their success, he and Brey are not content to rest on their laurels. Ever hungry to innovate, they’ve already enhanced the technology and developed a new machine. As they now turn their eyes to additional applications and export markets, the future of the company certainly looks bright. Contact: +27 21 552 2049; www.hotplatinum.co.za

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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