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19 August, 2019 - 14:21 By Tony Quested

Dragons ‘slayed’ by Cambridge’s CleanTech gown gurus

Two Cambridge University alumni secured funding on Dragons’ Den last night for a startup business designed to slash the often extravagant cost of graduation gowns for thousands of UK academic starlets.

Churchill Gowns, founded by Oliver Adkins and Ruth Nicholls, was born from the duo’s shock at the cost of provision by a near monopoly of suppliers the length and breadth of Britain.

Seeking £60k, they received offers from both Deborah Meaden and Touker Suleyman, ultimately opting to accept Meaden’s investment in exchange for 22 per cent of the business. All the company’s gowns have their origin in clean technology –  made from polyester fashioned from recycled  plastic and imported from China – and they are still much cheaper than the opposition.

Nicholls told Business Weekly: “When it came to our graduation day we were really surprised to find that there was not a lot of choice when it came to hiring our gowns; the costs seemed really high given you’re only wearing a gown for a couple of hours. 

“We were confident that we could offer a simple online ordering and home delivery service which would be more convenient and save our customers money.”

It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Churchill Gowns. Since launching in 2018, several universities have tried to block their entry into the market. Cambridge and Oxford are notable exceptions according to Nicholls.

Churchill Gowns has even taken a complaint to the competition regulator, claiming that a large number of UK universities are preventing free competition in the market by forcing students to hire their gowns from a single established supplier, who then offers the university a kickback on sales.

Fortunately for the entrepreneurs the dragons were not deterred by the challenging business environment. In fact one of the founders’ key reasons for accepting Deborah Meaden’s offer was that she spoke in strong terms about wanting to shake up the industry.

Nicholls said: “We could tell from her questioning and reaction to our pitch that Deborah will prove a strong advocate for free competition in the graduation market and the right for students to choose where they spend their money. 

“This, coupled with her passion for ethical and sustainable business, meant she really was the obvious choice for Churchill Gowns and we can’t wait to have her on board.”

Adkins added: “We were really just hoping to walk away from the Den with one offer, so to have a vote of confidence from not one but two Dragons was really overwhelming. Deborah’s investment will enable us to expand to more universities around the UK – offering students a more sustainable and affordable choice when it comes to their graduation day.”

To date Churchill Gowns has supplied graduation attire to over 2,000 students across 30 UK universities and also sold directly to institutions including the University of Cambridge and Trinity College, Oxford.

Each gown the company manufactures is made entirely out of recycled plastic, creating something practical out of waste which would otherwise have ended up in landfill or the ocean. To date the business has repurposed the equivalent of 53,000 plastic bottles into gowns.

Nicholls told me: “Funnily enough Oxford and Cambridge are pretty much the only universities in the country that allow free competition. 

“Both allow students to choose freely between robemakers who all manufacture gowns to the university specifications at a range of price points. Lots of universities defend the exclusive deals on the basis that they want students to look uniform at graduation, but the examples of Oxford and Cambridge really invalidate that excuse as having multiple gowning companies has worked there for centuries! 

“By the same token I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Oxford and Cambridge are actually our biggest wholesale clients. For old institutions they ironically seem the most willing to embrace innovation!”

The company complained to the Competition and Markets Authority just over a year ago based on the fact that they had intervened in a near-identical case with school uniforms – essentially they told schools they were not allowed to dictate to parents where uniforms should be purchased from. 

Nicholls said: “Unfortunately in our case the CMA said they did not have the resources to commit to an investigation, based on the fact that there are fewer university students than school children and so an intervention was less pressing. 

“Whilst this was of course disappointing we were encouraged to see that the Competition Regulator in Ireland did intervene in this market and issued strict guidelines to universities. So we’re pretty convinced we have a good case, it’s just a question of persuading the CMA to take action!”

The provenance of the Churchill gowns is innovative. Nicholls says: “We source our gowns directly from a manufacturer in China and they make them using the polyester manufactured from recycled plastic. 

“Traditionally universities have tendered for an ‘exclusive supplier’ who is then often expected to pay kickbacks to the university and supply services such as free gowning for their staff. 

“This essentially means the students end up footing the bill, as these costs are passed on in the form of higher gown hire fees. At the moment one gowning company has about 80 per cent of the market and the universities only tender about once every 5-10 years so there’s not much competition on price.

“Because we source the gowns directly from the manufacturer and supply them direct to students (without paying universities commissions) we are able to pass these savings onto our customers. 

“We charge £32-£34 to hire a graduation set (gown, hood and cap), whilst traditional suppliers tend to charge £45-£50. The price difference is even greater with purchasing – to buy a graduation set from us is £79, whereas its around £270 from one well known monopoly supplier.” 

Currently the business mostly supplies direct to students rather than via universities. It  currently has the stock for 34 universities in the UK so is giving those students the option to buy from Churchill Gowns as a more affordable and sustainable choice. 

Nicholls adds: “We do have a few wholesale customers – the largest are the Graduate Union at Cambridge University, Trinity College Oxford and the New College of the Humanities.”

Churchill Gowns anticipates growing to have stock for 75 per cent of UK universities in the next four years, “so our ambition is to become a household name in that timeframe,” says Nicholls.

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