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Sir James Dyson on Apple, Bombardier and quantum leaps

British inventor is seeing his company’s opportunities multiply with new technologies.

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Sir James Dyson:

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Sir James Dyson’s eyes light up as he recalls his visit to the Bombardier museum near Montreal years ago. It’s obvious he holds the Canadian company’s founder, a fellow inventor, in high esteem.

Joseph-Armand Bombardier invented the snowmobile in the 1930s when he strapped a pair of skis and a propeller to a Ford Model T car engine. He and his younger brother Leopold possessed more curiosity than good sense for daring to try the dangerous contraption.

“Their father forbade them to use it and of course they did. Luckily they didn’t kill themselves,” Dyson says.

Bombardier built his invention into an international company that now makes a diverse range of products, including Ski-Doos, subway trains and jetliners. Dyson’s reverence stems from the fact that he has followed a similar path.

“He was a brilliant, brilliant inventor,” he says. “He was a great engineer and a fantastic entrepreneur.”

Dyson, 69, studied design at the U.K.’s Royal College of Art before moving into engineering. His first invention was the Ballbarrow, a wheelbarrow that used a ball instead of a wheel to move around.

In the 1980s, he happened across the idea that would make him a household name. Inspired by the air-separation systems used in sawmills, Dyson built a cyclonic filter for a vacuum cleaner. The method meant the vacuum would never lose suction power and could work without a bag. The cyclone instead separated dirt from the air and deposited it into a bin within the vacuum.

Dyson tried to sell the idea to existing manufacturers, but found no takers. Instead, he set up his own eponymous company. The vacuum became a hit in the United Kingdom throughout the 1990s, and international expansion followed.

Dyson the company soon became synonymous with quality, high-end vacuums that competitors rushed to emulate. In 2006, Dyson the man was knighted for his contributions to British innovation. The company then expanded into other areas, including hand dryers and fans.

The past year has been its busiest yet, with launches into several new product categories. First was the Pure Cool, which combines a fan, a space heater and an air purifier. Then came the 360 Eye, a robot vacuum cleaner that spent 17 years in development.

dyson 360 eye, robot vacuum

The privately held company is growing dramatically as a result. Revenue has doubled over the past four years to £1.7 billion ($2.9 billion Canadian), with $500 million (U.S.) going toward a new U.K. expansion that will double its research footprint.

Dyson is also investing $3 billion in research, with 40 new products under development.

The newest is the Supersonic, a high-tech hair dryer that marks the company’s entry into the health and beauty markets.

Dyson is enthusiastic in explaining what makes the hair dryer better than rivals. Its motor is smaller and faster, he says, boasting 110,000 revolutions per minute compared to a typical 15,000. It spins so fast that it’s actually ultra-sonic, hence the product’s name.

It also doesn’t produce much noise as a result and is small enough to fit into the device’s handle, so it’s better balanced when held.

Regular hair dryers also heat up when held near hair because they build up pressure. The Supersonic has a control chip that regulates how much pressure it exerts, so it doesn’t warm unnecessarily. That means it doesn’t damage hair, unlike some of its rivals.

The Supersonic sells for a hefty $499 in Canada. Dyson rationalizes the high price tag – and all of his products’ premium prices – by citing their advantages.

“All those things I’ve talked about – heat, damage and noise – are really important to people. We haven’t had any complaints about the price yet,” he says. “It might not appeal to everybody, but we put in a hair dryer what we think should be in a hair dryer.”

dyson, supersonic

The premium focus has drawn frequent comparisons to Apple. The iPhone maker also maintains high prices on goods that are meticulously developed and designed.

Dyson, for his part, doesn’t care much for the comparisons.

“I don’t really take it all. We employ only engineers and we teach design within the company by osmosis. Design doesn’t come first with us, technology does. Design then comes from the technology,” he says.

“We’re not out to make beautiful products, we’re out to make products that work really well. How they look will stem from their technology.”

Dyson also has little interest in seeing his company become as big as Apple, which is why he has resisted going public.

“We’re not forced to expand exponentially. We’re really more interested in developing new technology and seeing what interesting products we can make with that technology,” he says.

“We can think very long-term. We don’t have to show an ever-increasing graph. If growth happens, it happens because we get products right.”

Growth opportunities are nevertheless multiplying for the company because of its new technologies. The robot vacuum and the purifier, for example, are both connected products that allow user control via smartphones. The robovac also houses a camera-enabled vision system.

Developing these technologies means they’ll inevitably spread into other products. Future vacuum cleaners, for example, will “absolutely” have connectivity, Dyson says.

The company is also investing big in battery technology. Dyson spent $90 million last year on acquiring Sakti3, a Michigan-based solid-state battery developer. Solid-state batteries don’t contain liquids and don’t heat up. Industry watchers believe they could be the next big thing because they’re safer than lithium-ion.

“I’m not making any great claims, but we want to be right in there,” Dyson says. “We’d love to be first, but we’re making sure we’ll have our own battery and that it’s a quantum leap.”

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