Accidental entrepreneur Tarek Al Emam’s CV, at first glance, makes him an unlikely inventor. But his ideas have taken him on a journey from exclusive beach clubs for the super wealthy to helping some of the most desperate families in the world.
Al Emam’s background is in premium credit cards. For 15 years he ran a team of relationship managers for American Express, serving the top tier of card users in the Middle East and North Africa. In May 2015, a better offer for a similar role came along and at first it seemed like the next logical step in an already successful consumer banking career. But, before he signed the new contract, Al Emam decided he needed a career break. Time to relax, recoup and recharge.
“I had a good career but when I was about to sign the new contract I realised I needed a break to think about what I wanted to do,” the Real Innovation Awards winner says of his old life.
A month later, staying cool poolside on a blazing hot Dubai day, he dunked his towel in the water and laid it out. Enjoying the cooling effect, he wondered why a more convenient and effective method didn’t exist.
Curious, he investigated existing cooling products, none of which were particularly effective including gel cooling pads sold in pharmacies. Small and weak, they cooled only for five minutes. Undeterred, he probed further, examining the formula they used, before contacting a manufacturer in China.
Playing around with ratios in the gels he significantly improved the cooling effects and quickly sketched out a range of products; for necks, wrists, mats and pets including horses and dogs. The Freezmate range went on sale in November the same year.
Hoteliers and premium health clubs were early adopters, commissioning bespoke cooling mats to a custom size and weight. These commercial bulk buyers remain the backbone of the business. The products themselves typically offer six hours cooling under the sun and up to 10 hours when used indoors. A thermal layer protects the skin and ensures the gel’s longevity in use. They can be put through 400 cycles for up to two years before they lose their cooling qualities. They even cool at ambient temperature.
“Playing around with ratios in the gels Al Emam significantly improved the cooling effects and quickly sketched out a range of products; for necks, wrists, mats and pets.”
Freezmate’s first big break came when Dubai municipal authority ordered 10,000 neck coolers for staff. A massive order, which put the company on the map in the city and in terms of corporate social responsibility.
From the start Al Emam was determined to keep the business lean: “I wanted to do something minimal cost online. I had a virtual office, no employees and I outsourced virtually everything.
“I decided to partner with Aramex, a leading Middle East logistics company, because it was crucial to keep costs down. They handled the deliveries and payments in an initiative with Freezmate, which has been extended to become Aramex’s ecommerce venture that now serves 10 business customers.”
The inspiration for Al Emam did not end there. Next, while watching horrifying news images of refugees escaping the civil war in Syria, he heard they were appealing for blankets. He wondered if it would be possible to give them something to keep them warm and cool.
Driven to make a difference, Al Emam started developing both a warming and a cooling gel to fill mattresses. He discovered that children were struggling to sleep in the cold desert nights and stay cool during the hot days. The mats deliver two hours of heat after being dipped in hot water for five minutes.
“I thought the order for the refugees was going to be a one-off,” admits Al Emam. “But then the orders came flooding in – along with letters of recognition from the United Nations and the Red Crescent.
The largest order so far has been for 8,000 mats for the Al Zaatari Camp in Jordan. The mats have also been sent to camps in Lebanon, Greece and Turkey. Al Emam, who delivers them at cost, also fundraises. His next target is to raise US$1.3m for 50,000 of the mats, which will be distributed by the UAE Red Crescent.
“I put aside 15 years of banking to come up with this idea. The payback was seeing the smiles of the children in Syria and Lebanon – that was the reason I did this.”
Reflecting on his achievements, the Freezmate founder and CEO, says: “I put aside 15 years of banking to come up with this idea. The payback was seeing the smiles of the children in Syria and Lebanon – that was the reason I did this.
“I went to the camps and it has made me more motivated and inspired.”
Today, the not-for-profit work is responsible for 40% of Freezmate’s output. It balances the seasonal work from the hotels and is set to be expanded in Europe.
“Global warming is creating a host of problems in Europe, with hotter and hotter summers, and I believe there is an opportunity there for us to make a difference,” says Al Emam. “Most European houses don’t have air conditioning. The heatwave that hit the UK this year is a prime example of the kind of heat Europe is going to face more and more. I want to provide affordable products and save lives.”
For his work at Freezmate, Al Emam was the People’s Choice in The Alexander Fleming Serendipity Award category at the 2018 Real Innovation Awards, organised by London Business School’s Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
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