Having grown to a 200-person operation in 17 years, Sydney-based mass-customization manufacturer Protocase wants to expand into new product lines and is looking for a team of entrepreneurs to help.

The company, known for its customized electronics cabinets, is participating in Innovacorp’s second Intersect competition, which begins this month. Intersect brings forward an established company with a problem, and asks startups to come up with solutions.

To be clear, Protocase is not a company with a big problem. Its revenues have grown strongly this decade. Its 45 Drives unit, which makes data storage solutions, has been such a success that it is expected to account for more than half of Protocase’s revenues in 2019.

What Protocase wants help with is developing promising new businesses. Using its expertise in mass customization, the company has dabbled in a few new markets, such as ceramic tiling or stain glass windows. It would like to link up with entrepreneurs or startups who can build these experiments into new businesses.

“In the last seven years, we’ve averaged 30 percent growth annually and we’re getting up to 200 employees now,” said Milburn in an interview. “When you do that, taking advantage of these small opportunities gets more and more difficult.”

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To understand what Protocase wants, it’s best to grasp its manufacturing model. Some manufacturers knock out mass products (like hardware or auto parts), whereas others are specialist manufacturers that customize products to minute detail for specific customers. Protocase operates in the middle ground.

It manufactures products to customers’ exact specifications and timelines, and in the volumes that customers like electronics companies want.

As the company grew, it was doing more and more work in data storage, so Protocase spun that operation off into its own business, calling it 45 Drives. Milburn also oversees another company, Advanced Glazings, which he said is now doing “really wonderfully” after getting through a law suit from investors a few years ago. Advanced Glazings makes advanced windows that maximize sunlight without reducing insulation. 

Overseeing these operations has tapped out the managerial capacity of Milburn and his team, but they see new opportunities. Milburn said he’s participating in the Intersect competition with the goal of teaming up with a business development team.

Milburn didn’t state categorically what business he’s thinking of, but he did name one activity that Protocase is interested in: decorative tiles.

The company has equipment that can cut ceramic tiles, and it has experimented in applying the mass-customization model to using ceramics in interior decoration.

“We did 35 installations in about a year,” said Milburn. “It was an easy sell and the numbers worked out right. It was surprisingly simple to integrate something that was completely different for us.”

Now, he would like to work with entrepreneurs on growing this or another business through the Intersect competition. Applicants for the competition must file a business proposal by Dec. 28. (You can find details of the competition, and Protocase's business, here.) The winners will receive $5,000 from Innovacorp and $2,500 in product development and prototyping from Protocase.

The first Intersect competition organized by Innovacorp’s Sydney office was held in October, when candidates were asked to develop a solution for Snow White Laundry. Gavin Andrews and Matt Pyne won with a company called Tracker Inventory Systems.  They are now implementing a laundry tracking system that uses smart labels in the Snow White Laundry facilities.


Disclosure: Innovacorp is a client of Entrevestor.