Starlite – Worst Start-up in History

Imagine an insulating material that can withstand so much heat it can be painted on an egg, blowtorched for five minutes then revealed to be raw and cold to the touch on your bare hand. Imagine a paint that could withstand a laser blast of 10,000 degrees to no effect?

A product so incredible NASA was beating a path to your door. A product that could be made in your kitchen from ordinary materials that costs next to nothing to make?

Imagine you were offered millions for it but you turned it down because you figured you could either hold out for more or do it all yourself? LOSER!

The blowtorched egg, like a parlor trick, was performed live on BBC’s “Tomorrow’s World” and generated quite the interest. Some thought it was of alien origin, others thought it was the Holy Grail for paint manufacturers. It suddenly disappeared. Many thought it was because the military made a deal to hide it for their own purposes. We will never know for sure.

Starlite was a real-life invention and product developed in the 1970s and ’80s by Maurice Ward an amateur chemist and hairdresser.

While Ward proffered the material for experimentation he never allowed the product to remain with chemists for fear they would reverse engineer it because of its seemingly simple manufacture.

Ward died with the secret to Starlite in 2011 and his family is still holding onto the impossible material to this day having never turned it into a commercial venture.

Whether Starlite was the wonder invention or a hoax brings to mind the problem with new start-ups – how much to share with the world!

I have met my fair share of inventors over the years and the major source of angst among them is that someone will steal their intellectual property (IP).

It’s a double-edged sword for sure. If you patent the thing it’s now open to the world to find a better version. If you hide it (like the Coca-Cola recipe) and produce it yourself you need the infrastructure to market and sell it while keeping competitors at bay. 

I had a client years ago who invented an adapter for an electrical extension cord that allowed lengths to be added without them uncoupling. That’s the best explanation I have because he wouldn’t let me see it even though I was his mentor. I have no idea what it looked like but he said it was the cat’s meow. 

We had a few options for business development from selling the concept and IP to licensing it to a real manufacturer or manufacturing it himself. You can imagine what he opted for – manufacture it himself.

He was afraid someone would copy his idea, steal the IP and produce it offshore. The reality was that as soon as it went to market it would definitely be knocked-off by Asian manufacturers. It’s a common worry for sure and most liking would occur.

The concept of ‘first to market’ with a quality product is always the sound choice. In his scenario, he was determined to be the manufacturer. His estimates for a production facility exceed $10M, which no one was willing to invest in particular since he would not show people the product. 

Obviously, the product needed to be produced under license by a strong business specializing in that industry with a nice residual going to my client. I use the term client loosely here because after a lengthy argument about direction we parted company. 

Everyone wants to know the ending to this tale of woe and it is predictable. Nothing happened! His idea of wealth dissipated in a heartbeat after people realized he was unsupportable and he passed away a couple of years later, an afterthought in extension cord history.

By now you can see a theme running through this piece. Inventors are idiots and need to be harnessed, put away in a dark room, and given enough sustenance to continue to develop new products ad infinitum. They will love you for it!

Seriously, I think we have all run into the start-up founder with a brilliant idea only to realize the genius is not to be allowed to run the business. After all, they don’t want that responsibility anyway. People should be allowed to pursue what they love so find a management team that knows how to contain this mental genius.

In my years working with start-ups and founders, the companies that ‘make their mark’ are the ones that can combine genius with a team to implement it and the resources to bring it all together in a market that is ready for it. It illustrates the point that a strong team is needed to bring any concept to fruition.

In terms of genius, many will remember Maurice Ward as the man who invented Starlite, I prefer to think of him as a hairdresser who stumbled onto something amazing and did nothing with it.

Gary is a Management Consultant and published author specializing in start-ups and disruptive technologies. He works in Vancouver.

1 thought on “Starlite – Worst Start-up in History”

  1. Trying to make an inventor into a businessman is sometimes impossible even with the b3st idea. It was definitely informative. Your site is useful. Thank you for sharing!

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