Professor James Trevelyan founded Close Comfort, an air conditioner brand. Photo courtesy of James Trevelyan.
Despite coming from a family of social entrepreneurs, I never thought about walking their path to set up my own business. I’ve always had my heart set on being an engineer, and worked towards that.
My work as an engineer took me to various places in South Asia, where we helped to install water pumps. Close engagement with local people eventually led me to re-engineer household air conditioning and establish my company, Close Comfort.
The seeds of my entrepreneurship
During my time in Pakistan and India, I experienced the intense heat of summer. Sleep was elusive: the air conditioner would regularly die with routine electricity load shedding. Often, in the early hours, I lay in 40°C heat, in silent darkness, sweat running down my face, listening for the mosquitoes, waiting for the power to return so that the room’s air conditioner would turn back on and I could sleep.
This experience triggered fascinating research. Close engagement with people in South Asia eventually seeded the idea of a personal air conditioner, instead of one that’s cooling a whole room or entire home.
While teaching and researching full-time at the University of Western Australia, I started Close Comfort in 2007 to see whether one could build a functioning air conditioner to provide comfort when indoor temperatures were over 40°C. I wanted the unit to run on less than 300W—less than 20% of what a normal air conditioner requires to function.
Over the next six years, I gradually designed and developed a prototype with the help of my students, miniaturizing the air conditioning components while achieving sufficiently high thermal efficiency. We made the machine portable to focus on cooling the head and shoulders instead of the whole space around a person.
When I first took my prototype to Pakistan in 2013, local people I was in contact with were overwhelmed with excitement.
They could immediately appreciate the value of an air conditioner that would run on minimal power. They asked me, “How much would it cost to buy one?” I had no idea how to answer that question. That thought had never crossed my mind because, to me, building it had just been a technical challenge. Instead, I asked them, “How much would you pay for it?”
The answer blew me away. Between USD 300 and USD 400. It was so much more than I had thought they would say.
That was the moment when I realized Close Comfort could be a commercial venture.
Age doesn’t hold us back
For now, our Australia- and Singapore-based startup has sold more than 1,500 units in Pakistan, and we look forward to serving more people in the Asia Pacific region, where a lot of countries and places have summers where the temperature goes higher than 40°C.
It isn’t easy to start a business at the age of 65. As you get older, you carry more responsibilities. However, once your children are well established and your parents have passed on, it’s time for new adventures.
At the same time, I’m constantly grateful for my family. Their ventures taught me at a young age that true happiness comes from helping other people. Keeping this in mind gave me the power to overcome many challenges.
For any aspiring founders who are looking to start a business at an older age, here are two thoughts I would like to share.
First, you’re only as old as you feel. We all have limitations, so knowing how to work within them is essential. That comes with age and experience.
Second, with age comes experience, connections, and the knowledge of working smarter. It’s easier to distinguish flights of fancy and fashionable fads that come and go because you have seen how trends fade.
A renowned engineer from Australia, James Trevelyan is the founder of Close Comfort, an air conditioner brand. He is also the author of the book The Making of An Expert Engineer, which draws from Trevelyan’s 12 years of field research and observations made by hundreds of engineers to explain the principles of engineering.