Redesign of everyday gadget has local agent aiming $2 million turnover

Smoke alarms do not feature highly on most people's list of fashionable design items. Here's how smoke alarm salesman Peter Smith describes the market: "Traditionally it's an ugly, boring, mundane product that everyone knows about," he says.

But tradition has been turned on its head by a joint Danish-New Zealand development that has created what they call the world's smallest smoke alarm.

"It's so typical of the Danish to come along and take an ugly product and make it sexy," Smith says. "They can make a toilet look good - they can; they have a natural ability [for design]."


Smith's wife is Danish, and through her family he was introduced to an inventor who had created a travel alarm, featuring a motion sensor and smoke detector.

It was called Travelsafe and Smith was one of three shareholders in the initial company. Despite some market enthusiasm, the product didn't take off: "It was a product without a category," he explains. "People were saying we love the product you've made but we don't want all that other stuff; we just want the smoke detector."

The company, Cavius Nano, shifted focus. Meanwhile Smith established a second company, Wooden Toy Box (which sells wooden toys online, and boasts turnover of more than $1 million) and did not have the time or the capital to take the product further.

He sold out to the Danes and the business shifted back to Silkeborg - but Smith retained distribution rights to New Zealand and Australia. "I got some cash but mostly I wanted to have that distribution to this market," he says.

One of the reasons the Cavius smoke alarm is only now appearing on New Zealand shelves, a year after its launch, was because of the initial small production runs and the popularity of the product: "Every time they did a run, someone up [in Europe] would snap it up."

Smith says this reporter's household is typical of the New Zealand attitude to smoke detectors: a $10 smoke alarm screwed to the wall near the child's bedroom to comply with building code regulations (in this case, the installation of a woodburner). It has never worked despite the battery being replaced twice. At least it didn't constantly set off a false alarm from burning toast or shower steam.

"It's phenomenal how many people say, 'Oh, I've got a smoke detector but it always goes off, so I took it down and never replaced it' - and I think, wow, that's insane," Smith comments. "Yet 80 per cent of all [home] fires attended by the Fire Service last year either had no smoke detector [or] one that wasn't working."

The Cavius alarm, which costs $59.90, is sold in a disparate group of retailers which can be loosely described as upmarket houseware.

"They have this little counter-top display with this Gucci-looking smoke detector on it, which they would never have considered selling in the past - and now they're selling like a fashion accessory, like a lampshade," Smith reports.

He says it's not just the design ethos behind Cavius' popularity. The photo-electric product has a 10-year life and the batteries last for five years - "some ionised [smoke] detectors have a life of about two years".

"We've sold about 3000 units in our first 12 months and we've budgeted for 10,000 units for the next 12 months," he says. "We'll be looking, in the next 12-month period, to do about $500,000-$700,000 in turnover."

The product is being put through the hoops of Australian regulatory compliance and once that is complete, he will launch in Australia. A distributor, Danish firm Tektos, has been engaged.

"They're actually the Danish company's distributor in France, they've ordered 50,000 units for the French market and, once we get approval, they have agreed to purchase 25,000 [for Australia]," Smith adds.

The beauty of the Australian market is its much tougher building compliance rules compared to New Zealand.

"Whereas here we have one smoke detector 3m from the bedroom door, in Australia you have to have one in every room," he says, with an almost audible "ka-ching" punctuating the remark.

It is this environment that gives Smith confidence in predicting turnover of more than $2 million within five years.

Once the market is established, further innovation is planned, including a hard-wired alarm and interconnected wireless alarms "so when one goes off, they all go off".