The Spectator’s Economic Disruptor of the Year Awards 2019, sponsored by Julius Baer, are open for entries at www.spectator.co.uk/disruptor. The Awards salute innovative, high-growth businesses from every part of the UK that are disrupting their marketplaces in terms of price, choice and accessibility and have the potential to achieve national and international success.
Meanwhile, here’s the fourth of our series of inspirational personal stories about the entrepreneurs behind the winners of our 2018 Awards. Martin Vander Weyer talks to Irene and Philip McAleese, whose company Limeforge makes the See.Sense range of smart bike lights and was our regional finalist for Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Entrepreneurship is a second career for Irene and Philip McAleese. It’s also a mission, Irene told me: ‘We wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t give us the chance to do something good for health, through cycling, and the environment.’
Born in Australia, she used to be a management consultant with Accenture in London; Philip, who hails from Northern Ireland, was ‘an IT guy’ with a major commercial bank. In 2008, they moved to Singapore where Philip took up cycling ‘to get some exercise into my daily life’ but found the hellbent local driving style something of a hazard. So he set himself to designing a rear bike light that would give a degree of protection, by shining brighter if it sensed danger. A global online cyclists’ forum provided a flood of other ideas and the award-winning See.Sense concept — in which digitally connected lights gather and share data on road conditions — was born.
In 2013, as they both approached 40, the couple decided to make the break, return to the UK and ‘scratch the itch’ to launch their own business, as Philip puts it. As a base they chose Newtownards near Belfast, to be close to Philip’s family and to take advantage of the country’s relative affordability while they lived off their savings in the start-up phase. Importantly, the province also offered a ‘vibrant start-up scene’, which included expert advice on manufacturing technology as well as access to grants and equity funding. As it happens I first heard the couple talk passionately about the development of See.Sense when I visited the Belfast Science Park, in the city’s regenerated ‘Titanic Quarter’, in 2015, so it was a pleasure to rediscover them as an entrant for our Disruptor Awards.
They’ve gone from strength to strength, achieving rapid revenue growth, piloting ‘smart cities’ projects in Manchester and Dublin, discussing partnerships in the US, and winning other recognition such as the BT Connected Cities Award. High praise for the McAleeses comes from Miranda Sharp, innovation director at Ordnance Survey and a keen cyclist herself, who is one of their mentors: ‘Philip is a great engineer and Irene is a great communicator. I admire their inclusive approach, their concern for the benefit of all cyclists.’
But is it difficult, with two young children, to run a husband-and-wife venture that requires such intense commitment? ‘It’s true we put in long hours,’ says Irene, ‘but because we’re close to home and work in a flexible way, we see more of the kids that we might have done in our previous careers.’ And what if a buyer approaches them with the right price for the business? ‘It’s really not what we’re looking for. We just want to see how high we can go by ourselves. It’s so exciting for us, doing what we enjoy and making a positive impact… But of course we’d think about an offer, if we were sure our vision wouldn’t be lost.’ And would they then turn into serial entrepreneurs and do it all over again, if the chance arose? ‘No,’ is Irene’s last word. ‘If I ever stop doing See.Sense, I think I’d like to become a lady who lunches.’
The closing date for entries to the Awards is Friday 7 June 2019.
For details of how to enter, please visit www.spectator.co.uk/disruptor
IN PARTNERSHIP WITH JULIUS BAER