What a pleasure to be reunited (via Zoom, needless to say) with our genial judging panel for Scotland and Northern Ireland in The Spectator’s Economic Innovator of the Year Awards, sponsored by Julius Baer. Irene McAleese is co-founder and chief strategy officer of See.Sense, the Northern Ireland-based ‘smart bike lights’ and road-use data analysis venture that was our regional winner in 2018. Ian Ritchie CBE is a leading figure in Scottish tech circles, having been involved as an investor or director in more than 40 start-up businesses. And Gordon Scott is a regional team head at Julius Baer, based in its Edinburgh office.
Three finalists pitched to us, all with admirable clarity and passion – and all in different ways, solvers of 21st Century problems. One Year No Beer is an example of entrepreneurship with social purpose upfront. The other two, Float and Locate a Locum, offer valuable services in what we’ve all learned to call ‘B2B’ – the business to business arena.
One Year No Beer is the creation of former oil broker Ruari Fairbairn, based on his experience of cutting back his own level of alcohol consumption (which was normal rather than excessive for his previous working life) and feeling a lot fitter and happier as a result. It’s a ‘Weightwatchers for alcohol’ concept that also connects with the zeitgeist of fitness-and-lifestyle brands such as Peloton; it now has some 100,000 members in 90 countries buying packages of 30, 90 or 365 days support via emails, videos and blogs, and will soon be switching to an app format.
Float, presented by chief operating officer Jennifer Given, is a cashflow forecasting software product that makes life easier for small businesses, typically those with five to 100 employees. It has been particularly helpful for business owners coping with the cashflow shock of the pandemic – who were able to trial it for free. It works as an add-on to familiar small-biz accounting packages such as QuickBooks and Xero and has some 2,235 subscribers so far. It also talks to its customers personally – sop it has a human voice as well as an online offering.
Those two were Edinburgh-based; the fourth, Locate a Locum, is in Belfast. Founder Jonathan Clarke told us his business is a ‘true disruptor’, cutting out the agencies (and their costs) that previously offered the only way to fill vacant shifts at short notice in the pharmacy and healthcare market – so it’s the ‘Uber or Airbnb of pharmacy’, able to pair some 15,000 qualified workers with a rising number of employers in those fields and providing a range of rota and expense management services as well as simple staff placement. Interestingly, Jonathan is focused on the private sector market because he finds it so much more open to this kind of positive disruption than the NHS.
As ever, the judges learned so much simply from listening to the finalists. I’ve now had the pleasure of talking to all 24 of them – and my next task will be to help our guest judges pick the winners, for the four regions and in our new Social Impact category. More on that soon. But I can say confidently that our first conclusion is simply how fortunate the UK is to have so many gifted and committed entrepreneurs ready to drive the Covid-hit economy back to prosperity.