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E-sparks - where fledgling firms find their wings

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Written by: David Clensy | Posted 29 November 2016 14:13

E-sparks - where fledgling firms find their wings

It is the biggest free business incubation project in the world, and Entrepreneurial Spark – or E-Sparks – is a vibrant environment.

Perched at the top of the Royal Bank of Scotland building, in Temple Quay, the NatWest-led project is one of 13 similar E-Sparks hubs across the country.

The scheme, which opened in Bristol in August 2015, is home to 70 so-called “chicklets” – the dubiously coy name given by the bank to the fledgling start-up companies it has taken under its wing.

The project, which is also supported by a number of other firms, including KPMG and Dell EMC,

The brilliantly named Matt West of NatWest is the entrepreneurial development manager.

“There’s a really competitive application process to get in here, and we’re all about supporting developing start-ups, we’re not about lifestyle businesses,” he says.

“The first six months here is the validation phase – we help the entrepreneurs to decide if their business idea really is viable, then we move into what we call the nesting phase – helping to really bed down the business and get it moving.

“After the first six months the entrepreneurs can apply to stay with us for a further six or 12 months, so in total they can spend 18 months here free of charge developing their fledgling company alongside 69 other young entrepreneurs.

“We organise all sorts of talks and offer training and support on developing their business and their leadership skills, but everyone says they actually learn the most by being around like-minded entrepreneurs. It gives them a real boost.

“We’re sector agnostic,” Matt adds – meaning the scheme accepts businesses from all sectors. “So we rely heavily on mentors volunteering their time from the world of business in the city coming in to offer support and guidance around their own particular sector.”

One of the project’s big success stories so far has been Cocksure brewery in Bristol.

Dan Snow and Calum Doutch, co founders of the new brewery, are as dedicated to good quality beer as any of the new wave of small breweries taking the sector by storm. Having spent 10 years combined working in the industry and meeting at renowned South West brewery Bath Ales, they know the trade inside out. What sets Dan and Calum apart from hundreds of their rivals, however, is their appreciation of the importance of a brand in differentiating them from the rest of the market.

Dan said: “Because there are so many great products out there you need to really shout loudly if you’re going to make it. We think our beer holds its own within a crowded marketplace but it’s our brand that is really helping to differentiate us – we want to be seen as fun, cheeky, sassy and bold. Having a strong brand is vital for any product but for us it’s even more so. We’ve created a great quality craft beer for the masses and so to hit that mass audience you really need a brand that is going to stand out.”

Read more: Triathletes achieve consistent coffee

The company has just got its own premises after starting out last year within NatWest’s Entrepreneurial Spark hub.

It began when Dan and Calum worked with a brewer friend to develop their own recipe, based on a combination of three complex hops, before testing it and refining it with a comparatively small 33 litre kit. The pair had their beer nailed down very early on and quickly upscaled their equipment to a five brewers’ barrel system which was soon producing nearly 1,000 litres of their pale ale.

By then their brand was also well-formed with its funky name and design giving their acclaimed brew that vital extra boost in getting them noticed with bar owners, boutique retailers and restaurants with a similarly feisty outlook such as the Three Brothers gourmet burger chain.

Since then, Dan and Calum have kept the momentum going and have just completed their first 20 brewers barrels run of their pale ale and are now planning their next product, a punchy IPA.

Of course, developing the brand still remains at the top of their list and they have recently announced a collaboration with leading charity Farm Africa where proceeds from beer sales go to farm projects in sub-Saharan Africa funding the purchase of cockerels, chickens, coups and feed.

Dan said: “Small companies often rush their products to market, whereas we took a lot of time to get our product and the brand just right. Of course, we’re always tweaking things, but when we launched our pale ale we were really confident that we had the taste, the packaging – the whole thing – nailed down. This has really paid dividends for us.”

Case Study - Tea Huggers

Just a few years ago we were taking our tea for granted. It had been such an intrinsic part of our national life for so long that we saw it as rather dull; the only vibrancy being splashes of colour on the boxes of the various mass produced tea brands, all of which tasted pretty much the same.

It was still part of us; a symbol of the perceived glories of Empire, something that we even went to war over, and something to get us up in the morning . Yet, underneath all this, our relationship with it had become stale. We loved each other dearly but the spark had gone and we were almost certainly seeing other drinks behind its back.

Although a return to the days of tea monogamy is highly unlikely – UK consumption has dropped 22 % in the past five years – the drink is undoubtedly upping its game as it looks to maintain what is still a vast chunk of the nation’s injunctionless open relationship with hot beverages.

The key is finding a niche. Whereas coffee will always been seen as the impulsive, wanton, quick hit grabbed on the way to work; good tea can be complex, recuperative, restorative… nice. The best ingredients from across the globe blended expertly to provide a drink that can help people relax, detox or provide them with a healthier herbal energy boost than anything that has been rendered flavourless in scalding, steaming milk.

For Bristol tea start-up Tea Huggers this almost deferential approach to tea is already paying dividends.

Currently housed at NatWest’s Entrepreneurial Spark hub for small businesses in Bristol, the idea for the company first came about when founder Esther Thompson experienced frequent bouts of debilitating tonsilitis while at university. As she explains: “During periods of recuperation I noticed that there was a lack of healthy, tasty alternatives to the standard range of hot drinks. The caffeine boost from the teas and coffees was rough while decaffeinated drinks just tasted awful.”

Working with a master tea blender, Esther sourced ingredients such as lemon balm, lavender, real pieces of strawberry, Siberian ginseng, gingko and even exotic Yerba mate (a South American plant with 27 different antioxidants) and melded them to create a range of 12 different teas that have already been snapped up by the likes of Selfridges and Jamie Oliver’s delis. But what appears to be a magical alchemical process that struck retail gold is in fact the result of a thorough, scientific approach, utilising focus groups comprising the key target market (professional women aged 25-35 looking for drinks to supplement a healthier lifestyle) to find out exactly what sort of teas they wanted.

“The key for us has been really getting under the skin of our customer and finding out what they want from each of our teas – be it stress relief or an energy boost or whatever. Once we know what we’re aiming for I do want us to be as creative as possible with the ingredients – really pushing boundaries with flavours. Adding basil to strawberry is one slightly left-field idea which really really works for example,” Esther says.

The company scours the globe to source its products with famers in South America, Russia, South Africa, China and Japan all being regular suppliers, and it is this unwavering focus on the product that has established the groundwork from where everything else has flowed. As Esther explains: “If you know your market, have a great product, and are confident in your brand, then this will give you the confidence to do the part that so many of us find hardest – selling.

“I knew what we had was great which gave me the confidence to pick up the phone to buyers, chase people down at trade shows and really get people interested in our tea.”

Marketing is also another key tool for the company with an impressive website supporting social media drives across Twitter and Instagram. Nevertheless, it is still always about the quality of the tea with the company already planning a new wave of products, including an iced ‘cold brew’ tea for the summer.
She adds: “We are constantly evolving our products and developing our range as we just can’t stand still. There’s too many people out there who like good tea.”

Case Study - Mobiloo

They have toilets on the space shuttle. True, they cost 19 million dollars a pop but, nevertheless, they have them.

At ground level it’s a rather different story, at least in terms of public conveniences. In the UK we have had an odd relationship with our communal lavatories. We applaud the Victorian flourishes of the nation’s best designed ones, yet we do little (except the obvious) to ensure that they stay open. In fact, earlier this year, the British Toilets Association estimated that 40 per cent of Britain’s public toilets had shut in the past decade.

At festivals and other outdoor events the situation is even worse. There’s never enough portaloos, and then when you get in them…

But imagine if you or someone in your family is disabled? Even the most basic conveniences often just don’t exist.

Local paralympian James Brown has found a solution. His ‘Mobiloo’ enables all disabled children and adults to use the toilet or be changed. Built into what was once a horsebox it can be driven to festivals and events and is the first ‘loo’ of its kind in the world. With an electric hoist and changing table as well as a toilet and wash-basin, the Mobiloo means that even those wheelchair-users with the most complex requirements can get out and about to enjoy the same opportunities as everyone else.

James, who won a cycling bronze medal at London 2012 (one of the 14 World & Paralympic medals he has won during his career), has five per cent vision in his right eye, and three per cent in his left eye. He and a friend came up with the idea for the Mobiloo after working at Gloucestershire Council on various projects for those with disabilities. Speaking regularly to parents and carers, James spotted the huge gap in the market for this type of provision.

Quickly bringing together a focus group of engineers, parents, occupational therapists and the like, James designed the Mobiloo and was soon trialling it at the activities run for disabled children by his community interest company – Active Impact.

“Parents had been telling me what a massive problem toilets can be. Finding one is hard enough but finding one with the right facilities is almost impossible because some kids need to be hoisted on to a table before they can be changed,” he says.

Since then the company, which is currently housed at NatWest’s Entrepreneurial Spark hub for small businesses in Bristol, has flourished. Although the Mobiloo is available for private use, it is with the major event organisers that it’s really taken off. As James explains: “It’s twofold really. The organisers want to cater for everyone and make sure the event is accessible but it’s also a good business decision. Around 250,000 kids and adults need specialist toilet facilities like this so you’re opening up your event to even more customers.”

The development cost of each Mobiloo is around £50,000 however, so James forwent his plans to take part in this year’s Rio Paralympic Games and has been hitting the fundraising trail. “This is very much a social enterprise so we have to get out there and find our funding,” he says.

The next stage for the business will be developing more Mobiloos to meet demand from all kinds of events and venues around the UK, and there are even plans to develop the concept for overseas markets.

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