The Feel-Good Factor

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The feel-good factor

The sustainability sector is not only a virtuous place in which to launch a business, but as a number of enterprises are finding out, it might just be a path to riches, too…

If you’re going to go into a business, make it something you believe in. And if your vision also happens to tick the ‘sustainable’ box, then you could be off to a flying start.

Across the UK and Ireland, a plethora of new sustainable start-ups are emerging. Demonstrating true entrepreneurial flair, these businesses are offering innovative yet commercially viable solutions for 21st-century problems.

Inventing solutions

Tucked away in a green portable cabin, Tom Robinson spent months testing various bio-composites. It may have seemed a world away from his background as a builder and plasterer in Derbyshire, but his two worlds converged with his invention of Breathaboard, a bio-based alternative to plasterboard, which helps to mitigate CO2-driven climate change by ‘locking’ carbon into the fabric of buildings.

The resulting start-up, Adaptavate, is an environmentally sustainable construction company that is rethinking and redesigning how the new generation of building materials are made.

 

“We can spot where energy is being wasted and where money is being spent that doesn’t need to be”

Joe Borza, founder, EnergyElephant

 

Winnow is another firm in the sustainable space, set up to solve food wastage. Working with global brands such as Compass Group and Accor, it has expanded operations into over 20 countries with offices now set up in Singapore and Dubai. Its technology allows kitchens to know exactly what they’re putting in their bins. The kitchen team use a touchscreen tablet to identify what they’re throwing away. An electronic scale records the weight and sends the information to the cloud; the chefs then receive reports pinpointing where food waste occurs, giving them the insight to reduce and improve.

Just a few years ago, such a solution would not have been possible within the hospitality industry. “We’re applying the technology that was traditionally found in the digital world into the real world,” says David Jackson, the company’s global key account manager. “With sensors becoming more affordable, Winnow is able to tackle food wastage. Thirty years ago tablets didn’t exist and set-up costs would have been so enormous that what we can now do would have been impossible.”

What hasn’t changed in any of these firms is the entrepreneurial flair and traditional problem-solving approach. “Winnow was founded to solve this problem. If a business is going to be successful it has to solve a problem and solve it well,” Jackson adds.

Problem-solving at its core

Indeed, Solveiga Pakštaitė, who runs Design By Sol, explains how her Bump Mark tackles a decades-long problem. Using gelatine to mimic the decay process of food, Bump Mark is able to indicate the food’s condition when you run your finger over the label, telling you if it’s still good or needs to be discarded.

“The desire to reduce waste and increase food safety has always been spoken about,” says Pakštaitė. “Our predecessors who tried to solve this problem ran into another: that they were expensive and gimmicky, so smart packaging got a bad name early on. But now we can implement it quite cheaply with the technology we’ve developed.”

A helping hand

While technology has afforded entrepreneurs the opportunity to solve problems in revolutionary ways, society’s simultaneous desire to tackle issues around sustainability has meant that a huge number of funding sources, awards and accelerators have opened up to support businesses.

For Winnow, this meant partnering with the Sustainable Restaurant Association, which allowed the company to take funding from the Greater London Authority, and enter 90 restaurants.

“There’s a lot of financial support for companies working in sustainable technologies,” Pakštaitė says. “We took advantage of that fact.”

Pakštaitė won a James Dyson Award for Bump Mark, and won funding for Design by Sol through the Shell LiveWIRE Smarter Future Programme. She was also a contender for the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, which awards winners €500,000. In Ireland, sustainable businesses may be eligible for tax-free stipends and expert help from Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers programme.

A win-win for users

While there is something undeniably admirable and on trend (for want of a better term) about having a social conscience, it’s worth remembering that the end user can also benefit from a sustainable venture by other means.

Indeed, Joe Borza, founder of Dublin-based EnergyElephant, a Silicon Docks tech start-up that allows businesses to better understand their use of energy, says that most clients are attracted to his software specifically because it can save them some money.

“The idea behind what we do is that energy bills are very confusing for users,” says Borza. “When most people see their energy bills, they just see a figure, usually in the thousands if you’re in business, and there’s lots of useful information in there that we help people to better understand.”

Borza cites the case of a small cinema that was able to identify €55,000 of savings in the medium term by making changes that were identified by his software. “The savings can be very substantial when you get someone who hasn’t done anything on energy management before,” says Borza. “We can spot where energy is being wasted and where money is being spent that doesn’t need to be. We also have a gamification element where we can split energy usage into different buildings and compare one against the other to try and engage the staff.”

The really good news is that the companies mentioned here are merely the tip of the iceberg. Sustainability is in, and those SMEs that are able to tap into it may find their messages a little more warmly received than those of the slightly less righteous start-ups across the street.

 

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