Some of the best businesses find success through filling a gap in the market and offering something that nobody else does – or at least not successfully.
Often, founders are inspired by their own experience of needing a product or service and finding out it does not exist. This gives them a strong, personal desire to achieve their business goals.
In the age of coronavirus, when so many have sadly lost their lives, the key thing everyone wants is for their loved ones to be safe and well.
Alex Nash founded his business, Alcuris, after his grandfather was diagnosed with Dementia
Countless entrepreneurs have come up with ideas to help with this, from creating PPE products to raising awareness for pulse oximeters.
The drive to reach their potential is strong among business owners tackling health related issues, and even more so when that issue affects a loved one.
Alex Nash, founder of Alcuris, came up with the idea for his business after his grandfather was diagnosed with dementia in early 2015.
Alex found his mum couldn’t relax because she constantly worried about whether her father had forgotten to take his medication, left the front door open or had a fall.
‘I wanted to find a way for her to look after him but without taking away his independence by always being with him, or his privacy with the use of cameras,’ he said.
Memo can share an activity stream with family and carers to monitor vulnerable individuals and be reassured that they are ok
‘I developed the idea while on an exchange programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but finding funding and the right people after graduating was difficult.
‘I had engineering knowledge from my degree, but I was fresh out of university with no real experience.’
But perseverance and passion, as well as wanting to honour his grandfather who has now sadly passed away, saw Alex secure his first grant in 2017, as well as funding from Peter Roberts, founder of Pure Gym.
He then hired his first employee and brought on a team of experienced advisors, including Barnaby Perks, founding chief executive of tech therapy companies Oxford VR and IESO, as chairman.
Alcuris is a tech startup focused on connected care. Alex says it helps families to care for their vulnerable or elderly individuals without taking away their independence.
Today, it has developed two platforms, Memo and Connect. Memo is a hardware platform featuring a Memo Hub, a unit that sits in the individual’s house, which connects to a range of sensors such as panic buttons, fall detectors, smart plugs and door sensors.
Family members or carers can use the tailored activity stream to monitor vulnerable individuals and be reassured that they are ok.
The Memo Hub can also make emergency phone calls if a panic button is pressed, as well as alerting family if behaviour has changed. This is done via a behaviour anomaly detector, which raises the alarm if the kettle has not been boiled in the morning for example.
Over time, Memo will learn what’s normal for that person and then let the carer know when anything out of the ordinary happens.
Meanwhile, Connect is a data analytics platform which brings together activity, environmental, care and health data to enable insights at both an individual and population level.
Memo is a hardware platform featuring a Memo Hub, which connects to a range of sensors such as panic buttons, fall detectors as well as smart plugs and door sensors
Fast forward to 2021, and Alcuris has raised more than £3million by selling units to families, health insurance companies and local authorities.
It was also one of 18 companies selected from 16,000 entries for the Techforce19 challenge, which called on innovators who can support the elderly, vulnerable and self-isolating during Covid-19 to apply for government funding to test their solution.
Alex said: ‘Being part of Techforce19 was great, and the feedback was very positive, especially when we demonstrated over £20,000 of cost avoidance by keeping individuals well in their own home.
‘It is always a great feeling when local authorities say, “this is exactly what we have been looking for.”
‘We have some really exciting plans coming soon, but our main goal is to help as many organisations both in the UK and internationally use data in a more meaningful way, to move towards a preventative and proactive approach to care.’
‘We turned down Dragon’s Den – twice!’
Meanwhile, Wayne Starkey and James Whiting co-founded The Skinny Food Co to provide a solution for their family members with diabetes, who struggled to find sugar-free yet tasty food and drink products.
The brand is aimed at diabetics, vegetarians, vegans and those with food intolerances, as well as those who are simply health-conscious.
While Wayne had previous experience working within the health marketplace through his sports nutrition company, he didn’t have any professional qualifications or experience from a health or medical standpoint.
Wayne Starkey and James Whiting co-founded The Skinny Food Co in response to having family members with diabetes, who struggled to find tasty food that was sugar-free
Both he and James threw themselves into lots of research and reading and invested their own money at launch in 2018.
They turned over £1.5million in their first year, which increased to £4.6million in 2019 and a projected £15million for 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic which has caused challenges for many young businesses.
Wayne said: ‘It has been an incredible journey so far, and the response has been amazing, so much so that we have twice been invited to pitch on Dragon’s Den, most recently last year.’
Having politely declined the opportunity, the team have continued to see huge demand for their growing product range.
The Skinny Food Co now has more than 195 products including sauces and syrups, spreads, cooking sprays, baking supplies, noodles, pizza bases and more. That is expected to rise to over 350 this year, and it aims to have over 1000 products on the market in the next five years.
The pair appreciate that they have been one of the more fortunate businesses throughout the ongoing pandemic, but said that it was still a challenge being forced to scale at such ‘break-neck speed’.
The Skinny Food Co is a food and drink brand dedicated to healthy food without the high sugar, fat and calorie content, mainly aimed at diabetics and those with food intolerances
Wayne said: ‘A lot of people have started to pay more attention to their health thanks to the pandemic. Sugar, for example, is a big contributor to obesity, which people are focusing on in light of the virus.
‘We are are passionate about continuing to provide customers with healthier alternatives.’
The company has also used its online platform and social channels to help other smaller brands with the same ethos, in addition to raising more than £15,000 for the NHS Nottingham Hospitals Charity during the pandemic.
Husband and wife tackling hair loss
Husband-and-wife duo Gail and Matt Waterman founded hair care label Watermans Hair in 2014, after they both experienced different variations of hair loss.
With Gail’s mixed-race heritage causing fine, weak hairlines and Matt’s testosterone levels causing male pattern baldness, they struggled to find a product that could help them both.
After trying lots of pricey products, and working for 26 years in the hair industry, they decided to come up with their own formula.
Husband-and-wife duo Gail and Matt Waterman founded hair care label Watermans Hair in 2014 after they both experienced different variations of hair loss
The formula took two years to develop and was tested on Gail’s salon customers. They started to see great results and so began to mass produce.
Gail said: ‘We just created our products for my benefit to start off with, but because it was so effective, we decided to pass it on to other people who had hair loss problems.’
The couple used £15,000 of their own savings at launch to make their first 5,000 bottles which were sold on Amazon. Today they are also stocked in Boots stores nationwide and online sales have grown significantly.
Gail added: ‘With more customers spending more time at home and with most salons closed during lockdown, we saw sales fly, especially for GROWME, our most popular product.
‘We also launched CLEANME, a hand sanitiser which we donated to NHS hospitals, police forces and and key workers.
‘We believe in giving back and good karma and wanted to help out. The NHS, police and front-line healthcare workers are doing an amazing job.
‘We feel it is our right to be able to help and provide them with free hand sanitisers when possible.’
Watermans Hair also donated more than 100 bottles of hair-growth shampoo to the chemotherapy unit at Barnsley hospital.
A gut feeling for a great idea
Just like Alex and his grandfather and Wayne and James with their diabetic relatives, 35-year-old Aonghus Shortt launched his business because of his wife, Grace.
He got the idea for FoodMarble in 2014, after Grace (then his fiancée) started complaining of stomach issues.
‘After several invasive medical tests and countless prescriptions making no difference, I knew there had to be a better answer,’ he said.
Aonghus did extensive research on gut issues before stumbling upon information about breath analysis, and how it can be used to identify food triggers for digestive problems.
Aonghus launched FoodMarble in 2016 after trying to find ways to help his then-fiancée tackle her digestive issues. He has since sold over 20,000 devices to help others with similar issues
He added: ‘I knew from my engineering degrees that I could build one of these devices. I also had years of coding experience and had worked as a data scientist, so had a lot of the technical tools to get started.
‘I began prototyping on my kitchen table and started using early devices with Grace. I used the technology to help her find what foods she could digest.’
Aonghus soon realised this was a problem affecting hundreds, if not millions, of people, who were not being catered for effectively and falling through the cracks in the healthcare system.
He pulled together a team, and received funding to turn the prototype into a consumer-ready device from HAX – an early stage investor and accelerator focused on hardware startups.
Two years later, FoodMarble was officially launched. It acts like a personal digestive tracker and helps users craft their own personalised diet, using the breath analyser and associated app.
It measures the hydrogen levels in a person’s breath, which gives an indication of fermentation in the gut and helps identify the foods that are causing the issue.
Aonghus said: ‘The underlying technology has been used in healthcare and research for quite some time, but wasn’t accessible to ordinary people.
FoodMarble measures the hydrogen levels in a person’s breath and helps identify the foods that are causing digestive issues
‘We radically reduced the size and cost by up to one hundred times, and combined it with an app to make it possible for people to do this from the home for the first time.’
He says the response has been incredible, having sold more than 20,000 devices and late last year, closing an investment round of £2.3million. FoodMarble is also ready to start selling via clinicians in the US this year.
Aonghus said the coronavirus pandemic has only increased the need for remote breath testing and treatment of digestive issues.
He added: ‘Our mission is to help people cut through the complexity and uncertainty to find ‘their foods’.
‘We started as a direct-to-consumer business and we’re delighted to now be able to also assist clinicians in managing their patient’s digestive health. We’re just getting started though.
‘We want this to be a tool that every family can have in the home to monitor and manage their digestive health, so that they can live healthy and happy lives.’
Small Business Essentials
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