Glasgow – The first week of the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, has been packed with news and announcements from within the official venue and from the streets of Scotland’s second city. But on the symbolic level, it’s possible that no event was more important than the Net Zero EDGE startup contest that took place here today.
In a high-profile event at Glasgow Science Center, on the River Clyde opposite the COP26 conference venue, Scottish EDGE, the UK’s biggest funding competition for startups, presented awards to entrepreneurs who made their pitches to a panel of judges for the Net Zero award. The biggest winner was Faisal Ghani, CEO of Dundee-based SolarisKit, which develops and sells a compact solar water heater. He got £100,000. Two other entrepreneurs got £50,000 each. “We hope that this new award category offers well-deserved recognition for startups leading the way in the transition to net zero—and inspires others to do the same,” says Steven Hamill, chief operating officer of Scottish EDGE.
While the United States is awash in venture capital and has an abundance of startup competitions, in many corners of the world, including Scotland, such investment money is scarce. That’s a problem, because in order to address climate change, we need explosions of innovation everywhere. Most of the sophisticated technology solutions will likely come from well-funded scientists and organizations located in the usual places, but a lot of the practical, street-level solutions and applications of those technologies will come from creative people in seemingly unlikely places.
Scottish EDGE was launched after the global financial crisis of 2008, with the recognition that Scottish entrepreneurs had very little financial support. The organization now gets funding from the Scottish government, the Hunter Foundation, the Royal Bank of Scotland, support organizations, and private donors. The main competition takes place twice a year and has so far supported more than 400 early-stage Scottish businesses with more than £18 million in funding. Some of the previous special award categories include social entrepreneurs, circular economy, and biotech.
Today’s Scottish EDGE competition was the first to focus on climate change, but startups addressing sustainability have won awards in the past. Among them is S’wheat, a tiny company outside Edinburgh run by a couple of high school sweethearts that won Top Prize in a special EDGE award for startups with leaders under 30, in 2019. S’wheat’s story illustrates the challenges—and opportunities—for small socially-minded outfits to innovate, and potentially to have a positive impact on the world. It developed the world’s first reusable bottle to be made entirely from plants.
Jake Elliott-Hook and Amee Ritchie met in high school in the town of Musselburgh, near the Scottish seacoast, and continued their relationship after they went to different colleges. Jake remembers being troubled by the fact that classmates frequently threw out their reusable metal or plastic water bottles—which seemed like a waste. “I thought, ‘What’s the use of having a reusable bottle if it ends up in the landfill? Why not have plant-based bottles that are reusable but also biodegradable?’” he says.
Elliott-Hook and Ritchie decided to do something about it. After two years of research and correspondence with potential suppliers and manufacturers, they launched a company to produce and market bottles made from a mix of wheat straw and bamboo.
The couple raised a bit of money through a crowdfunding campaign in 2019, and got startup guidance via Bridge 2 Business, a college-based program offered by Young Enterprise Scotland, a non-profit organization that offers business and financial education programs. The organization serves about 10,000 young people ages 18 to 30 every year. “I loved their idea. I saw potential in them,” says Lisa Wardlaw, the organization’s college delivery manager, of the S’wheat founders. “They have worked incredibly hard and learned a lot.”
Their second major break was winning the Scottish EDGE contest later that year in the Young EDGE category—which brought them £15,000. “Their passion and drive to do something impactful was quite encouraging to see. Also, they had a product to show and demonstrate, and that helped them,” says Scottish EDGE’s Hamill.
Elliott-Hook and Ritchie went on to win a couple of additional competitions. Their startup-competition fame also landed them an appearance on a UK television show, Buy It Now, which helped spread word about them and their bottles.
The couple designs the bottles, purchases the material from Asia, and has the bottles manufactured in Scotland. They started marketing the bottles online in April, 2020, and have so far sold about 3,000 at $34 a pop. (Expensive, but take a look: they’re classy.) Elliott-Hook says they’re making enough money to support themselves and pay the rent and businesses expenses, but it’s still a micro company with just two employees—the founders.
They recently launched a co-branding effort, hoping to get companies to pay to have their names on the bottles and help with distribution.
Will S’wheat be able to cross the chasm and become a sizable company capable of producing a significant impact? That’s unclear, just as with many bright business ideas that are still in diapers. But it’s clear that without small but meaningful dollops of capital and a lot of encouragement, they wouldn’t even have gotten this far. There’s a lesson here for people who believe innovation can help save the planet: Put up, or shut up.
Steve Hamm is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. His new book, The Pivot: Addressing Global Problems Through Local Action, about the journey of Pivot Projects, was published in October by Columbia University Press. This is one of a series of dispatches from COP26.
Read more from Steve Hamm’s COP26 Dispatches
October 29th: COP26: Let’s Pivot to Save the Planet