How is technology going to change how we eat?

The future of food and our changing tastes


When one of the world’s most respected and prominent technologists says that we should eat less meat to reduce our carbon footprint, it is probably a good idea to take stock and consume less livestock. Can technology help us do that?

Spaghetti, aubergine, onions, tomatoes, sweet peppers, basil and olives on a wooden table.
Spaghetti, aubergine, onions, tomatoes, sweet peppers, basil and olives on a wooden table.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, said we should all eat less meat to reduce the carbon emissions generated by animal agriculture.

The guy behind the web is a pretty clever dude so we should probably pay close attention to his advice. Rearing animals for food has a big impact on our planet’s resources. One kg of beef requires 15,4000 litres of water, but one kg of rice needs just 2,500 litres.

Furthermore, the animals we eat have an impact on our atmosphere. When cows pass gas they emit methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, up to 200 kg of the gas annually. Multiply that by the world’s 1.4 billion cattle produce 33% of methane emissions.

To bring this figure down, some are looking at tweaking the cows’ diets. Asparagopsis
taxiformis is a type of red seaweed that when introduced to the feed of ruminant animals is found to virtually stop it producing methane. Josh Goldman who leads the project Greener Grazing is trying to find a way to scale the production of Asparagopsis so that it can be incorporated into the diets of sheep and cattle everywhere.
There is also the option of lab-grown meat that originates from a petri dish rather than a
farm. Miniscule pieces of muscle tissue, taken from an animal, have the muscle cells
separated out. Those cells start dividing and the number of cells multiplies, which are then reconstituted. According to Dutch food technology company, Mosa Meat, one trillion cells can be cultured from one muscle cell. Several food tech companies, like Just and Memphis Meats, are now working towards increasing the range of cultured meats, widening the availability and bringing down the cost of cultured meat.
In a similar process to the way animal tissue is broken down to its constituent parts, food
scientists, chemists and engineers are doing the same with molecular components from the plant kingdom.

Gone are the days of dry and grainy veggie burgers, with companies like Impossible, Moving Mountains and Beyond Meat creating plant-based food products that cook, smell, taste and even bleed like meat. The scientists at Impossible looked at the molecular structure of proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, vitamins and minerals and came across an ingredient called haem which contains a lot of iron and makes the plant patties taste meaty. Beyond Meat pulled a bit of a Halloween trick and use beet juice to mimic the blood.

Tim Berners-Lee is up there with David Attenborough in terms of gravitas and wisdom, and with these developments in food technology heeding his advice could be a piece of cake.

Three tips for working with freelance writers

How to hire and work with freelance writers


Black fountain pen with silver nib writing joined up words on lined paper.
Fountain pen and beautiful calligraphy

To take my mind off the this pandemic, I thought I’d write about what I’ve learnt from working in the freelance world for just under three months.

In particular, if you want to hire a freelancer, here is how you should do it to get the result that you want.

1.    Be specific.

Are you looking for them to write case studies, thought leadership pieces or feature articles? Do you want them to conduct interviews, record and edit audio or write video scripts? Do you have documents they can use for research? What do you mean by the word ‘story’? Are there any examples of content they can take inspiration from? What tone and voice do you want the final pieces to have?

Having at least general answers to most of these questions will help the freelance writer better understand what you want and therefore devise a better strategy of how they will give it to you.

2.    Get documentation.

Once you and the freelancer are clear about what you want and how it will be delivered, put it in writing. If the freelancer has something to refer to, it can stop them from going off track when creating the content for you. Furthermore, it is good for both parties to know exactly what the deadlines, payment terms and fees are. This can help to avoid possible disputes later down the line.

3.    Be professional.

This might sound strange but it is a business meeting so be professional when you first meet with a freelancer. That is not to say you must be super formal. The meeting could be at your Airbnb rental, a local café or a booth at a co-working space. You could be wearing jeans and a T-shirt or a three-piece suit. But as you would at any other business meeting, put some shoes on. When toes are out, the professional vibe goes out the window.

So, state exactly what you want and how you want it, get it in writing and keep your shoes on. The rest should be plain sailing – pandemic permitting.

And if you’re looking for a professional writer who can do everything in point two, keeps her footwear on her feet and knows a fair bit about data, analytics and tech, let me know. Because that’s me.

Toni at Summit18

P.S. I am available on a freelance, temporary or salaried basis.

P.P.S. Stay home. Wash you hands. Be kind. Fund the NHS. Key workers are heroes.


Sweet dreams with Sleepio

Like many entrepreneurs Peter Hames had a problem to solve and ended creating a business out of the solution. His problem was insomnia and the business is Sleepio. He told Toni Sekinah exactly how cured himself and decided to share his solution with the world.


Peter Hames set up Big Health in 2010 which creates evidence based digital behavioural medicine programmes for reducing insomnia. The company raised $3.3m in series A investment in April 2014 from investors including Index Ventures, Forward Partners and Esther Dyson.

Hames set up Big Health because he could not get a good nights’ sleep. The NHS estimates that up to 1/3 of people suffer episodes of insomnia.

To solve this problem “one of the worst experiences of his life”, he went to his GP hoping for CBT but was instead given sleeping pills.

Hames has an MA in Experimental Psychology and a sister who is a psychologist so he knew that Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or CBT could help him overcome his nocturnal predicament.

The pills gave him a chemical hangover and so in desperation he turned to a self-help book written by sleep expert Dr Colin Espie, who has been researching sleep for 30 years ‘Overcoming Insomnia and Sleep Problems’.

The techniques and exercises prescribed by this book were so effective that Hames was totally cured within six weeks.

Beyond just celebrating his own achievement, Hames then thought about all the other insomnia suffers who may not have known about CBT and were taking the sleeping pills prescribed by their doctor because they did not know about anything else.

“That was obviously a very amazing experience personally but it opened my eyes to this totally insane situation which is that billions of people world wide are suffering from problems for which we have behavioural solutions.”

Hames asked himself the question ‘Can we use technology to deliver evidence based medicine like CBT to people in a way that is scalable and affordable?’

He knew he would need to bring Prof Espie on board, so he called him up and pestered him until he agreed to meet. The two met in Glasgow and Espie became the co-founder of BigHealth.

Sleepio, a digital sleep improvement programme, was the natural first product for BigHealth due to Prof Espie’s standing as a global expert in sleep and Hames’ own experience of sleep problems.

Sleepio can be integrated with wearable technology and was one of Jawbone’s API launch partners. Users can also use a Fitbit to measure their sleep patters.

So how does it work? “It’s fully automated, it’s very highly tailored to each individual and driven by quantified data so hence the connection with Jawbone and Fitbit from which we pull your sleep data and use that automatically tailor the programme to you,” said Hames.

The mobile app is free to download but to access the full programme users need to subscribe for one week, for six weeks or for a full year.

Sleepio was also built to be engaging with ‘the Prof’ and his narcoleptic dog Pavlov guiding the users. The Prof’s Scottish accent was tested with UK audiences and was  chosen for having the right mix of being friendly and approachable and no-nonsense and down to earth.

Users log on once a week to to meet the virtual sleep expert, the Prof will give a personalised session designed to help each person overcome their particular sleep problems, the prof gives the person a toolkit to use during the week and give access to the community. Users have to keep a sleep diary and once a week log on and go through the diary. Week by week, they will learn a new technique and Sleepio helps users to build up a new sleep pattern. It looks at four things; thought schedule, lifestyle and bedroom.Sleepio has been clinically tested using a placebo controlled clinical trial 75% of poor sleeper improved their sleep.

It has many positive reviews from users and an online community where graduates provide support to those still going through the programme. In fact, 87% of the people who have used it would recommend it to a friend. Sleepio even won the startup competition at Wired Health.

Big Health has expanded to the United States and now has an office in San Francisco where Hames now spends 6 months of the year as there is a lot of “energy and innovation out there”.  Sleepio has launched in the US where it got to number three on the App Store Health and Fitness chart.  Hames said that audiences there perceive the Prof as intelligent and quirky. Back in the UK, Sleepio is forging relationships with organisations such as BUPA.

The founding team was built through networking with friends of friends or contacts of contacts who have been recommended and all have an understanding of the problems Big Health is trying to address.

Though he wouldn’t reveal the number of users, he  did say that over 1 million hours and counting of sleep data has been recorded with this number increasing since the release of the app.

BigHealth has had two rounds of funding, with seed from angels including Esther Dyson, and more recently a series A round of $3.3m led by Index Ventures with co-investing from Forward Partners.

What other health problems Big Health can help tackle in the future? Hames says the opportunities are vast, especially with chronic problems where there is evidence to show that non-drug interventions are more effective than pharmaceuticals.

“So other conditions that applies to are anxiety, depression, even smoking cessation. Behavioural interventions we know are more effective.”

Hames is not a first time entrepreneur, having cut his teeth when he and a school friend created a nomadic art gallery with the vision of productizing and democratizing art. “I learnt an enormous amount from that process. It’s an immersive thing, running a business so there’s no other way of getting that array of experiences than just doing it.”

*The first version of this article was published in October 2014 on TechCityinsider.

Citizen science and patient data with uMotif

The founders of uMotif, a software platform that allows patients with long-term conditions to record information relating to their health, are seeking to simultaneously create a social impact and a big business. Chief executive Bruce Hellman tells Toni Sekinah how they are doing that and about the massive citizen science project they will soon be launching.


Is it true that some people can feel it in their bones when bad weather is on the way?

Bruce Hellman is hoping to find out through one the projects of his healthtech software platform uMotif.

A small group of patients in Manchester with rheumatoid arthritis are using the uMotif app to record the stiffness and swelling in their joints. This data is being correlated with the weather datain the patient’s local area to see if there is indeed a link between weather and joint pain.

“We’ll do a mashup that answers that old wives’ tales. For the first time we’ll be able to scientifically show whether people’s joints swell when it rains or knees stiffen when the pressure goes up or down,” says Hellman.

When the patient goes for their next appointment, they’ll be able to show their health practitioner an accurate record of the severity of the symptoms since they last saw them.

This is one of the main aims of uMotif. The mobile and web app allows patients with ongoing conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and diabetes to track the data of different aspects of their health.

This empowers them to manage their own care and monitor their conditions. The information can also be shared with their clinician who then has a clearer idea of how their patients are doing between appointments.

“We can bank online, shop online, book flights online. It is unbelievable and astounding that in 2015 you can get discharged from hospital with no digital journey. It’s what we’d expect from every other industry so that’s the gap we’re hoping to fill,” says Hellman.

The uMotif platform is modular and so can be customised for patient groups with 13 different clinical conditions. “It’s built like a Lego building kit,” explains Hellman. “We can take different blocks or modules and set those up in different ways for different clients.”

He gives the example of Parkinson’s for which the platform will track tremors and fluidity while for people recovering from heart failure uMotif tracks dizziness and breathlessness.

“The unique uMotif interface is nice, bright and visual and this allows you to score yourself subjectively on aspects of daily health,” says Hellman.

The user inputs this information by swiping their finger across a petal of uMotif’s flower icon. Each petal records a different aspect of health such as energy level, weight, blood pressure or sleep quality. uMotif runs on the LAMP stack, is written in PHP and uses the MySQL database.

Hellman stresses the fact that the patients are the owners of their data. “Data is not being sold off to insurers or for ad retargeting because that’s just not cool.”

“What is common to almost all patients is the need to follow some sort of regime; doing your exercises, taking your medication, doing your meditation,” he says.

uMotif helps patients to stick to their regimes by setting off alarms to remind them to take their medication.

“Every year in Europe 100,000 people die because of not taking their meds and the financial costs are huge,” says Hellman.

uMotif can also connect with sensors and wearable technology devices to capture information like number of steps taken and hours of deep sleep but this is completely optional. “One patient may have a Fitbit tracker and would love to be able to bring in their number of steps and compare that with their mood and other people would not want that at all.”

Hellman falls into the category of a wearable wearer. When his son was born three years ago, he wanted to see how badly the little one affected his own sleep. He did this with devices like the Fitbit and Jawbone and this sparked ideas for other forms of health tracking.

At a nursery Christmas party he met Ben James, the father of one of his son’s playmates, who happens to be a programmer and designer. Together they developed the ideas Hellman had come up with about health tracking.

In 2012 the two encountered The Cure Parkinson’s Trust, a charity with the mission to find a cure for Parkinson’s and realised the technology they had for general health tracking could really help people who are managing a serious condition.

With a grant of £75,000 from the Small Business Research Initiative they built their first prototype and worked with a group of patients from the charity.

“So rather than being fairly generic and broad for everyone, we focused on people with chronic and serious health conditions and thought about how we could create technology that helps them better manage their condition, improve their quality of life and treatment outcomes,” Hellman says.

The uMotif team has grown to 13 people and includes doctors, designers, computer programmers and business professionals. Dr Rashmi Narayana, who Hellman met while doing a part-time MBA at Imperial College London is the clinical and evidence director. “It’s important to have a doctor in the team. It brings everything back to patients and clinical impact,” says Hellman.

The app is free for patients but the public or private healthcare provider has to buy a license from uMotif.

Most of those healthcare providers are trusts in the UK such as Liverpool Chest and Heart Hospital and St George’s Healthcare in south London but there are also clients in the UK and Australia.

uMotif works with 45 healthcare providers in total who can put their badge on their version of the app and choose which modules they want for their patients.

uMotif is also working with tech giant Philips in Chester and Bristol to deploy a more general health tracking version of the platform for people who are not managing a long-term condition. “There are things that are common to everybody – keeping track of how you are doing, setting yourself goals and achieving them,” Hellman says.

On a grander scale, in November uMotif will be launching a global citizen science project. “It’s for everybody to participate in, whether you are managing a condition or not. We’re aiming for 100,000 people to use our app and their wearable device to track themselves for 100 days.” The goal is for people to learn important stuff about themselves and donate their data for free to academic research.

“There will be a data set of 10 million person days and researchers across the world will hopefully be able to unlock some new insights about health and health self-management,” says Hellman.

In spite of the fact that such a project could spur health benefits and insights for people all over the world Hellman emphasises the focus that uMotif places on assisting the individual.

“The thing that is quite exciting for us is that you start from individuals, from people solving real problems for real people. We’re making a difference for people’s lives which is fantastic.”

*This article was first published in August 2015 on TechCityinsider.

Getting down with the Digital Mums

Digital Mums is giving mothers the skills to move into flexible and mobile world of social media management. Co-founder Kathryn Tyler tells Toni Sekinah why her team excited by video platform Touchcast and how her desire for a dog ignited her entrepreneurial spark.

Kathryn Tyler headshot

Ten-year-old Twitter has transformed the way that companies acquire, interact and build relationships with their customers.

As businesses have realised its value – along with that of Facebook and Instagram – in forging connections with their clientele, a new job has been created, the social media manager.

The job is demanding as social media managers must be customer-oriented content creators but it does have the advantage of being having flexible hours. This makes it an ideal position for women with childcare responsibilities.

Online learning provider Digital Mums is training up unemployed mothers to become effective social media managers for small and medium enterprises.

The students undertake one of two six-month training courses. The Strategic Social Media Management Programme is for women who relevant transferable experience, gained from working in PR, journalism, marketing, communications or digital media and the confidence to work with a brand straightaway.

Those who gained experience in other industries can enroll on the Community Manager Course. These women create their own grassroots social campaign on an issue they are passionate about with lots of support from DMHQ.

One mother developed a campaign around buying healthy food locally while another, on the strategic programme, ran the feed of support network Parent Hub, amassing nearly 1,000 followers.

Tyler says that a “huge amount of hand holding that goes on” on the courses. “They’ll set up a Twitter, Facebook and Instagram page, just in the same way they would for a business. They have to reach influencers and think about content strategy.”

The course teaches the students how to inspire an emotional response from their audience and spread a message with humour and a human touch, according to former student and current social impact officer at Digital Mums, Tasneem Sherram.

The course is delivered online and the Digital Mums teams stays on top of all the latest trends in terms of solutions that can facilitate the remote training of its students.

Tyler says that Moodle, a learning management system “with a clever user interface,” hosts the learning resources while Google+ Communities is the ideal location for the student forums.

The most recent addition to Digital Mums’ array of technological tools is Touchcast. “It’s an interactive video technology platform and we’re really excited about it because we’re the only small business they’re working with at the moment.”

Touchcast, a medium is intertwines the web into video, allows users to create videos with links to other resources like Word documents, PDF files, even other videos, is being used by large organisations such as the BBC and the Wall Street Journal.

“It’s going to take our training resources to the next level,” says Tyler adding that Touchcast videos have already replaced the Digital Mums email newsletter.

Eighty per cent of the 20-strong team works remotely so they keep in close contact with each other using the Slack messaging app.

The live apprenticeship costs £2,000 while the social media campaign course costs £1,250. Tyler and Cochrane also charge businesses that come to them looking for freelance social managers a fee of between £500 and £1,000.

The company took a £50,000 loan from Big Issue Invest, which assists entrepreneurs who have founded businesses with a social mission. “The terms are very favourable, we only pay it back if we make money and we plan to pay it back early,” says Tyler.

Digital Mums has also just closed a round £200,000 private equity round from four private investors including a social impact programme, Big Venture Challenge.

Like many startups Digitals Mums in its present iteration is not what the founders set out to create.

It is an offshoot of a social media agency Tyler and Cochrane set up when they became unsatisfied with their previous jobs. Tyler felt she wasn’t being sufficiently challenged as the head of digital at Innovation Unit and Cochrane was working at M&C Saatchi but really wanted to work for herself.

“We thought that we’d love to set up our own business. I wanted to be my own boss so I could have the flexibility to get a dog and Nikki had just had enough of having bosses,” says Tyler.

They wanted to create a commercial venture with a social mission and so set up the agency to specifically train and do consultancy work with small businesses in social media management.

However while the consultancy and training was welcomed, they kept being requested to actually run the Twitter feeds of the SMEs. The pair tried running the feeds themselves but found they could handle a maximum of three at one time without going mad.

Tyler and Cochrane thought about bringing in young people to run the social media feeds. The unemployment rate among young people is 14.4%, almost triple the rate of the total working population, so hiring them would have been in line with the social mission of the company.

But weren’t sure they could convince small businesses to let young adults take control of their social media accounts.

Then they came up with the idea of working with mothers instead and so did some market research. They found that women with kids are more active on social media than most people and lots of businesses are marketing to mums.

“We thought it just makes sense and it went from there. The social media agency was like the unloved child and everyone loved Digital Mums,” says Tyler.

Tyler and Cochrane also both have a personal reason is focusing their support on mothers – they have experienced the effects of maternal unemployment first hand.

“Our mums were unemployed so we have a really personal connection to the problem that we’re solving,” says Tyler. Though decades have passed since then, the situation for working mothers is still very challenging.

Mothers-to-be sometimes experience workplace discrimination from the moment they announce their pregnancy as documented on Pregnant then Screwed. It states that 54,000 females a year are forced out of their jobs.

According to the Fawcett Society, 12.5% of women in low paid work – which is often the most flexible – are on zero hours contracts. Furthermore for many families childcare is so prohibitively expensive that many mothers are not any better off financially if they go to work.

These are the issues Digital Mums was set up to tackle when it was officially incorporated in 2013.

To date Digital Mums has helped 300 mothers change their working lives and by this time next year Tyler says they would have helped 1,000.

The founders are looking to extend the geographical reach of Digital Mums and are moving into cities like Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester as well as overseas.

“We’ll be taking Digital Mums to moms in the US. They’ve got an even bigger problem around flexible working than we have here,” says Tyler. They’ve also received requests to take DM to Slovenia, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia.

“We’re basically looking to do global domination within the next three years.” No doubt Cooper, Tyler’s pitbull terrier will be alongside every step of the way.

*This article was first published in March 2016 on TechCityinsider.

Funding through Crowdcube

Equity crowdfunding platform, Crowdcube, allows anyone to invest as little as £10 in businesses in exchange for equity. It is also possible for venture capitalists and other large investors to fund businesses through the platform. In December 2014, Crowdcube was selected by the London Co-Investment Fund as one of six recipients of government funding for co-investment in startups. Along with consortium partner Braveheart Investment Group plc, it was awarded £5m to invest in digital businesses based in London. Although it is headquartered in Exeter, the platform also has an office in London.

Man in blue T-shirt in front of green background
Luke Lang, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Crowdcube.

The co-founders Darren Westlake and Luke Lang understood the difficulties entrepreneurs faced when trying to raise funding. Lang had experience running his own marketing consultancy and had worked in startups while Westlake founded and exited two VOIP businesses. They set up Crowdcube in 2010 to make it easier for founders to raise finance from their own network of friends, family, customers and supporters. The platform received £3.8m from Balderton Capital in a £5m series B round, and has 125,000 registered users and over 2,000 active users making investments every month.

Since 2011, over 180 businesses have used Crowdcube to raise more than £50m of equity finance. High profile entrepreneurs like chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and Sir Stelios Haji-Ionnou of the easyGroup have used the platform. Lang says: “Crowdfunding and Crowdcube have really democratised investment and made it so much more accessible. Anyone can get involved and invest and that’s opened up a bigger flow of capital to the businesses.”

Headline investment criteria

Crowdcube allows all types of businesses, at different stages of growth to launch a pitch on its platform to raise money from the crowd. According to Lang, investors can find a really good mix of businesses from different vertical markets on Crowdcube including tech, food and drink, manufacturing, environmental, and fintech businesses. However he maintains that Crowdcube remains committed to helping early stage companies looking to raise between £50,000 and £150,000. He adds that Crowdcube has funded businesses that were just ideas or business plans.

Before allowing a pitch on to the platform, the Crowdcube team must feel that it is offering something their investors will be attracted to. An open discussion will take place among the team to decide whether a business is eligible.

The entrepreneur has to demonstrate that the business has a clear market opportunity and is making progress with its traction.

According to Lang, the team are also looking for entrepreneurs who have got a “real bit of hustle”, tenacity and who understand how to reach out to and tap into their network and giving people they know the opportunity to invest.

Crowdcube has a team of six business development analysts who talk to the entrepreneurs to understand their business and see if they qualify to be placed in the Crowdcube website. If they do qualify, they’ll be passed on to an investment analysis who will look at the business in much more detail. Only 20% to 30% of businesses that apply will make it on to the platform. The team points those that do not make it in the direction of a different source of funding or tells them what they need to improve before trying again. In the last six months, 38% of the companies that made it on to the platform went on to reach their funding target.

Lang says that the majority of the businesses that have been funded on Crowdcube were tech businesses or had some kind of tech element to them. These companies have a lot of potential to scale, which is what Crowdcube investors are looking for.

Approach to investment

Crowdcube allows companies to raise money with debt through a mini-bond, or equity. The mini-bonds offer investors a fixed rate of interest over a specific time period. The mini-bonds are like IOUs where the investor lends money to the business. These bonds cannot be traded or cashed in early.

The platform’s main offering is to allow investors to get equity in return for the money they put into a company. They can do this individually or get a professional fund manager to create a portfolio for them.

Lang says that with Crowdcube investors get a “real down to earth feel about the business” and understand the entrepreneur, the team, their journey, and the product. He adds “people really feel they’ve got a connection with the business which they wouldn’t get if they were investing in property or stocks and shares.”

Crowdcube doesn’t charge its investors anything. “Our view is, it’s an investor’s money, it’s their risk, it’s their reward. We don’t want to give our investors a reason to say no”.

Shape of investment

The minimum target amount is £10,000 and there is no maximum. Crowdcube advises entrepreneurs to go for between £100,000 and £150,000.

Crowdcube doesn’t charge listing fee, set up fee or membership fee. Lang says: “It’s not in our interest, it’s not in the investors’ interest and it’s certainly not in the interest of the business.”

However Crowdcube does charge a 5% success fee on the total funds processed when a business reaches its funding target.


For entrepreneurs to get their business on the crowdfunding platform they have to provide a business plan, financial forecasts for the next three years, and a video pitch that clearly sets out the investment proposal.

Lang explains that each pitch is approved financial promotion and so must comply with Financial Conduct Authority regulation. This means that every statement that an entrepreneur makes must be factual and it is the job of Crowdcube to verify those facts. Lang says the information must be “fair, clear and not misleading”.

The Crowdcube team also helps the entrepreneur to craft and refine their pitch deck and give them advice on what to include in their video, and to value their business at the right level.

The team will also help them to set the right target for their raise to make sure it is at an achievable level, and discuss their marketing strategy.

The entrepreneurs are expected to keep their investors up to date with their progress by reporting the key milestones along the fundraising.

Reasons not to invest

The Crowdcube team would not allow lifestyle businesses on to the platform. Also if an entrepreneur does not have any real ambition to build and grow a big business that could be sold in the future, they will not make it on to Crowdcube.

If an idea is too complex or the entrepreneur is not able to clearly articulate what the business is, or they have overvalued their business, Crowdcube would not allow it on the platform.

A big mistake that Lang sees entrepreneurs making is writing unclear business plans that do not explain what the business does.


In June 2014, serial entrepreneur Brett Akker, raised £1.6m for his storage company LOVESPACE, in June 2014.  It took 24 hours to reach his initial target of £600,000. In total, he raised £1.6m, 270% above the target, in 12 days. Venture firm DN Capital also invested in the crowdfunding round on the same terms as the rest of the crowd.

“The company was already VC backed by a company called Smedvig Capital. It knew Brett Akker from their previous investment in Streetcar and Crowdcube knows Smedvig Capital very well and they recommended to Brett that crowdfunding would be a good opportunity,” explains Lang.

Lang says that Crowdcube was able to use LOVESPACE’s ‘passionate’ customers in the successful marketing campaign, which resulted in a lot of press coverage and the company being featured in the Daily Mail, Crowdfund Insider, and Inside Self Storage.

“We met one of their investors and she was extolling the virtues of LOVESPACE. She’s a big fan, a big customer and now she’s a shareholder in the business,” says Lang.


Your future investments

In the future Lang sees more London-based tech companies raising money through the platform, as a result of the London Co-Investment Fund. The LCIF stipulates that recipients of the money must be London-based science and technology companies.

Founders will apply to Crowdcube, which will do all the necessary background checks on their business. Once the pitch is ready to go live, Crowdcube’s, fund management partner will choose which companies it feels are appropriate for investment and invest one third of the fundraising target. The remainder will be funded by the crowd on Crowdcube. To be eligible the companies need to be based in London and looking to raise between £250,000 and £1m.

“In the last six months of 2014, 50-55% of the businesses that were funded were tech in some way or had some tech element. I suspect that will probably grow. I firmly believe we’ll have more tech business coming but they will be better tech businesses,” Lang commented.

He also sees a blurring of the lines between investment from friends and family, crowdfunding, angels, and venture capitalists at present and thinks that will continue.

Another trend Lang is seeing is the increasing interest in crowdfunding from VCs, and more businesses that have or are in the process of getting financing from VCs are launching campaigns on the platform.

He has also noticed that larger companies are launching on the platform. “We’re certainly starting to see a trend towards more established companies, and more established serial, proven entrepreneurs using crowdfunding, as well as bigger raises. That’s an interesting development.”

Tech funding challenges

Lang thinks there is a funding gap at the level between £250,000 and £1m. He sees more and more venture capitalists investing at the £1m to £2m plus stages, but this leaves businesses that are raising less than that with few sources of funding to approach. He thinks that crowdfunding is doing a lot to solve this problem.

Funding Advice

Lang advises entrepreneurs to always have fundraising at the back of their minds. More specifically he says they should keep a mental note of the people they have encountered along their journey who have shown some interest or excitement about their business.

“You never know. At some point in the future you may need that little black book. Keep them informed of what your business is doing, keep them warm to the company and keep them warm to the idea of investing.”

Other than that, he says that founders should try and grow a great business and demonstrate growth and progress.

*This article was first published on TechCityinsider in February 2015.

Been there, done that, Seenit

Seenit, a collaborative video creation platform, is allowing brand marketers to outsource the creation of their video content to their employees, brand advocates and experts. Founder Emily Forbes tells Toni Sekinah how using her platform can help to document conversations instead of just events.

Emily Forbers, founder and CEO of Seenit


This year is the year of video marketing. So says a Forbes magazine author who gives a couple of reasons why people connect to videos over text. He cites the comparative ease with which the brain can process visual information and the way videos offer a multi-dimensional experience. According to a Cisco report, by 2019 video will account for 80% of all consumer internet traffic.

Emily Forbes (no relation) who has a background in film and film production, has long felt that there has been a huge shift in type of videos being watched online. She feels there is a trend away from polished content and toward user-generated content.

However she set up her company, Seenit, to create a bridge between the two types of content. The SaaS platform allows brands to harness the creativity and enthusiasm of their employees, fans, customers and experts by turning them into mobile film crews.

Seenit provides a private online studio into which clients can load a filming script and direction. These instructions go into an app that is pushed out to an unlimited number of specifically chosen contributors who then know what to film and for how long.

“The clients are easily able to direct and collect videos from the ‘film crew’ and can produce much more collaborative, authentic and creative stories,” says Forbes.

She gives the example of the BBC, which uses Seenit to facilitate the creation of a series called ‘You the pundit,’ a show that draws on content from a community of football fans.

“Fifty football fans from all over the UK respond to different questions about football – gossip or something that happened on the weekend. The fans can answer questions in the app, film their responses and everything is uploaded to the BBC,” she says. In one particular episode, 10 fans discussed whether or not manager Rafael Benitez could save Newcastle FC.

Seenit also works with The Body Shop, which is using the platform to draw on the talent and influence of its beauty consultants and create branded marketing.

Forbes says that the beauty consultants download the app, film their make up looks, tutorials and tips. They upload them and then they are edited, branded and pushed out to social media channels like YouTube.

The filmmaker founded the business after a revelatory experience in South Africa three years ago, where she was able to fully understand the power of crowd-generated content.

Forbes was in Cape Town to make her own film, after working for a production company in London. She set out to film a protest but as soon as she got to the demonstration, she realised that everyone was already filming the event on phones, cameras and on GoPro.

“The people within the crowd were so opinionated, so passionate and telling a far more fascinating story than I was ever going to be able to tell,” she says. She ran around the crowd and collecting their videos and later sat down to edit them in her kitchen.

Forbes realised that despite having no budget and no camera equipment, the footage she had was very powerful.

She says: “I realised I was documenting a conversation rather than an event. So I was much more excited about the new way of storytelling. It is ongoing, it is a narrative.” Forbes returned to the UK and set up Seenit in early 2014.

The platform allows the brands to be very specific with their contributors about how they want that story to be told. They can dictate camera shots and the length of time they want a specific clip to be.

“The brands can guide the person filming and give them feedback so that they get much higher quality, more concise sound bites,” she says.

The members of the film crew upload their clips through their Android or iOS apps and the footage arrives in the online editing studio. The clips are ordered according to the script that the brand created. They can be edited in the Seenit platform or downloaded and edited with a package like Final Cut Pro. Seenit also has a third option as there is a network of freelance editors who can edit instead.

Seenit allows its clients to white label the technology and put their own branding on it, which Forbes says allows for much faster engagement with the community. She adds that there is also an SDK so Seenit can sit within an existing app.

Chief technology officer Dave Starling built the platform in Python. He says that Couchbase, an open-source database software, is used for a lot of the “heavy lifting,” storing of things like metadata around photos and videos as well as user profiles.

Starling says: “Seenit has been designed and built from the ground up to scale. We’ve used the best technology and suppliers such as Couchbase and Google to ensure that we’re able to operate cost-effectively while still providing the performance and security that our clients need.”

He adds that Seenit operates entirely in the cloud, which allows them to rapidly react to change in demand and capacity within minutes.

Seenit has raised just under £1m in funding from Force Over Mass Capital as well as from angels like Rod Banner and Steve Parish, chairman of Crystal Palace Football Club.

This has allowed Forbes to almost double the size of her team in recent months to 15.  One new recruit is Nick Verkroost the new chief operations officer, formerly of DC Thomson, who was mentoring Forbes for about a year prior to joining.

“She says: “When you are looking to scale your team, you really want to brig in people that you trust and know your tech and your product and align with the same vision of what you want to create, so it was great to be able to bring Nick on board.”

Buoyed by the recent milestone of hitting £1m in revenue Forbes wants to ensure that her company can scale within its client organisations. This will mean that different teams with one company could all seamlessly use the Seenit platform. She also looking to grow Seenit in its own right and do so quickly.

“For the next 12 months there is a lot of focus on on-boarding, automation and scale.”

*This article was first published on TechCityinsider in May 2016.

Lost My Name captured kid’s imagination

Lost My Name produces personalised picture books that takes young children on a journey in which they are the central character. Co-founder and chief executive Asi Sharabi tells Toni Sekinah where the idea for the book came from and what other customisable products he and his team will create in the future.

Lost name books front coverImagine being a fearless adventurer, traversing through magical lands on a quest to collect clues in order to piece together your own identity.

Imagine this story being captured for posterity in a beautifully illustrated storybook with a protagonist that even looks a little bit like you.

That is exactly what Asi Sharabi and his three co-founders allow youngsters to feel with the first book created by their tech publishing company, Lost My Name.

Say I buy a book for my goddaughter Sky. In her book, which is written in English, a young girl – with brown skin and an Afro puff – has lost her name and travels through magical lands to find it. Along the way she meets a squid, a knight and yeti. The creatures gift her the first letters of their names so that she can put together her own. And so hundreds of thousands of children and parents were enchanted.

It was the biggest selling picture book of 2014 in the UK, shifting 132,000 copies. In September 2013, a few months after launching in public beta, sales were at about 200 a month. They jumped to 1,500 in two days when Not On The High Street featured the book in its newsletter, a jump of 750%.

Investors have been equally enamoured. When Sharabi and his co-founders Tal Oron, David Cadji-Newby and Pedro Serapicos appeared on BBC’s Dragon’s Den, dragon investor Piers Linney loved the concept so much that he invested £100,000 in return for a 4% stake in the company. This gave Lost My Name a valuation of £2.5m, the highest in the show’s history.

To date they have raised over $10m from what Sharabi calls “some of the best funds in the world” including Forward Partners, Google Ventures, Greycroft Partners, The Chernin Group and Project A Ventures.

In 2015 the Lost My Name team released a second book – The incredible intergalactic journey home. It takes the child on a journey through outer space with a robot best friend lost in space, light years away from home.

Again it is personalised with the child making his or her way through the universe to the solar system, planet Earth, back to their continent, country, county, street and home. The book – presently available in the UK and US – hones in on the child’s exact address.

In total, the LMN team has sold over 1.5m copies, which cost around £20, in 169 countries around the world.

This series of adventures for Sharabi and his team began when he received a personalised book for his daughter, and was less than impressed.

“I saw the book and that warm and fuzzy feeling of seeing my daughter’s name in a book lasted exactly two seconds,” he says.

He called on friends, creative technologist Oron and writer Cadji-Newby to help him develop something better.

Sharabi says: “We sat around my kitchen table and we started as a self-funded, self-published side project.”

The problem for Sharabi was that personalised books “sucked” and he wanted to create one that was actually good.

Once they had decided to create stories based on the letters in a child’s name, they made a prototype.

“We picked Andrew as a name. We wrote a whole book for Andrew, illustrated the whole book for Andrew and that was our MVP,” he says.

To scale up and be able to create books for every single name for children aged five and under, Oron downloaded, from the UK census, of all the names that were given to babies in the past five years.

When they saw that there were 14,000 names, the enormity of the task hit the team. Sharabi remembers saying: “Holy crap. How are we actually going to be able to fulfil and be able to create a book for every name?”

So they started to crunch the data and looked at the average length of a name, the longest name, the shortest name, the distribution of different letters within the names and more specifically the most popular letters that occur in names.

It was important for the LMN team not to repeat any of the creatures, even if a name had the same letter more than once. For example, if a book were to be created for a child named David, the first D could be gifted by a dinosaur and the final D by a donkey.

Sharabi was clear from the start that Lost My Name was a technology startup side project instead of a publishing side project.

“With all the operational implications of running a print-on-demand business, from day one, even just as a creative side project, it had a lot of technical operation and commercial implications that we had to walk through,” he says.

Lost My Name is a full stack vertically integrated business says Sharabi, with the majority of the software having been built in-house. The creative technology aspect relates to the creation of the assets for every letter story and a database with hundreds of memorable structures.

“We wrote software, that based on your postcode input, will give you the most iconic landmarks in your city or country,” says Sharabi. There is also integration with a third-party geodata provider so in the last few pages of the intergalactic book, there is an aerial view of the child’s neighbourhood, street and even their home.

The technology the team created also allows the buyer to see a preview of the book before they order it. Sharabi says: “That means a very, very complex rendering engine that takes your inputs and, sends your query to the database, and effectively creates a book and gives you a full preview on the fly.”

The books can be printed in US English, German, Spanish, French, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish and Danish.

Once ordered the digital, print-ready file is sent to one of the 15 print partners around the world that closest to the customer. It is printed with 24 to 36 hours depending on the print queue and sent out with most customers receiving their book within a week with free shipping.

With 30 tech people in the 75-strong team, it is unsurprising that Lost My Name is trying to push the envelope in terms of what it will create in the future, with Sharabi looking beyond the printed word.

Sharabi says: We’re trying to come up with something that has never been done before. Our personal and commercial aspirations go beyond books. It is something we are experimenting with now and it is very much in R&D.”

*This article was originally published in April 2016 on TechCityinsider.

**Lost My Name rebranded as Wonderbly in July 2017.

Onfido on track for ID checks

Husayn Kassai co-founded background checking software company Onfido in Oxford and expected it to be used by the HR departments of traditional employers. But Onfido has found favour with many businesses in the sharing economy. He tells Toni Sekinah how it happened.


 In August 2012 three university friends had to get background checks in order to take up internships at a major banks in the City of London. However it was such a labourious process that Husayn Kassai decided it was a problem to needed fixing.

The result is Onfido, an online platform that lets employers perform time and cost-efficient checks on job applicants.

Kassai and co-founders Eamon Jubbawy and Ruhul Amin all experienced the same headache so together they created a solution. They studied at the University of Oxford and were active members of Oxford Entrepreneurs society with Kassai and Jubbawy even serving as president and vice president.

Through Oxford Entrepreneurs – the largest free business and entrepreneurial society in Europe – they contacted human resources departments at companies like BP and Deutsche Bank. The feedback they heard was that traditional background checking services were not satisfactory for employers either.

“We felt that from an applicant perspective it doesn’t seem to be a working model and also from a client perspective there is scope to improve,” he says.

The HR departments complained that paper-based procedures were cumbersome and could take up to eight weeks. Furthermore they were expensive, with each check costing between £150 and £200.

Amin, with a background in engineering, built the first version of Onfido after the trio secured seed funding in mid 2012 from University of Oxford’s Said Business School and Isis Innovation – the university’s software incubator. Isis Innovation has also backed tech startups Bounts, Esplorio and Brainomix.

The first version of Onfido was a basic aggregator of the important pieces of information needed to thoroughly check a person’s background. It pulled data from credit agencies, utility companies and government and police databases.

It also had a dashboard so the employer could track the progress of the checks and view the results.

The current version of the data aggregation engine has those same components but is now more robust and smarter. It can draw in data from around the globe, gather and present the information more intuitively. Machine learning has also been incorporated into the Right to Work check which now includes a visual image scan that analyses passports and other right to work documents to make sure they are genuine.

Onfido offers include more than 10 checks including employment history, education, adverse financial and negative media.

To use the service employers enter the name and email address of the applicant indicating which checks they would like carried out. Onfido sends an email to the applicant with link to a secure online form where they complete their details and give Onfido consent to carry out the checks. Consent is essential for the company to be in compliance with the Data Protection Act.

Onfido cross-references the information provided by the applicant against hundreds of data sources to verify it. All data, checks, records and documents are stored on Onfido’s secure servers and data is fully encrypted in transit and at rest.

The 15-person technology team develops on the Ruby framework and is trying to integrate Elixir and Erlang “two really cool pieces of tech” into the workflow to increase performance and fault tolerance. On the front end, they use Javascript and Ember.js to present the information in a more-user friendly way.

Onfido has now gone global and is doing checks in the US and 28 European countries. Kassai’s plans for continued global expansion and a bigger sales and marketing team will be fuelled by the closing of a series A round in February of £2m. Investors include the founders of, One Fine Stay, Blablacar, and the former managing directors of Google UK and Waterstone’s among others.

Kassai is just 25 and his co-founders are also in their mid-20s but he says their youth was not an obstacle to setting up the business or securing funding as they built their track record in small increments.

“We said ‘Yes, we are young but we can commit to doing a very good job. Just give us the opportunity’ and they did. We told them from the outset what our targets were and exactly how we were going to achieve them and they could see that with every passing month we achieved the targets we had set,” Kassai explains.

Onfido’s competitive pricing and fast turnaround times have made it popular with companies in the sharing economy. Platforms like Handy, a platform for hiring home professionals like plumbers and electricians, need to verify that the people they work with are trustworthy. With checks ranging in price from £10 to £44 using Onfido is more startup-friendy option.

Hassle was Onfido’s first sharing economy client and came on board in early 2013.

“We saw huge growth in that market with the way Hassle was exponentially adding users to its platform and needed this level of verification to be able to build trust into it,” says Kassai.

More sharing economy clients followed and Onfido is now the largest provider of verification services for the sharing economy, which helped build credibility in the eyes of the investors.

Kassai says: “A lot of sharing economy platforms have raised a lot of investment themselves so when the VCs did due diligence on them, they could see that a key enabler for these businesses was Onfido so they either heard about us or knew what we were doing.”

He says starting their business in Oxford had two great advantages; the support infrastructure and access to talent.

Oxford Entrepreneurs, the Said Business School Entrepreneurship Centre and Seed Fund, Isis Innovation Software Incubator and the Student Entrepreneur Network run by the Careers Service provided invaluable support.

Kassai added that as the location of the one of the highest-ranked universities in the world, “in Oxford we had access to a world-class talent pool to tap into for advice, test out new ideas and most importantly, find team members almost a third of the Onfido team of 28 come from Oxford.”

Conceived among Oxford’s dreaming spires and now located in on the edge of the City of London, Kassai and the Onfido team have already achieved their ambition of having a global presence. He sees no reason why European companies in general can’t compete with those from the US.

“If you’re a tech business you have to be ambitious and global. US companies do this very well, they think global and UK and European ones should do the same. The technology in Europe is just as good if not better.”

He goes on “There’s no reason why European companies can’t do as well. It just means you have to learn what works and do the same.”

*This article was first published in March 2015 on TechCityinsider.

How now carwow

Carwow is a reviews and deals site for potential purchasers in the market for a new car. It presents them with offers from dealers that could save them thousands of pounds. Co-founder and chief executive James Hind tells Toni Sekinah why he did a U-turn on the road to a career in finance and what unusual beverage almost ended up in his cup holder.


James Hind never saw himself as someone who could start a business. “I always thought to start a business you had to be 40 and look like a businessman,” he says. But he shattered his own preconception and now his startup Carwow is accelerating at top speed.

While at a crossroad a few months after graduating, his friend Alexandra Margolis persuaded him to join her in starting up a venture.

“I didn’t realise just how easy it is, how low risk and how little capital you need so I just jumped into it,” he says.

Now Hind, Margolis and chief technical officer David Santoro are the driving force behind Carwow, an online platform for new car buyers that is in a class of its own. “There’s nothing close to us in what we do,” says Hind.

Carwow is a site where potential buyers can read reviews of new cars and compare offers on those motors from dealers around the country.

Users type the name of any make and model in the search box and Carwow will return a comprehensive review and a ‘wowscore’ out of 10, which gives the average review scores from different automotive publications.

“People can make an informed decision on which car to buy through reading just one source,” he says.

Carwow also shows the user three pros and three cons of the vehicle, as well as the price bracket, number of seats, fuel efficiency and a fun fact. Did you know that the Fiat Panda is Italy’s best-selling car ever? Or that the Nissan Micra is known as ‘March’ in most of Asia and South America?

The site even includes extracts of the reviews from other sources like Top Gear and Autocar.

Then Carwow cranks its value up a gear and shows the users how much they could save if they buy that car through one of its dealers.

Users choose the features they want their ideal car to have – Hind calls it ‘building’ a car – and once they register their email address, they can see offers from up to 800 dealers around the country for that car.

They can also see the location of the dealers and how well other Carwow users rate them. “You have that social proof,” says Hind. “Then they go forward, contact the dealer and buy directly from them.”

The handpicked dealers offer their best prices through Carwow as they know that doing so will generate higher volume of sales.

It’s free for the consumer but the dealers are charged depending on how many cars they sell through the platform.

When the business was set up in 2012 it was called Carbuzz and was just an aggregator of new car reviews.

“You have all these ‘geek speak’ car magazines that aren’t very accessible to people but people are using them to help them work out whether a car is good. We thought we’d read all that content and summarise it,” he says.

Because Hind is a bit of a petrol head, his friends would always ask his advice when they wanted to buy a new car. He admired the set up of film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and decided that their business would do the same for cars. Carbuzz was founded after Hind was put off working in the world of finance for good.

After completing his undergraduate degree in finance, James Hind began his career with an internship at a fund management group in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis. He stayed for three months.

“That started in September 2008 and I watched the financial world collapse. The fund management group I was in got hurt really badly because they had absolutely no control over what they were doing,” he says.

Not knowing what to do, he worked as ski guide and travelled until Margolis suggested that they work for themselves. They looked at various ideas including importing Bubble Tea, a tea-based, milky, fruity, smoothie with balls of tapioca at the bottom. “It’s this weird tapioca pearl drink. I’m very glad we didn’t go down that road,” he admits.

They set up Carbuzz and used an agency to build the website but after a year brought in Santoro as the third co-founder.

“We didn’t have any control of the website, we couldn’t make changes. So we thought, ‘Let’s scrap this, build a better site and have it all in-house’,” he says.

As the number of visitors grew they realised that there was a bigger problem for car buyers than just access to easy-to-understand information.

They realised that consumers wanted a way compare offers from different dealers on a particular vehicle without having to clock up the miles visiting all several dealerships.

They developed Carwow at Hind’s kitchen table and in mid 2013 raised £250,000 from angel investors to automate the process and hire a small team.

The hunt for the second round of funding was much more arduous than he anticipated but he managed to get a meeting with Simon Murdoch, a partner at Episode 1.

Murdoch invested and brought along a host of other angels, including Alex Chesterman, a LOVEFiLM founder, who signed a cheque without ever having met Hind.

Carwow raised £1.3m from Episode 1, Samos investments, Balderton Capital in Feb 2014 and was able to raise a further £4.6m less than a year later from the same investors because the business looked so healthy.

“We demonstrated really quick growth and we knew we could put more money to work, largely though advertising and hiring.”

The team has grown exponentially in the last 12 months. Last year they were a team of six, which has since grown five-fold to 32.

The AWS hosted-website is built in Ruby by the four-strong team of developers; Hind is very keen to increase their numbers.

“We’d take five developer today if they were great,” he says. “We’re a technology company first and foremost and developers just automate and improve anything.”

Hind says that since launching Carwow customers have bought £250m worth of new cars and saved on average £3,250 on each purchase. It looks like he’ll continue to drive a hard bargain for his customers.

*This article was first published in June 2015 on TechCityinsider.