UHI Business Competition 2023 winners announced

An ambitious plan to establish Scotland’s first net zero airline to provide affordable and sustainable flights across the Highlands and Islands has taken the top prize in the UHI Business Competition.

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Top prize winner Thomas Eccles of FlyHIghland Ltd

Thomas Eccles from Nethybridge, the founder of FlyHighland Ltd, was named the overall winner at an awards ceremony at the UHI Inverness campus. He impressed the judges with his pitch to be an aviation innovator by operating aircraft using hydrogen propulsion from the airport at Wick.

He was motivated to improve Scottish flight connections after being shocked by the price of a last-minute flight from Shetland. Thomas intends to work with a leader in aerospace concepts and is in the process of raising funding topurchase aircraft and gain the necessary permissions.

Thomas said: “I am overjoyed that FlyHighland has been awarded the top prize. It’s a tremendous honour to be recognised for our commitment to communities because we’re driven by the stories at the heart of the isolated communities we want to serve, and I’m deeply touched that we’ve been recognised for that.”

Other winning ideas included:

  • A vegan food blend containing seaweed.
  • A glow-in-the-dark mini golf course in Stornoway.
  • Replacing prescription information leaflets with QR codes on medication boxes.
  • Complementary therapies for pregnant women in Moray.
  • An open-source computer games development company.
  • An energy-saving service to counter inefficient electrical installations.
  • The Rose Street Roundhouse, a new events venue in Inverness.

The UHI Business Competition, run by CREATE which is part of the Centre for Living Sustainability at UHI Inverness, is now in its 17th year. It encourages enterprise and innovation by supporting people to take their first steps on the road to starting their own businesses.

It has now reached the significant milestone of presenting more than £100,000 in prize money since the competition began in 2006.

This year’s ten winners are:

  • Top prize, £1000 and a combined legal and accountancy package – Thomas Eccles of Nethybridge. Sponsored by Gold Sponsors, Harper Macleod LLP and Johnston Carmichael Chartered Accounts.
  • Best Student Award, £1000 – Lonja Mavric Mrak, HNC Business student at UHI Inverness. Sponsored by UHI.
  • Best Computing Student, £1000 – Ethan Barnes, HNC Computing student at UHI Perth. Sponsored by Engineers In Business Fellowship.
  • Best Cultural and Environment Award, £1000 – Jack Marley McIntyre, STEM Coordinator (Technologist) at UHI Inverness. Sponsored by Engineers In Business Fellowship.
  • Best Presentation Award, £1000 – Joselyn Turner and Holly Richardson, UHI students. Sponsored by Northern Innovation Hub.
  • Best Engineer Award, £1000 – Dean Frazer, a BEng (Hons) Electrical and Electronic student at UHI North Highland. Sponsored by Engineers In Business Fellowship.
  • Best Commercial Award, £500 – John Murdo Maclennan and James Morrison from Stornoway. Sponsored by Whyte and Mackay.
  • Youth Entrepreneurship Award, £500 – Taylor Black a Fashion and Textiles student at UHI West Highland. Sponsored by Northern Innovation Hub.
  • Best Social Impact Award, £500 – Ashley Robson from Spey Bay. Sponsored by Silver Sponsor, The Apprentice Store.
  • Best Researched, £500 – Louise Whitten from Hopeman. Sponsored by Whyte and Mackay.

The keynote speaker was MasterChef 2022 finalist, Sarah Rankin, who was born and raised in the Highlands. She combines running her own marketing agency with life as a food writer, chef demonstrator and private dining caterer.

She told the finalists: “You will have no regrets entering this competition. It will take you places you never imagined; so be brave.”

The competition attracted 77 entries from students across the UHI partnership, as well as entrepreneurs living in the Highlands and Islands, Moray, Perthshire and Argyll.

Professor Chris O’Neil, Principal and Chief Executive of UHI Inverness, said: “Our region is phenomenally important economically and this competition has had a huge impact on the entrepreneurial spirit of its people. It has again highlighted the great potential for innovative local business ventures, and I have no doubt that the future is very bright for our winners. Their resourceful ideas and solutions demonstrate the enterprising drive and initiative that we strive to nurture.”

This year’s judges were Shane Healy, Distilling Director at Whyte and Mackay; Mairi MacDonald, Enterprise Manager at the Royal Bank of Scotland; Gillian McGill, IMPACT30 Programme Manager at Skillfluence Ltd and Rojan Kumar Subramani, Founder and CEO of DigiTechtive and member of the Board of Management of UHI Inverness.

Mairi MacDonald said: “It’s a privilege and a pleasure to be involved in the UHI Business Competition once again. With entries stretching from Perth to Shetland, and a 22% increase in applications this year from 2022, we had the difficult task as judges of shortlisting 77 applications down to just 15 finalists. This competition really encompasses some of the very best innovation in the North of Scotland, and I was particularly delighted to see the diversity of thought and the true drive behind the ideas. Some of them made us laugh and some of us made us cry, particularly the ideas with real social impact. Well done to all the finalists on your pitches, and for putting your ideas forward in the first instance. A huge congratulations to all of the winners – I look forward to supporting your ongoing business journeys.”  

Shane Healy said: “The ideas spanning business, sustainability and social enterprise were of the highest quality. We at Whyte and Mackay are deeply committed to our local communities and I’m very proud to be involved again with the competition. Well done to all 15 finalists and to all those who entered. We all can make a difference in growing Scotland, and this is a brilliant occasion because it shows how people can bring their dreams to fruition.”

Gillian McGill, IMPACT30 Programme Manager at Skillfluence Ltd said: “I’m delighted to have been invited onto the panel to review this year’s applications alongside my fellow judges. The level of creative thinking, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit has been incredibly impressive. I was really excited to hear the final presentations and I’m hopeful that we will see some of the applicants on IMPACT30 in the near future, as HIE’s fully funded programme can provide the essential tools, skills, knowledge and mentorship required to help grow their businesses.”

Rojan Kumar Subramani said: “It is an honour for me to have been invited to join the panel along with my fellow judges. It was great to hear all the different ideas and a lot of them were focussed on social and environmental impact. Fort William was my first test location for my social enterprise Digitechtive VR fitness and tourism pilot services. Using technology to enhance the Scottish Highlands and support social impact is important to me. Therefore, I will continue supporting the winners and finalists. They all had passion to solve a problem with an enterprising idea and I look forward to seeing these ideas continue to grow.”

The UHI Business Competition is organised by strategic partners CREATE, UHI and UHI Inverness, with additional funding and support from The Apprentice Store, Engineers in Business Fellowship, Harper Macleod LLP, Johnston Carmichael, the Northern Innovation Hub and Whyte and Mackay.

Professor Neil Simco, Deputy Principal Academic and Research at UHI, presented gifts to the winners and told them: “One of the reasons UHI exists is to make a difference and we are pleased to support young people who have the skills, energy and commitment to take forward business ideas that make a difference across the Highlands and Islands, Perthshire, Moray and Argyll.”

Winners’ stories:

Top prize, £1000 and a combined legal and accountancy package – Thomas Eccles of Nethybridge.

Thomas has established FlyHighland, a socially responsible enterprise focussed on providing affordable and sustainable air travel solutions to island and remote communities, whilst prioritising the needs of its customers and the environment. With plans to operate out of the airport at Wick, he wants FlyHighland to be carbon neutral and aims to achieve this by working with a company developing a hydrogen propulsion system.

He said: “FlyHighland's goal is to drive economic development in the areas that we serve by offering lower fares, more connections and opportunities for residents to access healthcare, education and employment. The possibilities are endless with a better-connected Scotland.”

Thomas lived on Shetland at the beginning of 2022 and could not afford a last-minute flight when he had to return to the mainland.

“It was at that moment I decided to start working on the idea of FlyHighland Ltd and it is now slowly but surely coming to fruition,” he said.

FlyHighland is currently working on acquiring funding with a view to purchasing aircraft, gaining an Air Operators Certificate and route licences and employing staff and post holders.

Best Student Award, £1000 – Lonja Mavric Mrak, HNC Business student at UHI Inverness.

Lonja has designed Kelpie, a vegan food blend containing seaweed, which is nutritious, sustainable and carbon neutral. It can be used to make burgers and mince and thicken soups and sauces. A vegetarian for 20 years who found that vegan food mimics meat and relies heavily on additives, Lonja realised that seaweed would be a great meat substitute because of its health benefits and being high in protein. However, she realised people would be reluctant to eat it and developed the blend as a solution to the question of how to incorporate seaweed into a meal.

Lonja said: “I’m pleased because I really wasn’t expecting to win anything, I just decided to enter for the experience. I would recommend anyone with a business idea to enter this competition.”

Best Computing Student, £1000 – Ethan Barnes, HNC Computing student at UHI Perth.

Ethan wants to establish an indie game development company, Actuating Lemons, which produces open-source computer games and programmes that anyone, particularly students, can pull apart, experiment with and make modifications in their own version of the game.

Ethan said: “Educational institutions have a hard time finding good, real-world examples of video coding and concepts that they have permission to use. Actuating Lemons would produce such material for anyone, everywhere.

“I have wanted to develop games for a long time, and now, with the help of UHI Perth, I’m ready to start my game development journey. I’m amazed that I won; this will look really good on my CV, and I will use the prize money to help set the business up to a good standard.”

Best Cultural and Environment Award, £1000 – Jack Marley McIntyre, an engineering graduate and the STEM Coordinator (Technologist) at UHI Inverness.

Jack’s idea is to create a social enterprise to build the Rose Street Roundhouse, an indoor, innovative, sustainable and green event venue in the centre of Inverness. It would host conferences and music and comedy gigs and fill a gap in the market following the closure of the Ironworks venue.

Jack said: "When I set out to develop The Rose Street Roundhouse, a new concept for a high-tech, sustainable, circular economic venue for Inverness, I wanted to aim big, bold and daring, and I can't deny that I had great fun designing the concept and 3D printing it!

“I have a passion for inspiring creativity and the sustainable environment, and I wanted to bring people with me on a journey to see a vision for what the future of Inverness could be and the power of creation. So, to then be awarded the Best Culture and Environment Award was incredible. I'm absolutely over the moon and the momentum for the roundhouse isn't ending soon."

Jack now plans to set up a trademark and a social enterprise listing.

Best Presentation Award, £1000 – Joselyn Turner and Holly Richardson, UHI students.

Their idea is to reduce paper waste and provide quick, easy access to medication information. For accessible information, videos and images regarding the side effects, complications and how to use medication, they want to replace paper prescription information leaflets with QR codes on medication boxes.

Joselyn said: “My inspiration comes from working within a pharmacy myself and prescription information leaflets being honestly a pain.”

Best Engineer Award, £1000 – Dean Frazer from Aberlour, a BEng (Hons) Electrical and Electronic student at UHI North Highland.

Dean has developed a working prototype of an energy-saving service to reduce cost, waste and carbon footprint caused by inefficient electrical installations. The installations would be fitted with low-cost devices that would monitor electrical quantities and raise the power factor when it falls.

Dean said: “The competition has been a great event; I’ve met amazing people with fantastic ideas. My own business is about saving energy and I’m sure this experience will help me bring my idea forward.”

Best Commercial Award, £500 – John Murdo Maclennan and James Morrison from Stornoway.

John Murdo and James want to establish an indoor glow-in-the-dark mini golf course in Stornoway to provide a unique experience for tourists and locals. The 18-hole course would be themed around Western Isles landmarks and lit by UV lights. They hope the year-round attraction will alleviate the boredom during the winter months when there are fewer leisure activities.

Youth Entrepreneurship Award, £500 – Taylor Black a Fashion and Textiles student at UHI West Highland.

Taylor (22) from Fort William wants to develop a range of printed, sustainable fabrics inspired by the nature and landscapes of the Highlands. This includes a fleece for winter, a dry robe for use after wild swimming, and a handbound sketch book made with scrap fabric. His plan is to create big, bold prints and graphics, which will appeal to outdoor lovers and the LGBT community. He created an outdoor wear collection during the last year of his HND.

“This is where it really struck me – combining outdoor wear design with fashion was what I loved to do,” said Taylor.

“I’m really happy to win the youth entrepreneurship award. It’s been a very positive night, and I’m looking forward to being involved in very exciting things in the future.”

Best Social Impact Award, £500 – Ashley Robson from Spey Bay.

Ashley is a registered midwife and a certified complementary therapist, who wants to use her experience and skills to offer support, advice and greater choice to pregnant women.

Ashley said: “I’m delighted to have won this award and I’ve really enjoyed the experience. I’m always happy to speak about the treatments I offer. I’m going to use the prize money to fund treatments for vulnerable women who are not able to pay me for my treatments.”

She has created a therapy room in her home and her business Moray Maternity Therapy offers specialised complementary therapies including aromatherapy, acupuncture and clinical hypnosis to treat a wide range of complaints. She believes that families in Moray have been negatively affected in recent years by the downgrade of local maternity services.

“Offering complementary therapies will give me the chance to offer women greater choice and input in their care; and as a result, may also reduce the numbers having to travel to other units, as complementary therapies have been proven to successfully reduce medical induction rates in a large number of women,” said Ashley.

Best Researched, £500 – Louise Whitten from Hopeman.

Louise’s idea is Restilled, a premium range of gifts and drinks accessories recrafted from scrap Scottish distillery copper. Louise came up with the idea when she worked with a distillery brand creating gifting ranges for its shop.

Louise said: “I believe that Restilled offers an opportunity to create a new and interesting circular product from what is effectively distillery industrial waste. The idea of recrafting and reusing is a big motivator and I have been inspired by the popularity of the selection of recrafted whisky barrel products currently available.

“Restilled is an idea that has been in my mind for a good while now and this has given me the opportunity to get it out of my head onto paper and allowed me to begin my research. I feel really grateful for the whole process and obviously I’m delighted that I came away with the Best Researched Award, which is a real bonus.”