The Big Interview: Reactec chief executive Jacqui McLaughlin

Jacqui McLaughlin is the chief executive of Edinburgh-based Reactec, which is known for its HAVwear offering designed to prevent Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome, but also earlier this year launched its related SAFE-DISTANCE functionality to help maintain physical distancing among workers.

McLaughlin says a large part of her role is understanding how the firm's technology can be applied to an existing problem. Picture: Peter Devlin.
McLaughlin says a large part of her role is understanding how the firm's technology can be applied to an existing problem. Picture: Peter Devlin.

She joined the firm from Smiths Group in 2014, having originally studied electrical and electronic engineering at the University of Strathclyde, and can also boast 20 years of competitive hockey, including 45 caps representing Scotland. The CEO said recently: “Having developed the SAFE-DISTANCE system, we want to see it in as many workplaces as possible to help companies to continue to operate – ensuring their staff stay socially distanced while they keep the economy going.”

You have said that Reactec is determined to play its part in the fight against Covid-19, with its SAFE-DISTANCE technology helping workers with physical distancing. Can you explain how the firm has functioned and adapted during the pandemic?

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Lockdown in March led to a large proportion of our customer base stopping normal operations. Because our technology offers hosted analytics, we were able to see that our customers’ activity level fell by 90 per cent. We took a deep breath and considered how we could continue to operate and how we might come out of this stronger.

She also sees many opportunities for women in today’s technology-driven businesses. Picture: Peter Devlin.

We furloughed a large proportion of our own team to match the demand from the marketplace for interaction – which for at least three months was very little. But we carried on full throttle with our product-development activities. That allowed us to respond quickly to the idea of adding proximity detection to our industrial wearable tech.

Within eight weeks of the original concept, we were releasing to our existing client base a free, remote software upgrade that let them help manage social distancing in the workplace. Existing clients expanded their deployments, we gained access to new clients, and we were able to build activity levels to go beyond those pre lockdown.

There are now more than 10,000 units out in the workplace, in a whole host of sectors from construction to manufacturing, and helping companies to manage this new discipline – by highlighting where excessive contact is occurring and changing their own processes and protocols to reduce proximity between their employees.

What about your core HAVwear offering – will that be a smaller part of the business going forward?

Reactec will always be the thought leaders and innovators within the management of Hand Arm Vibration. It’s a horrid condition that ruins people’s lives, often at the end of their careers when they should be enjoying their retirement and spending time doing the things they want to do.

If anything, what the pandemic has taught us is that while our sensor technology might have a single purpose, our ability to gather large sets of sensor data and present it in a way that prompts impactful changes in the workplace can be applied readily to a number of other health or environmental risks. We have been able to apply a proven approach to one issue and make it novel for a different one.

What does your role entail and what are your goals? For example you say you’re passionate about applying technology to differentiate business performance and to make a difference to the end customer.

A large part of my role is understanding how our technology can be applied to an existing problem. Before joining Reactec, I was unaware of the extent to which health and safety had fallen behind in the adoption of technology. Industry 4.0 means that many organisations spend heavily on digitisation with a view to driving operational efficiency.

Few organisations appreciate the waste represented by shelves full of health and safety paper records. I see a clear opportunity for a different approach to health risk management in the workplace based on the reality of what an employee is faced with, as opposed to what might be expected from a risk assessment of the potential hazard.

I can also reflect on the world of sport science and the massive advances made in sports performance from the adoption of sensing technologies and data analytics, never dreamed of when I was running about a hockey pitch but absolutely commonplace today, no matter your level of sport participation.

Reactec is part of Archangels’ portfolio, earlier this year securing seed investment of £700,000 led by the angel group. To what extent has the organisation boosted the firm’s expansion?

Archangels has been just about as supportive as a shareholder can be. It has believed in Reactec, and what we seek to achieve, from the very beginning and has invested not just cash but expertise and guidance from the outset – more like partners than shareholders.

The support of Archangels is what has allowed us to stay focused on expanding our technology roadmap through all of the challenges of 2020. It believes strongly in the value that technology offers and has never wavered in backing the plans that took us to leadership in Hand Arm Vibration. Now it is equally supportive in helping us to grow the business into new areas of health risk in the workplace.

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Can you summarise how your career progressed before your current role? I see it includes three years in Shanghai with Smiths Group.

I have always been in roles that have been heavily engaged with customers and able to influence the technology roadmap for the business. Smiths, the global technology group, gave me an opportunity to move from a key role in a small UK business to a global post working within multi-cultural teams. My period in Shanghai was perhaps the most challenging, with customers who really did not believe in partnership and a workforce that was used to being told the answers.

After Smiths I was certain I wanted to be in businesses that would challenge technology boundaries but be agile enough to turn ideas into useful applications. From my experience in Shanghai I cherish engaged employees who want their voices to be heard.

What has been the biggest milestone for Reactec to date?

Moving into the wearable technology arena and, in the process, disrupting the conventional wisdom in the field of Hand Arm Vibration. When we took our wearable product to market we knew we would cannibalise our existing offering. We did not quite appreciate that within three months all our sales would be of our new product.

But being disruptive is not always plain sailing and we have faced significant headwinds as competitors tried to slow us down or even stop us. We have had to stay focused and I have to say the Reactec team has been fantastic. They’ve not allowed themselves to be distracted and they’re genuinely determined to ensure that our technology gets into the workplaces where it can make the most difference to the lives of the people wearing it.

You are a female tech boss – what is your view on gender balance in the sector and what needs to be done to encourage more women to reach top roles?

In my career, the role of women in industry has changed very positively. Women were 4 per cent of my class in university. They were 5 per cent of the attendees within the Smiths management conferences I attended less than ten years ago and 3 per cent of those were human resources. My board in Reactec is 50 per cent female but not by deliberate design. I believe there are many opportunities for women in today’s technology-driven businesses; it is up to women to put themselves forward for the top roles.

What would you like Reactec to look like by the end of 2021?

An international player providing health and safety intelligence to employers that allows them to manage their employees’ risk because they care, and not just because they need to comply. Also, not constrained by any particular area of interest. More, I like to think that by constantly developing our offering and focusing on the needs of the people who go to work every day, performing vital tasks, we can not only succeed – but help protect them and improve their lives along the way.

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