How Scottish tech firms have innovated during Covid

From supporting garment workers to tackling fraud to helping people save cash, tech firms have done great things in the pandemic, finds David Lee.

Bangladesh garment workers, struggling due to the high street shutdown in the UK, were supported by Edinburgh-based Lost Stock. Picture: Shutterstock
Bangladesh garment workers, struggling due to the high street shutdown in the UK, were supported by Edinburgh-based Lost Stock. Picture: Shutterstock

Lost Stock

One of the consequences of the country’s clothes shops being shut down during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic was that orders were cancelled for £1.6 billion worth of stock.

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The closure of stores had a knock-on effect all the way through the supply chain to factories in Bangladesh, where a lack of demand meant workers were left without pay.

This article formed part of The Scotsman’s Talking Money magazine. You can view the 2020 emag here >>

One factor owner warned: “If coronavirus doesn’t kill my workers, then starvation will.”.

And one of the affected garment workers was equally as blunt: “I am at a loss for how I can survive through this.”

Step forward Cally Russell and his team at fashion shopping app Mallzee. They quickly created Lost Stock, a website selling surprise boxes of clothes that would otherwise have gone to landfill sites.

Each box sold raised enough money to pay the factories for the items and support a worker and their family over in Bangladesh for a week – the scheme has now sold around 120,000 boxes.

The Sajida Foundation, Lost Stock’s partner on the ground, had initially aimed to distribute vouchers that workers could use to buy food, but working with the Bangladeshi government has meant it can also transfer money to workers through mobile phone apps, allowing them to pay their rent too.

Russell set up Mallzee in Edinburgh in 2013 and now has more than 25 members of staff in the city.

The Mallzee app connects to more than 150 high street retailers and has been described as “Tinder for fashion”, allowing customers to swipe and save the styles they like, and generating data to help fashion brands improve their ranges and reduce waste.

Swipii

When lockdown was announced in March, cashback app Swipii swung into action to help both the consumers who use its technology and the local businesses that work with it.

The Glasgow-based company suspended all its invoices to local businesses – many of which had been forced to shut during the lockdown – and it paid out all the cashback due to its consumers immediately.

Swipii even went a step further and gave its consumers the option of donating their pending cashback to Social Bite, the sandwich shop chain that supports people who have experienced homelessness. It has been putting together and distributing food packs for homeless people, families that rely on free school meals, and people made redundant during the pandemic.

As lockdown measures began to ease, Swipii launched a referral programme to encourage consumers to shop locally. Users earned £5 bonus for each friend they referred.

While some businesses struggled to balance their books, Swipii had received £1 million in funding from Par Equity, one of its existing investors, just before lockdown began. This meant its team of 21 in Glasgow could continue enhancing the app and supporting consumers and local businesses.

Par Equity led a previous funding round in March 2019, which pumped £1.9m into the business, which was founded by Louis Schena, pictured left, and Chitresh Sharma in 2014.

FreeAgent

FreeAgent’s bread and butter is helping small businesses to keep their finances in check by using its web-based accounting software. Yet the Edinburgh-based company has gone far beyond that during the pandemic.

It has not only been keeping companies updated on the latest government financial support schemes but has also been offering advice on everything from tips on how to revive your productivity while working from home through to looking after your mental health if you’re self-employed.

The firm has always referred to its 100,000 users as a “community” and those close links to its customers look like they’ve only grown stronger during Covid-19.

New features have also continued to be rolled out on its online platform, including generating a final accounts report using the data entered into the software over the course of the year. A live chat feature was introduced back in May and then extended during August.

FreeAgent was founded in 2007 by chief executive Ed Molyneux, centre, chief technology officer Olly Headey, left, and chief product officer Roan Lavery, right. The company joined the London Stock Exchange’s Alternative Investment Market (AIM) in 2016 and was then taken over in 2018 by Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS).

Money Dashboard

A tale of two lockdowns is beginning to emerge: for those who have lost their jobs, money is tight; but for those who could work from home and had nowhere to spend their cash it has become a time to save.

Money Dashboard, the Edinburgh-based personal finance app led by CEO Steve Tigar, highlighted how its 600,000 users were sticking an average of £180 a month in their savings accounts. Together, they have £830 million squirreled away. Their average savings stand at £19,000.

Money Dashboard – which had already picked up a prize as the best personal finance app at the British Bank Awards in 2017, 2018 and 2020 – has given users more tools to help them manage their money during Covid-19 by launching Neon, a platform that allows customers to see all their bank accounts and credit cards in the same place.

Neon can analyse spending patterns to give users a balance once all their regular bills have been paid, and includes instant transfers between accounts, even if they’re held at different banks.

The company was set up in 2010 and works with 40 financial institutions, ranging from traditional players like Bank of Scotland, Clydesdale Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland through to recent entrants such as Monzo and Revolut.

Shoply

Back in 2016, John Robertson and his team created Drinkly, an app to deliver chilled drinks within an hour. Drinkly does the tech bit and established high street shops handle the supply and delivery side, with the app boosting its first retail partner’s sales by £110,000 last year and delivering an average online basket spend that was three times higher than its in-store equivalent.

In many ways, the Edinburgh-based company was the ideal partner to help see businesses through lockdown. In the six weeks to 3 May, demand soared by 500 per cent year-on-year as furloughed workers and people working from home turned to retailers with an online presence.

The lockdown also accelerated the app’s expansion into the convenience store home delivery market, with Drinkly rebranding as Shoply in May. The app was already being used to deliver snacks alongside drinks, but the shift into working with corner shops opened up a whole new world for consumers, allowing them to order groceries and household goods.

More than 30 retailers are signed up, with Robertson targeting 150 in the short term. He’s working in partnership with the Scottish Grocers’ Federation to increase his reach.

Around 6,000 customers are using Shoply each month, with each user placing an average of 2.6 orders a month. Consumers have embraced the chance to order bread, milk and other convenience store essentials alongside their wine, beer, and spirits for quick delivery.

BogusBuster

Fraud has been one of the biggest growth areas during the pandemic. One in three people were targeted by a scam during the initial national lockdown, with Britons losing more than £16 million in online shopping scams alone.

Entrepreneur Rachel Jones came up with a solution to help start tackling the problem. The Edinburgh-based guru is no stranger to innovation – when she found her Totseat fabric baby seats were being copied, she not only took on the fraudsters but also set up SnapDragon, a consultancy firm that helps other small businesses to protect their intellectual property by catching fakes.

Jones and her team at SnapDragon have now created BogusBuster, an online platform that allows consumers and businesses to check if a website or online shop is genuine. All they need to do is paste the suspicious site’s address into the BogusBuster website.

There’s clearly a need – within the first few weeks of lockdown, more than 100,000 websites were created offering counterfeit or fake medical-related Covid-19 products.

The project received funding from Innovate UK. It was one of 800 schemes that received support under the agency’s “FastStart Competition”, which was launched in April to speed up the development of innovations borne out of the coronavirus crisis.

This article is taken from the November 2020 special report Talking Money which first appeared in The Scotsman newspaper. To receive your free delivered copy please email [email protected]. UK addresses only. Subject to availability.

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