Gavin Neate never planned on becoming an entrepreneur. For 18 years he had what he calls “the most rewarding job in the world” — working as an instructor for Guide Dogs UK, helping blind and visually impaired people learn how to use canine guides.
Neate quickly became aware of the potential benefits technology could have on his clients, and the more than 14m disabled people in the UK. “I became more and more engaged with how tech could help disabled people — if the solutions that were available were built to address the challenges disabled people were actually facing,” he says.
This led him to found Neatebox, an Edinburgh-based startup that not only helps disabled people live independently but also helps businesses make their services more inclusive from the start. We spoke with Neate to discuss how their WelcoMe platform is revolutionising customer service for disabled people, and why he misses Edinburgh pubs as a networking spot.
I became more and more engaged with how tech could help disabled people if the solutions that were available were built to address the challenges disabled people were actually facing.
Smartphone apps for inclusion
Neate founded Neatebox in 2011, with the aim of developing smartphone apps to support independent living for disabled people. Five years later, he released Button, a free app that allows users to push a virtual button on their phones at Neatebox-enabled road crossings, with the phone vibrating when it’s safe to cross. Neate implemented the app at crossings in Edinburgh before taking it to several other cities in Scotland.
His second product, WelcoMe, aims to revolutionise customer experience for disabled people by helping them to visit venues like shops, banks and libraries more easily. Users create personalised profiles detailing their disability and any requirements. The app then triggers alerts to the venue when the user arrives, allowing them to skip the queue, find a particular item or request more support.
While several thousand users have already downloaded the app, Neate tells Sifted that the number of downloads is a ‘red herring’ when assessing success — it’s the app’s potential as a staff training tool on disability awareness for organisations that’s just as important.
“If you have a hundred guide dog owners and only one uses the app, the other 99 will get better service as a result of the staff having better training and knowledge from the experience with the one user,” he says.
Many businesses work on disability solutions on a reactive basis — inclusivity is built into products only after an incident shows the product or service is inaccessible. WelcoMe allows businesses to be proactive, i.e. they can use the app to research how to welcome people with different kinds of disabilities, making their customer service more inclusive from the start.
Scotland’s startup scene is growing fast
The aim of Neatebox is to provide ‘social good’, argues Neate, by helping disabled people to integrate more easily into their local communities. Neate also cites his own community of Edinburgh, as well as various awards and training programmes, as key to getting Neatebox to where it is today.
Neatebox is a rising star of the Scottish startup scene, with its WelcoMe product already being used by the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh Airport, the NHS and NorthLink Ferries. Back in February 2020, the startup was named one of Tech Nation’s 10 Rising Stars 2.0 winners, after previously being one of three winners in the Scottish regional category.
Neate says the exposure gained through winning the Tech Nation award has helped the startup talk to new clients and potential investors, and has raised their international profile. Following this, Neatebox joined Google for Startups UK Immersion, a 12-week programme that connects startups with the best of Google's products and people through dedicated mentorships and best practice workshops on topics like OKRs, hiring and growth.
Scotland as a whole is one of the UK’s fastest-growing tech hubs, with the highest number of verified startups (2,442) outside of London and south east England. Scottish startups raised a collective £345m in VC in 2020, with 31% of all jobs advertised in Edinburgh in December 2020 placed in the tech sector.
Neate says there is real “strength and depth” in the Edinburgh startup scene. Video game producer Rockstar and two of Scotland’s most famous unicorns — travel search engine Skyscanner and fantasy sports platform FanDuel — have offices there, indicating a growing wealth of talent and funding.
Neate namechecks financial and entrepreneurial support from organisations like Scottish Enterprise, Digital Scotland and particularly the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) as the startup has grown. RBS was one of the first institutions to trial WelcoMe in its branches and also encouraged Neate to take part in its Entrepreneur Accelerator programme, which provided mentoring and networking opportunities, as well as 'hot desking' and meeting spaces in hubs around the UK.
Scotland as a whole is one of the UK’s fastest-growing tech hubs, with the highest number of verified startups (2,442) outside of London and the south-east.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced many Scottish founders to look for support in new ways — expanding their idea of community, says Neate.
“Everything has been online for so long now that we’ve found real support in Slack channels set up by Google for Startups and Tech Nation,” Neate says. “These have been a superb resource allowing us to connect with inspiring, like-minded entrepreneurs while we’ve not been able to meet in person. We’ve also found huge comfort in Facebook groups like Scottish Startups where we have many friends.”
As we speak, he reveals that Neatebox has won the global champion for inclusion and empowerment category at the UN-backed World Summit Awards, beating 342 other nominated tech startups from across the world.
Neate worries about the impact a lack of face-to-face time is having on the next generation of Scottish entrepreneurs, cautioning that new founders will have had a “very rough time” over the last year or so.
“When I started, I was meeting like-minded people in the pub on a regular basis to pick up knowledge and contacts. How do you meet people for the first time online? You can chat, but it’s not the same as having a direct conversation,” he says.
With vaccine rollout in Scotland in full flow, the post-pandemic world should offer entrepreneurs the chance to re-engage with their local ecosystems. Face-to-face meetups and physical networking locations, like local pubs, are important for business growth, but Neate says an even bigger part is being prepared to expand your horizons beyond the local at the right moment.
Scotland is an amazing place to found a startup, but we have to understand that it’s only the first step on the way to global success for an aspirational business.
“Scotland is an amazing place to found a startup, but we have to understand that it’s only the first step on the way to global success for an aspirational business. The people who want to be entrepreneurs will find a way — the more challenges in your way, the stronger you will be when you succeed,” he smiles.
This is the first article in our ‘Local Heroes’ series, where we explore ecosystems and startup communities outside of London through the eyes of founders.
Find out more about the Google for Startups UK Immersion program and startups here.