Empowering communities as partners

25th August 2022
Written by: Colin McMillan, FirstPort

Social enterprises empower communities, tackle social problems, and create jobs. They are also highly innovative, finding creative solutions to some of Scotland’s most pressing social and environmental issues.

For several years now, Interface has worked closely with Firstport- Scotland’s agency for start up social entrepreneurs- to connect social enterprises with the academic expertise they need to realise their ambitions. We caught up with Colin McMillan, Investment and Growth Manager at Firstport, to find out more about the sector and how our partnership is helping social entrepreneurs achieve more than they could alone.

How does Firstport support social enterprise in Scotland?

Social enterprises are businesses that are driven by positive social and/or environmental impact, fuelled by commercial trading and growth. The Firstport for Social Entrepreneurs Group is the leading Scottish-based agency for supporting social entrepreneurs, social enterprises, and purpose-led businesses.  Encompassing Firstport, Impact Investment Partnership Scotland (IIPS) and FirstImpact, the group has over 12 years’ experience supporting entrepreneurs to develop, start, and grow their businesses, and currently works with over 1100 enterprise ideas every year.

Our portfolio of work includes business development support, growth accelerators, investment, impact management, and ecosystem development.

We offer social entrepreneurs a full package of free support that includes start-up funds, business advice, practical tools and connections to start, develop and grow their ideas.  Firstport delivers an awards programme which currently distributes seed funding on behalf of the Scottish Government’s Social Entrepreneurs Fund.

What’s your relationship with Interface?

We have a very strong relationship with Interface and our clients have been plugged in to the support offered by Interface for a long time. The entrepreneurs we work with are intensely focused on creating positive change and there is a great deal of potential innovation that stems from that – by working with Interface, we ensure that this potential can be realised.

For example, our ‘LaunchMe’ accelerator programme for high-growth enterprises has for many years worked with Interface to signpost and support development of innovation through connection to academia. Shelley Breckenridge and colleagues are always at hand to meet with our entrepreneurs in order to give confidence to build a project brief, which is then circulated around hundreds of academics throughout Scotland. While organisations often find funding of help, it is really the connections with university staff that is the game-changer for social enterprises.

Why is it important for organisations like Interface and Firstport to support social entrepreneurs?

Social enterprises are exciting, eclectic and in Scotland there are over 6,000 of them. From supermarkets and zero-waste shops to childcare providers and tech startups, almost any type of business can be one. 

Social enterprises are good business in every way: prioritising benefit to people and planet while using profits to further the social mission. They contribute to reducing economic inequality, improving social justice and to progress towards environmental sustainability. The sector is vast with an economic contribution of £2.3bn GVA and employing over 88,300 people, delivering incredible social impact. They have been highlighted as playing a key role in the Scottish Government’s ‘Wellbeing Economy’ strategy.

How has that partnership working benefited social enterprises and wider society?

It is really important for organisations like Interface and Firstport to support social enterprise development in order to build a more prosperous, resilient, equal and sustainable economy. The simple but effective relationship between Firstport and Interface allows an accessible route into academic expertise that helps social entrepreneurs to do more than they could alone.

We know that academics are interested in helping solve the world’s problems. We know that interface help connect entrepreneurs with the right academics to develop their impact. We know our clients. So, by connecting social entrepreneurs and academics, we unleash powerful partnerships that create more positive change in the world.

Tell us about the first three organisations – supported by Interface – which received Firstport Catalyst investment?

The Catalyst Fund is a flexible, revenue-based investment fund for social enterprises and has invested in some really exciting and ambitious social enterprises in the last year:

Sustainable Thinking Scotland CIC (STS) became the first social enterprise to secure investment from the Catalyst fund. STS secured £190,000 to enable them to bring their biochar technology to market. Biochar, like charcoal, is obtained from ‘baking’ waste wood and other biomass at high temperatures and can draw down carbon from the atmosphere into the soil, storing it for hundreds to thousands of years. It has several applications, but STS’s innovations enable it to be used as a bio-absorbent to tackle the problem of nutrient pollution in waterways. Through Interface, STS currently work with the University of the Highlands & Islands and the University of Strathclyde to research this application of biochar.

Woodside Arran CIC is a social enterprise farm and education centre on the Isle of Arran. Initially set up to address the lack of fresh produce on the island, the enterprise has evolved to include sustainable timber production, education, and community wealth building activities. Woodside Arran secured £50,000 to create a bespoke shed that will allow it to increase production by 50%, as well as host some of their educational activities. Through Interface, Woodside are working with academic partners to challenge at a national level how local authorities purchase food, the impact on the environment and communities.

Glasgow-based Wild & Kind CIC provides an ethical garment print and embroidery service. In addition, they tackle long term loneliness and isolation for people with marginalised gender identities by providing a safe space, free workshops, and one-to-one support. It secured £85,000 investment will allow the team to invest in equipment, create new jobs and develop services that generate social impact. 

What difference will this funding make to the organisations and their ambitions?

The Catalyst Fund is for ambitious social enterprises in Scotland who have potential to deliver significant social impact but are unable to access existing social investment loans. For example, start-ups with significant set up costs or scale up costs that need more time to generate income before paying back their loans.

Private companies are typically able to access equity investment at this stage, but this is not an option for social enterprises, which have an ‘asset lock’ ensuring all profits are reinvested in the business and its social aims. Catalyst provides an ‘equity-like’ option that is more flexible than traditional loans as it is repaid as a percentage of trading revenue earned, rather than fixed repayments. So, on good trading months they will pay back more – on months where trading revenue is lower, they will pay back less.

Being able to access patient funding like this will enable social enterprises to start, grow and reach financial sustainability – or be able to access further growth funding once they have proven their business model. Not only that but, by being able to grow as a business, a social enterprise will create more positive social or environmental impact.

Can other organisations apply for this funding?

Other social enterprises are welcome to apply for the Catalyst Fund and they can find out more here The Catalyst Fund – Firstport.

Equally, if other types of organisations or individuals would like to find out more about social enterprise and how it works, they can always access Just Enterprise Start-up support. Firstport are part of the Just Enterprise consortium and support individuals setting up social enterprises.  This support can be delivered through face-to-face meetings, over the telephone or by email. Our business advisors can help with issues such as choosing a legal structure, developing and strengthening a business model, writing a business plan and making sense of cash flow projections as well as answer any other questions.

To access this support, folks can complete our registration form using the link below and then someone will be in touch to discuss how we can best support them. Start Up – One-to-One Registration – Just Enterprise

Another good starting point might be to attend some of our workshops: Learning Calendar – Just Enterprise