Four entrepreneurs from Northern Ireland share in £1.25m innovation pot

Paul McCreery
Paul McCreery Paul McCreery

FOUR young innovators in Northern Ireland, operating in sectors ranging from sustainable, biodegradable netted bags for fruit and veg to a customisable online interior design service, have each won a coveted award - and a four-figure grant - for their new business projects.

They are among a cohort of 94 people aged from 18 to 30 with business ideas that could change the world and

who will each benefits from a £5,000 grant, one-on-one business coaching and an allowance to cover living costs as part of a £1.25 million pot.

They've been named as Young Innovator Award winners in an initiative run by innovation agency Innovate UK, with the four Northern Ireland recipients being:

• Paul McCreery (30), from Belfast, who has created a range of healthy carbonated drinks – FUNKI drinks will contain 50 per cent of your daily fibre intake.

Paul McCreery
Paul McCreery Paul McCreery

• Clare Toland (29) from Belfast, who was inspired by the pandemic to create a customisable online interior design service, specifically for young people who rent property in the UK. Her company, so Build Interiors, will be an affordable, leading platform for individuals who are passionate about personalising their space.

Clare Toland
Clare Toland Clare Toland

• Hugh Callaghan (27), from Derry, who is developing UnifyMee, a tailored website builder, toolkit, and marketplace that empowers creators to easily build and scale their business and brand all in one place.

Hugh Callaghan
Hugh Callaghan Hugh Callaghan

• Jamil Quarless (23), from Belfast, a climate advocate dedicated to making a positive change in the retail sector, who has created Not a Knot, sustainable, biodegradable netted bags for fruit and veg.

Jamil Quarless
Jamil Quarless Jamil Quarless

The Young Innovators competition received almost 700 applicants, up 25 per cent on the previous year. The exceptional standard of ideas led Innovate UK to award over 50 per cent more winners this year (94 against 63 previously), making this the largest cohort of Young Innovators to-date.

The Young Innovators Awards recognise young people with great business ideas who have the potential to become successful entrepreneurs and future leaders in innovation. In addition to the awards, Innovate UK delivers workshops and briefing events to provide practical business advice to a network of over 12,500 young people across the UK.

With a clear drive to support underrepresented innovation talent, this year, 46 per cent of the winners are female, 39 per cent are Black, Asian or from another ethnic minority group, and 11 per cent have identified as disabled.

Inspired by his passion for health and wellness, Paul McCreery said: “I’m delighted to be a winner, and having the support from Innovate UK has really propelled me on my mission to get FUNKI to become the go-to soft drink for consumers who want to improve their digestive health and look after their gut.

“I would love to hire, grow and manage a team of FUNKI gut health enthusiasts who are all onboard the mission of solving the 'fibre gap' in the UK. I know the mentorship and funding I get through the Innovate UK programme will help me on my journey to achieve this.”

Emily Nott, head of equality, diversity and inclusion programmes at Innovate UK said: “The level of creativity, passion, and commitment to positive change within our society and environment in this year’s Young Innovators Award winners is beyond inspiring.

“Knowing that Innovate UK is creating opportunities and providing support to enable these young people from a wide range of different backgrounds across all parts of the UK to grow and develop their businesses makes me very proud.

“With the financial uncertainty this year brings, it’s fantastic to see these entrepreneurs starting businesses that will improve the world and boost innovation in the UK. We can’t wait to see what they will achieve next.”

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris said: “Congratulations to Clare, Hugh, Jamil and Paul. It’s great to see such ambition and innovation from Northern Ireland’s young people recognised and rewarded.

“It’s important we continue to encourage young people in Northern Ireland, and across the UK, to create and develop the ideas and skills we need to improve the world around them.”