P | P | P feat. Future Leap Network

We caught up with Katherine Piper, Director of Partnerships and Head of Sustainability at Future Leap Network as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. Future Leap comprises of a business network and a sustainable business hub. Future Leap give organisations the space, knowledge, contacts, and tools to progress towards carbon neutral emissions. They also have a co-working hub as a carbon neutral office space and allow for collaboration between like-minded businesses.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Hi Katherine, it is so nice to meet you! Please could you introduce yourself, what Future Leap Network do, and what makes Future Leap Network unique?

Katherine: Hi Imogen, my name is Katherine Piper, and I am head of partnerships and sustainability at Future Leap. Future Leap Network focus on the business side of things and has been going since 2005. The Future Leap Network gives organisations the space, the knowledge, and the tools to accelerate their sustainability journey and their net zero pathway. We do this through different means. We put on weekly sustainability events for a business audience, and a big event every year called the Festival of Sustainable Business which showcases different sustainability products, services, and innovative companies. We also have a consultancy arm so our consultants can help other businesses with measuring their carbon footprint, creating a carbon action plan, and B-Corp accreditation. A lot of what we do is focused on amplifying the voices of our network members. When you are a network member, you get access to inputting content to our newsletter that is sent to thousands of readers. You also get the opportunity to promote our services via our weekly events and use our social media channels. This is to help businesses that are doing good to get their voices out there.

As of 2019, we established a physical sustainable business hub based on Gloucester Road in Bristol. This allowed us to ‘walk the talk.’ We have spent years talking to companies about what they need to have sustainable business practices and get to carbon neutrality. Now, we have physical evidence of how to do this. We bought the building in 2019 and committed to being carbon neutral by 2020 and we achieved that. We had gas boilers when we first bought the building and we put in air source heat pumps, and a put in mechanical ventilation heat recovery system. We also ensured that there was zero waste to landfill from the building refurbishment. For example, we used a net-zero company who make flooring out of ghost fishing nets for our carpets. The idea of this was that the businesses who come into the hub can look at what we have done and the different technologies we have showcased.

Within our hub, we also have coworking spaces to allow businesses to locate with us. Our USP is being carbon neutral, so we attract companies that are focused on sustainability. Due to this, our hub is a hive of innovation and collaboration. We also have a lovely eco-café to boot!

Wow, there are so many facets to Future Leap; you can offer so much! What sort of stage are you at currently?

Katherine: we set up the hub and wanted to prove a sustainable business hub can work financially. As of this week (11th February), we have announced that we are going to set up a new hub in Clifton, set to open in April. We are also hoping to look further afield and set up some more hubs in the future.

We are the only carbon neutral business hub of its’ kind in the UK, and perhaps even further! What we are aiming to do seems to chime with a lot of businesses and keeps us busy! It is amazing to see it all happening and so we focus on staying on top of everything as we are still quite a small team of 30. We have rapidly grown; when I started in 2018, there was just me and the founder! Our biggest challenge is ensuring we make the most of all of our opportunities, but what an amazing challenge to have! Thank goodness that so many businesses are starting to think about their business impact.

That sounds a nice problem to have! Please could you share the origin story of Future Leap?

Katherine: Yes. 2005 is when the business network was first established. The Director of Future Leap (Alan Bailey) had sat on many different boards trying to highlight sustainability within business. Alan could see that there was going to be for sustainable businesses in the future and he wanted to prove that it was an economically viable option and a good business opportunity.

It is so interesting to hear how sustainability has been incorporated into every aspect of Future Leap; ghost fishing nets as flooring is inspired!

Katherine: We also have a chair that is being 3D printed and made from crisp packets. There is a tool in the hub that allows you to turn a crank and turn old CDs into a material to be used for manufacturing furniture. It is great for highlighting a circular economy. There are loads of quirky cool designs in the hub!

It is nice for people to see a tangible result and know that there are positive outcomes for products, even when they appear totally single use like CDs. How did the Future Leap Hub change due to COVID?

Katherine: Yes, it has been challenging. We bought the building and refurbished it prior to COVID. On the day we were supposed to open the coworking space was the day everyone was told to work from home! The timing was pretty terrible for us. However, there is always a silver lining, and it did give us the opportunity to sort out any remaining issues, such as getting systems in place. We had implemented our air source heat pumps and mechanical ventilation heat recovery system purely for sustainability purposes. However, it gave us the dual benefit of bringing in fresh, filtered air into the hub and so it is safer for people post-COVID.

Could you share some challenges around scaling your team, and what advice would you give to other businesses?

Katherine: There was a huge amount of investment in refurbishing the hub and there were numerous upfront costs. Trying to staff the hub after we had spent a lot on refurbishment was pretty challenging for us. We had a slow start too, due to COVID. To overcome this, we utilised the Government Department for Work and Pensions Kickstarter scheme. The Government pay for each Kickstarter to work 25 hours a week over a 6-month period. Each department in Future Leap has a Kickstarter, working for 25 hours a week and supporting us. It is a real win-win as each lead in the department gets line management experience, the additional support and the Kickstarter gets the experience. What’s lovely is that we have ended up recruiting some of the Kickstarters and they are fully trained by this point too! Unfortunately, the Kickstarter campaign is ending at the end of March. In the future, if there are any similar schemes, I would recommend taking those opportunities. Apprenticeships are great too!

Are there other businesses trying to compete with what you do at Future Leap?

Katherine: It is hard because many organisations are starting to think along similar lines. We have to make sure we are doing it the best! We were careful when choosing a location and chose Gloucester Road because of its’ history of supporting independents and the green ethos in the area. We want to portray ourselves as very professional and very approachable. We welcome everyone from large corporations to grassroots companies.

In addition to this, my boss had 15 years of anecdotal evidence that showed businesses had the desire to conduct business in a different way. We have been able to use this knowledge to understand how best to support businesses who want to do good.

Are there any other barriers you have faced when establishing Future Leap?

Katherine: Yes, and this is always a problem when looking at sustainable business practices; the initial financial outlay. Very often, having sustainability at the heart of your business will be financially beneficial to your company. There are upfront costs for example heating systems, solar panels, electrical vehicles etc. You will get that money back because these investments are cheaper in the long-term, but you are looking at 7-year+ payback periods and this can make cashflow hard. I think the solution is being passionate about your cause and finding funding and investors who get it and understand why there is the need for large financial input prior to returns. We have investors who understand that to be carbon neutral, you do need to invest with upfront costs.

The other challenge for us has been that certain arms of the business are more financially stable than others. It has been hard for us to make the Network side of things financially viable whilst ensuring the network rates are accessible for all businesses. Our aim is to cover our costs as it is great, we can talk to the market about our services. Now that we have the hub where we are bringing in money from the co-working space and café, we can support the business network financially. It is about diversifying your offer and subsequently, your revenue streams. We are also seeing an increase in memberships coming through and I think this is linked to COP26, where business action was highlighted. It isn’t mandatory at the moment but there will be a requirement for businesses to show a carbon action plan. Whether this is enough of an incentive, I don’t know but as a business owner, you can see that you will have to make sustainable changes otherwise you’ll be left behind. At each of our events, I always quote the IPCC report that we are in a climate emergency, and we need immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in our CO2 emissions. I also quote Mark Carney who says that the companies who don’t adapt, will go bankrupt! Even if all you care about is your bottom line, there is no alternative but adapting! We need the government to step in with both the sticks and the carrots to encourage businesses to change as quickly as possible if we have any change of staying below 1.5c global warming.

That is interesting! It leads us nicely onto our final question; have you got any advice on seeking investment?

Katherine: We posed as a risk for our investors as a new company because we didn’t know whether it would work or not. Showing the passion and the climate science behind why we needed to exist and why investors should work with us made a real difference. We have some amazing investors who really believe in what we are doing and the need to change businesses for good. However, it did take investors that have foresight and nerve.

When we started, we also didn’t have someone who was dedicated to finding and exploring funding options. Due to this, myself, the director, or the general manager would find opportunities, but no one really had the capacity to apply for the funding. We have changed this, and we are going to employ someone who is completely dedicated to seeking funding opportunities. When I look back, I wish we had always had someone dedicated to this role.

Another recommendation would be using your network to amplify your voice. The marketing element of your activities is so important, and we had to put a lot of investment into marketing to get people onboard. Now that we have proven it can work on the Gloucester Road hub, I think it’ll be a lot easier for us to find investment moving forward.

Thank you for your time, Katherine!

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