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The Start-up Drinks Lab

Hannah Fisher

For The Start-Up Drinks Lab founders Hannah Fisher and Craig Strachan, a stumbling block at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journey turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

The pair first met through business accelerator Entrepreneurial Spark when they were trying get their own soft drink brands off the ground. However, finding a suitable third-party manufacturer to produce and bottle their products proved to be a significant challenge. Between them, they had approached over 30 manufacturers in the UK and Europe with little success.

Spotting a real gap in the market, they set out to create a facility that would allow other fledgling brands to bring their products to market by breaking down the biggest barriers to production.

Hannah explains: “Large-scale facilities require customers to commit to high volumes of product, which is cost prohibitive for smaller brands and leaves them with surplus stock which they need to try and shift before it expires. We wanted to find a solution.”

Launching in Port Glasgow in 2018, The Start-Up Drinks Lab offers small-batch production services for drinks manufacturers as well as providing commercial advice by helping clients to innovatively develop products from the original concept through to finished goods, solving technical issues and helping to create a brand.

“It was through Unlocking Ambition support that we were able to fund some of the equipment which sets us apart".

Hannah continues: “At the heart of our business is our mission to support other budding entrepreneurs in taking forward their vision, while access to unique equipment and small-batch production drives further innovation in Scotland’s fabled food and drink sector.

“We offer a full concept to shelf service – from briefing our scientists on recipe development, through to branding and design, manufacturing and bottling, and finally packaging and distribution. Traditionally this process can involve multiple suppliers, and it only takes one missed deadline for knock-on delays.

“We pride ourselves on giving excellent customer service to all of our clients, whereas large-scale facilities often favour more lucrative producers. Finally, and importantly, our customers can proudly say that their products are made right here in Scotland – a real selling point from a branding perspective and in terms of supporting local commerce.”

In addition to independent craft producers, household brand names such as Tennents, Diageo and Tetley, unable to slow down their own production lines, use the facilities to test new ideas and products.

The company now has over 70 clients from across the UK, and has dispatched almost one million bottles from its Port Glasgow warehouse since launching in June 2018, when Hannah was also accepted onto the £4m Unlocking Ambition programme. Offering intensive wraparound support to help high-potential entrepreneurs scale-up their businesses and develop their leadership skills, the programme has been fundamental to The Start-Up Drinks Lab’s growth.

“It was through Unlocking Ambition support that we were able to fund some of the equipment which sets us apart. We were able to purchase a new labeller, allowing for a more efficient, higher-quality labelling process, and we purchased brewing equipment that facilitates craft-led techniques which larger factories can’t offer due to high-volume production. We were able to bring in the brewers required to manage this kit and oversee production – a high level of attention which would be impossible to match at major bottling plants.”

“As a whole, the entrepreneurial ecosystem here is unrivalled. I considered launching my business in London at one point, however I am so relieved we chose Scotland in the end".

When there are free slots on the production line, Hannah and Craig use it to produce their own products, including peat-smoked tomato juice Tongue in Peat and Foal Drinks, which is a collection of low calorie sodas. In 2019 they also launched the company’s Sparklingly Sober range of non-alcoholic cocktails. Already having secured listings with major licensed-trade wholesalers and supermarket chain Scotmid, the company is also using support from Unlocking Ambition to bring in a Brand Ambassador responsible for driving further sales.

The next milestone for The Start-Up Drinks Lab is installing a small batch spirits line to service distillers looking to launch new products such as limited edition ranges. In addition, and as a way of addressing the industry’s move away from plastics around heightened awareness of the climate crisis, the company will be outsourcing canning on behalf of clients to a selection of trusted partners in the UK, allowing clients to get access quickly.

Commitment to providing employment and development opportunities for locals is something that The Start-Up Drinks prides itself on, working with Inverclyde Job Centre on a placement system that can lead to permanent employment.

“In our operations team of 13, nine were previously unemployed. We train staff onsite to become integral parts of our manufacturing process, and once they are permanent they are awarded equity in the business. This is good for staff morale and for business – a vested interest in the company means they want the products and service to be the best they can be for our clients.”

Hannah views this approach as a means of giving back in return for the support her and Craig have received throughout The Start-Up Drink Lab’s growth.

“Being given the opportunity to develop alongside fellow entrepreneurs, with similar aspirations but facing the same challenges – both in business and personally – has been so valuable. As well as sharing recommendations on suppliers and services, we also are able to share the joy in each other’s highs, sympathise with the lows, and offer emotional support in navigating everything in between – it’s a real comfort to be part of a network where everyone just gets it.

“As a whole, the entrepreneurial ecosystem here is unrivalled. I considered launching my business in London at one point, however I am so relieved we chose Scotland in the end. We benefit from a client base spanning the UK, but with access to the diverse support and funding on offer right here.”

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