Tell us about yourself?
My background is in the public sector. I used to be in the police force in London and in the North East, and while I was working there I did a lot of research about how we could be making better use of the internet. I’ve always been interested in technology and story telling, so when I left the police, and after I’d worked for a couple of social enterprises, I started Hexham TV – an online hyper-local news channel for Northumberland. As a result of making films with Hexham TV I ended up being selected by the Great Exhibition of the North as one of their N18 group of artists to produce a digital project. I’ve had an interest for some time in augmented reality. (Virtual reality is when you put on a headset, but augmented reality is where you might scan a code, or something similar, to find information). The project I completed, with another artist, was about salmon coming up the River Tyne and as well as providing educational information about the salmon and the river, there was a code you could scan with your phone and the salmon appeared in augmented reality.
How did the idea for Label Says come about?
I started to think about how else these codes could be used. I looked at cake toppers – if you go to a corporate event you often find them. I thought, what if you had a code on that, that could tell you so much more about the food and producer. I worked with Dr Derek Watson at Sunderland University Business School and two students, and had some funding from the GX Collaborator Project which is part of the NewcastleGateshead Initiative, to produce a proof of concept.
How does it work?
A code is printed in edible ink on edible paper which can then be attached to food and drink to tell you more about it, and we have a patent pending for it now. You scan the code with your mobile phone and for example, there might be a video of the producer showing you the production process. I think people are becoming more and more interested in the food they’re eating, finding out whether it’s healthy, made sustainably and ethically, what nutrients are in it, whether there are any allergens as well discovering things like recipes. The benefit of it all is that because a lot of the information can be contained in the code, you don’t need so much plastic packaging. All of the supermarkets want to reduce their plastic packaging at the moment, but they also want to tell the customer more about their products. And, as the label is also able to include information about producing heathy meals with the product, it can help with healthy eating. There’s a big concern about obesity at the moment, particularly in younger people, and it links back to that.
What stage is the business at currently?
We’ve produced a proof of concept and we’re now going out to talk to food producers and supermarkets. We’re really interested to talk to people who may think this might be suitable for their food or drink products. We’re still very new, we worked on the proof of concept through the summer, but the initial idea came about this time last year. It’s all gone very quickly.
What kind of challenges have you faced?
It’s always difficult to take an idea to development, but working with Sunderland University has been great and I’d encourage other businesses to contact the great universities in the North East and work with them. There have been a number of challenges, but the challenge I’m currently facing is contacting food producers to show them how this could work for them.
Is the idea for the label to simply replace the product’s nutritional information?
There are a number of levels. Because you can attach simple games to the code it can be linked to the National Curriculum. While you’re going around the supermarket a child can scan to play a simple game, in the proof of concept the example we had was a salmon product that featured a simple fishing game. At times they pulled out fish and occasionally they pulled out rubbish – so essentially it was a game about keeping the rivers clean and making sure that the food chain is sustainable. But also, take for instance a bar of chocolate which is ethically sourced and works with a local farmers group in, let’s say, Ghana. You could have a video of the farmer next to his daughter, when you scan it says: ‘You buying this bar of chocolate enabled me to sell my cocoa beans which has enabled me to send my daughter to school.’ It really engages the customer in what they’re buying and makes them aware of the impact they’re having not only on the environment, but also the producer.
How have you found the North East as a place to develop a business?
I think it has advantages and disadvantages. There’s a thriving tech sector and some really supportive organisations for entrepreneurs, but the downside is that a lot of the headquarters of companies are based in the South, so it can be more difficult to get in front of people physically, as you’re not always down there when opportunities arise.
How long do you think it might be before we see this concept being used in supermarkets?
I think people want more and more information about their food, and people are used to getting information now – they don’t want to go off and search for it. We’re on the cusp of a big change in technology, it will be much more common for people to see things in augmented reality, 5G downloads will become a lot faster, and enable you to attach a lot more information about the product.
What would you be doing if you weren’t involved with Label Says?
I’m still keen to develop Hexham TV and I’m looking at opportunities for online pay per view and linking that to online education. I’m developing both, but if I wasn’t doing this I think I’d still be doing that!
What is your idea of a perfect day off?
I love going up to the coast, particularly Alnmouth, and walking the dog with my wife and family.
What is your favourite thing about the North East?
The beautiful countryside, the wonderful coast, and the fantastic cities and towns we have. We’ve got it all and we’re very lucky in this part of the world.