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UHI alumni make it to semi-finals of business competition

By Rachel Smart

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Ciara Bow.
Ciara Bow.

Two alumni from The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) is have made it into the semi-finals of this year's Converge Challenge.

Converge is Scotland’s springboard for university innovators, helping staff, students, and recent graduates of Scottish universities and research institutes turn their groundbreaking ideas into commercially viable businesses.

Ciara Bow, who studied sociology and criminology at UHI Inverness, and later fabrication and welding with performing engineering operations at Nigg Skills Academy, is through to the semi-finals of the Create Change Challenge, with her project to bring craft distilling back to Sutherland at Gledfield Distillery.

She was inspired by her great-great-grandmother Marjorie MacBeath who was born in 1884 and lived on a croft where she distilled spirits illicitly. And now, over 100 years later, Ciara is set to bring her family’s age-old botanical spirit recipe back to life. The spirit is similar to gin but is made using oats, which she is led to believe is a world first.

Ciara also won the top prize in the 2022 UHI Business Competition. She said: “I am delighted to be taking part in the Create Change Challenge and I am very grateful to UHI for their continued support. Since winning the UHI Business Competition, so many doors have opened; networking opportunities, business development opportunities, and offers of support and encouragement. It has brought my idea to life, and I have gone a long way in taking strides to achieving my goals. Now I am at a really exciting stage in my journey, installing the distillery equipment and getting ready to open our doors later this year!"

Aleksandra Czech-Seklecka.
Aleksandra Czech-Seklecka.

Aleksandra Czech-Seklecka, who studied English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) at UHI Inverness, is also through to the semi-finals of the Net Zero Challenge, with her project VanFill. VanFill is an app that will help to connect anyone searching to transport their goods with transport providers who have empty spaces in their vans and trucks. By doing so, VanFill aims to reduce transportation costs, save time, and cut carbon emissions thanks to optimising and reducing the number of empty and half-empty runs of transport providers.

Aleksandra was also a winner at the 2022 UHI Business Competition, taking home the ‘Best Research Award’. She was inspired after struggling to find a firm to transport medical supplies to Ukraine. Aleksandra said: “Being selected for the Converge Challenge is such an honour for me, especially as one of only two individuals proudly representing the Highlands and Islands among 100 talented entrepreneurs in this year’s competition. It's even more exciting that both of us are female founders.”

Commenting on this year’s cohort announcement, Dr Claudia Cavalluzzo, executive director of Converge said: “Innovation thrives on the intersection of creativity, curiosity and market needs and nowhere is this more apparent than in our 2024 cohort. Representing the very best academic innovators from across our world-beating university sector, their ideas have the potential to fundamentally change life as we know it.”

“It’s this drive to create something new, to make the world a better place and to disrupt the status quo that has always fascinated me. It’s also one of the reasons why I love to spend time with entrepreneurs. I can’t wait to get to know this year’s cohort and look forward to finding out more about them and their businesses.”

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