2024 Startups 100 | Just Started shortlist and award winner

They’ve barely celebrated their first birthday, but these budding startups are already busy and blooming. Find out which one took home the Just Started crown for 2024.

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

For sixteen years, the Startups 100 has been a storyteller, narrating the unique journeys of the UK’s top new businesses and the entrepreneurs behind them. 

In that time, we’ve tracked hundreds of success stories to report on behemoth funding announcements, expanding headcounts, and even those who have reached Unicorn status. But often, the most exciting part of a startup’s origin tale is at the very beginning.

That’s why we created the Just Started award to spotlight the founders who are setting the stage for a chapter of growth and ascent in 2024. 

In collaboration with the UK’s Small Business Commissioner, Liz Barclay, we have selected five exceptional startups from our overall top 100, all of whom are still in the first few pages of their very own magnum opus. 

Emerging from the shadows of last year's gloomy business headlines, this group is breathing new life into the UK business scene. Read on to uncover the secrets behind their triumphs, and discover which Barclay chose as the 2024 Just Started champion.

Liz Barclay featured image
Introducing Startups 100 guest judge, Liz Barclay!

Liz Barclay is the Small Business Commissioner for the UK. She has a background in broadcasting and journalism specialising in small business, personal finance and consumer affairs and is author of several business books. She is also Chair of the Fair by Design Campaign (to tackle the poverty premium); and a non-executive Director of the Lending Standards Board and member of the Equity Release Council Standards Board.

WINNER – Mr Bug

2024 Startups 100 | Winner of the Just Started award

For the company which, despite being in business for only one year, has already demonstrated impressive growth, success, or disruption in its field.

Learn more about Mr Bug

80% of the planet embraces insect protein, consuming over 2,000 species in total, but Westerners still grimace at the idea of eating a crunchy critter for breakfast. Mr. Bug is changing that, by bringing the UK’s first mealworm farm to market. 

Wisely judging that people might not be ready to eat Jiminy Cricket yet, co-founders Conal Cunningham and Paul Walton have focused their initial product development on dog treats. Just one year in, Mr Bug has already secured a significant £270k Innovate UK grant and won an array of prestigious awards including the Global Good Product of the Year. 

Mr Bug has bolder ambitions, however. Confirming the South West’s status as a hotbed for sustainable talent, its ultimate goal is reducing the UK’s dependence on meat. As Cunningham explains, “mealworms are jam-packed with protein, calcium, B12, iron, and all nine essential amino acids!” Now that’s a tasty statistic to swallow.

What did Liz Barclay have to say? 

“Mr Bug is tapping into what will be a growing need, taking the risk as an early adopter and innovating, while demonstrating one practical solution and shifting public opinion and human behaviour,” Barclay appraises.

“Innovative, growing impressively and demonstrating the potential to play an important part in resolving impending food supply insecurity exacerbated by climate change. What is starting fairly small here could have huge potential around the globe.”

SHORTLISTED –  Athena AI

Athena AI

While managing his previous venture, the grocery app Grocemania, Askar Bulegenov, kept experiencing a repeat pain point: customers using multiple sales channels to enquire about the same order. Frustrated with the communication issues this created, he and cofounder Artem Shitov designed Athena, a platform that consolidates inbound communications into a single business interface. 

Even ChatGPT couldn’t have written a better growth story for Athena. After generating over £1,400 in sales, Bulegenov and Shitov became convinced of the platform’s potential, and it launched officially in May 2023. In just over six months, the platform has expanded to a team of 12, secured trials with 200 customers, and been accepted onto the Google AI Accelerator.

What did Liz Barclay have to say? 

“Customer care has been dire in many sectors since the pandemic,” Barclay states. “The market is ripe for innovative solutions that help firms rebuild their reputation for great customer experience in the face of skills shortages. Athena feels as if it could be innovative and disruptive.”

SHORTLISTED – Story Locker

From the name alone, you won't be surprised to learn that Story Locker boasts an inspiring and emotional origin story. Founder Dhilon Solanki’s Mum passed away at the age of just 50. His son, who had never met his Grandma, started to ask lots of questions about who she was. Wanting to give him more than just VHS tapes and photos, Solanki asked his Dad to record a podcast about her life. That’s when he decided to start Story Locker – the world’s first Paa (Podcast-as-a-Service) business model.

All while balancing a full-time job, Solanki has managed to create a customer proposition and market viable products using his life savings. He launched the ‘record from home’ personal podcast platform earlier this year, and has already locked in a number of partnerships with premium services for life’s biggest events including W Uden & Sons funeral services, RNIB, Hitched, and Guides for Brides.

What did Liz Barclay have to say? 

Taking to the podium, Barclay praises Story Locker for “tapping into an existing trend and adding a layer of purpose in a very crowded podcast market. Human stories play an important role in the gathering of social as well as family history. Story Locker’s potential for growth is huge, probably without the need for huge amounts of funding.”

 SHORTLISTED – Magic AI

MAGIC AI

We all know that smashing a mirror brings seven years of bad luck. But what about using a mirror to become a smashing success? That has brought only good luck to Magic AI, the AI-powered smart mirror that acts as a personal trainer without the public gym congestion and high prices. 

Magic’s vision has already earned the brand immense accolades since its launch last year. Key milestones include raising £2m, and collaborating with some of Britain’s leading athletes including football legend Jesse Lingard. Cofounder Varun Bhanot is also making his mark in its push to diversify AI. He was invited to 10 Downing Street to advise the PM on encouraging more ethnic minority youths to build AI. 

What did Liz Barclay have to say? 

“Innovative and impressive in terms of funding, Magic feels like the next step up from Peloton,” Barclay summises. “It takes the intimidation out of the workout, disrupts the gym market further and brings the possibility of better health and fitness at home. Investors seem to be impressed and the use of celebrity sport gurus is inspired.”

SHORTLISTED – Ujamaa Spice

Image credit: MAVERICK PHOTO AGENCY

Ujamaa Spice is a mission-driven company that is addressing one of the biggest gaps in UK fair trade supply chains: spices. Founded by Jawahir Al-Mauly and Rist Van de Weyer in 2022, Ujamaa aims to address the rise in spice exploitation by crime gangs by supporting women farmers in Zanzibar (known as the ‘Spice Islands’).

The company sources its produce from turmeric farms run by its own women’s cooperative. Farmers get training, resources, and a fair market price for crops, while buyers get flavourful and ethically-sourced spices for their kitchen cupboards. 

Ujamaa has already cooked up a storm in the F&B industry. It won the Impact award in Edinburgh’s 2023 Inspire Launch Grow awards and became a Great Taste Award winner. It has also started how it means to go on, and is targeting becoming B Corp next year. 

What did Liz Barclay have to say? 

Barclay expresses admiration for Ujamaa’s straightforward mission-backed focus and progress towards promoting industry change. “Ujamaa demonstrates clear emphasis on purpose and ethical business practices,” she says. “Helping to uplift women farmers will make a big difference to families, education and poverty. Purposeful and empowering and with the potential to grow.”

Can you start a business in 2024?

As Barclay observes, these five inspiring startups collectively embody the boundless passion and diversity that fuel the UK's thriving small business ecosystem. 

“UK startups are driven by people with brilliant ideas for providing new solutions to existing issues, how to apply new technology, and everything in between”, she tells Startups.

That each of our startups has triumphed despite the challenges of 2023 is testament to the huge potential and resilience that lies within the UK's entrepreneurial ecosystem. Of course, there are still barriers to face. Lowered investor appetite, combined with a widening skills gap, has slowed growth for newly-established businesses. 

Still, a Startups survey conducted in late 2023 shows that businesses founded in the past 12 months displayed the highest levels of optimism. And, while funding is often considered the lifeblood of a startup, Barclay rightly emphasises the importance of other assets in supporting scale up.

“Often for startups, funding isn’t the answer,” she notes. “The right people for mentoring, supporting, and advising can add much more chance of success. A good mentor who has been there and got the t-shirt is worth their weight in gold.”

So what should aspiring entrepreneurs take from this year’s list? Barclay highlights a thread that runs throughout the entire shortlist; an essential element that transcends financial gain and technical prowess: purpose.

“Having real purpose behind the idea – whether helping empower women farmers, contributing to solving the increasing food insecurities or improving health and fitness – is often the most important ingredient for prosperity,” she counsels.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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