Blog post
April 3, 2024

North East Support Directory: How Sunderland Software City Supported Ben Mushen to Build His Startup

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Ben Mushen, Digital Adoption Specialist, spends most of his time supporting clients through the Digital Pathfinders programme. With the help of Sunderland Software City, Ben launched his startup.

One of the biggest hurdles a business often faces in its early stages is accessing support that is fit for their needs. Whether that’s finding specific specialist support that’s relevant to their challenges or securing suitable funding or grants to enable them to overcome them, this process of finding what is right can often be labour-intensive and time-consuming.

Understanding this struggle first-hand, Ben regularly signposted his clients under the Digital Pathfinders programme to various organisations and websites for assistance that he thought may be suitable. However, this relied heavily on Ben’s tacit knowledge and whether he was up to date with their specific offerings. It still required his clients to do a lot of heavy reading to see if Ben’s assumptions were right.

He observed this recurring pattern of frustration among entrepreneurs which led him to wonder:  

What if there was a single platform that housed all this information that did all the heavy lifting of navigating it all?

Not only would this save the time of founders, a key obstacle in the early stages of setting up a business, but it would encourage more partnerships across the region.

Setting up the North East Support Directory

The North East Support Directory is a platform that matches charities, businesses and social enterprises with grants, finance, support programmes and more that are relevant to their needs.

Ben is building a comprehensive database that shows live opportunities across all sectors, giving individuals the ability to find exactly what they are looking for.

With access to relevant information being inevitably difficult to uncover, the motive for setting this up came from his own experience in supporting clients. Ben added,

“Setting up a business is a big step and often times individuals can miss out on relevant opportunities such as grants and support programmes that can help them on their way. A lot of businesses we speak to don’t know about these opportunities because they don’t have the time or resources to put in to discovering them.
“I often found myself saying, there’s got to be better way.”
The North East Support Directory website

Sunderland Software City embraces entrepreneurship

The North East Support Directory is not Ben Mushen’s first idea, and it certainly won’t be the last. Still, Sunderland Software City’s entrepreneurship culture means that he is encouraged to share his ideas while embracing and learning from failure.

Whether team members have an idea for a startup or have simply recognised an opportunity within the organisation, they are encouraged to be proactive and seize the moment.

This drive for efficiency and progression is the main driver behind internal sessions and learning opportunities within the organisation, where individuals can take a moment to step back away from their everyday tasks.

Steven Brewer, Innovation Manager, played a big role in helping Ben formulate his idea to life. After hosting an internal training session looking into data classification, this helped Ben to understand more about categorisation. Ben explains this as a light bulb moment,

“Steve ran us through a great activity to help us fundamentally understand the importance of data classification in machine learning and AI. I was already an AI enthusiast, and it immediately became more evident how important a role AI could play in data classification itself.”
“I had this lightbulb moment. Why not use AI, which is built on data, to classify opportunities in a standardised format?”

Building the platform using AI and No Code

Using his knowledge of tools such as No Code, which he had learnt during his time working at Sunderland Software City, Ben began conceptualising his idea.

Ben working on his startup

Once he had mapped out the idea and how it was going to work, he then began to build a prototype for the system.

One of the most complex aspects of the system is its ability to interrogate the data set and ask questions. However, Ben was confident that AI could solve this problem.

“The platform uses AI to scan the internet for grants and various support opportunities. Once it receives a new alert, it automatically adds it to the database. Instead of hiring an assistant to comprehend and classify it, it uses large language models to sift through the data and get it into a workable format that is easy to query, and therefore, easy ti discover.
“This means that anyone can go on the platform and find grants and support that are specific to their needs. Best of all, I’ve completely bootstrapped and just about got the platform to a point where people can self-service themselves to get these personalised AI-recommendations that are suitable to their circumstances.”

Who can use the platform?

For people looking to secure funding or identify support that is relevant to their objectives

The North East Support Directory can be used by SMEs, charities, social enterprises and anyone who would like to find out more about the different grants available in the region.

For example, if someone is looking to start a business but is unaware of the different opportunities and funding available, the North East Support Directory is a great first step.

“The North East Support Directory aims to help businesses realise their ambitions through access to various support programmes. If they have ambitions to grow, I want to be an enabler of that.
“Ultimately, there is still a requirement to apply for the funding or support. However, I’d hope that my website can save people invaluable time and resources which, as a business owner, I’m sure is incredibly valuable.

For people who want to add opportunities to the website

If you have recently discovered an exciting grant or opportunity, then you can publish it on the platform. All you need to do is submit the website through this form and the AI will take care of the rest.

What are the next stages for the platform?

“Since the tools is still in the early stages of development, I’d love to get as many people involved in the testing stage as possible. This platform must be user-friendlyand ultimately it’s there to serve and help them, so getting early feedback is crucial.
“I’ve spent a lot of my career getting to know the varying pain points of businesses, which has fed into the development of the platform.”

To encourage new sign-ups, for a limited time, Ben is offering exclusive pre-launch access to the platform for early users. This enables individuals to use the tool and get personalised recommendations for free, in return for their feedback. If you’re interested, you can sign up here.

Looking to access business support?

At Sunderland Software City, we are passionate about helping local businesses turn their ideas into realities.

From exploring new ideas to bringing new products and services to the market, we are here to help.

Whether it's adopting the latest technology with Digital Pathfinders or getting your startup off the ground with Tech Start Up Sunderland, we have a range of tailored programmes and initiatives designed to support you every step of the way.