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19 April 2004
Scotland on Sunday
The biggest appetite bar none

KEVIN Dorren is still hungry. It may have something to do with the low-carbohydrate diet but the former golden boy of Scottish technology is more animated than he has been for years.

The former Orbital Software chief executive’s new venture, a low-carbohydrate food brand called Go Lower, is due to be launched next month. Dorren eagerly offers samples from the product range and quotes research showing how low-carb is edging out low-fat as the diet of our time. It all sounds much more enjoyable than knowledge management software.

"What is interesting about this business is the start-up element of it," he says. "It is really exciting, with lots of highs and lows on a daily basis. It is not like software, it is a consumer product, which is a lot more fun. People give you much more interesting feedback."

These days we are always being told that entrepreneurs who have tried and failed are worth more than those who simply plod along. If that is true, Dorren is hot property.

Orbital was a two-man start-up which he built up into a quoted company worth £72m in just four years. He then had to watch as the business was swallowed up for less than the value of its bank account by Sopheon, a low-profile software company from Surrey.

The story is typical of the times but Orbital attracted more than its fair share of attention both on the way up and on the way down. It may have been Dorren’s youthful appearance, or his self-confidence, or his claim that Orbital could be as big as Cisco Systems, once the biggest company in the world.

Almost three years after his departure from Orbital, Dorren has got over any regrets: "Usually, you have a year when it is painful, and then you get over it. That is pretty much what happened."

Orbital’s over-exposure was partly down to the press, which magnified the company’s achievements and failures, he says. "There is a whole argument about whether we hyped Orbital. Only in Scotland did anyone know who Orbital was. There is a difference between hype and telling people that stuff is available."

Orbital was also criticised for spending thousands on public relations and sales staff in the US when it had few customers in the UK. The US is the world’s biggest software market, but American customers wanted to know who bought the products back home.

Dorren was advised by a battery of high profile non-executives directors, investors and consultants, so it would be unfair to single him out for blame. Interestingly, though, he rules out exporting Go Lower products for now.

Orbital gave the 35-year-old former hospitality student insights into raising venture capital finance, floating on the stock market and overseas expansion - more than most entrepreneurs get in a lifetime.

"It was a very good experience, looking back. We started in 1997, and within four years we floated and were able to give an excellent return to most of our shareholders. What else can you ask for?"

Job offers came in but rather than running off to the US or London, Dorren kept his feet on the ground. He carried on living in Morningside, the Edinburgh suburb where he grew up, and set up a consultancy, Sowilo Partners, advising technology start-ups.

The solid reputations of his fellow directors - Graham Wallace, the former Spider Systems director, and Andy Allan, Arthur Andersen’s former Scottish corporate finance head - show that Dorren has some clout with the business establishment.

Sowilo was set up just as the technology market hit its roughest patch but Dorren believes the worst is over: "I think there is quite a revival of interest in technology now. There is more stuff being funded."

Asked what lesson from the Orbital days he would pass on to today’s technology firms, he says: "It is not just about the technology, it is about how you get the product to the market and be innovative. Having a great idea is not the only thing."

Dorren will stay on the board of Sowilo and of Connect, the technology networking group which gives companies a chance to pitch for investment. Given the number of technology businesses which he must encounter, it is interesting that he has chosen the relatively low-tech world of food for his first serious venture since Orbital.

Go Lower’s products - a range of chocolate and breakfast bars - are certainly much easier to explain than Orbital’s Organik software. The company uses new techniques, for example in cooking and mixing ingredients, but you do not need to be a food scientist to understand the end result.

In an echo of Orbital’s speedy rise, Go Lower has developed from a mixing bowl on his business partner Hannah Sutter’s kitchen table to a brand supported by manufacturers and retailers in less than a year.

Perhaps understandably, Dorren believes it is too early to say whether Go Lower might one day float - and there is no talk about being bigger than Cadbury’s. As he tells his clients now: "Don’t rush. Build stuff quickly, but you do not have to do everything overnight. Spend time researching the market."

He and Sutter, a former partner at law firm McGrigor’s, have yet to settle on official job titles. Essentially, she develops the recipes and talks to manufacturers while he concentrates on sales and finance.

The two have a chemistry together, perhaps because of their contrasting personalities. In a reversal of the usual stereotypes, the former dotcom star is the cautious, serious one, while the lawyer is the extrovert.

Despite Go Lower’s distinct ‘old economy’ flavour, there are a few internet connections. The company rents space at the Leith offices of Realise, the IT company run by Gavin Nicholson, the man who founded Scotland’s first internet cafe, Cyberia. And Dorren and Sutter plan to sell their products over the internet alongside health food shops and supermarkets.

They also appear to be riding a wave - according to Unilever, the food giant, 40% of its customers are watching carbohydrates this year compared to 11% in 2003.

The Atkins diet in particular has caught the public imagination but there are many similar plans out there. Dorren says: "Everybody in the UK talks about Atkins, but it its more than that - there are other diets such as South Beach or The Zone, and some people just count their carbohydrates."

The rapid increase in dieters, the celebrity endorsements and the ambiguous science make it easy for sceptics to put the whole thing down to fashion.

Given Orbital’s history, Dorren is understandably reluctant to forecast how many breakfast bars he will sell this year - but he is convinced the market will grow. "It is not a fad," he says. "It is a long-term change that will take many years to enter the mainstream. At the moment, it is mainly urban professionals who have taken it up."

"We have had years of low-fat diets, and yet obesity keeps increasing. If you look at the science behind the low-carbohydate diet, it does make a lot of sense."

Discussing his plans over a cup of coffee - without sugar, naturally - Dorren’s conversion to the low-carb cause is convincing. Now all he has to do is convince the public.

Douglas Friedli


 



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