Innovation from personal pain: Why impact businesses are no longer simply commercial

15 min read

02 May 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

Innovative business ideas can come from surprising places, including from places of joy and excitement. But they can also come from private, more painful experiences. John Ramsay, CEO of Shift8*, a company that provides innovative care technology for dementia sufferers across the UK and Ireland, started his business after his father passed away from the disease.

Business inspiration can come from a place of excitement and joy, but they can also come from a place of struggle, and even personal pain. The entrepreneur interviewee for today, John Ramsay, falls firmly into the second category.

His company is Shift8*, and it’s using the latest innovations in light technology to help dementia sufferers, and those with mental disabilities to live more enjoyable, and mentally stimulating lives.

His initial business idea came, sadly, from personal experience. At the age of 12, Ramsay watched his father, an eminent orthodontist, deteriorate rapidly as a result of a dementia diagnosis when he was only in his early fifties.

Years later, when Ramsay was working as a corporate lawyer at a magic circle firm, his father sadly passed away from the disease. This tragic moment prompted the young lawyer to start Shift8*, a social enterprise that helps people like his father live happier and more fulfilling lives despite their illnesses.

Shift8* uses Dutch made light-based technology product, Tovertafel, which Ramsay and team are bringing to hospitals, universities, and care centres around the UK and Ireland.

– We meet the man behind the care innovation brand.

Shift8* at a glance

  • 100% YoY growth over 3 years
  • Over 500 of its products have reached more than 7,500 people
  • Services care homes, universities and community centres across the UK and Ireland

Tell me about your mission statement to create, “10 million moments of happiness for those on their dementia journey”?

Shift8* CEO John Ramsay, (pictured), started the company after dealing with dementia in his family. Source:

At Shift8*, we believe that everyone has the right to lead a fulfilling life. For those living with dementia, while their memories might not be recent, their emotions are.

The Alzheimer’s Society has created a great analogy which illustrates this well: a bookshelf is filled with books that contain skills and memories that have been collected over a lifetime, with the short-term memory books at the top and the long-term memories at the bottom; imagine this bookshelf then gets hit with dementia, it shakes, and the top books start to topple off.

This is how the confusion can begin, as someone with dementia mixes all the books together, causing them to think that their most recent memory could, in fact, be from their childhood. Throughout this though, the emotions remain the same.

A loved one may suddenly get upset about something that happened in the past or suddenly react to something that happened earlier in the day, but not remember where the feeling originated from.

Therefore, creating happy moments of happiness in the here and now is really important.

Are the most impactful and innovative businesses born from personal experience?

I think so, it did for me.

I have a close personal tie with dementia as my father was diagnosed with it when I was just 12 years old – he was only 52. Through my experience with my dad, I noticed there was, and still is, a real lack of innovation and use of technology in the care sector.

To combat this, we need to find new ways to solve old problems and encourage the use of breakthrough technologies. For me, the best entrepreneurs are the ones that can still remember their roots and relate to their customer, and this often comes from personal experience and passion.

Regardless of the sector, creating a company linked to passion will ensure its longevity and success, as you will always be looking to do more.

What events led you to start Shift8*?

Before setting up Shift8*, I had been working as a corporate lawyer at a Magic Circle firm. It was a great experience, and I learned a lot, but I always had this feeling that I wanted to do something more personal to my heart. I met Hester Le Riche at a friend’s wedding, and it was my eureka moment.

Hester was the creator of The Magic Table and had spent six years conducting research into the importance of games for those with dementia, in collaboration with care homes.

On hearing more about what she was doing, I knew this was my chance to make a difference to those on their dementia journey. Following this, I left my job and started Shift8*.

How does the technology work to increase the life quality of those living dementia?

Recent research conducted by Hester Le Riche has shown that stimulating environments contribute to positive engagement for those living with dementia – whether that involves music, interactive lights or stimulating reminiscence. Technology can help to create these environments for those on their journey, in accessible and creative ways.

The Magic Table is a little box that can be mounted onto the ceiling, for instance, above the dining table of a care centre. Inside the box is a high-quality projector, infrared sensors, speaker and processor that work together to project the games onto the table. The colourful objects respond to hand and arm movements, meaning residents get to play with the light itself.

One of my favourite aspects is that it breaks through apathy in residents by stimulating physical activity.

Because of the interactive nature of the lights and that fact that it can be used by those at different stages of their journey, the residents can also interact with relatives, informal carers and care staff, alongside other residents. And ultimately interaction is key.

Will we ever find a cure for dementia? Or is it about creating tools (such as those on offer at Shift8*), to make living with the condition easier?

While I’m always hopeful that we’ll eventually find a cure, it’s important that we also focus on the here and now and make the lives of those living with dementia as comfortable and as happy as they can be.

How do you balance the dual roles of Founder and CEO at Shift8*?

While each week is incredibly different, these two roles don’t overlap.

However, as many entrepreneurial CEOs will experience, when the passion for a business comes from you, the CEO, you’re often involved in the story around the product and the large sales pitches, in addition to driving the team forwards, recruitment and a host of other constantly spinning plates that come from running a business.

Either you’re going to enjoy that challenge, and love being a CEO of your own business, or you won’t. As a CEO, being able to take a step back and become process driven is a key part of growth for a small entrepreneurial business.

Were you concerned about making your social enterprise company commercially sustainable?

I think most entrepreneurs setting up some sort of social venture will be driven by a desire to have an impact.

For me, the money was a secondary consideration though clearly a good sustainable business model is needed from the outset otherwise a business won’t be around long enough to achieve anything.

Having a clear, simplified view of the commercials early on is vital. Set a high bar for taking on overheads and get up and running with as low a cost base as you can. If you don’t have a financial background, getting some help to oversee the company accounts is a critical step too.

What was the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome in your Shift8* journey so far?

The biggest challenge so far has to be perfecting the skill of separating my personal life with my career as a business owner. It’s an incredibly moving, emotional process being in all of the care homes and seeing the residents light up whenever they play a Magic Table game.

There are a million things I want to achieve for everyone at a care home, hospital or library, but sometimes you need to think what will benefit the business in the long-term, rather than getting too caught up emotionally with any one decision.

What’s been your biggest landmark moment at Shift8* and why?

I think securing a first major deal in any small business is likely to be a significant moment. Not because of the revenue, but because of the confidence it gives the entire team and the demonstration of trust that it signals in what you’re doing.

That trust and confidence should translate to a bigger profile, a larger voice, and more impact. I’m glad to say there have been a few of those at Shift8* over the last 3 years.

Getting our first installation with several of the largest care home groups is up there. So too was confirmation of our biggest deal to date, which saw us confirm an order for more than twice as many units as we’d sold previously.

However, the numbers of people we can reach, and the services and impact we can generate from that are also truly motivational aspects of what we’re about as a company.

You don’t have a tech background. How have you managed to get to grips with the technological aspect of Shift8*?

At Shift8* we run our own research and are involved in the development of both the hardware and software so these are challenges I’ve had to face. However, I’ve found it’s important to trust and rely on those around me who have those skills, but at the same time know when to trust my instincts.

No one person can do everything and as CEO it’s part of my job to ensure our team are as diverse and have as broad a set of skills as possible.

There’s a belief in the business world that entrepreneurs should “know their sector” and stay in it, as they’re more likely to remain successful if they do. – Is this notion outdated?

As a society, we’re shifting away from the notion of careers for life, and many are changing direction halfway through our professional journeys to try something new, and I think this should be applauded.

While it’s always important to learn about the sector you’re entering through your own research, there’s a lot to say for the new insight someone coming in fresh can offer to an industry.

Entrepreneurs who push the boundaries and apply knowledge and techniques from different sectors can be successful in whatever line of business they pursue.

What does business ‘innovation’ mean to you? Is it always tech-based?

For me, innovation is an attitude. It often starts with an idea or question along the lines of “How can X or Y be improved?”.

At Shift8* we have lots of small improvements which are constantly re-shaping and improving the way we work. That’s what I call continuous change.

Over a period of time, those changes add up until what you’re doing looks totally different and works far better than where you started out from. – For me, that’s innovation.