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Now we can all be shareholders

FOR Warren Bader, crowdfunding has brought profound and much-welcome change to the world of investment.

"The good thing about crowdfunding is that it is egalitarian and very democratic," said the owner of Plan Bee, the Scottish beekeeping business. "Anybody can invest. Even if you've got £10 you can put it in and get some shares and I think that is very good for people.

"Not everyone can buy shares in Barclays bank."

Bader has good reason to praise the alternative investment model.

His firm recently raised £105,500 on Crowdcube by selling around 36% of the shareholding in the business to 189 investors, eclipsing its £60,000 target.

The single biggest investor committed £20,000 but Bader reveals a 14-year-old boy convinced his mother to invest his birthday money in the company, proof, he says, that everyone can get involved.

The benefit to the company is obvious. The successful shares offer has given Plan Bee the freedom to make progress with its business plan, with funding available to take on staff, develop its e-commerce operation and invest in marketing.

But are the benefits just as clear to investors?

Bader said historically low interest rates mean it is "hugely appealing" for investors to back a growing business, instead of earning little at the bank.

However, he said a company or an idea pitching for funding has to resonate with investors before people will commit.

He has a point. Several firms have succeeded using crowdfunding with the promise of joining a movement, such as the "craft beer revolution" promoted by Brewdog, or to support an environmental cause, as evidenced by Plan Bee.

ShareIn offers a further example. The Edinburgh-based crowdfunding platform, which was recently authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), specialises in raising funds for technology and medical research organisations.

Chief executive Jude Cook said the idea that an investment can contribute to genuinely remarkable breakthroughs is a big motivation for some investors, notably doctors.

"Doctors are reasonably wealthy, they've got some spare cash," she said. "They are not necessarily turned on by most investment - they're not angel investors.

"But to hear about stuff they do understand, about medical applications and areas ... it feels like you are widening out the market."

One of the companies that will shortly pitch for funding on ShareIn is aiming to find a cure for Parkinson's disease. Parkure, an Edinburgh University spin-out, is looking to raise £100,000 to help fund its research via Sharein.

Meanwhile, Holoxica, a company that has developed 3D holographic solutions, has exceeded its funding target on Sharein.

Its technology can plug into MRI scanners, allowing medics to produce full-size, 3D hologram of a human body, helping surgeons to plan surgery. It can also be applied to airport security. So far, Holoxica has raised 122% of its £60,000 target.

While the prospect of scientific advance is drawing doctors to some crowdfunded ventures, the promise of tax breaks is enough for others to join the crowdfunding bandwagon.

For example, investors who buy shares via the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS) can realise tax relief of up to 50% on the cost of the stock on annual investments of up to £100,000.

Tax benefits can also be unlocked via the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS), while those who invest in peer-to-peer lending - a form of crowdfunding where people loan money in return for interest plus their money back - can now be included by savers in an Isa (individual savings account).

However, crowdfunding does not come without risks for investors.

The FCA regulates some aspects of crowdfunding, but it recommends that people do not invest more than 10% of their net investible assets in crowdfunded ventures.

It warns, for example, that investors participating in loan-based platforms do not have access to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, and that people who back new ventures risk losing their cash, such is the high attrition rate of start-up enterprises.

"Different platforms have different legal structures," said Paula Skinner, partner and crowdfunding adviser at law firm Harper Macleod. "Some are more company friendly, and some are more investor friendly.

"The key thing, though, is that you are not comparing apples with apples. If your money goes into a bank, broadly speaking it is safe, whereas crowdfunding is hugely risky for private individuals, but it goes back to having a mixed portfolio and not putting all your eggs in one basket."

Cook reckons crowdfunding gives investors a sense they are contributing to the country's economic wellbeing. She said: "A lot of it is about people wanting to back something they believe in and having more control over their finances - not just putting their money into a FTSE tracker or ISA where they are buying shares from someone else," she said. "There's something really attractive about the fact that people can feel like they are kick-starting the economy. They are helping companies grow."

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