By Scott Wright

IT is the nature of entrepreneurs to detect opportunities during times of tumult. As he surveys a Scottish business scene that has been torn asunder by the pandemic over the last 12 months, Chris van der Kuyl sees plenty of that enterprise in action.

Some of that is very close to home. Mr van der Kuyl and business partner Paddy Burns saw their backing of Parsley Box, the Edinburgh-based ready meal delivery business, rewarded handsomely last month when the results of a successful initial public offering (IPO) were announced.

The IPO valued Parsley Box, which joined the Alternative Investment Market on March 31, at more than £84 million, with Messrs van der Kuyl and Mr Burns among those sharing in a £12m pot returned to shareholders as a result of the share offer.

For Mr van der Kuyl, Parsley Box is very much the right product at the right time. The company has seen demand for its meals, delivered directly to its customers’ doors, rise exponentially amid lockdown conditions as its target Baby Boomer audience have found it more difficult or daunting to get to the shops because of coronavirus.

But Parsley Box is not the only example of successful entrepreneurialism and business growth in the pandemic, as Mr van der Kuyl told The Herald. He referenced the St Andrews-based chef Dean Banks, who has had spectacular success with a move into the home dining market while his restaurant, Haar, has been closed.

While expressing sympathy for those in sectors such as retail and hospitality that have been forced to close during lockdown, he hailed the vision of Mr Banks, a former MasterChef: The Professionals finalist. “He was doing really well before the pandemic and I was thinking, poor guy. He now has a kitchen that is doing three times the turnover of his restaurant, delivering meal kits and burger kits all over the UK,” Mr van der Kuyl said.

READ MORE: Parsley Box valued at £84m in share offer

“I am sure he will go back to having great restaurants when he is allowed to, but I don’t think he will every stop having this business that is employing nearly 30 chefs. There are just brilliant examples like that.”

He added: “I always say to people, if you have got the right idea, if you can find the right idea, often the best time to be a start-up is when the bigger and more established players are struggling.”

Mr van der Kuyl said it is vital that entrepreneurs who show such spark get all the support they need from all levels of government.

“They need to never forget that they are the ones that will ultimately create the long-lasting sustainable employment and economic growth in the country,” he said. “I think it is easy for them to forget that when they are sticking plasters on various wounds economically and otherwise. They need to find new investment cash for those entrepreneurs and get them moving at an earlier stage.”

The Dundonian, who was awarded a CBE in last year’s Queen’s Birthday honours list, sees plenty of investment opportunities in the current climate, too. He and long-term collaborator Mr Burns set up a new vehicle, Chroma Ventures, to consolidate their investment portfolio earlier this month, and shortly after announced they had led a $5 million Series A funding round in Blippar, the augmented reality company, alongside Sir Tom Hunter’s West Coast Capital.

READ MORE: Auditor flags 'material uncertainty' over Glasgow-based airline after profits tumble

Mr van der Kuyl said the duo has been watching the development of augmented reality closely over the last two decades. Citing Blippar as a “pioneer”, he now believes the technology is ready to explode. AR broadly involves projecting computer graphics into the real world, and is used for gaming and promoting products. Chinese mobile phone giant OnePlus used Blippar tech to debut its new handset during lockdown last year and it turned into the company’s most successful launch yet.

“It is only really, we believe, in the past year, two years that things like mobile phone devices have been able to take advantage of augmented reality properly,” Mr van der Kuyl said.

“Looking forward, we think this decade, augmented reality is going to be one of the biggest areas of new technology, whether it be wearable devices, [or] lots of different software. So the companies that are in early to augmented reality and doing it well, we believe will do incredibly well over the next few years.”

He added: “I often describe the best technologies [by saying they] feel like magic. This in a way feels like magic.”

More generally, Mr van der Kuyl sees no shortage of exciting technological innovation coming through, and plenty of investors keen to back emerging companies. He is hoping to announce further investment deals in the near future.

“I think there is more activity,  especially in the technology space, than I have ever experienced in my life before,” he said.

“And what is brilliant is the investment scene is getting ever more vibrant, whether it be the big established players like Scottish Equity Partners and Pentech, or the business angel networks or indeed people like ourselves.

“I think there is more capital for early-stage tech businesses in Scotland than there has ever been.”

Asked if this reflected the depth and quality of ideas coming through, he replied: “Absolutely.”

Meanwhile, the day job continues for Mr van der Kuyl and Mr Burns at 4J Studios, the gaming development company on which they built their names.

Most famously, 4J is known for its work in adapting the hit game Minecraft for a host of different consoles.

“2020 was a bit of a record year for the games industry, and Minecraft was no exception to that,” he said.

“Our fortunes in 4J are very, very much tied to the Minecraft franchise, and we have been having a great time.

“We launched a big Star Wars mash-up Minecraft pack last year, which has been phenomenally successful so that as kept us busy. [There will be] more to come on that front.

“And then Paddy and I are really working hard with the teams and generally to think of what comes next. We have got the real privileged position to just try stuff out and let it go – some of it will work, some of it won’t work – before we come anywhere near the public.

“Over the next few years you will definitely see some exciting developments from us.

“But we are in a fortunate position of having a great franchise to work on in Minecraft right now, whilst in the background being ready for what’s to come next.”


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure?

I love travelling to the US. Even after the crazy politics of the last four years I still get a kick out of the simultaneous diversity and homogeneity of the USA. I was lucky enough to travel to Silicon Valley in 1989 as a student and that kicked off a life long love for many parts of the states. The entrepreneurial attitude that pervades the whole nation is intoxicating. Some of my favourite times have been skiing Utah and mountain biking in the high deserts in the summer. 

When you were a child, what was your ideal job?

When I was sixteen I became the Saturday boy in Rainbow Music in Dundee. I built a lifelong network of amazing friends throughout the music scene in Dundee that will be part of my life forever. 

What was your biggest break in business?

My first big break was signing our debut game HEDZ with Hasbro Interactive in 1996. Hasbro were the biggest toy company in the world and we were the first team they signed to an original game.

What was your worst moment in business?

Without doubt it was having to tell all the staff at VIS entertainment that we were closing down and they were losing their jobs. We had sold the company to BAM entertainment the year before and they ran out of money so there was no way out of the situation.

Who do you most admire and why?

There are many people I look up to but if I have to pick one it would be Sir Angus Grossart. He’s been in business for more than 60 years and everyone thinks of him as the establishment but all his friends know he’s a total renegade and an entrepreneur who picks his own course and sticks to it.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?
I’ve just finished Titan the biography of John D Rockefeller by Ron Chernow. It gives a great insight into the “gilded age” of US entrepreneurs. As for music, anything by HYYTS.