IT is almost one year since Imran Hakim became Bolton and Bury's Young Entrepreneur of the Year. With this year's awards on the horizon, Nigel McFarlane finds out how Imran's iTeddy invention has taken off. . .

WHEN Imran Hakim stepped up to collect the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award at last year's Bolton and Bury Business Awards, he was already a successful serial entrepreneur.

The 29-year-old from Astley Bridge started his business career as a 15-year-old schoolboy, organising trips to Alton Towers for his pals and making a small profit.

He progressed to selling computers after his father bought him one. But he soon wanted an updated model so he sold it at a profit and bought another.

He never looked back. Now he has several companies as diverse as computers and 13 optician practices.

"My philosophy is simple - I love a challenge, I get bored easily and it never feels like work," he said.

Even at university where he studied optometry, he was still making money selling computers which almost led to him being kicked off the course.

And with an eye for cash, the first thing he bought at university was a photocopier machine - he charged fellow students to use it and also made sure they gave him a copy of their lectures.

But his business empire - run from a modest base at Highmead House on Halliwell Road, Bolton - was about to make a quantum leap into the big time, culminating in yesterday's high-profile launch of the iTeddy at London Zoo, entering a global market already worth £1.2 billion, and that could rise to £2.5 billion by 2010.

The iTeddy idea was conceived in November last year, when he was challenged by his younger brother Zubair to invent a better gift than his in time for their niece's first birthday.

Mr Hakim said: "I was sitting at home with my younger brother debating on what would be a great birthday gift for my young niece Aaminah, who at the time was seven-months-old. I thought that his idea of a personalised talking birthday card had limited potential and had already been done. I suggested an alternative, a teddy with both static and dynamic features - a teddy which would be interactive so you could choose what it did next.

"We both decided to prototype our product in time for Aaminah's first birthday.

"The next day I decapitated my niece's teddy bear and wired up some electronic components that I had to create a monstrosity. However, the more I thought about it and looked past the aesthetics, the more I thought that this could be a great idea, especially with the revenue opportunity from downloads. I described the idea to a friend of mine at PH-D, a local design house, and he helped put together some visuals for the idea in my head. I then exhausted many market research reports on the toy, electronics and download markets to conclude that this was definitely an emerging market."

While at a Business to Business networking event in Manchester, he pitched the idea in front of the BBC camera crew looking for people for the TV show Dragons' Den.

Having been invited to repeat the process in front of the Dragons, he recalled a flood of emotions as he stood at the bottom of the long flight of stairs leading into the Den.

"The den looks, smells and feels like an old, converted open-brick warehouse. This fuels the nervous tension and the rush of adrenaline makes your stomach churn. What if I had a glaring hole in my financials or blanked out under the bright lights?

"The first minute is the hardest and seems to last a lifetime. Before you go up the stairs you are told to stand in a certain spot."

After a gruelling pitch, Mr Hakim successfully secured £140,000 of investment from Dragons Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis for a 20 per cent share in the business.

Since then, the product has been revamped and there has been unprecedented interest from all around the world. Some of which has been converted into large orders.

"Since meeting the Dragons, I've virtually given up sleep. With so much to do and so many doors open, the excitement spurs you on and keeps you going.

"Its important to enjoy the journey rather than just the destination. It also keeps you sane and focussed with so much going on around you."

To back up his core product, Mr Hakim has created, a website enabling children to download cartoons, stories and take part in online tutorials for basic computer skills. As well as managing key contracts and revising manufacturing plans in light of the demand, Imran has been busy securing content from the major publishing houses for the website.

But he is also keen to acknowledge the role of his TV mentors.

"Working with Theo and Peter has helped catalyse the evolution of iTeddy. It becomes apparent why the dragons are as successful as they are when interacting with them. Their energy and drive is really contagious and working closely with them has been invaluable. With their vision the idea has rapidly developed into a scalable business with multiple low and high margin revenue streams."

  • The winners of this year's Bolton and Bury Business Awards will be announced at a special ceremony in the Premier Suite at De Vere White's in Horwich next Thursday.