Today we’re in the baronial setting of Hampton Manor Hotel in Warwickshire — a long iron shot from Birmingham Airport, but happily out of earshot of the fractious Tory Party conference up the road. We’re here to meet the Midlands regional finalists for The Spectator’s Economic Disruptor of the Year Awards: our host is Mark Embley, regional manager for our sponsor, the private bank Julius Baer, and our guests are Dr David Jehring, chief executive of Black Pear Software, Ian Firth, vice president for products at Speechmatics, and Steven Greenall, founder of Warwick Music Group.
I’ve met or talked to some 16 of our 22 disruptor finalists so far, listened to their presentations, and peppered them with questions. What’s consistently striking about them is their passion. As one of today’s guests said, ‘It’s not about doing something to make money, it’s about delivering something that makes a difference — and if all goes well, the money will come along.’ That may sound like a cliché but I’m certain it was sincere. Also striking is the courtesy with which, at all our finalists’ lunches, they listened alertly to each other (no fiddling with mobile phones under the table) and searched for points of common interest and experience.
Today’s lively conversation ranged over a wide entrepreneurial landscape. Steven Greenall kicked off with a plea for the importance of access to musical instruments for children. Warwick Music makes a low-cost plastic starter trombone which is now very widely used in primary schools and junior brass bands; it also makes a plastic trumpet which looks and sounds like brass at half the price (Ian Firth, who happens to be a brass band musician, played a scale and pronounced the instrument good). Using plastics technology from the auto industry, Warwick has made and sold 250,000 instruments to date, and is winning orders in the US. It has also fought and won a case to protect its patents in China. Steven talks about giving a million children musical opportunities they might not otherwise have had.
David Jehring of Black Pear spent 20 years as a practicing GP before turning to writing software aimed at improving the NHS patient experience and streamlining communication between clinicians: Black Pear is one of three finalists (with Eevergreen Life and Echo) in this field, which attracts potential disruptors because, David says, ‘the major established systems suppliers to GP practices don’t do innovation’. In Black Pear’s case, drawing information from multiple sources, encouraging patients to manage their own conditions and making appointments systems more efficient is leading to greatly improved outcomes in areas such as Type 2 diabetes, which is a huge cost to the economy; it can also reduce the burden on A&E departments by diverting patients, when appropriate, to urgent care centres.
Speechmatics, based in Cambridge, is a leading UK player in the rapidly advancing technology of speech recognition. The company’s focus is on media and broadcasting (providing more accurate subtitles and text from spoken word); compliance (providing transcripts of recorded conversations for banks, for example); and call-centre oversight (identifying potential fraud and pressure-selling to vulnerable customers). It is competing against giants — Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon — but its multilingual product, capable of understanding context in long conversations rather than merely responding to simple questions and instructions, is way ahead of most of the field.
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I’ve also been taking the opportunity to catch up by phone with London finalists who were unable to join last week’s lunch gathering.
Virraj Jatania — a member of a well-known UK Asian family who sold their consumer brands group Lornamead in 2012 — is the founder of Pockit, a low-cost, easy-access online banking app aimed at the lower-income and unbanked segments of the population that are least well served by banking’s big beasts. Pockit has 500,000 customers so far and is acquiring new ones at the rate of 20,000 per month — through word of mouth, social media and partnership with recruitment firms which encourage new employees to open accounts for their wages. Pockit’s UK target is 2.5-3 million customers within 4-5 years and it has ambitions to expand across Europe. A recent Trustpilot review marked Pockit’s service at 8.6 out of 10.
Movem, based in Brighton, is a tenant referencing platform that cuts the time it takes for a landlord or letting agent to obtain a reliable reference on a prospective tenant from up to two weeks to no longer than it takes to complete Movem’s online form, which draws on ‘open banking’ data sources to provide almost instantaneous confirmation of identity, income and affordability. Around two million tenant references are generated annually in the UK, and Movem pre-sold 100,000 within 90 days of launching its product in May this year. The company has just been acquired by Barbon Insurance, the largest player in this market, but the Movem brand will be retained and founder Peter Ramsay and his team will continue to run the business.
Details of semi-finalists are at www.spectator.co.uk/disruptor; finalists will be announced soon. Meanwhile, warm thanks to everyone who took the time to enter or to encourage so many exciting companies to do so.