This blog comes to you from the library of Hampton Manor, a Victorian mansion deep in the woods somewhere south of Birmingham. And if that sounds like the setting for a game of Cluedo, it isn’t: I’m here to meet three of the Midlands regional finalists for this year’s Economic Disruptor Awards.
Our host is Mark Embley, regional manager for the Awards sponsor Julius Baer; with us as guest judges are Juliet Barratt, co-founder of the Grenade brand of ‘healthy snacks’, now a multimillion pound business, and Clive Bawden, a corporate financier who coaches entrepreneurs, has interests in sports administration, and is part-time COO of last year’s regional winner Warwick Music.
We heard first from Phil Smith, co-founder of ReBound, a ‘reverse logistics’ business that provides a UK market-leading returns service for major online retailers such as Asos — it manages 35 million returns per year, with turnover heading towards £28 million in the current year and opportunities in Europe, Hong Kong and Australia. If ‘throwaway’ and multiple-order clothes shopping are now seen as a major ecological problem, ReBound claims to be part of the solution: a high proportion of returned garments go back on sale or to charities. This is a high-growth business with prospects everywhere in what Phil called ‘the non-Amazon world’.
Next School Space, an ‘Airbnb for schools’, presented by Jemma Phibbs, who co-founded the business when she was 17 (she’s still in her twenties). It enables state schools to rent out their halls and other spaces, largely to local community groups, and provides a full management service in support. For schools who’ve faced real-terms 8 per cent funding cuts over the past six years, this creates very welcome additional revenue streams, as well as connections into their communities. Again, it’s a high-growth business, with social purpose at its core.
Warwick Acoustics, presented by CEO Mike Grant, is aiming to revolutionise in-car sound systems with a flexibly shaped, lightweight speaker that will replace conventional ones: less weight and less energy use, making the product particularly suitable for electric vehicles. The company is well protected by patents and is talking to several major car manufacturers. It is selling its first commercial product — high-end headphones for serious music-lovers. Tom Cruise has two sets, we learned.
Our fourth Midlands finalist, Igloo Vision, was unable to be represented at the lunch, but I spoke later to founder Colin Yellowly. Igloo’s product is 360-degree virtual reality projection, not through headsets but in spaces where several people can share the experience. A lower-cost enhancement of what was previously available in this field, the technology is applicable in many spheres including the military and the oil industry, simulations for training, and architecture.
Again, a fascinating range of ideas, all very well presented. Two more of these sessions to go, in Manchester and Edinburgh — and a Herculean task for the judges to pick the winners.