Martin Vander Weyer

Beacons of light in the darkest of years

Winners of our 2020 Economic Innovator Awards exemplify the resilience, optimism and creativity that will help the UK recover from the pandemic.

Beacons of light in the darkest of years
Award presenters (L-R) Priya Lakhani, Martin Vander Weyer and David Durlacher
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When we opened this year’s Economic Innovator Awards for entries back in March, we were concerned we might not be able to recreate the positive impact achieved in 2018 and 2019 — let alone the memorable glitz of last year’s finale dinner at the Postal Museum. The nation was in lockdown, the economy was clearly beginning to suffer the damage that was eventually confirmed in the Chancellor’s Spending Review last week, and we had already adopted ‘Innovator’ in the name of the Awards in place of ‘Disruptor’, because the advancing coronavirus was the nastiest disruptor the world had seen for decades. How many struggling entrepreneurs would even find time to fill in our form?

But we need not have worried. Entries arrived in a growing stream, almost 150 of them (a record) from every corner of the UK and every business sector. As ever, the pattern reflected the times: in 2018, it was fintech to the fore; in 2019, green tech was in fashion; in 2020, for obvious reasons, healthcare and pandemic responses predominated. What so many had in common was optimism, resilience, a willingness to adapt to sudden change, and a strong sense of social purpose beyond profit. For our regional panels of judges — quizzing shortlisted entrants via Zoom, rather than over convivial lunches as we might have preferred — the process became a tonic in itself, a reminder that there really can be a brilliant era of technological advance and new-business growth on the other side of the pandemic.

As for the Awards ceremony, it too had to move online. But we made a spectacular show nevertheless, with The Spectator’s chairman Andrew Neil welcoming an international audience, paying tribute to our sponsor the private bank Julius Baer, and congratulating our winners. Joining me in person on stage at Landing Forty Two — the sky-high City venue where we originally hoped to host a gala dinner — were Priya Lakhani, founder of 2019’s overall award-winner Century Tech, who presented a new Award for Social Impact; and David Durlacher, chief executive of Julius Baer for the UK, who announced the overall 2020 winner. And beaming in from around the country were representatives of the six winning ventures you’re about to read about. Their pride and delight was matched by ours in being able to salute them — and to celebrate every-thing that’s been heartening about their entrepreneurship and innovation in this most difficult of years.

The Judges

Andrew Neil, Chairman, The Spectator • Martin Vander Weyer, Business Editor, The Spectator. London and South East: Charles Watson, Chairman, The Island Initiative • Matthew Garnham, Executive Director, Julius Baer • Priya Lakhani OBE, Founder, Century Tech. Scotland and Northern Ireland: Irene McAleese, Founder-Director, See.Sense • Ian Ritchie, Chairman, Tern Plc. Midlands and North East: Gordon Black, Former Chairman, Peter Black Holdings • Caroline Theobald CBE, Co-Founder, FIRST Face to Face Ltd • Clive Bawden, COO, Warwick Music Group. West and South West: Hugh Campbell, Founding Partner, GP Bullhound • Angela Luger, Non-Executive Director, New Look, ScS and Portmeirion Group • Dawn Wan Li Po, Executive Director, Julius Baer Social Impact • David Durlacher, CEO UK, Julius Baer • Jonny Ohlson, CEO, Touchlight Genetics • Priya Lakhani OBE, Founder, Century Tech.

Overall Winner

West & South West Regional Winner: Ultraleap

Ultraleap ‘enables natural interaction between people and technology’ through the magic of ‘haptics’ and hand-tracking — digital tech that creates the sensation of touch in mid-air, without gloves or control boxes, offering an alternative to touch screens and many other applications. It allows lift-users to press floor buttons virtually, for example, and social-media friends to have the sensation of shaking hands through their screens. Founded in 2013 on the basis of research by Bristol student Tom Carter, Ultraleap is a classic university spin-out success story. Its unique technology is protected by more than 200 patents and has potential applications across many industries, including automotive, gaming and defence. Our judges saw Ultraleap as an outstanding example of UK innovation — and truly a glimpse of the future.

London & South East Joint Regional Winners; Create Fertility and Farewill

It’s natural that a large proportion of our Awards entries should come from London and the South East, so our judges felt it right to name two regional winners. And as it happens the two truly outstanding businesses in our shortlist of a dozen represent two of the fundamental passages of human life: birth and death.

Create Fertility offers milder and lower-cost IVF treatments, serving NHS as well as private patients. This is a mother-and-son venture, chief executive Praful Nargund driving a business model that’s based on research work by his mother Geeta Nargund, who is a consultant gynaecologist. It is reaching growing numbers of patients in Europe as well as the UK and has a genuine social purpose behind it, not least in the fact that the Nargunds have chosen not to patent their IP because they’re willing to share it far and wide.

Farewill, at the other extreme of life, has rapidly emerged since its launch in 2015 as the UK’s largest provider of ‘simpler, faster and fairer’ death services, including wills, probate and lower-cost cremations. It is highly rated by consumers and a genuine disruptor in an industry that has changed remarkably little over the past 150 years.

Midlands & North East Winner: Pallite

Pallite, from Wellingborough in Northamptonshire, caught the eye of our judges as a business completely transformed by the pandemic. Having previously marketed pallets and warehouse products made from sustainable honeycomb paper material, it pivoted at the beginning of lockdown to making pop-up desks for working from home, screens for dividing workspaces, and a growing range of branded ‘eco-furniture’ — and has seen orders soaring ever since. It’s an uplifting story of resilience and lateral thinking — and we hear even the Prime Minister’s office has ordered a pop-up desk!

Scotland & Northern Ireland Regional Winner: One Year No Beer

Edinburgh-based One Year No Beer is the brainchild of a former oil broker, Ruari Fairbairn. It offers its members — more than 100,000 to date, in 90 countries — a pathway to change their relationships with alcohol through ‘simple, positive and aspirational’ support packages delivered by email, video and blog, and soon to be delivered via an app. It’s a business concept that our judges felt was in tune with the zeitgeist of fitness-and-lifestyle brands — and that’s positively addressing an issue affecting millions during lockdown.

Social Impact Winner: Patchwork Health

This year, at the suggestion of our sponsor Julius Baer, we introduced a new Award for ‘social impact’. What did we mean by that? All our entrants are entrepreneur-led, for-profit businesses, but many also declare a purpose for the benefit of society, whether addressing a specific social problem, or helping charities to perform better and raise more money. So we were looking, as always, for businesses that are innovative, sustainable and have potential to grow — but are also really achieving a wider social purpose.

We found so many to admire. Honourable mentions should go, for example, to Bankuet which provides logistics support for food banks; and Chatterbox, which deploys a talent pool of refugees from many countries to offer language services.

But we chose as our winner a business that is directly addressing a critical issue for the NHS in the pandemic crisis. Founded by Dr Anas Nader and team of fellow clinicians, Patchwork Health has developed an app which reaches healthcare professionals — some 15,000 of them so far — who are available to fill vacant shifts and relieve critical staff shortages in hospital wards. Its aim is to expand to all 1,250 hospitals in the UK over the next three years. Clearly a business that has found its time and is fulfilling a vitally important social purpose.

Next year: The Economic Innovator of the Year Awards 2021 will open on 5 March.