For the grand finale of the second year of our Economic Disruptor Awards, sponsored by Julius Baer, we returned to the same atmospheric science-fiction venue: London’s Postal Museum at Mountpleasant, with its still-working Mail Rail miniature underground train that, until 2003, shuttled sacks of letters between the capital’s major sorting offices.
Imagine it as a scale model of HS2 and tell us what you think of that whole blighted project, said Spectator chairman Andrew Neil in his prize-giving speech. Imagine it as a time machine that could show us the role of the economic disruptor down the centuries, I said in my own welcoming remarks: if it could take us back to the Stone Age, we’d probably find primitive tribes warring over superstitions that history would forget — but we might also find a geek in a cave thinking, ‘What if I made the wheels on the cart round instead of square?’. He or she is the disruptor who’s trying to make a better world, and whose work will live on…
If that was the evening’s only oblique Brexit-and-election reference from the platform, it was a blessed and convivial relief to be talking about the positive achievements of entrepreneurs instead of the antics of our current crop of politicians. Faced with almost 150 entries this year, our judging panel (below) faced a formidable task in deciding which were the true disruptors among the many, for example, who talked about the power of ‘big data’ — while also having to make comparisons between ventures in niche products from e-bikes to dating sites and eco-toilets. But what we liked about all of them was the passionate intensity; the perfectionism; the willingness to pivot and try again if the product wasn’t perfect first time round; and more noticeable this year than last, the millennial focus on the idea that business should always have a wider social purpose as well as a profit motive.
So, it was a personal pleasure for me to meet and talk to all 28 of our regional finalists — and to welcome to the gala dinner several of last year’s Disruptor winners who have gone on to break new markets, win awards and sign exciting joint ventures. I meant it when I said that all our finalists were winners but the awards themselves were the whipped cream on the evening’s apricot dessert: our five award winners were truly outstanding, and it is a special pleasure to celebrate and congratulate them.
Andrew Neil, chairman, The Spectator
Martin Vander Weyer, business editor, The Spectator
Melissa McAdden, commercial development director, The Spectator
Cindy Yu, podcast editor, The Spectator
David Durlacher, CEO, Julius Baer UK
Dawn Li Wan Po, executive director, Julius Baer
Gordon Scott, executive director, Julius Baer
Kjartan Rist, founding partner, Concentric
Sian Sutherland, co-founder, Plastic Planet
Clive Bawden, founder, Look After Business
Juliet Barratt, founder, Grenade
Gordon Black, former chairman, Peter Black Holdings
Caroline Theobald, co-founder, First Face to Face Ltd
Hugh Campbell, founder, GP Bullhound
Stuart Marks, chairman, L Marks
Ian Ritchie, chairman, Tern Plc
Irene McAleese, co-founder and chief strategy officer, See.Sense
London & the South, Regional Winner: Century
Century is the creation of Priya Lakhani OBE, whose first step in entrepreneurship was the Indian sauce brand Masala Masala. Priya became an adviser to Vince Cable when he was Business, Innovation and Skills secretary — and Century was born out of a conversation with Vince about the possible uses of artificial intelligence and neuroscience in education software. The result is a tool that helps teachers not only to organise what pupils are learning but, uniquely, to home in on specific points at which individual pupils need more help. Century seeks to transform teaching via neuroscience rather than merely digitising existing classroom methods. The result has been to improve children’s learning (meaning information retained in long-term memory) by up to 30 per cent, while saving many hours a week of teachers’ time. Currently reaching some 400 UK schools and with prospects of reaching many more, Century has already exported its product to the UAE, Belgium, Lebanon and Malaysia. Priya’s ambition is to be the UK’s first global ‘edutech’ venture and Century is the worthy winner of the 2019 Spectator Economic Disruptor of the Year Award.
North West and Wales Regional Winner: Transcend Packaging
Transcend Packaging, from Caerphilly in Wales, is a fast-growth manufacturing story that’s right on the zeitgeist — having surfed David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet’ wave of public reaction against single-use plastics to soar from 2017 start-up to Europe’s biggest producer of paper drinking straws for McDonald’s and Tetrapak. It’s also working on non-plastic packaging solutions for a range of other food businesses. The existing plastics industry is naturally keen to spread negative news about such an active disruptor, but Transcend has proved that its straws are fully recyclable — and if some McDonald’s customers complained on social media that the straws disintegrated if left in the drink for a long time, Transcend director Gabriel Fysh explained that this of course is exactly what they are designed to do. Transcend is both our North West & Wales winner and this year’s overall Runner-Up for Economic Disruptor of the Year.
Midlands, Regional Winner: Rebound
ReBound, from Telford in Shropshire, is a ‘reverse logistics’ business that provides the UK’s market-leading returns service for online retailers such as Asos, Boden, Clarks shoes and Agent Provocateur lingerie. It now manages 35 million returns per year and is developing business opportunities in Europe, Hong Kong and Australia. If ‘throwaway’ and multiple-order clothes shopping is becoming a major ecological problem, ReBound claims to be part of the solution: a high proportion of garments returned through its system go back on sale or to charities. This is a high-growth, high-tech business with prospects everywhere in what co-founder Phil Smith called ‘the non-Amazon world’.
Scotland and Northern Ireland Regional Winner: WFS Technologies
WFS Technologies, based at Livingston in West Lothian, is a pioneer in the business of underwater wifi. Originally a conventional onshore wifi provider, WFS pivoted to explore the potential of subsea wireless communication. It has perfected devices with long battery life to carry signals underwater at distances that enable monitoring of oil-rig installations, offshore wind turbines and other equipment on the seabed — radically reducing cost and risk for their operators. Founder Brendan Hyland persuaded the judges that WFS is ‘collapsing the unit price of underwater data’, with potential applications for the defence industry, industrial-scale fish and seafood farming and action to address climate-related sea-level changes, as well as for energy companies.
North East, Regional Winner: The Floow
The Floow, based in Sheffield, introduced our judges to a new vocabulary of ‘telematics’ and ‘insuretech’— and was the best of the many ‘big data’-related entries. The Floow takes volumes of data on driver behaviour (collected via phone apps or in-car black boxes) and analyses it on behalf of insurers to provide vastly more accurate risk patterns than old-fashioned method such as postcode segmentation — and that means fairer premiums for drivers as well as lower payouts for the insurers. Co-founder Dr Sam Chapman told us The Floow is on a mission ‘to make mobility safer and smarter for everyone’.
The Economic Disruptor of the Year Awards 2020 will open on 6 March 2020. For more information on how to enter, go to spectator.co.uk/disruptor