When our panel of judges convened in The Spectator’s convivial Westminster dining room under the chairmanship of Andrew Neil to decide the Economic Innovator of the Year Awards for 2021, one thing several of us commented upon was the remarkable scatter-pattern of finalists across the map.
From Tintagel to Belfast, from Shepton Mallet to Skipton, Redcar and Scarborough, our 27 regional finalists — drawn from a record total of more than 150 entries — seemed to give new meaning to the concept of working from home. More importantly, and contrary to the conventional view that innovation thrives best in tight Silicon Valley-style clusters, the geography of this year’s competition confirms that entrepreneurship is alive and well in every byway of the UK.
In this the fourth year of our Awards, it was also illuminating to observe the range of sectors represented by entrant and finalists. That analysis confirmed a distinct shift— reflecting more troubled times — from the consumerist themes of the pre-pandemic era towards issues of societal concern, led by the environment and healthcare. There were still some eye-catching fintech and online retail entrants this year, for example, but notably fewer than in previous year.
By contrast, decarbonisation and renewable energy sources — in tune with the COP26 agenda — were well to the fore and the driving force of three of our five regional winners. In the Midlands, Petalite manufactures advanced technology for electric vehicle charging, developing infrastructure solutions that are more durable and efficient than the first generation of plug-in stations. For the combined Scotland and Northern Ireland region, Renewable Parts — whose innovation centre is at Lochgilphead in Argyll — supplies refurbished components for some 2,000 wind turbines across the UK, literally combing through wind-farm skips to make sure every scrapped part that can possibly be recycled is given new life.
For the West and South West, CCm Technologies has perfected a process which extracts low-emission fertilisers, fine-tuned to farmers’ requirements, from industrial waste sources that include run-offs from water-treatment plants and by-products from food processing; Severn Trent and Walkers Crisps are among its first partners.
As expected, bioscience and healthcare were well represented this year too — including several ventures aiming to take pressure off the NHS as it refocuses its priorities after the pandemic. One such is Yorkshire and the North East winner TestCard, which combines simple postcard-sized self-testing kits with a mobile phone app to provide rapid diagnosis of common conditions such as urinary tract infections, with direct links to pharmacies for the necessary medications.
Finally in London and the South East, the judges had to choose between a dozen finalists in fields ranging from online English teaching to energy procurement, but the unanimous choice was a business with a distinctive social purpose that’s very much of the moment as winter advances. Bankuet is a fast-growing, digitally-driven zero-waste food donation platform that supplies food banks with the stock they most need. It’s a powerful fundraising tool for the sector and has the potential to reach many more food banks at home and abroad by licencing its technology. Bankuet is also the winner of this year’s special award for ‘excellence in ESG’ (environmental, social and governance issues).
The overall Economic Innovator of the Year Award was the toughest choice of all but after lively discussion we picked CCm Technologies — a judgement that was neatly confirmed when the company featured a few days later in the BBC radio series 39 Ways to Save the Planet. You can listen to that programme here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programm…
… And you can listen to our own podcasts from five regional judging sessions through the links in this Innovator section of The Spectator website. As ever, this has been an uplifting and forward-looking project for me and the whole Spectator team involved. We thank all our regional guest judges and we especially thank our sponsor Charles Stanley Wealth Managers and its chief executive Paul Abberley, who has played an enthusiastic personal role in the judging. We thank listeners and readers for their interest, but most of all we congratulate our finalists and winners for 2021 and we look forward to meeting another bumper crop of entrepreneurs across the country next year. Watch this space: The Spectator Economic Innovator of the Year Awards 2022 will open for entries on 28 March.