Martin Vander Weyer

Entrepreneurs can help solve this crisis

Entrepreneurs can help solve this crisis
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In times of crisis, we need innovators more than ever. In the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re experiencing the most disruptive force the modern world has ever seen. So much so that ‘Disruptor’ no longer feels the right word to use in our search for the UK’s brightest entrepreneurs — which we’ve renamed The Spectator’s Economic Innovator of the Year Awards. With our sponsor Julius Baer, we’re looking for ventures across the UK that are changing their markets in terms of price, choice, access or technology, have potential for global success, and are making valuable social impacts — especially in the current circumstances.

Here, in our series of inspirational stories behind 2019’s finalists, we talk to overall winner Priya Lakhani, whose pioneering edutech company Century has radically changed its business model in response to school closures.

Century uses artificial intelligence and neuroscience to improve classroom results in the UK and across the world — and it’s a shining example of the entrepreneurial zeitgeist in which ‘social purpose’ goes hand-in-hand with the quest for business success. Founder Priya Lakhani OBE practiced as a barrister before launching her first venture, the Indian cooking sauce brand Masala Masala. As a role model for other entrepreneurs, she was invited to advise the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and through that role she became aware of large numbers of children who were not getting the education they deserved: 36 per cent of primary school pupils in 2018 were failing to reach required standards in reading, writing and maths.

The idea of Century was born out of a conversation between Priya and the then BIS Secretary of State Vince Cable about the possibility of applying artificial intelligence to address those problems, creating tools to help teachers not only organise what pupils are learning but to home in on points at which individual pupils demonstrate, by on-screen responses, that they need more help. The result, in sample groups, has been to improve learning (information retained in long-term memory) by up to 30 per cent while saving up to six hours per week of a typical teacher’s time. Adopted by several hundred UK schools, Century was reaching out to schools and education ministries in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Then came the pandemic, the closure of many thousands of schools across the world and the prospect of indefinite home-schooling for millions of pupils. Priya’s immediate response was ‘We’re in a unique position to help’. And to do so, Century performed a remarkable pivot. First, with the whole-hearted support of investors and board members, the company made its platform (based on the UK national curriculum for English, maths and science) free to all schools, anywhere in the world, for the duration of the closures. Then, on the day that UK schools closed their gates, it was made open and free to parents and pupils everywhere, too.

‘We can afford to do this, we’re well invested and we have revenue flows from existing contracts,’ Priya says. ‘We’ve had to scale up the tech urgently to cope with the increased demand. But at the end of the crisis when schools reopen, they’ll know whether our AI experience works for them and they’ll be able to choose whether to stay with the Century model. It makes business sense but it’s about social purpose — and it’s the right thing to do now.’

The entry form and terms and conditions for the 2020 Economic Innovator of the Year Awards are at www.spectator.co.uk/innovator. The closing date for entries is 1 July 2020.