Martin Vander Weyer

Innovators are vital to this fight

Innovators are vital to this fight
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The Spectator’s Economic Innovator of the Year Awards 2020, sponsored by Julius Baer, are open for entries. Innovation in many spheres will be vital in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and the recovery phase that follows. So we’re looking for entrepreneurs in every sector and region of the UK whose products are changing their markets in terms of price, choice or technology, and have potential for global success. We’re also looking for ventures that are making valuable social impacts during the current crisis.

Here’s one such story. Gabriel Fysh, of Transcend Packaging, our 2019 regional winner for Wales and the North West, tells us how his paper-straw factory is helping solve one of the world’s most pressing environmental issues and changing its products to meet an urgent healthcare need.

Blue Planet II, Sir David Attenborough’s documentary series first shown in 2017, made the world aware of the perils of plastic pollution in the oceans. And that realisation happened to coincide with the birth of Transcend, which has brought cutting-edge science to an industry suddenly in the spotlight as a colossal source of single-use plastic waste.

Transcend is the brainchild of two co-founders: Italian-born materials scientist Lorenzo Angelucci, who does the technology, and Gabriel Fysh, who oversees the finances. Lorenzo had spent 20 years running another packaging business in South Wales on behalf of family owners. Eager to become an entrepreneur in his own right, he was convinced that ‘sustainability was going to be the next big thing’, says Gabriel, even before Attenborough re-set the agenda. ‘His passion is paper… he doesn’t stop talking about it.’ Gabriel himself was working in private equity when he first looked at Lorenzo’s business plan: he invested personally and is now full-time at Transcend.

Lorenzo’s previous connection as a supplier to McDonald’s brought an opportunity to bid to be one of the fast-food chain’s pioneer suppliers of paper straws. Delivering that contract required setting up a new factory near Caerphilly in quick time as well as completing several capital-raisings. The Welsh government provided a half-million pound grant to support new jobs — the plant now employs 180 — and the first truckload of recyclable straws was despatched in June 2019.

The quick-service restaurant sector is in lockdown but paper-based products will be in huge demand when it reopens, says Gabriel, ‘And if there’s an upside, it’s that the crisis has made customers understand the risks of having a China-based supply chain.’ The company’s development thrust for 2020 was already in a different area: bendy paper straws for the Tetrapak drink cartons that are sold at the rate of 20 billion a year in supermarkets across the UK and Europe.

‘Legislation banning plastic straws on cartons comes into effect in 2021, so there’s a push from customers to get contracts and supply in place now. It’s a long-shelf-life product so we’ll start deliveries in May and ramp up from there. More importantly in the short-term, we’re also launching a disposable, paper-based face visor for community, social care and retail check-out uses. We’re confident in our strategy and the unique position this crisis will place Transcend in, in terms of sustainability and domestic supply, as we emerge.’

Finding solutions to global problems, adapting to changing circumstances and rapidly emerging as an industry leader, Transcend is a model of what we mean by a true economic innovator.

The entry form and terms and conditions for the 2020 Economic Innovator of the Year Awards are at The closing date for entries is 1 July 2020.