Martin Vander Weyer

2019 finalists lunch - North West and Wales

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Readers of my weekly ‘Any Other Business’ column know I occasionally find reason or excuse to slip a restaurant tip in amongst the financial commentary. In that spirit, let me start by saluting the venue for our encounter with North-West & Wales finalists for The Spectator’s Economic Disruptor of the Year Awards 2019. This was 20 Stories, a penthouse restaurant in Manchester’s Spinningfields district, which gave us everything we needed, including fine food, service that never cut across our conversation and a view that encouraged us to think in panoramic terms about the markets our entrants are seeking to disrupt.

With us were regional guest judge Hugh Campbell — founder and managing partner of the investment bank GP Bullhound — and a team from our sponsors, the private bank Julius Baer, led by regional director Gordon Scott and Michelle White from the London office. Joining us later by phone was our second regional guest judge, venture capitalist Stuart Marks.

The first of four finalists to pitch across the lunch table was Manchester-based Intelesant, represented by chief executive Jonathan Burr. Its product is ‘Howz’, a home sensor that can connect via smart meters and is designed to help older people (including dementia sufferers) to stay independent for longer by tracking their movement and utilities usage in order to spot anomalies in behaviour that might mean they are in trouble and prompt their family or carers to intervene. Intelesant is working with utility companies in several countries and with NHS trusts, and is on the cusp of commercial breakthrough. (We should point out that Stuart Marks is an investor in Intelesant, so did not comment  on it in our judging process.)

Howz addresses one aspect of pressure on healthcare resources be helping the elderly live safely in their own homes rather than in hospitals or care facilities. Our second entrant, Sky Medical Technology from Warrington, addresses another aspect of the same problem: reducing recovery time (and thereby NHS costs) for patients after surgery or injury. This it achieves by increasing blood flow and reducing swelling in wound areas through the use of a low-cost wearable medical device, a ‘geko’, which provides neuromuscular electro-stimulation — replacing the more cumbersome and less effective techniques that are commonly used in hospitals. Chief executive Bernard Ross told us he had been working to perfect the product and secure patents around it since 2006. It’s now in use in 15 NHS trusts and exported to 32 international markets, and has applications for sport fitness and recovery as well as throughout the medical world.

Next, a Liverpool-based fintech player: Tickr claims to be Europe’s first ‘impact investing’ app. Co-founder Matt Latham explained that his product is aimed at millennials who want to start saving and investing but with a social purpose. Tickr enables them to make regular monthly investments into ETF-based funds in three theme areas: climate change, equalities and disruptive technologies. The venture is at a relatively early stage but rapidly gaining customers through social media and word-of-mouth.

Finally, a fast-growth manufacturing story that’s right on the zeitgeist. Transcend Packaging, from Caerphilly in Wales and represented by director Gabriel Fysh, has ridden David Attenborough’s Blue Planet wave of sentiment against single-use-plastics to soar from its position of 2017 start-up to Europe’s biggest producer of paper drinking straws for McDonald’s and Tetrapak cartons. It’s also working on non-plastic packaging solutions for a range of other food businesses. It has had to rebut accusations on social media and in the tabloids that its straws disintegrate too fast — but Gabriel pointed out that disintegrating is of course exactly what they are designed to do in due course, and that the existing plastics industry is naturally keen to spread negative news about such an active disruptor.

Four terrific entrepreneurial stories, all well told; you can listen to more of our comments on them in the accompanying podcast. What a pleasure to be listening to them in the heart of Manchester — a great historic centre of trade, industry and innovation as well as good lunches. And what a wonderful distraction from the current madness of Westminster politics. Onwards to Edinburgh to meet our Scottish and Northern Irish finalists, and then to the great judging challenge at the end of September.