Martin Vander Weyer

Tough choices and worthy winners in a dazzling field

Martin Vander Weyer reveals the regional and overall winners of a competition that attracted entries from every business sector and every corner of the UK — and gave the judging panel a fiendishly difficult set of choices

Tough choices and worthy winners in a dazzling field
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Mail Rail — the venue for the grand finale of The Spectator’s Economic Disruptor Awards, sponsored by Julius Baer — is the former terminus of the driverless underground London Post Office Railway that shuttled mail between London’s major sorting offices from 1927 until 2003. A fine example of the disruptive technology of its era, it had a Doctor Who ambience that made it the perfect setting to celebrate the entrepreneurial creativity showcased in this first year of our Disruptor Awards.

The range of innovative business ideas presented to us from all over the country was dazzling: everything short of a better model of sonic screwdriver for the Doctor, you might say. That made for a fascinating six-month project, but a very tough final choice for the judges. We defined a ‘disruptor’ as a venture that is radically changing its marketplace in terms of price, choice, accessibility or distinctive technology; we were also looking for entries that are financially robust and in a position to scale up, nationally and internationally; and for those that have the potential to make a positive contribution to society and human wellbeing.

Our judges, who included a distinguished panel of entrepreneurs and venture-capital investors, found themselves having to make comparisons between businesses in widely different sectors, from the more familiar territory of consumer services, fintech, social media and healthcare to the outer frontiers of bioscience and big data. If it was relatively easy to pick 22 finalists (ten in London and the South which accounted for a large proportion of overall entries, three each in the Midlands, the North West and Wales, the North East, and Scotland and Northern Ireland) out of a total of almost 100 from across the country, it was almost impossible to choose between those finalists. But all were excellent, and we were genuinely in awe of the originality, passion and perfectionism on display

So congratulations to all of you: we hope you enjoyed engaging with us, and with each other, in this year’s Awards process, and we’re already looking forward to the 2019 Awards, which will open for entries in March. But enough of this preamble: our readers want to know who has won…

The Judges

Andrew Neil, Chairman, The Spectator

Fraser Nelson, Editor, The Spectator

Martin Vander Weyer, Business Editor, The Spectator

David Durlacher, UK CEO, Julius Baer

Calum Brewster, Managing Director Head of UK Regional Offices, Julius Baer Tracey Reddings, Head of Front Office UK, Julius Baer

Rory Sutherland, Executive Creative Director, Ogilvy

Gordon Black, former Chairman of Peter Black Holdings

Hugh Campbell, Founder and Managing Partner, GP Bullhound

Ian Ritchie, Chairman, Tern plc   John Caudwell, Founder, The Caudwell Group

Cindy Yu, Broadcast Editor, The Spectator

Overall Winner

London & the South, Regional Winner:


The judges were delighted to name Pockit as the first Spectator Economic Disruptor of the Year. Pockit is a low-cost, easy-access online banking app that stood out as a true disruptor among the many fintech entries we received. Pockit markets itself as ‘a bank for the financially excluded’, its target market being those millions of Britons who might otherwise be turned away by larger banks and thereby unable to shop online, secure a credit line or a credit rating, or send money to family abroad without extortionate fees. Founder Virraj Jatania told us that Pockit has 500,000 customers so far and is acquiring new ones at the rate of 20,000 per month — through word of mouth, social media and partnerships with recruitment firms which encourage new employees to open accounts for their wages. It has a target of up to three million UK customers within four to five years, and ambitions to expand across Europe. We believe Pockit is capable of radically disrupting the retail banking marketplace which so badly needs shaking up, and at the same time fulfilling an important social purpose. That makes it a very worthy winner of our Award.

North West and Wales Regional Winner:


Cardiff-based Amplyfi has ambitions to be the first unicorn — that’s a tech start-up which grows to be worth a billion dollars — in South Wales. Its product is Data-Voyant, which claims to be ‘the most advanced business intelligence and research tool in the world’, making use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to mine the internet’s deep web, which is said to be 500 times richer in data than the publicly available surface web. The aim of the product is to inform and streamline business decision making like never before, whether for major corporations, government departments or smaller businesses looking to gain advantage over more entrenched competitors. Amplyfi stood out for our judges as an ambitious venture at the frontier of internet technology.

London and the South Regional Runner-up:


With so many entries from London and the South, we felt it was only fair to pick a regional runner-up as well as a winner — and we were unanimous in choosing Touchlight, based at Hampton in Middlesex, which works at the cutting edge of bioscience, using enzymes to manufacture DNA for a range of genetic medical purposes. Touchlight has just signed a major research and collaboration agreement with Janssen Biotech, part of the giant Johnson & Johnson healthcare group, and has other partnerships in the pipeline that are rapidly taking it to the next level of commercialisation. Chief executive Jonny Ohlson told us that, in simple terms, his business has the capability of making DNA products ‘ten times cheaper, ten times faster and in one tenth of the space’ compared to earlier methodologies. Touchlight’s story is a reminder that UK laboratories are global leaders in the genetic science that is transforming the possibilities of 21st-century

healthcare, and we look forward to seeing this company’s name in lights in future years.

Midlands Regional Winner:

Warwick Music Group

It would be fair to say that the judges loved what Warwick Music Group has to offer, which is the opportunity for children worldwide to engage in music making. Warwick makes a low-cost plastic starter trombone that costs a fraction of the price of a traditional brass instrument and is now widely used in primary schools and junior brass bands. Using durable and largely recycled plastic, and technology adapted from the automotive industry, Warwick has made and sold 250,000 instruments to date; it is gaining new orders in cities across the US, and has even succeeded in winning a patent protection case in China. At a time when music education is severely under threat in the UK’s state school system, not least because of the cost of instruments, Warwick founder Steven Greenall talks about giving musical opportunities to a million children in a way that might not otherwise have been accessible to them. We see that as truly disruptive.

North East Regional Winner:


Entries from Yorkshire, Humberside and the North East ranged from low-cost fitness clubs to advanced medical diagnostics. But as our regional winner we chose a venture that is disrupting a sector most businesses — as well as journalists — recognise as being very much in need of disruption, namely legal services. Of course, we respect solicitors and barristers for their expertise but we also know the pain of paying their fees, which can often be exorbitant for smaller businesses. Rradar, founded in Hull by Gary Gallen, has set out to make legal advice available through online resources, on a more accessible, low-cost basis. Rradar says it has dragged the legal profession into the 21st century to the benefit of businesses everywhere, and again we recognise a true disruptor.

Scotland and Northern Ireland Regional Winner:


Again, the entries represented a variety of sectors, from agriculture to business services — but our chosen winner offers what we felt was a beautifully simple use of digital and data technology. See.Sense, based at Newtownards in County Down and an early product of the Northern Ireland Science Park, has changed the world of urban cycling by creating a bike light that reacts to the cyclist’s surroundings. It flashes brighter when necessary — when going round corners, for example — and, more impressively, the data collected by its sensor can be put to use by city planners. Each light monitors road surface quality (even showing potholes before they develop) and can work out which routes are more dangerous or more viable for cyclists. See.Sense has already collaborated with Dublin and Manchester’s city planners and attracted more than 30,000 users worldwide. It has great potential for scaling up and at just £45 per light, we see it as a truly cost-effective disruptor.

Next year

The Economic Disruptor of the Year Awards 2019 will open on 1 March.