Three more London & the South regional finalists

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Talking to entrepreneurs is so much more fun than the endless arguments about Brexit and Boris — the lot of jobbing journalists these days. This blog covers the three London & the South regional finalists for the 2019 Economic Disruptor of the Year Awards who were unable to join us this week for lunch at the offices of our sponsor, Julius Baer. I talked to them individually instead — and all three gave very persuasive pitches, particularly in terms of the social impact of their businesses.

First, former aerospace engineer Mat Oram told me about AdviseInc, which helps Health Service procurement managers achieve better value for public money by gathering and analysing price data on up to two million products regularly purchased by the UK’s 230 NHS trusts. This is already saving £500 million, not only by doing away with ‘unwarranted price variances’ but also by advising Trusts which products offer the best value. Now seven years from conception (and having had enthusiastic support from Jeremy Hunt when he was health secretary) AdviseInc also has the potential to enter overseas markets such as Australia and Canada.

Next, I went to Shoreditch to meet Roger Wade at Boxpark, his pioneering ‘pop-up mall’ offering retail, food, drink and live entertainment in a complex constructed from shipping containers. His tenants are small independent businesses that pay around £20,000 for 12-month leases, with Boxpark providing centralised services, including social media. Roger started his business life on a market stall, built the Boxfresh ‘streetwear’ clothing brand, sold it to Pentland and reinvested the proceeds in the complex, which is also at Croydon and Wembley (he has 12 more sites in prospect). It’s a ‘constantly evolving’ concept, both architecturally and in the content of each development, with shared office schemes coming next on top of the established ‘eat, drink and play experience’. The urban-contemporary vibe feels more fun than shopping online or in glossy shopping malls: Boxpark’s formula can bring life back to moribund town centres.

Finally, Century Tech, which is the creation of Priya Lakhani OBE, a former barrister whose first step in entrepreneurship was the Indian sauce brand Masala Masala. Priya became an adviser to Sir Vince Cable when he was business secretary — the company itself was born out of a conversation with Cable about the possibilities of artificial intelligence in education software. The result is a tool that helps teachers not only to organise what pupils are learning (there are several competitors in that field) but, uniquely, to home in on specific points at which individual pupils need more help. It’s about a transformation of teaching via neuroscience rather than merely digitising existing classroom methods. The result, according to tests on sample groups, has been to improve learning (information retained in long-term memory) by up to 30 per cent, while saving teachers’ time by up to six hours per week. Currently reaching 200 UK schools, Century has already exported its product to UAE, Belgium, Lebanon and Malaysia. Priya’s ambition is for the company to be the UK’s first global edutech venture.

Whether you’re looking at political headlines or current economic indicators, it’s easy to feel pessimistic about the UK’s prospects. The fizzing antidote is to talk to business builders like these three, who have a real mission to make things better.