There is a feeling that only showbiz types know how to put on a good show. As a judge at the London regional UK Trade & Investment Exporting for Growth Awards I had modest expectations. At heart I’m an historian, and British industry has a long and proud history of stubborn types who create, develop and manufacture world-beating products, so I had kept an open mind on what I might learn from the business ideas up for top spot on the podium.
What better moment to be reminded of that than Olympic year. 100 years ago in the Lea Valley, where the Games will be taking place this summer, a host of small and energetic entrepreneurs created world-beating companies from simple beginnings. Sir Jules Thorn at Thorn EMI, Charles Belling, David Gestetner, John Leslie Fuller of Hawker Siddeley, Alliot Verdon Roe, Carless Capel and Leonard who invented petrol – and the names keep coming. They all prompted a global electronics revolution that led to the rise of television, modern computing and a wealth creating class that drove the British twentieth century economy, at least until the late 1970s.
In the midst of a recession we are once again looking for winners, world-beaters, future job creators. Winning the top export prize is not just about financial returns for individual companies; it is about wealth creation in a stagnant economy. For the first time, Brazil has overtaken our economy in the size stakes. Have we still got what it takes to compete in a global market? This lively group of entrepreneurs is as good a benchmark as any.
From the off it was clear these were no ordinary business adventurers. A succession of passionate advocates for their respective products lined up. On reflection that was the most impressive thing about all the businesses. The articulation of product, vision and roadmap to commercial success were succinct and coherent. These were all people who knew their product, business plan and market. Not a dullard or a loser amongst them. There was an intensity of belief that created a real buzz amongst the four judges.
Let’s have a look at the seven that did not make the final cut of three. We had to make an assessment of which was the most innovative and likely to grab global market share.
First up; an inflatable garment from that Squease helps people with autism. Innovative, if in a niche market, it put brains, heart and product together.
Next, a collapsible pocket-bottle by Aquatina that my two sons have found ingenious and portable, and shows that trying to capture market share in the eco-friendly market is alluring and potentially profitable.
More dynamism from the young directors of Peppersmith with their award winning mints and gum, plus they already had a track record with Innocent drinks. Like all the other businesses they were already tried and tested in the market place.
Howard Carter sounds like a man deep in the pyramids of Egypt, but on this occasion he was a man with a mission to extinguish mosquitoes. To begin with his presentation appeared quite academic but it all worked towards the killer punch for incognito: “This product saves lives”. Worthy and workable, and for the record, his mosquito spray Incognito smells very pleasant.
One of the competitors was in the professional services sector which is often difficult to get a handle on. The International Academy of Clinical Research provides a comprehensive range of independently accredited clinical research courses. Evidence suggests there is an increasing requirement for accreditation of training and professionals across the globe. New regulations will place them wisely at the heart of an expanding market. They are working from the premise that the UK has a global reputation for excellence in education and they have the experience and knowledge to supply that. There is also a track record in the UK service sector at providing highly valued product and expertise at a global level for decades.
Smartstreets are potentially any local politicians dream. The political costs of doing nothing about dog mess, gum on shoes and cigarette butts are substantial, the current financial costs for providing a clear up solution are incredibly expensive. This remedy is well thought through and a practical way of getting the public to be a part of the solution. Now the decision takers need to put in the picture. The ability to retrofit to existing infra-structure that already lines every street is a sign of a company creating a market opportunity not just responding to it. It would take a fool not to see the huge potential in the UK, and cleverly marketed right across the European Union you can see politicians seeing this as a cost-effective way to solve an endemic problem. With customers in six countries already and exports up 40 per cent in the past year, this is a potential big export winner.
The last of those not to make the final stages of the competition were a company whose idea seemed so simple, culturally neutral but ingeniously adaptable to all markets that I had them as a front-runner. KwickScreen make portable retractable room dividers that currently are used to create privacy in hospitals. The market for the carefully designed product is potentially huge if they can break out of the NHS sector. Perhaps it didn’t make the cut because the audience that voted for the three finalists couldn’t see the innovation nor were they perhaps convinced that muscular commercial copycats wouldn’t quickly overcome this commercial minnow. But for me, the simplicity made this a commercial no brainer. If I had money to invest; they would get some.
So, to the three finalists; starting with an integrated tracking systems for bikes. Integrated Trackers have identified a niche market and the trick will probably be to get bicycle manufacturers to fit them at source and then find other products these portable tracker systems could protect. The product they have can travel but efficient overseas distribution will need to be resolved particular in the big bike markets like France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany.
TestPlant was at first quite difficult to understand and we judges teetered on the brink of being blinded by computer science. But, ultimately their business model of licensing software to protect catastrophic collapses of computing infrastructure has been market tested and the company has a strong turnover. And being able to rely on someone else’s platform for distribution removes a serious barrier to export growth. Like all the companies in the competition there was a sense of fresh ideas being pushed by young graduates not looking for comfortable options. Grabbing market share rather than waiting for it to come to them is probably a good sign of a winner.
The outright winner for all four judges was Pavegen Systems with its clean energy generating floor tiles. It had the right balance of innovation and strategic vision to give you confidence that it knew exactly what its market is and how to develop future niche markets with sophisticated clients. It has a very clear set of applications and a product that can only see strong growth in demand in an energy consumption conscious world. Converting kinetic energy to electricity will no doubt become more efficient and harvesting this energy source for rail companies and supermarkets among others is both feasible and desirable. Having stolen a march on this market, the company has a bold but focused vision that with the right support could make it a genuine world-beater.
In conversation with the people running these businesses I was struck by the fact that they were all risk takers, none of them displaying any self-doubt. I could have stuck around all afternoon for a good old gossip if I hadn’t had to go and perform myself for the early evening news.
Walking out on to the Marylebone Road after such an exhilarating display of talent gave me a genuine spring in my step. As an historian it reminded me of how successful an enterprise economy Britain has always had. It was the basis of our twentieth century wealth creation. Dynamic people with vision and real strength of character made it happen. As a journalist it gave me the incentive to go on the hunt for some good stories with some new first-rate characters. Who needs showbiz!
Dr Kurt Barling is a Special Correspondent for BBC London News. He’s worked on Newsnight, The Money Programme, Money Box, Inside Money and Correspondent.