Innovate to accelerate

Overall winner George Winfield with mentor Milena Sheahan, senior director, financial institutions, large corporates and sectors, and judge Peter Ryan-Bell, head of large corporate and sectors, UK and Western Europe, at NatWest. All photos © Patch Dolan.

A selection of bright new start-ups convened on the Imperial White City Incubator to hone their ideas and create an award-winning pitch.

A 3D mapping tool using drones; a paper sensor able to detect changes in respiration to prevent a potentially deadly condition; and an app aimed at bringing together professionals and advisers in an instant. These were among the entrants aiming to win big at the most recent White City Innovators Programme.

The pitching event, at the Imperial White City Incubator in west London, marked the second iteration of the accelerator programme, which offers Imperial College students and alumni and local entrepreneurs the chance to work with a professional mentor and attend workshops and masterclasses on business law, accessing finance, business planning, intellectual property rights and branding. The teams worked with a wide range of professional advisers as well meeting peers and experts over an intense four-week period.

At the end of the process, having developed their ideas, identified weaknesses, adjusted plans and perfected their pitch technique, eight start-ups presented their businesses to a panel of judges that included bankers, academics and consultants.

A two-way street

Neil Bellamy, head of TMT at NatWest, attended in his capacity as mentor for the team behind Rightly, a company that aims to help users manage their data permissions in the brave new world of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). For him, the quality on show was once again very high.

“It’s gone really well this time round,” he said. “The quality of the pitching – given that many of them hadn’t ever done that four weeks ago – was excellent. The variety of ideas from the student body, alumni and local businesses was also really encouraging. The programme director, Graham Hewson, has reached out beyond the full student body and it’s delivered a real breadth of ideas.

“And that’s what a university is about: inclusive to all, helping those in the local community,” added Bellamy. “And we support that as a bank by trying to encourage SMEs to come into these types of schemes and get the help and support that’s on offer.”

And it’s not just a one-way street. The programme’s corporate supporters and mentors also got an insight into what some of the smartest minds in the UK are doing. As Bellamy said: “Working with the guys at Rightly was a great match for me because they’re a great new fintech company and that fits with our brand.”

Some of Bellamy’s fellow mentors were also there to see their partners sell their ideas, from knowledge-sharing platforms, probiotic skin treatments and smart jackets designed for parents to keep track of their children. Each 10-minute pitch was followed by judges’ questions on everything from growth plans, patent strategy, partnerships and the competitive landscape facing each team.

Alex Arbuthnot, co-founder at Rightly, delivering his pitch to the judges.

And the award goes to…

Ultimately, as with every contest, there had to be winner. With advice aggregator ifPlus in fourth place, and local entrepreneur Sasha Pinnock in third for her innovative child safety tracker jacket idea, the first runner-up was announced.

Rightly, a business blessed with both a good idea and perfect timing, came second – and with it a cheque for £3,000 and a further 12 months’ access to facilities at the Imperial White City Incubator – for its innovative dashboard designed to help individuals manage which companies have what access to their data.

As for the winner, the pitch from 24-year-old master’s student George Winfield proved so compelling that the judges were unanimous in their verdict that his SpiraSense idea should triumph. He received a £7,000 prize package that includes a 12-month membership at the Imperial White City Incubator.

His idea is fiendishly simple: a cheap-to-produce paper sensor able to monitor respiratory rates in hospital patients. A rapid respiratory rate is one of the first signs of sepsis, a dangerously fast-moving condition that kills around 44,000 people every year in the UK alone, often as a result of delayed diagnosis.

The judges commended Winfield not only for his idea but also his pitch, which showed real signs of improvement from the beginning of the four-week Innovators Programme.

The man himself wasn’t backwards in crediting Imperial’s programme. “Getting a business plan in place to go forward was critical, so the programme has helped me get the ball rolling, taking it from a master’s project to an idea with commercial legs,” he said after his victory.

“We’ve all swapped ideas and helped each other. Even though it’s a competition, it’s been so collaborative, which is a great way to learn”

Sasha Pinnock, founder, SP Tracked Safety Jackets

“I think being able to bounce ideas off my mentor, Jon Wilkinson, was invaluable, and the planning insights into areas like legal and intellectual property were also hugely important.

“Finally, it’s really helped my confidence. That’s a quality that investors are looking for – they have to believe that you believe, so it’s really important to get that across in the pitch, to get them to buy into that.”

The collaborative process

Winfield’s fellow contestants were equally keen to laud not only the work of the programme staff but in particular the importance of being teamed up with a mentor.

Third-placed Sasha Pinnock, founder at SP Tracked Safety Jackets, said: “I work and I have kids, but I’ve never seen anything like this before. You get real-world advice from a mentor who’s been doing this for 30 years, which helped so much. I didn’t know what to expect at first, but it’s turned out to be great in the way we’ve all swapped ideas and helped each other. Even though it’s a competition, it’s been so collaborative, which is a great way to learn.”

SP Tracked Safety Jackets founder Sasha Pinnock, with Graham Hewson (left), head of incubator at Imperial White City Incubator, and judge Peter Ryan-Bell

Alex Arbuthnot, co-founder at runner-up Rightly, pointed out that working with a mentor allowed the team to hone in on the key problems facing the businesses and get clarity on how best to tackle them. “And then there were several key workshops – perhaps the legal one where we expected not to be too engaged with the issues – where we came out afterwards with a whole new perspective on how we should structure our business,” he said.

For some start-ups, advice on sales techniques was most instructive. For others, like Anoop Prasad – who pitched his potentially game-changing Survivormap system to help emergency services locate and record casualties and respond better to incidents – it was access to the Imperial Coders' Network, which helped develop a low-cost prototype. “That was key to getting started,” he said. “And then the second important aspect was developing an academic concept into an actual business idea that we can take to market.”

Signs of real promise

It wasn’t just the contestants that heralded the programme. Having listened to eight pitches, the judges were equally effusive. “The standard was really high,” said Chris Tilley, director of the Coutts Investment Club at Coutts Private Banking.

“What’s interesting was the variety – they all had strengths and weaknesses, as is the nature of early-stage companies like this. Now it’s about taking the next step towards the market,” he added.

Fellow judge Rebeca Santamaria-Fernandez, head of corporate partnerships at Imperial College London’s Faculty of Engineering, added: “I was really impressed with how far they’ve come in four weeks. It’s hard as judges to jump from one idea to another and evaluate each one against the other but the pitches were great – and even the ideas that didn’t receive a prize today showed real signs of promise.”

Updated: 18 March 2019