The UK economy has suffered considerably from Covid-19, but two years on from the start of the pandemic we have a fantastic opportunity for a more sustainable economic recovery. Key to this is innovation. Young, dynamic companies and their inspirational entrepreneurs can help us develop a more robust economy, promote equality, diversity and inclusion, and achieve the country’s net zero goals.
I have been particularly impressed in recent months by growth businesses which are innovating to facilitate the UK’s pandemic recovery. There are several early-stage projects and companies – and visionary leaders – that are creating new products, services and processes that will help us bounce back from the pandemic and build the economy and society of the future.
#1 – City Science
Up until now, a significant amount of transport infrastructure investment has been focused on getting people from where they live to where they work, or from where they work to where their customers are, in the fastest time possible.
An alternative to this is investing in high quality, reliable digital connectivity so employees, employers and their customers can interact from anywhere in the UK. The challenge is in striking the right balance between transport and digital infrastructure investment to ensure the greatest impact in unlocking and levelling-up opportunities for the entire UK.
City Science looks to solve this challenge by providing a first-of-a-kind model to evaluate digital connectivity, transport mode choice, employment and geo-demographic data in unison. Its model can highlight regions or demographics where home working is being restricted by a lack of digital connectivity, or where transport infrastructure investment may not be required due to high levels of home working.
#2 – Actuation Lab
Covid-19 has shown how fragile our reliance on manual labour for operation and maintenance of industrial assets and infrastructure can be. As organisations recover from Covid-19 and look to improve resilience by automating more aspects of their operation, it’s critical that the automation solutions they employ have a positive environmental impact.
Across a host of different sectors, from water treatment to oil and gas, valves are used to regulate the flow of fluids in pipes. Surprisingly, around 60 per cent of valves are still manually operated. It is reported that in the US alone, 30TWh of energy, equivalent to the entire electricity usage of Scotland, could be saved using valves with more efficient flow paths.
Actuation Lab has developed a design for an entirely new form of automated valve that addresses current deficiencies. Called the SL valve, it is designed to provide zero-resistance, full flow operation when open. It provides a flow control solution for a net-zero future that will help industries be more resilient post-pandemic.
Covid-19 has placed tremendous strain on many SMEs’ finances. Falling demand has threatened commercial viability, especially for businesses with low cash reserves or unstable cash flows. 80% of SME failures are a result of cash flow problems.
Action AI is creating a tool that makes it easy and quick for non-experts to understand and better manage their company’s cash flow. The technology will make cash flow management simpler, quicker, and more accessible for all SMEs. The company is building an artificially intelligent virtual assistant (VA) that is permanently on call for users via text or voice interfaces.
Business owners can access the VA to interrogate their cash flow positions using accessible language through a range of channels including instant messenger, webchat, or via the phone using automatic speech recognition. The VA bypasses the need to use financial terminology because users can express themselves naturally. It has the potential to save thousands of UK businesses over a five-year period by reducing the failure rates of the SMEs using its service.
#4 – Forefront RF
The pandemic has seen many people transition to working from home, relying on home broadband connections. Whilst the UK’s broadband infrastructure has proven effective for the many, rural communities have been affected by the strain placed on networks.
In 2020, the UK government announced £1bn funding to expand cellular network coverage in rural areas, addressing the ‘digital divide’ for rural communities. However, the benefit from this investment is limited by current radio frequency (RF) hardware technologies.
Forefront RF was founded to commercialise signal cancellation technologies developed at the University of Bristol. This technology has potential applications in cellular home routers for wireless broadband, and mobile network infrastructure. By replacing fixed frequency components with ‘frequency agile’ cancellation circuits, user equipment and infrastructure can be made future-proof to the release of new spectrum.
By developing future-proof RF hardware, device upgrades and network rollouts can be done as software updates. This not only reduces cost and improves sustainability, but also ensures fair and inclusive wireless access for all parts of the country, as network upgrades would happen simultaneously across all geographies.
#5 – Groundsure
Covid-19 has resulted in the significant disruption to the construction and property sector, as well as having significant financial impacts on local authority revenues. Given the UK government’s targets for prioritising brownfield land for the development of up to 300,000 new homes a year, tools that break down barriers to the utilisation of ‘problematic’ land are vital.
Groundsure has created a cloud-based digital planning tool designed to identify and calculate abnormal ground conditions and clean-up costs prior to the detailed assessment and development of a site. It will drive development on previously developed land and remove the uncertainties associated with assessing the viability of post-industrial brownfield land.
The failure to appreciate the scale and cost of abnormal ground conditions can easily derail development even in the highest value projects. Groundsure will help local authorities, planners, developers and purchasers of all to recognise these issues before they develop and act as required. The company’s tool will ensure the flow of land back into beneficial use, reducing project risk and enabling the ‘brownfield first’ policy for land reuse, all while helping the construction sector to get back on track following Covid-19.
Jonny Voon is head of the Sustainable Innovation Fund at Innovate UK